The 'Liberated Africans'

Possessing the largest navy in the world, the British had the military capacity to intercept and dispose of slave ships as they saw fit. In general terms, European powers could always command more force on the high seas than in foreign territory. But the diplomatic cost of unilateral action on the high seas would have been high, and if the modern traffic in illegal substances is any indication, it would not have stopped trafficking anyway. When the British did take such action, it was always against weaker powers, such as Brazil and Portugal, and rarely against the French or the United States.

The British role in suppression of the slave trade was large, even within these constraints, but from the perspective of human rights, somewhat ambivalent. By the mid-1840s, more than sixty British, French, American, and Portuguese warships were patrolling the African coast. But every anti-slave-trade treaty signed in the nineteenth century had Britain as one of the signatories. Of 6,921 voyages known to have been involved in the slave trade after 1807, 1,799 (about 22 percent) were interrupted when the ships were captured, and all but 233 of these detained ships were taken by the British navy. Many were empty and were condemned for carrying slave-trading equipment rather than slaves.

Nevertheless, 160,000 Africans were liberated from their holds as a result. Some of these "re-captives" — also called Liberated Africans — lived out their lives as peasants in villages in Sierra Leone, the Bahamas, and Trinidad. Others were removed to the British Caribbean as indentured servants after slavery was abolished there. Another group became low-wage municipal workers in Brazilian cities. The least fortunate were spirited away to Cuban sugar plantations and effectively remained slaves or, worse, were sold a second time after being kidnapped from the Sierra Leone village where they had been resettled. The great majority did escape this fate, however, and their personal details are recorded in huge registers of "Liberated Africans" in archives in Freetown, Rio de Janeiro, and London.