Blacks enslaved other blacks for thousands of years before the British arrived. A tribal chief was more likely to own a slave than an Ox. Slavery was commonplace and practiced by every tribe across Sub Saharan Africa at the time Europeans arrived. There is a huge amount of archaeological evidence that cannibalism was being practiced at the time too. Black people from one tribe would routinely enslave those from neighbouring tribes and, if food became scarce, would think nothing of eating them either.
When Europeans arrived on the continent tribes began selling their slaves to the newcomers. The tribes who did this considered those from surrounding tribes as 'chattel'. These tribes facilitated the slave trade. Europeans didn't capture slaves themselves, that was done by Africans to other Africans, a practice that became very lucrative for many powerful African Kings.
For over 200 years these tribal kings captured and sold slaves to Portuguese, French and British merchants. The slaves were usually men from rival tribes, gagged and bound before being jammed into boats destined for the Americas.
On 24th February 1807 Britain voted in parliament to abolish the slave trade. Britain was the first country on earth to do so. The trade had been dubbed “contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy” by many in Britain. Chief among them was William Wilberforce, who sat weeping with exhausted joy after the vote was passed.
The new law was a huge undertaking. A massive amount of Britain's entire national wealth was spent eradicating the Atlantic slave trade. 60% of Britain's entire wealth was spent on destroying the slave trade in the years following the law's creation.
The Royal Navy were ordered to stop the Atlantic Slave Trade even though Britain was still embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars at the time. Three warships from the Navy fleet were dispatched to patrol the West coast of Africa to begin with, but once Napoleon was defeated in 1815 more warships headed for the region.
Crewmembers of the Navy's West Africa Squadron faced gruelling experiences at sea, toiling in the scorching heat and witnessing countless atrocities – such as captains on slave ships pushing their human cargo into the ocean when they spotted Squadron vessels coming for them. As one officer on the HMS Owen Glendower, a Squadron flagship, noted: ‘Many large whales and sharks about us, the latter is owning to the number of poor fellows who have lately been thrown overboard.’
There was the ever-present threat of disease as well, with many Royal Navy sailors succumbing to yellow fever and malaria. whilst also caring for slaves suffering from smallpox. These hardships were widely regarded as acceptable occupational hazards and a small price to pay to stamp out slavery. It’s a misconception that the ethical standards of the time meant that many ordinary people of the 19th Century weren’t just as viscerally disgusted by the practice as we are today.
Sir George Collier, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars before becoming commodore of the West Africa Squadron, wrote that the slave trade ‘is more horrible than those who have not had the misfortune to witness it can believe, indeed no description I could give would convey a true picture of its baseness and atrocity.’
Another high-ranking officer, Charles Wise, who surveyed slavers at work on the west coast of Africa dubbed it the ‘most terrible, most heart-rending loss of life that can well be conceive… the soil grows rich in the decaying remains of so many fellow-creatures, and the tracks are thick-strewn with their bones.’
The cost in lives to the Royal Navy was huge, with thousands of British sailors killed during the conflict, either from disease or from the savage fighting that occured.
The Royal Navy’s incredible actions were what ended the transatlantic slave trade. It cost millions of pounds and cost the lives of thousands of sailors to do it. and for that reason alone should never be forgotten.