Sweet Water and Bitter, By Sîan Rees

The ships that stopped slavery

The Atlantic slave trade shaped modern identities in ways we still only vaguely understand. How was it that racism was not general in the 15th century, but had become institutionalised by the 19th? How did consumption of luxuries become so vital in history?

2007 marked the bicentenary of the slave trade's abolition throughout the British Empire, an event, Siâ*Rees suggests, "marked by our current obsessions: attribution of responsibility and blame; demand for apology and compensation". Perhaps. Western memories of the slave trade usually connect to abolition, a narrative with a self-congratulatory moral outcome that avoids awkward questions about the violence of our Atlantic histories.

This book about the Navy ships "that stopped the slave trade" prolongs that sentiment. It turns out that not only did Britain "abolish" the transatlantic trade in 1807, it spent the next 60 years sending ships to the West African coast to enforce the ban. Some 17,000 British sailors died in the West Africa Squadron, until Naval might, diplomacy and engagement with African polities prevailed.

The ports of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola and Benin were filled with thousands of slaves awaiting shipment to Brazil and Cuba. Slaving was the only economic activity in some places. African kings led annual slave raids. Apparently, some beneficent, outside force was required for abolition, which led to Britain shouldering the unintended responsibilities of colonialism.

There is a problem with writing a book about West Africa using only the testimonies of paternalistic Britons: the book can develop paternalistic overtones. Atlantic slavery on this view appears as a tragic outcome of the conflicts of irreconcilable value systems, not as a barbarity a beneficent British force had to curtail. It's a shame Rees did not explore this view, or the Portuguese and Spanish sources. But such complexities might have hindered her narrative drive and escapist moral purpose.