Friday, 24 June 2011

Africa - HMS Maidstone, part 2

After languishing in London for several years, at the end of 1823 HMS Maidstone was reported to be fitting out for a new mission, joining Sir Charles Bullen's squadron on the West African Station in Freetown. Her mission was to stop the Atlantic slave trade.

In some respects the Maidstone was an obvious choice, being relatively new (launched in 1811) and of a design shown to be effective in hunting privateers off the North American coast, a very similar assignment.

There were three main markets for slaves, the British and Spanish Caribbean, the United States and Brazil. Most European nations had banned the maritime transport of African slaves after the Napoleonic wars, under pressure from Britain, but slavery itself was not illegal and wouldn't end in British territories until 1838, and in the US until after the Civil War. This demand was supplied mostly from West Africa, prisoners or captives sold by the Asanate or Damhomey empires or many little kingdoms along the coast. Brazil's slaves had formerly come from the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, but after independence in 1822, they too joined the West African trade. To make things more complicated, slave trading was not made illegal by Brazil until 1831.

West Africa

Britain's response to the slave trade had been to set up the West African Squadron, based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was an awful, disease ridden place with a mortality rate of over 5x a European or Mediterranean posting. But it did offer adventure, and one more advantage. Ships captured were taken before a joint Commission of Britain and the country who owned the vessel, after which the vessel was valued, and the crew who captured her got a cut. This doubtless increased motivation considerably.

Freetown 1820

The first recorded slave transport detained by the Maidstone serves as an example. On the 26th of September 1824 the Portuguese brig Aviso was detained with 465 slaves on board bound for Bahia in Brazil. The British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission in Sierra Leone sentenced the boat to be destroyed. But who exactly detained the Aviso? Captain Bullen of the Maidstone and Captain Courtney of HMS Bann both claimed the prize, so it went before an Admiralty court. Courtney argued that he was operating with Bullen so he deserved a share, and anyway it was the Bann who had discovered the Aviso. Bullen argued that it was the Maidstone who had actually captured the Aviso and so took all the risks, being a faster ship than the Bann, and anyway this counted as a peacetime rather than wartime action, in which case only the captor has prize rights. The Admiralty found for Courtney.

By February 1825 nearly 2,000 men women and children had been released from captured vessels. Further examples from 1825 include two Dutch vessels, the Bey and Pauline & Amanda, the Master of the former actually onshore purchasing slaves, and a Spanish schooner, the Segunda Gallego, bound for Havana with 285 slaves.

The Spanish slaver L'Antonio, 1837

Now the British had a trading settlement called Bathurst at the mouth of the River Gambia which also, in theory, levied tolls on merchants using the river for the local tribe, the Niumi, ruled by Burunki Sonko. However, the guns at Bathurst could only control half the wide river, which meant vessels could easily pass into the interior unmolested, both slave hunters and, almost as bad, merchants visiting the French settlement upstream. The British requested permission to build a fort on the other side of the river, but Sonko, unwilling to cede both soverrinty and a large source of income, refused. He was probably confident, as commanders at Bathurst had backed down in the face of threats before. This time the balance of power had changed, the Maidstone and the steamer HMS Africa were sent in. Having nothing that could match their firepower Sonko backed down, and ceded a mile long stretch of coast, together with all custom duties, for “time immemorial” in return for 400 Spanish dollars per quarter (French vessels were exempt). The British immediately started fortifying the area and establishing a fort, Fort Bullen named after the commander, and garrisoned with 30 troops from Sierra Leone. Things didn't end there however, Sonko realised that he had effectively lost his main source of income, and tensions increased, he stormed Fort Bullen and war ensued. English and French ships bombarded the coast and 450 British troops marched on the capital, Essau. Despite a fierce resistance the end was never in doubt, and the Niumi effectively became a British protectorate, requiring British permission before selecting new rulers.

But back in 1826 the Maidstone was still cruising the coast hunting slavers. In January yet another Dutch ship was captured, the Hoop, and in April the Brazilian brig Perpetuo Defensor, under Antonio Mauricio de Mendonca. The Perpetuo Defensor, was en route to Rio de Janeiro with 424 slaves, 49 of which were so sick they died on the trip to Freetown. The situation here was complicated as slave trading wasn't actually illegal in Brazil, so that a joint commission ruled the ship should be returned to her master, but the slaves were released. Two Spanish ships, the Nicanor and Nuevo Campeador were caught heading for Havana in May and June.

Whilst the Maidstone could outgun any slaver afloat, much of the work was done by her boats, and this could be much hairier. On 6th August 1826 the Hope, the tender to the Maidstone, sighted the Brazilian brig Principe de Guinea, and gave chase. After a 28 hours chase she caught and attacked the brig, despite being worse armed and having half the crew, and although it took a “desperate action” of 2 hours and 40 minutes, she succeeded.

