Kroomen: Black Slaver Hunters

Fiercely independent, highly skilled sailors, the Kroomen of Sierra Leone forged an alliance with the Royal Navy to rid the African coasts of slavers.

 HMS London chasing a slaving dhow near Zanzibar. Watercolour by Rev Robert O’Donelan Ross-Lewin, 1876-77. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

When, in 1807, Parliament banned British subjects from taking part in the slave trade, the Royal Navy began to patrol the slave coast of West Africa. It was hard going at first. Only a few ships could be spared from the long war against Napoleon and the region’s climate and endemic diseases were notoriously deadly for unexposed Europeans.

Britain slowly built a system of treaties with European powers allowing the Royal Navy to search their ships for human trafficking. They also negotiated deals with local African rulers, many of whom engaged in war and kidnapping on behalf of slave traders from Europe and the Americas in return for guns, alcohol and other goods. When peaceful approaches failed, the Navy sometimes rowed up West Africa’s rivers to hunt down slaver bands, or instigated wars to dislodge slaving rulers and replace them with African princes who opposed the trade.

The powers and scope of this ‘Preventative Squadron’ increased such that, by around the mid-19th century, as many as two dozen ships, crewed by around a thousand sailors and marines, patrolled the area. Through a further series of treaties, the Royal Navy began policing traffic in kidnapped East Africans, too. These captives had been seized in what are now Mozambique, Malawi and Kenya and were carried up the coast to the Persian Gulf, smuggled across to Madagascar or even around the Cape to Brazil. Once the west coast slave trade had been largely suppressed, by around 1870, the work on the east coast intensified.

A group of West African men were the most experienced among these squadrons. These men, called ‘Kroomen’, from the West African coast were, by a number of measures, the slaver hunters par excellence. They typically served for the longest period, passed their experience down from generation to generation within their community and comprised as much as one third of the total manpower on the West Coast squadron. They did the typical duties of an ordinary sailor on board the squadrons’ vessels, but also specialised in ship-to-shore communications in canoes that they brought with them onto men-of-war. They built a reputation for acts of bravery, usually forming the lion’s share of landing parties hunting for slavers ashore, not least because they seemed to elude local fevers. On such missions they fought and sometimes died alongside their British shipmates. This contributed to a saying among the Kroomen: ‘An Englishman goes to the Devil – a Krooman goes with him.’

What made a Krooman?

The Kroomen originally came from a stretch of coast along today’s south-east Liberia, where a small tribe numbering in the tens of thousands shared the Kru language and a clutch of small villages. But their identity as a nation or community was not based on just ethnicity or a common homeland. It cannot be disentangled from the rise of European trading along the West African coast and, more importantly, the history of the British Preventative Squadron. The history of anti-slavery patrolling is at the essence of what made a Krooman a Krooman.

Engraving of Kroomen, Illustrated London News, 8 May 1858. © Bridgeman Images.

It began simply enough: the Kru speakers were expert navigators and boatmen. They piloted shallow, ten-foot canoes of their own design, made to ride over the coastline’s high surf. When European vessels increasingly began appearing in West African waters, the canoeists approached them to trade. This was especially useful for the Europeans, because this stretch of coastline had few ports where they could approach land for water, firewood and provisions. Soon, Europeans and Americans became dependent on the visits of the canoes, while the Kru boatmen reoriented their livelihoods to this trade.

The connection strengthened when, at some point, probably in the late 1700s, European and American ships started taking the West Africans aboard to serve as pilots, interpreters or scouts. Eventually, the Kroomen became capable of running the ship themselves. ‘Fifteen minutes after firing the bow gun the Kroo boys began to come off [in] their canoes’, wrote the English trader Alfred Smith. ‘The crew of the good ship Angola were now replaced by Kroo boys, who handled everything like born sailors and replaced the whites, who were put to work on easier jobs like washing winches, splicing ropes.’

In 1842, its contingent of Kroomen brought the HMS Wilberforce home to Plymouth from West Africa after disease killed all but three of her British crew.

While Britain had banned participation in the slave trade, there was still widespread trafficking by Europeans and Americans from the region, so there is no reason to expect that these men of the Kru coast declined work on such ships. The notorious French-Italian slaver Theodore Canot wrote that he employed Kroomen boatmen as late as the 1820s or 1830s, although he also suspected the British had a Krooman spy among them.

A new Krooman

Some time between 1807 and the early 1830s, when the West African squadron came into its heyday, Kroo men became ‘Kroomen’, and a fierce opposition to the slave trade was at the core of their identity. In part this was due to a conviction among themselves and others that Kroomen could not be slaves. ‘White man no slave, Krooman no slave’, went a saying of theirs. (Reportedly, they refused to eat or drink if captured and slavers soon learned it was useless to take them.) In part it was because their most high-status work was for the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery patrols and, to a lesser extent, the small US anti-slavery squadron.

In these years, the Kroomen established colonies at places like Sierra Leone in the west, the island of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea and Cape Town in the south, where they would wait to catch work on merchantmen or men-of-war. They carried on their ship-to-shore work, traded up rivers and worked on the docks, but what they preferred above all else was work with the Royal Navy. There the pay was highest, they had a chance to make a real windfall in bounty money if they captured a slave ship and they had the greatest chances for ending up in tales of glory.

As the Kroomen gained a reputation as professional sailors and anti-slave-raiders, the Admiralty provided a budget for its captains to take on a contingent of Kroomen, usually at Sierra Leone at the beginning of their patrols.

The Krooman colony, or ‘Kroo Town’, at Free Town (now Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone), was run along the lines of a ship, with naval order enforced and discipline meted out. Its inhabitants sometimes wore components of naval dress and it was even dotted with faux masts, perhaps for the purposes of training. For most of the 19th century, it was, like a man-of-war, inhabited almost entirely by men.

