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Attacking the Slave Trade

St Helena’s part in ending the International Slave Trade

There is no such thing as part-freedom.{c}

St Helena played an important part in ending the International Slave Trade

SEE ALSO: Our other enslavement-related pages: Slavery was practiced on St Helena, as described on our page Slavery on St Helena. The effects of slavery on St Helena today are described on our page Slavery and the enslaved. The enslaved burials uncovered in 2006/8 are discussed on our page The Slave Graves. The terrible treatment of the enslaved resulted in many ghost stories about them and their mistreatment also features on our page Titbits from the records.


Legal slave-ship stowage
Legal slave-ship stowage

Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire from 1st August 1834 it continued in America until 1863, nearly 30 more years. Ships carrying people to be enslaved (‘Slavers’) continued to operate between ports in West Africa and the Americas, often passing St Helena en route.

Apart from the almost inconceivable inhumanity of uprooting people from the lives and families, removing their liberty and consigning them to a life of unpaid servitude, the condition in which the captives were transported were shocking. The diagram (right) shows how the captives were packed into the ships to maximise profit for the journey of between one and two months across the Atlantic. They were given minimal food and water and there were no sanitary provisions and no medical aid. Dysentery and Scurvy were commonplace and around 15% of the captives died during the journey, their bodies being unceremoniously dumped overboard. When the smell became intolerable (to the ship’s crew) the captives were taken up on deck and hosed down with seawater, as were the lower decks. It is thought that as many as 20 million Africans were transported to the Americas by ship in this way.

And the really scary thing is that this diagram shows the legal stowage, regulated under the British Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788. The Slavers operating across the mid-Atlantic (the Middle Passage) in the 1840s were not regulated under this Act because they were not British{1}, so their stowage conditions would have been far, far worse.

In 1840 the British Government deployed a naval station on St Helena to suppress the trans-Atlantic African Slave Trade.

The Vice-Admiralty Court

Proclamation setting up the Vice- Admiralty Court
Proclamation setting up the Vice-Admiralty Court

By order of Queen Victoria, St Helena was also chosen as the location of the Vice-Admiralty Court, based at Jamestown, to try the crews of the Slavers{2}.

Slaver auction notice
Slaver auction notice

Orders were given to all Royal Navy ships to detain Portuguese slave vessels wherever met with, and slave vessels hoisting no flag, and destitute of any papers proving their nationality. The Africans found on board were to be landed at the nearest British port to be there placed under the care of the governor or of another officer in command. The ships, and any cargo found on board, were to be - if seaworthy - sold at auction (image, right), and if not broken up.

Brig Waterwitch, 1850
Brig Waterwitch, 1850{d}

One of the first engagements took place on 2nd December 1840 close to Benguela along the Angola coast where the HMS Waterwitch intercepted a ship carrying the enslaved bound for the Americas. Lieutenant Henry James Masson, Commander of the HMS Waterwitch related the pursuit as follows:

At 3 p.m. on this day chase was given to a suspicious looking Brigantine under the land who then made all sail to gain a small bay, on entering which at 4:30pm she ran on shore under all sail, the crew immediately deserting her by boats. On boarding the said vessel I found a large number of captives on board, a great many in the water who had attempted to swim on shore but the distance being too great many were drowned in the attempt, some regained the vessel and others were saved by the boats of the HMS Waterwitch; on mustering the captives immediately on getting the vessel afloat, there appeared to be 245 left on board of whom 5 died immediately after taking possession.

HMS Waterwitch monument in Castle Gardens
HMS Waterwitch monument in Castle Gardens

A third of the captives were sick when found on the ship. James Wilcox, second mate of the HMS Waterwitch, took command of the Slaver to bring her and her passengers safely to St Helena where the Africans could recover and the vessel be brought for adjudication. During the 13 day journey, 32 of the captives died. The survivors were declared free and taken to Lemon Valley to recover. The name of the Slaver remains unknown and there is no recorded information about its origins, but Portuguese and Brazilian flags were found on board after the capture. Almost all the ships caught that year were either Brazilian or Portuguese. A monument to the sailors who served on the HMS Waterwitch stands in the Castle Gardens{3}.

