Squadron: The Navy Officers Who Fought to Abolish the East African Slave Trade by John Broich

Review published on November 3, 2017.

In 1868 four young British naval officers – Philip Colomb, Leopold Heath, Edward Meara, and George Sulivan – of the Bombay Division decided to more heavily enforce policies against slavery.

Over the next two years, they boarded ships off the east coast of Africa, seized cargoes and released any slaves they identified. When mentioning the “slave trade” one needs to remember that in addition to the slaves – people – there is the trade – business. A number of people with vested financial interests became seriously annoyed by the actions of the four and started to use their influence to get them stopped. This book covers their backgrounds, actions, responses and counter-responses that led ultimately to the “abolition” of the slave trade off east Africa. This is not an academic monograph, but nonetheless uses a number of original naval and India Office reports, journals, letters and press articles to tell a compelling story.

This is a deeply interesting book, not dry as dust history, but one of those wonderful history books that uses a series of incidents to open a window on period, places and – most importantly – people. It opens with listings of some of the slaves of one “cargo”, but details too, the background of the officers, other naval ratings, diplomats and “owners” and dealers. There is no assumption that you will know about the background, so as the book progresses Broich carefully, and almost seamlessly, interweaves the campaign together with naval ships and practice, the local geography, peoples and crops, legislative background, international implications and the economy of slavery. But always with clear reference back to all the individuals involved.

That makes the achievements of the four seem so much greater, although there is no hiding their reactions to Africans and the cost of their interventions – or indeed the possible fate of the slaves once freed. It is a strange commentary on how some actions, relatively minor in themselves, can impact so widely with implications for so many. Interested in history, my reading on slavery had largely been focused on the West Indian and West African trade and its abolition, so another (and largely later) perspective badly showed up my ignorance. But the book was an easy route into helping link what I had read elsewhere to the specifics here and it also put modern African east coast politics into perspective too.

This was a seriously thought provoking read and should appeal to all “non fiction” book groups.

Hilary White 5/5

Squadron: The Navy Officers Who Fought to Abolish the East African Slave Trade by John Broich
Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd 9780715652312 hbk Nov 2017

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