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Book Review, NRJ 66.2

June 04, 2021 11:18 AM | David Eddy

Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade: The Operations of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron 1807-1867

Anthony Sullivan

While many people may understand what the slave trade was, very few understand the overwhelming task and steps that nations, specifically Great Britain, took to stop the trade along the African Coast. Anthony Sullivan's book provides an in-depth look at Britain's West Africa Squadron and its fight against the trafficking of human cargo over sixty years that is meant for any audience.

Sullivan describes events spanning from the fight in the House of Commons to abolish the slave trade in 1807 until the end of the squadron's operations in 1867. At that point the squadron, had detained 1,600 vessels, freeing an estimated 160,000 Africans from slavery. Sullivan's narrative is structured chronologically, with each chapter discussing different impacts that the squadron and the British government had during the years covered by the specific chapter. Topics covered in the book include international treaties, the squadron's operations along the coast, and the methods used to stop the slave ships in the open waters. For instance, chapter ten describes the treaty signed between the British and the Spanish in August 1835. The Spanish Equipment Clause gave the squadron the right to stop and search vessels flying the Spanish flag to see if they were equipped for slaving.

While Sullivan covers every year of the squadron's participation off Africa's coast, his greatest weakness is that his writing seems rushed when talking about their operations compared to diplomatic resolutions between countries. Instead of going into detail about events, he simply mentions one and moves to the next. When describing the vessel Daring and its capture of the Spanish brig Centinella on June 30, 1812, in chapter two, Sullivan states that the brig was captured and then talks about how Daring captured another vessel a week later.

Sullivan provides the reader with maps of the different areas where the squadron patrolled and first-class drawings of the vessels that the squadron and their allies used. These images allow the reader to have a better visual idea of the territories and boats Sullivan describes. However, Sullivan's most significant contribution to the reader is his glossary. His glossary defines naval words such as quarterdeck and pinnace, making the book easy to understand and enjoyable to read whether you are a novice or an expert in marine vessels. Sullivan supports his writing with an abundance of primary sources ranging from captains’ logbooks found in the British National Archives to the countless newspapers he used from the British Newspaper archives.

Sullivan's book is very direct and organized chronologically, and it serves as a great reference point for anyone interested in studying a specific vessel within the squadron. In his two-separate appendices, Sullivan has a timeline of important events that he mentions in his book and the commanders-in-chiefs appointed to the squadron throughout the years. Sullivan's work provides an answer to a hole in the historiography of Britain's operations against the slave trade along the African coast. From scholars to your everyday reader, Sullivan's work is a great launching point in understanding the daunting task that the British's Africa Squadron faced for sixty years as they tried to end the African slave trade.

  • Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2020
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xxv + 372 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, glossary, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
  • ISBN: 9781526717931

Reviewed by Charles Cox, University of West Florida

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