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Abolishing Slavery - The Royal Navy at sea – disturbing modern parallels?


HMS Black Joke firing on El Almirante after a 31-hour chase. Originally a slaver captured by the Navy, Black Joke was one of the swiftest and most successful ships in the Royal Navy's African squadron. Image: Royal Naval Museum

This is the fifth in our 6-part series about abolishing slavery. The modern parallels we draw between the Royal Navy's work in abolishing the slave trade and modern events may provoke you.

In 1807, the great fellowship that had come to include almost all of the British people succeeded in ending the slave trade by law. Great Britain then ordered the Royal Navy to abolish the trade in fact. The Navy that Charles Middleton had reformed and rebuilt prepared to sail.

The Navy ended the slave trade operating under the British flag in three years, but other countries moved in to take up the vile trade. The public demanded action, and the British government began a worldwide campaign. With a thousand year history, Britain was untroubled by the idea that the trade would take longer than five or six years to bring to a successful conclusion. Younger nations might throw up their hands after a few years, and withdraw support from their brave soldiers and sailors, but not Britain, not in the 19th century.

The government did two brilliant and surprising things. The Royal Navy had no legal right in peacetime to intercept the ships of any other nation (just as Iran has no right to intercept ships in the 21st century), but piracy put a ship outside the protection of the law. Britain began a full court press to persuade other nations to equate slave trading with piracy. This would allow the ships of any nation to stop and search suspected slave traders. Overcoming considerable resistance, British diplomats negotiated individual treaties with European powers and local African rulers.

The second brilliant stroke was this:

For more about the Royal Navy in action and disturbing modern parallels go here