Robert Burroughs, Richard Huzzey, eds. The Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade: British Policies, Practices and Representations of Naval Coercion. Studies in Imperialism Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015. viii + 216 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7190-8511-6.
Reviewed by Lewis Eliot (University of South Carolina)
Published on H-Atlantic (January, 2021)
Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)
Reconsidering the West Africa Squadron: Suppressed Narratives and New Approaches to British Anti-Slavery
This illuminating edited volume developed out of the contributors’ assessment that “a new academic history” of British slave trade suppression was overdue, one that “incorporated African experiences, metropolitan literature, and cultural histories of suppression” (p. viii). This conclusion stems from the work of editors Robert Burroughs and Richard Huzzey who were present at the various conferences that celebrated the bicentenary of the 1807 abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade. The resulting book, then, is an important reexamination of the West Africa Squadron and its abolitionist endeavors during the nineteenth century, highlighting its role in the history of the transatlantic slave trade through a number of different historical lenses.
The work is divided into three parts: “Policies,” “Practices,” and “Representations.” Each covers an aspect of the history of British naval anti-slavery. The first, in a single chapter by Huzzey, breaks down the political context of naval suppression, drawing attention to influences that emanated from both West Africa and the metropole. The second presents new perspectives on the work of the West Africa Squadron from the viewpoint of liberated Africans and British sailors and through the lens of health. The final section examines the “wider cultural significance” of the squadron and explains why it has so often been occluded from analyses of British abolitionism in Africa (p. 1).
In his introductory chapter, “Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Abolition from Ship to Shore,” Burroughs explains that this volume gives “new insights into what the anti-slave trade patrols meant to Britain and what the campaign of ‘liberation’ meant for those enslaved Africans and naval personnel” (p. 1). Burroughs notes that central to these chapters is a clear discrepancy between metropolitan comprehensions of freedom and the feasible realities of liberty in West Africa itself. The West Africa Squadron arranged a marriage between the Royal Navy and the loose conglomerate of British abolitionists, “two institutions with different conceptualizations of freedom” (p. 6).
The subsequent chapters of this book highlight various ways to reconcile these differences in order to make sense of not only how contemporary observers understood British naval slave trade suppression but also how scholars can incorporate this oft-neglected aspect of the history of abolition into their own analyses of the Age of Emancipation. To do so, the authors establish a middle ground between two venerable scholars of British abolitionism, Eric Williams and Christopher Lloyd. In his Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Williams argued that it was economic imperatives that drove abolitionism and that this developed a patina of humanitarianism through the metropole-dictated work of the West Africa Squadron. Lloyd’s analysis, in The Navy and the Slave Trade (1949), placed the genesis of British abolitionism in West Africa and argued that the moralistic imperative for anti-slavery drifted from ship to shore. In bridging these competing conclusions, The Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade identifies “a complex, transformative negotiation of knowledge and understanding of the Africa Squadron, one in which ships, and the maritime world more broadly, is found to help shape, not just positively reflect, the cultural, political, and other spheres of nineteenth-century Britain” (pp. 9-10).
Huzzey’s chapter 2, “The Politics of Slave-Trade Suppression,” examines the domestic petitions that members of the British public sent to Parliament to demand direct action against the transatlantic slave trade throughout the nineteenth century. This campaign meant the Royal Navy shifted to the role of a “moral guardian of Africa” rather than the “sly buccaneer preying on French commerce” in both public consciousness and official policy (p. 18). This evolution confirmed anti-slavery discourse as an aspect of Britain’s “presumption of their superiority” among Atlantic nations and states (p. 45). By the end of the squadron’s operations in the 1860s, the politically directed naval anti-slavery had come to combine “a curious mixture of imperial bombast, calculated realpolitik, economic pressures, and anti-slavery sincerity” (p. 44).
Chapter 3, Emma Christopher’s “‘Tis Enough That We Give Them Liberty?’ Liberated Africans at Sierra Leone in the Early Era of Slave-Trade Suppression,” is the first in the three-chapter second part, “Practices.” Christopher, in analyzing the early years of Britain’s new African colony Sierra Leone, argues that anti-slavery was “no single policy but an array of possible outcomes” that all ignored the place of Africans in abolitionist discourse (p. 57). To Christopher, this makes it apparent that “the abolition of the slave trade was a mere moment in the evolution of racism” (p. 56). The effect of British suppressive practices on Africans demonstrated that the freedom the Royal Navy provided to liberated Africans was “badly financed ... and resulted more from the necessity of economy than from any higher, humanitarian cause” (p. 69).
