African Coast Blockade.

The horrible traffic in slaves has been carried on from the west coast of Africa to the American continent since Sir John Hawkins shipped his first cargo of blacks for the Spanish settlements, to supply the loss of the mild and yielding natives of the New World destroyed by the avarice and cruelty of their task-masters. The vessels which trafficked in slaves ran down the coast, touching at all the principal native settlements, and purchased such slaves as were offered for sale until their cargoes were completed. Sometimes a well-armed slaver carried off by force the negroes on board another slaver ready to sail, and unable to defend herself. After a time, regular slave-dealers established themselves on the coast, and induced the natives to make war on each other, in order that those captured might be brought to them for sale. There were at convenient points along the coast forts and stations established by the British and other European Governments for the very purpose of facilitating the slave-trade. At length, by the indefatigable efforts of Wilberforce and other philanthropic men, the British public were taught to look on the slave-trade in all its dark and revolting colours. The British slave-trade was abolished on the 1st of January, 1808. At first only a fine was inflicted on those convicted of slave-dealing, but in 1824 the offence was declared to be piracy, and punishable by death. In 1837 the punishment inflicted on British subjects for trading in slaves was changed to transportation for life. On the trade being declared illegal, it was abandoned at all European settlements, with the exception of those belonging to the Spaniards and Portuguese, who, determining to persist in it, had adopted a new mode of operations. They had erected barracoons on those parts of the coast where slaves could be collected with the greatest ease. At stated periods vessels visited them, and took away the slaves without being detained on the coast more than twenty-four hours, and often a less time. They had from forty to fifty points where barracoons were placed, and many thousands of slaves every year were exported from them. A slave factory consists of several large dwelling-houses for the managers and clerks, and of huge stores for the reception of goods, sometimes to the amount of 100,000 pounds. To these are attached barracoons or sheds made of heavy piles driven deep into the earth, lashed together with bamboos, and thatched with palm-leaves. In these barracoons the slaves, when purchased, are imprisoned, till shipped on board a slave-vessel. If the barracoon be a large one, there is a centre row of piles, and along each line of piles is a chain, and at intervals of about two feet is a large neck-link, in one of which each slave is padlocked. Should this method be insufficient, two, and sometimes when the slaves appear unusually strong, three are shackled together—the strong man being placed between two others and heavily ironed; and often beaten half to death beforehand to ensure his being quiet. The floor is planked, not from any regard to the comfort of the slave, but because a small insect being in the soil might deteriorate the merchandise by causing a cutaneous disease. Night and day these barracoons are guarded by armed men, and the slightest insubordination immediately punished.

In building a slaver, the Spaniards and Portuguese spare no expense in order to make her light and buoyant. Her timbers and beams are small, and screwed together. When chased, the screws are loosened, to give the vessel play. Within her hold are erected huge water-casks called leaguers, on these are stowed the provisions, wood, etcetera; above this is the slave-deck. Thirty-six inches may be considered a medium height, but they sometimes measure 4 feet 6 inches, though occasionally only 14 or 18 inches, intended for the stowage of children. The upper-deck is generally clear, except of the sweeps or oars for calms, there is a covered sleeping-place, about 6 feet long by 3 feet wide, on each side, for the captain and pilot. Some used to carry guns, but of late years few do so. They mostly have but one small boat. The sails, on account of the frequency and force of the tornados, are very low and bent broad. Thus, the foreyard of a brig of about 140 tons, taken by H.M. ship Dolphin, was 76 feet long, and her ropes so beautifully racked aloft that after a cannonade of sixty shot, in which upwards of fifty had taken effect, not one sail was lowered. The following are the articles by which a slaver can be condemned if found on board:—A slave-deck, or planks ready for a deck; slave irons and slave coppers, which are a large cooking apparatus for the slaves and crew, standing generally amidships on the upper-deck; an extra quantity of farina, rice, water, or other provisions, which cannot be accounted for. The horrors of a full slaver almost defy description. Arrived on the coast and the port reached, if no man-of-war be on the coast, two hours suffice to place 400 human beings on board. On the slaves being received, the largest men are picked out as head-men, and these dividing the slaves into gangs, according to the size of the vessel, of from ten to twenty, keep them in order. A slave-deck is divided into two unequal parts, the larger for the men, the other for women and children. The stowage is managed entirely by the head-men, who take care that the strongest slaves should be farthest from the ship’s side, or from any position in which their strength might avail them to secure a larger space than their neighbours. The form of stowage is that the poor wretch shall be seated on the beams, and the head thrust between the knees, so close that when one moves the mass must move also. The slaves feed twice a-day, and in order to give room, one-half are allowed at a time on deck at the hour of the meal. They are arranged into messes, and when all is ready, at a signal from the head-men, they commence. The food consists of either rice, carabansas, a kind of bean, or farina, the flour of the cassava boiled. After each meal they are made to sing to digest their food, and then the water is served out, the fullest nominal allowance of which is one quart to each daily, though seldom more than a pint. Irons are seldom used on board, only in case of a mutiny, or if closely chased by a man-of-war, in which case the condition of the slaves becomes truly dreadful; they are all barred below for fear of their rising, are seldom watered till the chase be over, that may last two or three days, while everything that can be thought of to make the vessel sail is done, whatever misery it may cost the cargo. Often some of the unfortunate wretches are thrown overboard in empty casks or lashed to floats, in the hope that the cruiser will stop to pick them up, and thus delay the chase. In many instances, when slaves have been captured, twenty or thirty, or even more, have been found dead on board, while the rest have been in a most horribly suffering condition. Indeed, the operation of taking off the hatches of a captured slaver, from the effluvium which arises, is sufficient to try the strongest stomachs, while the hearts of the captors cannot fail to be touched by the dreadful sufferings of their fellow-creatures which they are doomed to witness. Of late years the slave-trade from the West Coast has been carried on chiefly by fast steamers, but as the men-of-war engaged in the blockade are also steamers, the slave-dealers have found the trade a losing one, so that on the whole of the West Coast there are very few points from which slaves are shipped. From the early part of the century, British men-of-war have been employed on the African coast blockade, but for a long time, as only a few 10-gun brigs, and they inefficient vessels, were sent out, and as there were scarcely ever more than six cruisers at a time on the coast, during twenty years, from 1819 to 1839, only 333 slave-vessels were captured; whereas after that period a superior class of 16 and 18-gun brigs and sloops of war, and latterly fast screw-steamers, fitted for sailing as well as for steaming, were employed; and during the next eleven years 744 slave-vessels were captured. As up to probably two-thirds of those engaged in the trade escaped, we may have some idea of the vast number of blacks carried into captivity to America and the West Indies.

