Philip Hensher

Ending the Vile Traffic

Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships that Stopped the Slave Trade, by Siân Rees

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Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships that Stopped the Slave Trade


Chatto & Windus, pp. 352, £

Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships that Stopped the Slave Trade, by Siân Rees

The narratives of slavery have, it’s safe to say, replaced the narratives of imperial adventure in our reading lives, and our moral compasses are orientated by indignation at suffering and exploitation rather than by the contemplation of our ancestors’ achievements. The slave trade, considered ‘relevant’ as well as a gruesome spectacle of human suffering on a colossal scale, is taught in schools and familiar to millions to whom ‘Nelson’ suggests only Mandela. And yet the abolition of the slave trade, over long, difficult decades, was one of the bravest and most serious endeavours of the British in the 19th century. Siân Rees examines the long campaign to eradicate the Vile Traffic, as it was called, after 1807 when the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed, up until 1869 when the Preventive Squadron lost its independent existence. By 1845, one British merchant wrote:

We have spent £20,000,000 to abolish slavery and £20,000,000 more to repress the Slave trade; yet does no one nation under Heaven give us credit for disinterested sincerity in this large expenditure of money and philanthrophy.

Few historians now give the British much credit, and some Marxists have even proposed that British capitalists only abolished slavery because they saw more profits and potential for exploitation in a post-abolition world.

Few people thought initially that Britain could export its high moral standpoint. After the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, many countries and foreign citizens were in no mood to bow to what they saw as British hypocrisy; it will be remembered how Mrs Elton, in Emma, finds it necessary noisily to disavow any family connection with the trade, and what fun Peacock in Melincourt has with the bien-pensant ‘Anti-Saccharine Society’. Turned into policy and international dictates, these attitudes struck many diplomats and merchants as insufferable. Though Europe-wide indignation ran high at tales of the enslavement of Christians by the Dey of Algiers, when the British suggested at the Congress of Vienna that action be taken against the slave trade, nothing but ‘hidden yawns’ and a meaningless declaration that ‘the universal abolition of the trade in Negroes be particularly worthy of their attention, being in conformity with the spirit of the times.’

The profits to be made were enormous — a slave bought in Lagos for 12 shillings could be sold in Brazil for $400. In 1817, the Regent of Portugal and the King of Spain were very happy to accept compensation of £300,000 and £400,000 respectively, ostensibly for the abandonment of slaving. In practice, in remote and geographically half-mapped West Africa, the trade went on unabated. Other nations, such as the French and the Americans, were in no mood to fall in behind British instructions, and for years after the despatch of the Preventive Squadron in 1819, the trade actually increased. The risks, too, were not just of physical danger; one poor British officer boarded and liberated a Havana slave ship, only to find himself at the receiving end of a London law suit by the slavemaster, and found against for the gigantic sum of £21,180.

As well as the European profiteers, the trade was sustained by slavery’s deep roots in African social structures. As one slave trader, Theophile Conneau, explained, slaves in Africa were a sort of currency, used to purchase wives, cattle, or agricultural land. Behind all this were

native brokers … whose business is to run the country in search of this or that kind or quality of slaves for different patrons; the strong man to replenish the phalanx of a War Chieftain, the neat boy for a servant, or the adopted child for some old unfruitful Queen, or the handsome maid for the harem of an African Lord.

Conneau, up to his elbows in the trade, is not a neutral witness, but there is no doubt that the market in slavery was not entirely driven by Europeans, and Rees presents the first Anglo-Ashanti war in part as a skirmish in the campaign to suppress the slave trade.

What strikes the reader, now, is the utter horror of the conditions in which the poor slaves were transported, and in which the vast majority of them were always going to lose their lives — something allowed for by the traders. One captain in the Preventive Squadron boarded a French vessel, the Caroline, just out of the Gallinas, to find ‘164 Negroes packed into a space 15 by 40 feet’ — not much better than the most extreme accounts of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the cargo of the Caroline were going to be there for many weeks, barely fed and watered. The horrors of the trade have been thoroughly explored by historians, but what can be remembered, some way after the sufferings of the primary victims, are the atrocious conditions in which the brave people working for the Preventive Squadron found themselves. Losses from malaria and the dreaded yellow fever were appallingly high. There were the usual horrors of the sea journey, even for those not manacled below decks, which affected slavers and anti-slavers alike, rather amusingly captured in this horrid glimpse:

[The ship sighted was] a square-rigged vessel … a man-of-war … an eighteen-gun sloop … and finally — it was just out from home. ‘How can you tell?’ roared back Keppel from the waist. ‘The three midship cloths of her foretopsail are discoloured.’ ‘What the deuce has that to do with it?’ The lookouts at the stranger’s mastheads were new hands. Their stomachs had not yet adjusted to the coastal swell and the result was all over the sails.

And there was, too, the wildlife. One captain mistook the giant West African cockroach for a small perching bird, and foolishly introduced a breed of spider into his ship which was said to eat the things. Pretty soon, the spiders, with bodies the size of walnuts, were sitting glowering at him from every corner of his cabin, and nothing was to be done about them. All in all, this history falls into the very familiar category of Rather Them Than Me.

Siân Rees has read very thoroughly, and tries to give an all-round account of the slave trade, the abolitionists, and the brave fellows of the Preventive Squadron. History has not been kind to the British, and current trends are keener to blame them for ever having had anything to do with it than to credit them for working against it. As we have seen, even the most benevolent and heroic actions have been eagerly interpreted as the acts of awful hypocrites acting in well-disguised self-interest. This lively and interesting book, taking an alternative view, will no doubt be denounced or ignored in academic courses all over the semi-educated world. That, by the way, is a recommendation.