The second chapter in part 2 covers similar ground to Christopher’s essay but from the perspective of Royal Navy personnel. Chapter 4, then, “A ‘Most Miserable Business’: Naval Officers’ Experiences of Slave-Trade Suppression” by Mary Wills, explores naval operatives balancing the extreme discomfort of coastal West African waters with the prize money available and sense of abolitionist virtue that accompanied their posting. Wills argues that “the lofty rhetoric of abolitionism lost impact when confronted with the reality of life on the ships at the front line of suppression” (p. 89). While “freighted with notions of British humanity,” naval attitudes were “invariably linked to a belief that Africans were incapable of progress without British assistance” (p. 86).
The final chapter of part 2 combines the analyses of Christopher and Wills through the prism of medicine. John Rankin’s “British and African Health in the Anti-Slave Trade Squadron” explores “how Britons perceived, understood, and, in a practical sense, dealt with the African body” (p. 95). Though Rankin recognizes the appalling treatment of liberated Africans and atrocious conditions that sailors experienced, he also notes that Africans comprised a vital aspect of squadron operations. Locals’ higher tolerance of African conditions made them invaluable allies in the anti-slave trade fight. Rankin stresses that “without Africans, not only would the financial cost [of naval suppression] have been higher, so too would have been the loss of European lives” (p. 117).
Part 3 charts perceptions of the squadron both during the nineteenth century and beyond. Chapter 6, “Slave-Trade Suppression and the Culture of Anti-Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” also by Burroughs, examines the complex shift for Britain from “the leading profiteers of the human traffic to its pre-eminent opponents” (p. 126). Burroughs points out that no sudden change in British collective attitudes to slavery occurred in 1807 and that the development of widely accepted abolitionism took much of the nineteenth century to ferment. According to Burroughs’s analysis of celebratory and critical assessments of the West Africa Squadron, “only in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, following the removal of the Squadron and the eradication of the Atlantic slave trade, was consensus reached as to the moral righteousness of the campaign” (p. 141).
David Lambert’s chapter 7 expands on Burroughs’s thoughts with a focus on the role of the squadron in shaping the view of West Africa among the British public. In “Slave-Trade Suppression and the Image of West Africa in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” Lambert parses out the dense thicket of reports that naval officers, diplomats, and missionaries published about their experiences in West Africa. Despite this being a period that saw the formalization of much academic inquiry, in particular the field of geography, the available data about West Africa contained precious little formal insight, an issue for which metropolitan readers blamed Africans themselves. This contributed to “the mid-to-late Victorian view of Africans as ‘unredeemable,’” which in turn fostered a more imperialist ideology that continued into the twentieth century (p. 162).
The final chapter of the volume, “History, Memory, and Commemoration of Atlantic Slave-Trade Suppression,” by Huzzey and John McAleer, looks at the material culture of abolitionist memorialization from immediate reactions in 1807 until the present day. Huzzey and McAleer argue that the West Africa Squadron has been unduly relegated from its “crucial” role in British imperial history (p. 168). Though unfair, this has also meant that the view of naval anti-slavery has been shielded from reconsiderations of the humanitarian impetus of British abolitionism. Huzzey and McAleer codify the thesis of the entire volume in urging future analysis of the squadron to appreciate that its work must be contextualized by Britain’s leading role in the transatlantic slave trade, recognize that it was very low on the Admiralty’s list of priorities, and that it was informed by public attitudes toward anti-slavery and ultimately laid much of the groundwork for British imperialism in Africa.
These essays stop short of laying out a fresh thesis of British naval suppression of the transatlantic slave trade like Williams and Lloyd offered over seven decades ago, though this is by design. As evidenced by the wide variety of historical methodologies and approaches offered by the contributors, this is a massive topic more suited to a whole literature than a single volume. Burroughs and Huzzey nonetheless provide what they promise: The Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade lays out numerous potential points of departure for a future generation of historians to consider. As a result, this is a volume that deserves a wide readership. Scholars of slavery, abolitionism, imperialism, and colonization should all think about the questions these authors raise. Likewise, historians of Victorian Britain should read this work to better comprehend a generally poorly understood and undeniably sprawling aspect of British foreign policy in the nineteenth century.
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Lewis Eliot. Review of Burroughs, Robert; Huzzey, Richard, eds., The Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade: British Policies, Practices and Representations of Naval Coercion.
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