As for many years to blockade a coast-line of 3000 miles and upwards, only a few 10-gun brigs were employed, they being generally slow craft and very crank, in the open sea the fast-sailing slavers managed easily to escape from them. Captures, therefore, were mostly effected by their boats, which were sent up the rivers to lie in wait for the slavers, or to attack them when they were known to be at anchor. This species of service caused a great mortality among their crews, as a night spent in the pestiferous miasma of an African river was sufficient to produce fever among all those exposed to it, while the hot sun of the day was almost equally trying to English constitutions. Thus for many years the mortality among the blockading squadron was very great, and vessels have been known to return home with scarcely men sufficient to work them, and under charge of a master’s assistant, or on one occasion the purser’s clerk, all the superior officers having died or been invalided. Sometimes the boats were sent away for days, and even weeks together, to watch for slavers, and were thus often successful in capturing them when their ships had failed to do so. In this way a mate of the Hyacinth, Mr Tottenham, who was a remarkably good shot, in a four-oared gig chased a slave-brig, armed with a long gun and a number of muskets. Having succeeded with his rifle in picking off four of the slaver’s crew, he compelled her to run on shore to avoid being boarded; the survivors of the crew, eighteen in number, then abandoning her, she was hove off by the Hyacinth, and proved to be of 200 tons, fitted for carrying a thousand slaves, and armed with two guns, and a number of muskets, swords, and bayonets.

Prizes were carried to Sierra Leone for adjudication, often with several hundred negroes on board. To preserve the rescued blacks in health was an onerous care to the captors; and instances have occurred where the greater number of the prize-crew have died from fever. Such was the case with the Doris, a small schooner captured by the Dolphin; her gunner, who was put in charge, with nearly all his men having died, so that she was found boxing about some twenty miles below Acra, without any one to navigate her. Lieutenant Augustus Murray, with a crew of two men and two boys, and a black who had survived the fever, was then put on board on August the 12th. Sickness attacked the lieutenant and his small crew, heavy gales came on, the schooner became so leaky that it was with difficulty she was kept afloat, she narrowly escaped capture by a slaver, the canvas was blown away, and finally calms came, succeeded by terrific storms, so that almost five months elapsed before the sorely-battered craft and her almost starved crew reached Sierra Leone.

Experience at length taught the officers of the squadron the means of combating the deadly effects of the climate, and preserving the health of their crews. The men were not allowed to leave the ship early in the morning without taking hot cocoa and an ample supply of nourishing food. They were clothed in thick flannel suits, were not allowed to remain up the rivers at night, and the use of quinine was introduced. By these means the crews were preserved in health, and only during very sickly seasons was there any great mortality among them; indeed, of late years, vessels have returned from the coast without the loss of a man.

