The story of the abolition of slavery within the British Empire is one of forward thinking triumphs and deplorable setbacks. There can be no denying that slavery played a big part in the building of the empire in the first place especially when it came to colonising North America and other parts of the so-called New World but by the dawn of the 19th century a more enlightened British society demanded an end to the act at home and within the Empire. Other countries too tried outlawing slavery but there were always those who stood to lose from its abolition and often these people were the most influential in their countries which was a major obstacle to overcome.
In Great Britain, the House of Lords repeatedly stood in the way of ending slavery in the Empire citing that the cost of first losing this abundance of cheap labour in the colonies and then having to employ the freed slaves would significantly weaken the Empire’s economy. They made it clear in the first quarter of the 19th century that they would block any effort to end slavery in Britain’s colonial possessions but they did make one important concession in 1807 with the passing of the Slave Trade Act. The act finally put an end to British vessels transporting slaves and a fine of £120 per slave (approx. £8,500 today) was put in place for any captain caught in such activity. It was hoped by the Abolitionists in Britain that the Slave Trade Act would itself lead to an end of slavery in the colonies since they would be denied fresh slaves from Africa and the Caribbean but this didn’t happen until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
In the meantime, as was often the case in the time of the British Empire, it fell to the Royal Navy to enforce the law across Britain’s vast colonial possessions. As such, in 1808 the Royal Navy established a dedicated patrol force to combat slavers still engaged in the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas. The new tasking, while morally praiseworthy, was met initially with a level of consternation by the Admiralty who were concerned by the cost of maintaining such a patrol force especially given the ongoing conflicts with Napoleonic France. Nevertheless, the West Africa Squadron was formed although initially it consisted of just two ships – the 32-gun frigate HMS Soleby and the 18-gun HMS Derwent.
A special court was established in Sierra Leone to prosecute cases and Britain used its considerable political influence to force other imperial powers such as Portugal, Spain and Holland to either submit to the ban on the slave trade or as was the case with Portugal impose limits. French slave ships were often taken as prizes under the articles of war. Despite this unprecedented level of international legal cooperation, the Atlantic slave trade continued especially regarding South America. The risks involved in transporting slaves drove costs up increasing profits for captains who were looking to make their fortune which in turn kept the West Africa Squadron busy throughout the middle of the 19th century.
In 1826, the 18-gun brig-sloop HMS Elk stumbled upon two vessels, the Netuno and the Esperanza, from the newly independent nation of Brazil attempting to make it home from West Africa. Suspecting they were transporting slaves, the British warship boarded them and confirmed that their cargo consisted of around 200 African slaves. Interpreting the law of King George IV, the captain of the Elk elected to sail the two vessels and their cargo to Sierra Leone to release the slaves and put the two captains on trial; a potentially inflammatory act since slavery was still very much rife in Brazil forming a significant part of the economy and would continue to do so until 1888.
The incident that followed was recounted in Admiral Edward Giffard’s collected work Deeds of Naval Daring: Anecdotes of the British navy published after his death in 1910. The Netuno was assigned eight men from the Elk to act as prize crew and to command the captured Brazilian crew back to Africa. The prize crew were under the command of Midshipman R. R. Crawford, a promising young officer at the time and one who would later fulfil that promise having a successful career. On March 6th 1826, Crawford and the Netuno sailed for Sierra Leone in company with the Esperanza. However, it was quickly realised that the Esperanza was the faster of the two ships and the Netuno began to fall behind until both ships had effectively parted company.
The journey proved uneventful for the most part until the night of March 20th. Most of the Brazilian crew were kept below deck during the night hours to reduce the chance of them attempting to retake their ship under the cover of darkness. Crawford had retired for the evening but was suddenly awoken by the Brazilian captain who alerted him that they had spotted a vessel on the horizon, its large square rigged sails reflecting the low light enough for a keen eye to spot. Calling his men up on deck, Crawford reasoned that the vessel was HMS Redwing, a sister-ship of his own vessel the Elk and one that was very active in combatting the slave trade on the west of Africa. Having been at sea for almost two weeks he couldn’t have known that the Redwing was herself dealing with a Spanish illegal slave ship hundreds of miles away.
The pursuing ship fired a shot across the bow of the Netuno and still under the impression that it was the Redwing, Crawford ordered the British red ensign to be raised and that sail was to be reduced to allow them to come alongside. The pursuing vessel manoeuvred to sail parallel to the Netuno allowing Crawford and the Brazilian captain to take a good look at it. What they saw made them realise the predicament they now found themselves in. The vessel that had been pursuing them was in a rather poor condition, lacked any identifying colours and manned by a crew that were both loud and seemingly undisciplined; clearly not a warship of any of the imperial powers. It was however armed with at least 12 visible guns making her a formidable opponent to a vessel such as the Netuno that was armed with only two six pounders that were only useful for discouraging bandits.