An observer in 1861 described the terrible scene when ship carrying the enslaved landed at Ruperts:

The whole deck, as I picked my way from end to end, in order to avoid treading on them, was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me a species of ape that I had never seen before. Yet these miserable, helpless objects being picked up from the deck and handed over the ship’s side, one by one, living, dying and dead alike, were really human beings. Their arms were worn down to about the size of a walking stick. Many died as they were passed from the ship to the boat, but there was no time to separate the living from the dead.

Sometimes the Slavers fought capture, in some cases quite persistently:


On the morning of the 24th May, HMS Pantaloon, then cruising in lat. 4°30’0”N and long. 3°0’0”E., made a sail, distant about five miles on the weather bow. It being dead calm at the time three boats from the Pantaloon were speedily manned, and sent after the stranger, which was soon ascertained to be a Slaver. When the boats got within a mile of the prize which turned out to be a Polacca brig (name unknown), of 320 tons, with six guns and forty seven men she hauled both courses up together, and fired a shot which fell short of our boats. She then commenced firing grape and round shot in good earnest without however doing any mischief. When our men were about a cable’s length off the Slaver, they gave three hearty English cheers, such as forebode destruction to all who resist, and swept alongside. Two of the boats made for the bows of the brig. Lieut. Lewis de J. Prevost, who commanded, ran his boat under the bumpkin brace. Mr. Crout, the master of the Pantaloon, at the same time gained a footing over the bows and the prize was boarded, not however before three of our gallant tars were wounded, in return for which one of the rascals was shot through the forehead.

The third boat, with the boatswain, attempted to board from the main chains, and being much exposed, had the misfortune to lose two men, he with three others being wounded. Our men had no sooner a fair footing on deck, than the crew vanished as if by magic; their fight was over, the cowardly rascals having done enough mischief for one voyage. Mr. Crout, on getting on board, was saluted with four muskets, fired close to his face, by which he was nearly blinded. Mr. Prevost likewise had some narrow escapes. A breeze having sprung up, they were joined by the Pantaloon, which was saluted with four guns from the prize which had been captured at such a terrible sacrifice.{e}

The following is a (probably incomplete) list of the Slavers intercepted by the HMS Waterwitch and brought to St Helena:


Ship Name

Ship Type

30th Jun 1841

Donna Elliza


27th Oct 1841



Apr 1843

Conceição de Maria


23rd May 1845



10th Apr 1846



1st May 1846



8th May 1846



11th Jun 1846



The ships listed as captured by the Royal Navy in just one week include:

Life after ‘liberation’

Between 1840 and 1849 nearly 300 Slavers were intercepted and 15,076 captured people aboard, usually known as ‘Liberated Africans’ were landed on the island at Ruperts Bay. The final number up to the 1870s when the depot was finally closed (it received its last slavery victims in 1864) has been estimated at over 24,400 from 439 ships, with embarkation points along the south-western African coast from Angola to the Congo.

As many as 5,000 of the Africans liberated from Slavers were dead on arrival at St Helena, or were diseased and/or malnourished and died soon after being deposited on St Helena - see the graph (below). Around 3,000 more died during their time here. They were deemed by the Church to be ‘pagans’ and burial in the official graveyards was not allowed, so their remains were interred in unmarked mass-graves in the valley. The sites of these burials were not recorded so even today we do not know exactly how many were buried (it is estimated at more than 8,000) or the location of all the burial sites. Some ‘slave graves’ were discovered when the new Power Station was being built in the 1980s and more during the Airport construction project.

Survivors lived at Ruperts, Lemon Valley and High Knoll Fort. Accommodation for them was rather basic (photograph, below).

Another photograph (below), apparently taken in 1861, shows freed women departing St Helena to be returned to Africa. Few could be returned to their homes - Slavers kept no detailed records that could be used to track their captives back to their point of origin and most had no idea of geography and could not identify the place from where they had been taken. When numbers became too great many were sent to Cape Town and the British West Indies as labourers. Records show that British Guiana received 6,773, Jamaica 4,490, Trinidad 3,996, and other colonies 1,028. Total 16,287. In later years, some more were sent to Sierra Leone and other destinations, bringing the total of émigrés to 17,144.

Maybe as many as 1,000 elected to remain on St Helena{8}. They were employed, initially unpaid, as domestic servants and labourers, building roads and performing other tasks like hauling the stone to build St. Paul’s Cathedral and cutting the water channel in Ruperts. Some have noted that this requirement to perform unpaid labour seems a lot like slavery and hence have questioned the term Liberated Africans.

