When the British Government passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807, the task of enforcing it fell to the Royal Navy.
The trade, which Britain had dominated for decades, now had to be stopped but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Many countries were still involved in slavery, including Britain but the Royal Navy was expected to intercept their ships, with or without international co-operation.
In 1808 the West Africa Squadron was set up to patrol the coast. It was poorly equipped for the task and assigned just two ships, a 32-gun frigate HMS Solebay and HMS Derwent.
More ships were added to the fleet over the next decade but it was still not enough to patrol more than three thousand miles of coastline.
Working in West Africa was not easy for personnel due to the risk of tropical disease and violent encounters. Personnel were five times more likely to die there than sailing in British waters.
In 1819 the Royal Navy captured a slaving port and created a naval station in West Africa. This was later renamed Freetown and became the capital of the first British colony in West Africa, in Sierra Leone. The squadron also used the Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic as a supply depot, before this moved to Cape Town.
In response to Britain’s advances, the slavers started using faster ships and used drastic action to avoid capture. The Royal Navy could only take a ship if it was carrying people, so slavers would throw their human cargo overboard to evade being caught.
Britain’s attempts at slavery suppression had a strong humanitarian interest but it was also tied in to a wider geo-political battle to expand the country’s sphere of influence.
By the mid-19th century, the squadron had 25 vessels, many of them having been seized from slavers, and more than two thousand personnel involved.
Between 1808 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.
Britain’s efforts to break up trade later spread across North Africa, the Middle-East and the Indian Ocean.
Overall it took nearly 60 years to abolish the trade for good.