Most of the slavers were unarmed, and those carrying guns rarely attempted to defend themselves when overtaken, although they might have fired to knock away the spars of their pursuers. Occasionally, when attacked by a vessel inferior to themselves, or by one or two boats, a slaver’s crew fought desperately. One of the most gallant actions was fought by the Black Joke, a schooner, commanded by Lieutenant Ramsey. She carried but one long heavy pivot-gun and a carronade, and had, all told, a crew only of 44 officers and men. Lieutenant Ramsey got intelligence that a brigantine, the Marinereto, of large size and great speed, and armed with five Impounder guns, and a crew of nearly 80 men, was lying in the Old Calabar River with a cargo of slaves destined  for Cuba. She was commanded by a determined fellow, who had vowed he would never be captured, it was said, and was especially anxious to meet the Black Joke to punish her on account of the slavers she had already taken. Lieutenant Ramsey at once stood down for the Calabar River. As she could not enter it, he kept close off it by night, and stood away from the land during the day, that the slaver, not knowing of his presence, might venture to put to sea. After waiting for some days, the slaver was seen under all sail coming down the river. The Black Joke at once lowered her canvas, that she might remain concealed from the slaver’s view as long as possible. On again hoisting it, the Marinereto, notwithstanding her commander’s boastings, made all sail to avoid her, while Lieutenant Ramsey, setting all the canvas he could carry, stood after her in chase. Still, as the Marinereto was by far the faster vessel of the two, there was every chance of her escaping; when, fortunately, a calm came on, and both vessels got out their sweeps. The Black Joke had now an advantage, as, from her small size, her crew were able to row her rapidly through the water. Keeping the chase in sight all night, by the next morning Lieutenant Ramsey got her within range. Knowing, however, that she had a closely-packed cargo of slaves on board, he refrained from firing for fear of injuring them, although the brigantine was cutting his rigging to pieces with her shot. At length he got sufficiently close to aim only at the slaver’s decks, and having loaded his guns with grape, and ordered two men to be ready to lash the vessels together directly they touched, he directed the rest of the crew to lie down to avoid the enemy’s shot. He now ran the chase on board, discharging into her both his guns, and, under cover of the smoke, gallantly sprang on her deck, followed by a portion of his crew. The greater number, however, were prevented from boarding, as no sooner did the Black Joke strike the slaver than the force of the collision drove her off, and the gallant lieutenant, with only ten of his people, found himself opposed to the eighty miscreants who formed the slaver’s crew, several of whom were either Englishmen or Americans, who, consequently, fought with the greatest desperation. In spite of the gallantry of the British, they ran a great risk of being overpowered, but, happily, a midshipman, Mr Hinds, then scarcely fifteen years old, had the presence of mind to order the crew to get out their sweeps, and, succeeding in again getting alongside the slaver, she was securely lashed to the Black Joke. Young Hinds then calling on his companions to follow, dashed on board the slaver, and, after a desperate hand-to-hand conflict, during which one of the British crew was killed and seven wounded, they cut-down and killed fifteen Spaniards, and wounded a good many more, the survivors, who still greatly outnumbered the victors, leaping below and crying out for quarter. Nearly 500 blacks were found on board, but as the hatches had been fastened down directly the Black Joke had been seen, and the chase had lasted upwards of twenty-four hours, above twenty of the blacks had died, and sixty were dying, from want of air. The prize was carried to Fernando Po, where the survivors were liberated. Lieutenant Ramsey was immediately promoted to the rank of commander. The officers and crews engaged in the service had to go through no common dangers. A Brazilian schooner, the Felicidade, had been captured by the Wasp, when, with the exception of the captain of the prize and another man, the crew were transferred to her, and Lieutenant Stupart, with Mr Palmer, midshipman, and a crew of fifteen seamen, remained in charge of the slaver. On her way to Sierra Leone theFelicidade chased and captured the Echo, with a crew of 28 men and 430 slaves. Lieutenant Stupart taking charge of the more valuable prize, left Mr Palmer in command of the Felicidade, with 7 Englishmen and 2 Kroomen. Unfortunately the captain and several of the Echo’s crew were sent on board her as prisoners. Some days afterwards the Felicidade was seen by H.M. ship Star, Commander Dunlop, and on being chased made every effort to escape. When boarded the crew fled below; many of them were wounded, while there were evident traces that a severe struggle had taken place, and articles belonging to English seamen being found, there could be no doubt that the prize-crew had risen on Mr Palmer and his men, and murdered the whole of them. Captain Dunlop taking out the prisoners, left Lieutenant Wilson and nine men in charge of the Felicidade, with directions to proceed to Sierra Leone. She never reached her destination, having shortly afterwards been capsized, when she sank, a portion of her bow-rail alone remaining above water. To this Lieutenant Wilson and his people clung, and contrived to form a raft, on which two Kroomen and three of the seamen perished, but Lieutenant Wilson, with four survivors, after remaining twenty days on their raft, being supported chiefly by the flesh of a shark caught with a bowling-knot, were picked up after undergoing fearful hardships, and ultimately recovered their health.