Eventually they integrated into the indigenous population, already comprising people of European descent (the original settlers), various arrivals from India and the Far East, remaining Chinese labourers and the former island enslaved. In ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island{4}’ we are told that not half a dozen instances of intermarriage have occurred during thirty years, though this gradually changed and today few Saints cannot trace a West African ancestor in their family tree. The census for 1881 lists 77 people whose birthplace was listed as ‘West Coast of Africa’.

St Helena benefited financially as well as morally from being used as a port to land people saved from slavery. The island received funds from London to feed them; the free labour - at a time when a labourer charged around 7s per day (7s = £0.35) - was invaluable to the colonial economy; and the island could usually take possession of all the goods transported in the Slavers. Sadly the latter also included White Ants, but that’s another story…

Many mostly-older Saints still make use of ‘traditional remedies’ based on plants growing wild around the island. Presumably some of this folklore was brought here by the ‘Liberated Africans’. Some of these plants are documented on our page Edible Wild Plants.

The ‘Slave Graves’

Sadly, in the region of 8,000 of the ‘Liberated Africans’ died shortly after their arrival here as a result of mistreatment by their captors. They were buried in Ruperts, but some of these graves were later disturbed… For more see our page The Slave Graves.


In our various slavery-related pages you will see the term ‘Indentured’, referring to how the ‘liberated’ enslaved were handled after ‘liberation’. It is also used in relation to The Chinese Labourers. If you look the term up on the Wikipedia you read:

Indentured servitude is a form of labour in which a person is contracted to work without salary for a specific number of years.

This makes it sound like a simple contractual arrangement, but for the ‘liberated’ enslaved it was anything but. They were offered no alternative. Their only choice was whether to be indentured on St Helena or elsewhere in the British Empire.

There seem to be no records of the nature of their indenture (terms, period, etc.) but from other sources it seems that basic accommodation was provided (see the image above), as was (presumably) food and clothing. The period if the indenture would seem to have been ‘indefinite’. It was clearly far from freedom.

The Wikipedia goes on to say:

Like any loan, an indenture could be sold. Indentured workers were commonly bought and sold when they arrived at their destinations.

It is not clear whether any of the ‘liberated’ enslaved were on-sold in this way.

Nowadays this form of indenture would be illegal because the indentured workers did not enter into the arrangement voluntarily of their own free will. The UK, as well as most other nations, is signed up to the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ adopted by the United Nations in 1948, which declares in Article #4 No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. For more see our Community page, Human Rights on St Helena.

SEE ALSO: en.wikipedia.org/‌wiki/‌Supplementary‌_‌Convention‌_‌on‌_‌the‌_‌Abolition‌_‌of‌_‌Slavery, en.wikipedia.org/‌wiki/‌Slave‌_‌Trade‌_‌Act and en.wikipedia.org/‌wiki/‌Contemporary‌_‌slavery

Slavery Commemorations

A number of annual days mark themes related to slavery, which are observed to varying degrees on St Helena:

For more annual events see our page This Year.

Read More

{a} www.nature.com{6}{b} UK National Archives on Flickr™{6}{7}{c} Nelson Mandela{d} H J Vernon{e} ‘St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date’, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905, 1905{6}


{1} And, of course, the Act had been repealed when slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire from 1st August 1834.{2} The legality of the Court was questioned, and as a result the Advocate General in London issued a verdict confirming the Court’s legality in November 1840.{3} On 17th June 2022 a plaque was unveiled at the Waterwitch Monument recording the names of the African sailors who served on Waterwitch whose names were omitted from the monument when it was created.{4} …including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology, by John Melliss, published in 1875.{5} In 2022 this was marked with an event outside The Cannister, linked to the recent reburial of the ‘Liberated Africans’ exhumed while Building St Helena Airport.{6} @@RepDis@@{7} Images are labelled ‘No known copyright restrictions’. Not to be confused with the St Helena Archives.{8} ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island{4}’ says about 500 remained on St Helena - about ⅙ of the population - but we have seen data in the Records showing the total remaining as 500 in 1850 so the actual final number must be higher. Of the total landed here, less the number of emigrants and less the number that died, more than 2,000 remain unaccounted for, so we believe 1,000 to be a defensible final figure.