Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 15, 2018

Squadron: Ending the African Slave Trade, by John Broich

I am indebted to Somali Bookaholic who recommended this book to me in conversation about my review of Petals of Blood.  It’s a very interesting book about four British naval captains who in the mid 18th 19th* century undertook anti-slavery activity off the African coast without always having had official authority to do so.

[*My typos! *hangs head in shame*.  Thanks, Anton!]

Britain had abolished slavery, but still, there was significant trade even after the end of the American Civil War.  Some of the ships involved were British operating illegally and some were French operating legally, and the persisting trade was done in collusion with African rulers and traders themselves.  These local ‘diplomatic’ issues made Britain reluctant to interfere with ongoing slavery as practised in Africa and also in what was then British India, and in the Jamaican plantations.  And the French involvement, whose position on slavery vacillated according to its latest revolution, was additionally complicated because interfering with their ships or local ships flown under their flag, meant at times the risk of provoking war with Napoleon.

As I recorded on my travel blog in 2010, according to a timeline at the slavery exhibit in the Musee d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, the first attempt to end the French slave trade came shortly after the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 but it was brought back under Napoleon, and then abolished again in 1848, 15 years after Britain passed its Abolition Act in 1833. The photo shows a  model of a French slave ship and you can just see on the far wall, a diagram of how the slaves were packed in like sardines, sometimes packed in so tightly that they were paralysed from lack of mobility during the voyage.  They died in their hundreds at sea.

It is quite sickening to read the first-hand reports about the inland trade, from missionaries such as David Livingstone, as recorded in his journal:

… He would frequently come across parties of killers and kidnappers or sometimes just their abandoned victims:

27 June 1866
Today we came upon a man dead from starvation, as he was very thin.  One of our men wandered and found a number of slaves with slave sticks [very heavy yokes] on, abandoned by their master for want of food; they were too weak to be able to speak or say where they had come from; some were quite young.

Slave raiders accepted such losses because the returns on their masters’ investment were so high.  An individual kidnapped for free or for some length of cotton on the mainland sold for roughly 11-14 silver dollars (£2 – £3) at Zanzibar’s slave market; while a child might re-sell for eight to ten times that amount in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere.  The men who did the actual murder and kidnapping were often members of slaver-barons’ personal armies.  Alternatively, these men might visit a local ruler offering guns, alcohol, or cloth and suggest that he make war on his neighbour to produce slaves to trade, and then sit back and let them do the work.

The most valuable abductees to their masters were children who fetched the highest prices, and slave-raiders tended to invest more in keeping them healthy.  (p.67)

Zanzibar, for example, had large clove plantations with slave labour forces of 2000 or more.

To feed and clothe these thousands, cotton flowed inward from the US and India, rice and other food supplies from around the Indian Ocean from many nations and principalities.  The cotton cloth sometimes served to purchase more war-slaves in the interior.  It was a tidy circular trade.

Treaties made between the Zanzibari sultanate and the British Crown prohibited the sale of slaves to any Christian, banned the long-distance slave trade, required that traders be licensed by the sultan, and limited the slaving season to some degree.  The trade could only be carried on within a roughly 500-mile stretch of coast and must not pass eastward into the heart of the Indian Ocean.  But based on many years of observation, Heath and others in the Royal Navy suspected many thousands of the enslaved were being taken to ports well beyond the treaty limits.  (p.47)

So… the Brits sent a squadron to clean up the trade.  The four naval officers who made it their business to control it were

  • Philip Colomb, Commander, Captain of MHS Dryad;
  • Leopold Heath, Captain, Commodore of the East Indies Station in Bombay;
  • Edward Meara, Commander, Captain of HMS Nymphe
  • George Sulivan, Commander, later Captain of HMS Daphne.

They weren’t all motivated by high-minded ideals.  Broich notes that Heath did not equate slavery and bitter economic circumstances.  He had a paternalistic view – that once slaves were freed it was England’s duty to educate the refugees, teach them the language, provide some training.  He recognised that their old world was irretrievably gone – but they entered their strange and hard world as free men, morally and spiritually better off.  But Philip Colomb admitted to himself that his primary impulse was the challenge, the excitement that accompanied sport hunting.  He was not a philanthropist, nor an abolitionist crusader.

In him there was sympathy for the enslaves, yes; hatred of the slaver, certainly; duty, at the foremost.  But the days and nights were hot and long and brutally sapping.  He had been exhausted, he gauged, since his third week on the station.  So to power the unceasing inspections of the unceasing train of dhows – so often in vain – he drew upon the exhilaration of the hunt.  (p.133)

Colomb held the not uncommon view that ‘the negroes’ were lazy, naturally servile, and possessed no innate desire for freedom.  He thought that slaves needed to be taught habits of work once they were free.  But George Sulivan rejected such theories:

…thinking in terms common from Wilberforce to Harriet Beecher Stowe: that Africans were more like Europeans than not, and were as worthy of freedom as an European.  (p.33)

But whatever their motivation, they were astonishingly successful, developing cunning strategies for luring the slave ships out to capture, and freeing literally thousands of slaves.  They did so sometimes at the cost of their brave crew’s lives and of personal injury, and some of the dreadful things they witnessed resulted in what we would now call PTSD, a condition usually resulting in heavy drinking among the crew.  And we should also not forget the routine dangers of sailing in those days: there is a heartbreaking account of a 21-year old sub-lieutenant washed overboard in a fierce storm.  Sulivan was in the invidious position of having to refuse permission for his men to lower a boat for a hopeless rescue, a sorrow he could never after put into words.  

