A history lesson that floats my boat: the stories of British slave rescues we never hear about

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some research of my own about the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, which was formed in 1808, just a year after Britain abolished the slave trade. It was stationed at first in Portsmouth and equipped with two warships, and its job was to patrol the west coast of Africa, apprehending anyone who was ignoring the new law.

To begin with, things were tricky because it could only stop ships flying the British flag. But after the Napoleonic Wars were over, a chap called Viscount Castlereagh, the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, ensured that France, Spain and Portugal would stop slaving as well, and, as a result, the Royal Navy was then allowed to stop and search their ships too. If you’re from Northern Ireland, you can be proud of that.

And people from London can be proud of the squadron’s commander, Sir George Collier. He massively increased the number of ships in the squadron and was told: “You are to use every means in your power to prevent a continuance of the traffic in slaves.” He pursued this order with vigour.

Britannia claimed that it ruled the waves, and Britannia was going to damn well prove the point.

The slavers responded by building faster ships that could outrun the navy’s powerful warhorses, but our top brass was quick to come up with a solution. A captured and very fast Brazilian slave ship was renamed HMS Black Joke, and in just two years it freed thousands of slaves. Weirdly, today, British schoolchildren are not taught about the vessel, or the bravery of its crew.

In one engagement it spent 31 hours chasing a Spanish brig called El Almirante that was en route to Havana. When the British finally caught up, they realised that their two tiny guns were no match for the 14 monsters that the Spaniards could muster. But after little more than an hour, 15 of the El Almirante’s crew, including the captain, were dead, and the remainder had surrendered. In the hold, the captain of the Black Joke — a man called Lieutenant Henry Downes — found 466 slaves, who were later landed and freed.

This sounds like the sort of exciting story that would enliven a history lesson, but I’m afraid no one really knows anything about Downes. I suppose his story doesn’t tally with current thinking.

Before the West Africa Squadron was disbanded in the 1860s, 2,000 Royal Navy sailors had given their lives while capturing 1,600 slave ships and freeing 150,000 slaves. It had been a huge operation — swallowing up 13 per cent of the navy’s manpower — and it’s reckoned that it cost far more than Britain earned from its earlier slaving enterprises. Again, that’s not something you’ll hear in many classrooms.