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Drinking the whole glass of vomit: The Royal Navy and the African slave trade

We were reminded of this story, while preparing an ebook for upload. We thought you might be interested in it.

In 1829 and on just one ship, HMS Eden, 204 men of the Royal Navy died from yellow fever while helping to stop the slave trade.

Yellow fever is not contagious, but it must have seemed to the men that it was, and they became terrified of sick shipmates. Robert McKinnal, the surgeon on a sister ship, HMS Sybille, took drastic action to convince them otherwise. One of the symptoms is black vomit. McKinnal, on deck and in sight of the crew, had a full glass of black vomit placed before him.

Before we continue, may we mention that Parliament had ended the slave trade by statute in 1807, but there remained a crucial challenge - enforcing the law and actually ending the trade. One man was crucial to that effort.

Charles Middleton had begun his career as a captain’s servant boy. He went on to become an outstanding commander, a committed abolitionist, and First Lord of the Admiralty. In the 1780s, faced with unhappy crews, deteriorating ships, and corruption, he reformed naval regulations to ensure justice for the men; punished corruption; increased sailors’ pay; improved ship maintenance and performance; established effective supply lines; and introduced new weapons and strategies to defend against attack. But that was not all.

Middleton was 79 when he helped formulate the strategy that won the Battle of Trafalgar and ended the threat of French and Spanish invasion in 1805. His work paid off.

The reformed Royal Navy closed down slave traders operating under the British flag in three years.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, 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. There was a problem, though.

The Royal Navy had no legal right in peacetime to intercept the ships of any other nation. However, brilliant Admiralty lawyers saw an opening: 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. But that was not all. In a war, the captain and sailors who captured a privateer would divide the profits. In the case of the sailors and commanders of the Royal Navy's Africa's Preventive Squadron, the British government provided the prize money, rewarding crews for every slave freed and giving a larger tonnage bounty for captured slave ships. But that was not all.

Britain also paid heavy ‘subsidies’ to other European countries to induce them to give up or curtail their trade in slaves; paid numerous chiefs on the African coast, and paid for the costs of maintaining the squadron. This was a heavy financial burden that was borne year after year by the British people. The heaviest cost, however, was borne by sailors.

The most intense activity focused on a thousand miles of West African coast. There the slavers were heavily armed, and fast, but the speed and accuracy of British fire, and the fighting ability and determination of British crews made inroads. Traders waiting for a slave ship to make it through the tightening British gauntlet kept hundreds of slaves shackled in thatched-roof barracoons. The Brits responded by taking the action inland, going up river in pursuit of slavers, burning down barracoons and freeing slaves. This was dangerous work because inland Africa was rife with malaria and yellow fever. And hence the Royal Navy's surgeon, McKinnall, on board ship with the crew and preparing to drink a glass of black vomit from a yellow fever patient.

The slaves were usually in desperate straits when they were rescued. Exhausted, starving, suffering from fever, dysentery, diarrhoea and malaria, they had to be fed and nursed. The whole enormous task lost support in Parliament by the 1840s, but significantly, the officers of the African Squadron who endured the dangerous work and saw the sufferings of the slaves first-hand argued strongly against withdrawal.

By the end of the 1840s success was becoming evident. Navy efforts and the support of the people of Brazil closed Brazilian slave markets. In 1862, a treaty between America and Britain gave the British squadron freedom of action for both countries.

The Royal Navy's African squadron patrolled the ocean off West Africa for 59 years, liberating 150,000 enslaved Africans. By 1866 the Royal Navy had hunted the last transatlantic slave ships from the sea.

And so, Robert McKinnal drank off the glassful.

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