The British did not work on this campaign entirely alone.  In the Introduction and in successive chapters, Broich pays credit to the skill and bravery of the Kroomen:

One group of slaver fighters deserves special mention here as a community of men almost entirely lost to history except amont a small group of scholars.  Their service exemplified something profound.  West African sailors served in the British suppression squadron from its earliest days in a crucial role.  Called ‘Kroomen’ after the Kru coast east of what is today southeast Liberia, these African men – many descended from the enslaved and some of them former slaves – had a reputation for sobriety, courage and experience – often they were far more experienced and far more sober than the British sailors and even officers with whom they sailed.  […] Veteran Kroomen knew the landscape, could withstand the promised physical and mental trials, and understood the challenge; every ship on the Bombay station carried them.  (p.8)

And not all of their efforts resulted in a better future for the slaves.

…what did success mean and what did it mean to be ‘freed’ from a slave ship?  What kind of success could there be for someone like Marlborough, [a former African slave from the Monhekan people] whose town and crops were burnt, the peace of his home region overturned, his family scattered and murdered?  What kind of freedom could there be for young Zangora who could never go home or recapture any of his former life?


Commodore Heath considered the matter of freedom because someone had suggested to him that the Africans’ lives as free men were no better than that promised by slavery.  Freed, they would do back-breaking work in blazing Aden, the remote Seychelles or perhaps Bombay.  They would draw water as servants, or plant cane cuttings and tend to sugar boilers.  Their employers would be hardly gentler or more generous than a clove plantation’s foreman.  Or they might struggle desperately to find work at all, even to eat.  (p.83)

Nevertheless, the numbers are staggering.  Up to 1870, these four ships had delivered freedom:

Meara and the Nymphe had released over 400 people and discovered the illegal captivity of over 200 at Majunga, Madagascar; Colomb had released over 360; Heath released 80, and Sulivan took over 1000 people out of slave ships in his longer period in the squadron. (p.229)

But the numbers plummeted after 1870.  Part II of the book tells how, when these four men succeeded in disrupting the trade, wealthy merchants objected and applied pressure to have the campaign cancelled.   This part of the book relating the intricacies of diplomacy is a bit dispiriting after the excitement of Part II.  The locals in Madagascar even sank to the level of refusing to resupply the Dryad after its long crossing from Ceylon, but more significantly this part shows how meaningless some declarations of abolition were.  Portugal banned slave trafficking in 1836 which had little impact in its possession Mozambique, and outlawing the status of slavery in 1869 in its colonial empire was equally ineffective because it had little power beyond its ports.  Today, we call this kind of hypocritical declaration ‘virtue signalling’ because it achieves nothing unless there is enforcement behind it.   It’s just a public relations exercise.

But eventually, the combination of naval officers and abolitionists succeeded in applying the necessary political pressure to have the trade completely shut down.  Broich includes a number of quotations from various publications urging the restoration of the campaign, and it’s inspiring to read about the efforts of people who didn’t think the demands of commerce and diplomacy should override human rights.  Sulivan and Colomb published books (which included photographs which did more than mere words to drive home the brutality of the trade.) And these combined efforts led to the ultimate deterrent for the trade: a blockade of Zanzibar and the capitulation of the sultan who had for so long allowed it to flourish.

This story as told by John Broich is at times quite exciting and sometimes quietly devastating.  The book comes with B&W maps, illustrations and diagrams of 19th century ships, and reproductions of drawings and photos taken at the time.  There’s a glossary of naval ranks including officers and seamen, and there are extensive notes at the back that show how thoroughly it’s been researched.


Last year the Spouse studied the history of slavery as part of his B.A. and I browsed his books and read his essays.  Slavery still exists today.  According to the UN:

Slavery is not merely a historical relic. According to the  International Labour Organisation (ILO) more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. Although modern slavery is not defined in law, it is used as an umbrella term covering practices such as forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, and human trafficking. Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

In addition, more than 150 million children are subject to child labour, accounting for almost one in ten children around the world.


The ILO has adopted a new legally binding Protocol designed to strengthen global efforts to eliminate forced labour, which entered into force in November 2016.

The 50 for Freedom campaign aims to persuade at least 50 countries to ratify the Forced Labour Protocol by 2018.

Do today’s slaves need heroes like Heath, Columb, Sulivan and Meara to champion their cause?  They do need people to care…

Author: John Broich
Title: Squadron, Ending the African Slave Trade
Publisher: Overlook Duckworth, 2017
ISBN: 9780715652312
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. 19th Century


    • Thanks Anton, I’ve fixed it.
      *mutters* I wish spell check would catch typos with numbers…


  3. Am really glad you enjoyed the book and my recommendation.
    Although I was kinda scary to recommend books for giant reader like you but since you enjoyed it am really happy and no one dissects the book and eloquently review books like you


    • *chuckle* Me? Scary? I’m just an ordinary person who likes books!
      (People often say to me, how can you manage to read so many books? And I always reply, well, I don’t do anything else…)

      Anyway, I was really impressed by this one, so it was a great recommendation, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It is great finding books to explore an issue – I still want know what happened to convicts before 1788. Slavery is a similar issue – it was ‘abolished’ and the North won the Civil War, but of course there is a lot more to it than that. We were lucky that the availability of convicts (mostly) stopped it being introduced here. One literary issue – the book gives an explanation for Kroomen, but the name sounds awfully like crewmen which is what they were.


    • Well, a good many of those convicts went to America, but they’ve airbrushed that out of their history!
      Yes, I thought Kroomen was some kind of creole but no, they were men from the Kru, a region in Africa.


  5. […] Squadron: Ending the African Slave Trade, by John Broich […]


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