The hell-borne traffic

As the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade draw to a close, Jordan Goodman tells the story of forgotten hero William Owen
1807 was a momentous year in the history of human rights. In that year, the British parliament abolished its nation’s participation in the African slave trade. It was unprecedented: Europeans had been trading in African slaves since the 15th century; and, for two and a half centuries before abolition, Britain was the trade’s main beneficiary. It’s quite right that we celebrate the achievements of men such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano, partly because of their extraordinary determination to see it through, and partly because of the extent to which they publicised the horrors of the trade.

But, as it turned out, 1807 wasn’t the end, but rather the beginning of the end of the African slave trade. The trade in slaves across the Atlantic, for example, continued for a further 60 years, and at a level not far short of what it had been in previous centuries.

The 1807 act declared that for British nationals ‘all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter or Transfer of Slaves … is hereby utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful’. The act laid out stiff penalties for those caught trading in slaves: forfeiture of the ship and a fine of £100 per slave captured. At the same time, it also provided incentives to those engaged in the trade’s suppression – prize money for the capture of successfully prosecuted vessels.

The humanitarian zeal that propelled Britain to be the first major power to abolish the slave trade for its nationals (Denmark had done the same in all
of its possessions in 1802), eventually spilled over into a campaign for the full abolition of slave trading regardless of nationality. But that aspiration, first articulated by the British negotiators at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, proved to be even more difficult to achieve.

The call for concerted international effort, including raising an international police force, largely fell on deaf ears. Although other nations that traded in African slaves, such as France, Spain and Portugal, made appropriate acquiescing noises when put under pressure by Britain, they didn’t follow the British example and didn’t abolish their participation in the trade.

Britain’s lofty principles were greeted more with cynicism than respect. After all, within living memory, Britain had been making a fortune out of enslaved Africans; in the years before abolition, one out of every three ships leaving the African coast for the Americas had been flying a British flag.

Britain would continue to use diplomatic means to convince these nations to follow its lead, but in the meantime, the country was bent on eradicating the illegal trade: ships flying flags of convenience without proper papers. It fell to the Royal Navy to suppress this trade, but it wasn’t an easy task. The Admiralty, for one, was less than enthusiastic about its responsibility to the humanitarian effort. Chasing slavers was mundane compared to fighting battles. It was more glorious to capture an enemy’s vessel than to catch a ship full of slaves. In the first decade following abolition, the Admiralty committed less than two per cent of its resources to suppressing the trade.

There were also two major logistical problems. First, Africa was deadly to Europeans: malaria and yellow fever would claim many lives on naval vessels sailing around river deltas looking for slavers. Second, while European knowledge about Africa’s western coast was, at best, patchy, the eastern coast of the continent was a complete blank.

There was little the Admiralty could do about disease, but accurate charts were another matter. The naval officer as fighting hero was receding from the scene, to be replaced by the chartmakers and slave suppressors (often one and the same) who spread out from Britain to tame and civilise the world’s oceans.

A shining example, and, as it turned out, a visionary as well as a thorn in the government and the Admiralty’s side, was William Fitzwilliam Owen. When Britain abolished the slave trade, Owen was 32 years old and had already been in the Royal Navy for the greater part of his life. As a surveyor, his skills were second to none. He had already produced stunning charts of Indian Ocean islands and of lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron in eastern Canada (the first major survey of Pax Britannica). Matthew Flinders was a personal friend: he had given Owen tutorials in practical astronomy, navigation and hydrography when they were being held as prisoners-of-war on Mauritius.

But Owen’s greatest challenge was still to come. In 1818, at the conclusion of his Great Lakes survey, the Admiralty summoned him to produce charts of
the African coast, the largest and most important survey of the time. But while the Admiralty knew and admired his surveying skills, they didn’t know
of Owen’s other calling. Owen was a fanatical religious zealot, a fundamentalist mystical Christian who was determined to rid the world of what he called the ‘hell-borne traffic in slaves’. And he had different ideas from his superiors about how to stop the trade.

The power of charts

Owen’s instructions were first to survey the entire East African coastline, from the boundary of the colony of Cape of Good Hope to Cape Guardafui in present-day Somalia. For centuries, this coast had been the source of slaves traded across the Indian Ocean and, now, with the Navy clamping down on the trade on the western side, the trade here was enjoying something of a boom.

Begun in 1822, Owen’s survey took four years to complete. By its end, almost 70 per cent of his officers had died from disease. But the charts that flowed from his ships provided such accurate detail that many of them still haven’t been superseded.

Owen was an excellent surveyor, and although he believed in the power of charts to help in the suppression of slave trading, they were, to him, no more than an aid. ‘To cut up the Slave Trade by the Roots’ required, in his opinion, neither charts nor diplomacy but what he saw as a God-given mission: annexation. ‘It is clear to me as the sun,’ he wrote, ‘that God has provided the dominion of East Africa for the only nation on Earth that has public virtue enough to govern it for its own benefit, and for the only people who take the revealed word as their moral law.’