The Brazilian captain turned to Crawford and repeatedly began saying the word “Ladrone! Ladrone!” over and over which loosely translated means “robber”. Realising that they were pirates, Crawford ordered his men to make sail and fire their only gun aimed at them to catch them off guard and make good their escape. However, discipline amongst his own hybrid crew of Royal Navy sailors and Brazilian slavers would be his undoing. The sails were unfurled but the gun crew were unable to load a shot quickly enough for many of them feared the consequences of taking on such a heavily armed opponent.
Seeing that the Netuno was attempting to escape, the pirate vessel fired a shot which sent a cannon ball between the masts of the Brazilian slave ship. To Crawford’s amazement he then spied them hoisting French colours before hailing the Netuno demanding that they stop and identify themselves as well as present their papers. Crawford nor the Brazilian captain were fooled but knowing that to attempt to run now would only invite a barrage of gunfire to which they had little response decided to comply if only to buy themselves time. The “French” captain ordered Crawford to come aboard his ship to present his papers which Crawford was unable to do because the Netuno lacked its own sea boat. Therefore, the “French” captain said he would provide him with his own boat and one was readied with five men commanded by what appeared to be an officer although to Crawford his attire was in poor order for a man claiming to be of such a position. The men rowed to the Netuno where the officer again repeated his captain’s demands that Crawford produce his papers. The officer spoke French to one of his men who then relayed the words in English to Crawford with a distinctly Irish accent. During the exchange of words the “French” officer revealed his true identity by accidentally breaking in to Spanish although Crawford feigned ignorance so as to not ignite the situation.
Crawford acknowledged that he would produce the papers and that he had to go to his cabin to get them. The pirates waited in their boat alongside the Netuno and Crawford ordered that under no circumstances were they to be allowed on board. In his cabin, Crawford readied two pistols and prepared himself for whatever was to come next knowing that whatever he did to appease the pirates they would try and take his ship at some point. He left his cabin with his hands behind his back clutching the two pistols and made his way towards where the pirate boat was positioned alongside his captured slave ship. He spoke to the officer and asked if the papers could be inspected by his captain without Crawford having to come aboard their ship but as they conversed the pirate spotted one of Crawford’s pistols and attempted to leap aboard and rush at him. Crawford’s hand was too quick however and he put one of the pistols to the man’s chest and shot him dead at point blank range. A second man then leapt aboard the Netuno and Crawford put him down with his other pistol.
The four remaining men in the boat including the Irishman threw their hands up and Crawford instructed them to get in the water and hold on to the sides of their boat. This was to prevent them from making similar attempts to board the Netuno. Suddenly, the air boomed with the sound of the pirate vessel opening up on the Netuno with their guns despite the fact they still had four of their own men in the water alongside it. Their aim was good enough to get several hits on the Netuno and despite the David and Goliath odds, Crawford had no choice but to return fire with his single six pounder gun pointing in the pirate ship’s direction. The gun was handled by Crawford, one of the prize crew and the Brazilian captain while efforts were made to get the vessel under sail. Once mobile again, the Netuno tried to pull away from the pirate ship hoping they would attempt to recover their men who were still clutching to their boat thus giving the Netuno time to escape but instead it gave chase.
Despite their superior firepower, the Spanish pirates were unable to inflict a mortal wound on the Netuno which managed to either escape from or survive barrage after barrage. Incredibly, Netuno’s six pounder scored a lucky shot that must have ignited the gun powder on board for it produced a large explosion that Crawford’s men speculated killed or wounded at least twenty of their number. Crawford put their lack of success down to poor discipline and training for he noted that many of the pirate’s guns were firing at high angles of elevation that sent the rounds flying between the Netuno’s masts.
For nearly two hours the two ships exchanged fire while Netuno attempted to make good her escape. Then, to the relief of the men aboard the Netuno the pirate vessel began broke off the engagement. Testimony from the Netuno’s men later claimed that as the pirate ship broke off, fighting between its crewmembers could clearly be seen up on deck. The captured slave ship had survived the encounter but did not come off entirely unscathed. A single shot had hit the slave hold killing a woman and taking off a young girl’s arm while up on deck Crawford himself had been severely wounded by splintering wood that struck him in the temple and hand. He collapsed on deck and had to be nursed back to health during the voyage to Sierra Leone but he made a full recovery.
During the investigation by the courts in Sierra Leone, Crawford was praised for his actions and was soon promoted for his deeds. The key piece of evidence came from the Brazilian captain of the Netuno who had nothing but praise for the British officer despite the fact Crawford’s own ship had seized his vessel a few weeks prior.
FINAL NOTE: HMS Redwind, the ship Crawford initially believed was the vessel approaching them before realising they were in fact pirates, would be lost at sea under mysterious circumstances just a few weeks after this incident. Pieces of the vessel would wash up on the African shore but it is still unclear what her fate was.