HMS Buzzard capturing the Spanish slaver Formidable 1834. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

In another example in 1827, the official report read....”10-11 Apr 1827 in the afternoon a suspicious vessel was seen from the mast-head between the ship and the Island of Fernando Po. We lost sight of her in the dark, but about 10 p.m. by aid of the moon, she was seen about seven or eight miles distant, but the wind being light there was little chance of coming up with her and Lieutenant Morton, first of the ship, volunteered to take the cutter and gig, to intercept her, and by midnight had detained the Brazilian slave brigantine Creola, 85 tons, M. J. de Suza Guimareas, Master, with 308 slaves on board, two days out from the Old Calabar River, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission, Sierra Leone, and on 9 Jun 1827 sentenced to be condemned for illicitly trading in slaves."

Incidentally, the Perpetuo Defesa affair notwithstanding, the vast majority of slavers apprehended in 1826 and 27 were Brazilian (though Bullen did complain that Portuguese ships seemed to be carrying a lot of “domestic servants” all of a sudden). The Hiroina, Trajano, Tenterdora, Venturoso, Carlotta, Providencia, Conceicao Paquete do Rio were all taken. These were not tried by Brazilian, but rather Portuguese commissioners, and were invariably condemned, indicating a much harder line being taken.

In the end of August, after a four year tour, the Maidstone was back in Portsmouth. In February 1828 she was sent back to Africa, buit this time to the Cape of Good Hope, a much more congenial posting.

The Cape

HMS Maidstone left Plymouth for the Cape of Good Hope on the 23rd of February 1828, stopping off for two days at Santa Cruz, Teneriffe, on the way down. She was based at the Royal Navy's base at Simon's town. James Holman, a naval officer, was in Simons town in December as part of a round the world trip, and his memoirs are available online. He was not terribly impressed with the organisation there, which lacked both a harbour master knowledgeable in sailing, and a lighthouse -several ships had already been wrecked. He also comments on the large number of baboons who lived in the hills and raided gardens, seldom in gangs of less than a hundred!

Simons town, 1838

On Sunday 4th of January 1829 Holman joined a church service on HMS Maidstone, and then dined with the Captain, Saunders. Apparently a new regulation came into place that day, closing gin shops on Sundays, and Holman thoroughly approves.

On the 5th of June Holman accepts an offer from Commadore Schomberg, the squadron commander, to sail on the Maidstone to Mauritius, and on the 16th they set sail at day break. Mauritius is an island off the African coast in the Indian ocean, and had been British since the Napoleonic wars. There was a garrison there and in deed Holman met the colonel of the 29th, stationed there.

St Louis, Mauritius, 1831

The Maidstone stayed at Mauritius until October and then returned to the Cape. It was here in February 1830 that she made the first of her two small contributions to navigation. Operating often in uncharted waters, anything to do with navigation was taken extremely seriously by the Royal Navy. In the bay off the Western Cape is a large rock, about 20 ft wide, and 20 ft high at low tide, which was surveyed by a boat from HMS Maidstone in February 1830. It is now called Maidstone rock, which is not a like having a country named after you, but it is something. On the same topic, a bottle was discarded from the Maidstone in mid Atlantic on the 24th of June 1832, only to arrive at Pozim beach, about 500 miles away, on the 7th of June, a drift of about 10 miles per day. This wasn't a game, in an era of sailing ships who might be becalmed at any time, and without GPS, knowledge of ocean currents was extremely important.

The Maidstone stayed at the Cape throughout 1831, and her officers and crew made friends on land. The chaplain, Rev John Fry was a keen astronomer. Cape Town had had an observatory since 1828 and the director, Mr Fallows, developed a high opinion of Fry, so much so that when Fallows died in July 1831, Fry ran the observatory until a replacement could be appointed.

Cape Town observatory in 1857

There was a voyage to Bengal in 1832, and then the Maidstone sailed home for the last time, arriving in Portsmouth in August 1832. She was paid off on the 18th of August.

A summary of the Maidstone's career, and many many other ships, can be found at

1 comment:

  1. Hello Nelson,

    It was great discovering your blog. I am doing some research for a book I am writing and would like to know if you have some additional leads on the ship/passenger list for the HMS Maidstone in 1857. I am interested in the May 1st arrival of the Maidstone in Gouyave Bay in the parish of St. Andrews, located on the British colony of Grenada, West Indies. I was able to find some information on the number of passengers and how many men/women were being sent to which plantations, but I would like to get some information on the names of the Indian indentured servants and crew onboard. The ship, a repurposed military vessel, was supposed to have embarked in Calcutta some months prior. I look forward to your reply. Thank you for your attention.

    With Best Regards,

    Sasha Pierre