Not only were the squadron engaged in capturing slavers at sea, but whenever it could be legally done, the boats were sent on shore to destroy the slave barracoons, and to set the occupants at liberty. This was often dangerous work, for whenever the slave-dealers thought they could do so with success, they did not scruple with their armed men to fire on their assailants. One of the most important services, however, rendered by the squadron was the capture of Lagos, in the Bight of Benin, under Commodore Bruce, in 1851. It had hitherto been one of the chief slave-marts, and its rulers had encouraged the tribes in the interior to make war on each other, for the sake of the captives they might bring to them. Two brothers, the younger of whom, Akitoye, had succeeded by his father’s will as king, the elder, Kosako, having for misbehaviour been banished, it gave an opening for the interference of the English. Akitoye having recalled Kosako, the latter rebelled and usurped the government, compelling Akitoye to take refuge at Badagry. On this Kosako was preparing to attack Badagry, and would certainly have invaded Abbeokuta, the centre of Christianity and civilisation in that part of Africa, when Mr Beecroft, the British agent on the coast, applied to Commodore Bruce for a force to destroy Lagos. The Bloodhound, steamer, with a small squadron of boats, was accordingly sent up, but was fired on by Kosako’s people. In consequence, the town was attacked and entered, with the loss of two British officers and several men wounded. As their force was inadequate to hold the place, the English were compelled to retire. As soon as a sufficient number of vessels could be collected, another expedition was sent against Lagos, which arrived before it on the 26th of December, 1851. As neither the Penelope nor the flag-ship of Commodore Bruce, nor any of the larger vessels, could cross the bar, the Bloodhound and Teaser only, with the boats of the squadron strongly armed, were sent in, under the command of Captain Lewis Jones, of the Sampson, with Commander Henry Lister, of the Penelope, as his second. The expedition was joined by the ex-king Akitoye, and upwards of 600 men, who were landed in some canoes captured by Lieutenant Saumarez. Lagos was strongly fortified; the people also had long been trained to arms, and possessed at least 5000 muskets and 60 pieces of cannon, so that the work undertaken was of no contemptible character. As the Bloodhound and Teaser with the boats approached the stockades, they were received with a hot fire from the guns, jingalls, and muskets of the negroes, which was returned with round-shot and rockets from the steamers and boats. An attempt at landing was made by a party under Lieutenant Saumarez with the boats of the Sampson, but so hot was the fire through which they had to pass, that before they got on shore, Mr Richards, a gallant young midshipman, was killed, and 10 men severely wounded. An attempt was then made to force their way through the stockades, but, after some men had been hit, Lieutenant Saumarez among them, he was compelled to retire. TheTeaser having unfortunately got on shore, was exposed to the fire of the enemy; as the only way of saving her, a party was sent under Captain Lister to capture the guns directly pointing at her. After some severe fighting, and the loss of several men, they forced their way into the stockade and drove out the enemy, when all the guns were spiked. During this operation one of the life-boats was captured by the blacks, and in an attempt to retake her with several other boats, another midshipman, Mr Fletcher, was killed. Commander Hillyar and several other officers and men were severely wounded, as was Lieutenant Corbet, in endeavouring to cut the chain-cable of the Victoria, Mr Beecroft’s boat, under a hot fire from the blacks. The life-boat was after all left on shore, when some forty blacks getting into her to carry her off, Mr Balfour threw a rocket from the first cutter, which, entering her magazine, blew it up. In the evening the Teaser, after great exertions, was got off. The next morning the attack was renewed, when at length the rockets from the squadron, admirably thrown, set the town on fire, and, the conflagration extending, the magazine was blown up, the whole place being shortly in a general blaze. A welcome reinforcement of the boats of the Volcano and Water-witch, under Commanders Coote and Gardner, arriving, after an interval of Sunday, preparations were made for another still more formidable attack on the place, when it was found that Kosako had abandoned it, and Akitoye, who with his people had absconded when affairs appeared unfavourable to his cause, was brought back and installed as king. Since then Lagos has become a possession of the British Empire.

A small squadron is still kept on the west coast, and but a very limited number of slaves are shipped from any part of it.

British ships have also been employed in the West Indies and along the eastern coast of South America in capturing slavers carrying blacks either to Cuba or to the Brazils. The Cuban slavers, large well-armed vessels, manned by ruffians of all nations, were frequently guilty of acts of piracy, and often fought desperately before they yielded. As the Brazilian laws now prohibit the importation of slaves, the steam-cruisers on the station have completely put a stop to the traffic.