True to his word and following God’s instructions, as he heard and understood them, Owen annexed Mombasa and declared it a British protectorate. All he asked of the ruling dynasty in return for British protection was that they abolish the slave trade.

Owen had no authority to annex territory on behalf of the British state, but that didn’t stop him. For two years, Mombasa remained under the British flag. And the slave trade died as agreed. But the Colonial and Foreign offices were uneasy about, and unprepared for, this show of imperialism. They were totally unwilling to invest in what they considered a pestilential pit: rather than supporting Owen they worked to reverse his actions, and, in July 1826, the British flag came down as quickly as it had been raised. The next ship to anchor in Mombasa following the withdrawal of the British garrison reported that the trade in slaves was again in full flow.

Zealous imperialism

At the age of 52, it was probably time for Owen to retire, but the Admiralty, unconcerned by his zealous imperialism, wasn’t finished with him yet. At the Cape, he received instructions to survey a large part of the western coast of Africa, particularly the areas associated with the Atlantic slave trade, from
Cape Verde in the north to Benguela, in present-day Angola, in the south.

The West African Squadron had been created in 1819 and the Royal Navy was increasing its presence on the coast, intercepting ships carrying slaves across the Atlantic, principally to Brazil and Cuba. Between 1807 and when Owen received his instructions, the Navy had detained about 250 ships and liberated some 20,000 slaves. But this was just a tiny fraction of the more than 750,000 slaves who reached the Americas during the same period.

Charts and diplomacy, once again, were the preferred solution, and Owen obliged for the former with all the skill he had shown on the eastern coast. With one ship moving north from Angola and another south from Cape Verde, Owen managed to survey the coastline in less than a year.

The time had come to sail for home. In 1826, the ships arrived back with nearly 300 charts, covering about 32,000 kilometres of coastline. All the gaps on the previous charts had now been filled in. With accurate charts, especially of what was called the Slave Coast, primarily the coast formed on the bights of Benin and Biafra, and the coast of Angola, from which two thirds of the slaves were exported, captains in the West African Squadron now knew precisely where they were and where they should patrol. Arming the Navy with excellent charts dramatically increased the number of slaves freed.

Partly in anticipation of this increase, the Admiralty had one more job for Owen back in West Africa. The Colonial Office had decided to move the court of the Mixed Commission, which adjudicated on whether or not ships were involved in illegal slave trading, from Freetown to the island of Fernando Po, in the Bight of Biafra (see Freetown and Fernando Po).

While Owen carried out his task perfectly – he built the new settlement in no time – his zeal got the better of him. He had been warned off slave chasing, but he felt he knew better. From his new base in Fernando Po, he went after the slavers with a vengeance. In the three years that Owen supervised the building of the settlement, he and his forces attacked 20 ships and liberated nearly 2,500 slaves.

But Owen’s time was up. His zeal had displeased his London masters. He returned to England and retirement in 1831, aged 57. Four years later, Britain abandoned its fledgling settlement on Fernando Po and Owen sailed for the family property on Campobello Island in present-day New Brunswick, Canada, where he died aged 84, 50 years after the abolition act came into force.

Owen was an imperialist through and through, at odds with his own government, which was, at the time, reluctant to commit itself in Africa. Despite the ever-increasing presence of the Royal Navy, the slave trade continued until a combination of diplomacy and annexation, such as Owen had desired and proposed, eventually brought it to an end – in the Atlantic by 1870 and in the Indian Ocean by 1920.

Freetown and Fernando Po

Britain’s role as suppressor of the African slave trade depended on a very provocative action: boarding and searching foreign vessels. To give Royal Navy vessels this right, the British government negotiated a series of bilateral agreements, primarily with Spain and Portugal. In order to ensure the legality of the process, these same nations insisted on what were called Mixed Commission Courts, with membership from the signatories. One of these was based in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Under the agreement, if a Naval officer had good reason to believe that a ship was trading illegally in slaves, he was obliged to escort it to the court, where the commission would adjudicate the case. If the ship was found guilty of illegal trading it was condemned and the slaves set free; if, on the other hand, the papers were in order, the owner and its cargo were allowed to resume their voyage.

The Mixed Court had been meeting in Freetown since 1817, but the site posed two major problems: it was extremely unhealthy, particularly for Europeans – several judges and lesser officials died at their posts; and it was on the fringe of the slave trade, more than 1,600 kilometres from the Bights of Benin and Biafra. Many slaves died unnecessarily en route between the scene of the capture and the court.

Fernando Po was chosen to replace Freetown, but while its proximity to the slave coast was a great advantage, it was just as unhealthy. Spain, whose possession it was, contested the British presence. Britain agreed to abandon the settlement in return for further concessions from Spain in regard to the slave trade. The court remained in Freetown: Owen’s hard work and aspirations to run the settlement had come to nothing.

September 2007                                   

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