Teams of Kroomen worked in Free Town’s shipping and harbour tasks until they could find work on a man-of-war. When a Royal Navy or American captain arrived in Free Town he would seek out what was called a ‘Head Krooman’, a leader of a team of between ten and 20 men. He might have had a long working relationship with the captain, or the decision might be based on the Krooman’s service record. These were written by previous captains and employers and stored in little wax-sealed cases carried by the Krooman. The Krooman and the captain worked out their length of service – usually the duration of a patrol and never for more than a few years –and pay. The Kroomen usually received a promise that they would be delivered back to the same port or their coastal homeland.

The Head Krooman had responsibility for the performance and discipline of his team. If one of them stepped out of line or performed poorly, the Head Krooman or his lieutenant dealt out punishment directly to those under him. The ship’s European or American boatswain did not. This was a unique development in a profession in which chain of command was sacrosanct and captains had almost tyrannical power over their men. In part, the reason was simple: captains quickly learned that punishing a Krooman frequently meant that the entire contingent disappeared over the side at the next sight of land.

Kroomen not crewmen

Another reason was that Kroomen were highly motivated by professional and communal pride and identity. If one of their number threatened their reputation, he threatened the entire essence of their nation. They dealt accordingly with those among them who let them down. ‘They have [a] national character to maintain. The Krooman ... feels it strongly,’ wrote a Royal Navy officer in 1850. ‘Flogging was permitted to be inflicted by the Head Krooman … a Krooman feels it to be a great disgrace to be flogged by a white man.’

Another feature of a Krooman’s service was that he could enter and leave it on terms worked out with the captain. That might mean a change even in the middle of a patrol, if beneficial to both sides. For Royal Navy sailors, this kind of semi-autonomy was unthinkable.

To the frustration of missionaries up and down West Africa, the Kroomen were steadfast in refusing to convert to Christianity. They cast their lot with their own deities, sometimes carrying their statuettes tucked into a hat or belt. Except for those who strayed into merchant bookkeeping, the Kroomen tended to refuse to learn to read or write English.

At the end of their lives at sea, careers that could span 20 years or more, the Krooman returned to his home village. First, he converted his pay into trade goods. With these, he made a large gift to his village elders, a sort of patriarchal caste. The size of the gift determined his station in his homeland and, in turn, affected his ability to marry well and often. Some of his goods were paid to fathers or village elders as a bride price, too.

The Kroomen stood apart in many ways, yet they were integrated into the Royal Navy, ranging from ship’s boys to able seamen, with commensurate pay and a share in bounties. They trained in the use of musket and cutlass like their shipmates. They often had the names of the ships on which they had served as tattoos. When they were first entered into books on their maiden service, they would receive Anglicised names that they carried with them from ship to ship. These varied from the generic, ‘Jim George’, or ‘Ben Kroo’, or attempted transpositions of their given names into English, to the ludicrous: ‘Sea Breeze’.

Among the British, they got a reputation as ‘the Scotchmen of Africa’, for roving far and wide. They served as far east as Calcutta (Kolkata), accompanied their ships to America’s eastern seaboard and established a colony in Liverpool. Krooman Tom Coffee was interviewed by a parliamentary committee in Westminster in 1842, which asked him about the possibility of attracting Kroomen to work in British Guiana. Over the next decade perhaps a hundred did so, though most returned home from South America.

Danger at sea

Like many sailors, Kroomen were targets of ‘crimpers’ on land, who specialised in separating seamen from their pay or prize money. Kroomen Thomas Benaly and Jack Wilson were so completely crimped in Calcutta that their captain had to pay for their passage back home to West Africa via London.

The Kroomen were subject to the same hardships and fighting as their shipmates, perhaps more, due to their tendency to seek out opportunities for displays of bravery. Since they often served as boatmen or scouts, Kroomen probably found themselves in peril more often than most. In 1845, for example, some Kroomen were killed when, serving in a prize crew taking the slave ship Felicidade into port, the slavers successfully rose against and murdered their captors. In 1851, the Royal Navy, with Kroomen, attacked Lagos to expel its slaving king. Lagos was well defended by guns and small arms, provided by their partners in the slave trade, and the Kroomen paid a high price, suffering mortal and severe wounds alongside their British shipmates.

As expert swimmers and canoeists, there are many stories of Kroomen attempting daring rescues. When a slave ship ran itself aground on the east coast of Africa to escape capture in 1869, scores of kidnapped Africans were trapped among the wreckage, the slaver crew abandoning ship. HMS Dryad’s Kroomen joined in the desperate attempts to save the captives. As the Dryad’s crew ferried the survivors from the beach to the awaiting ship, their boat was swamped and broken by a huge wave. Jim George and Peter Warman, powerful swimmers, managed to save two East African children and a number of their shipmates who could not swim. For this and other heroic deeds, George received a medal from the Royal Humane Society in London.

Kroomen even appeared in mid-19th-century maritime ‘Boy’s Own’ stories for their bravery and derring-do, tales that sometimes barely changed the details of their real-life rescues and accomplishments.

The finest men

How did British, even American, reliance on Kroomen fit within the general belief in white racial superiority? For one thing, speaking broadly, the Kroomen established their reputation before so-called ‘scientific racism’ made African inferiority a general, predetermined, almost genetic condition. Before pseudo-science proclaimed that Africans were lower on some kind of universal ladder of evolution, Europeans and Americans could more easily accept that a particular African ‘nation’, such as the Kroomen, were a particularly estimable ‘race’. There is almost no overstating the esteem that captains had for their Kroomen: ‘one of the finest men’, ‘universal favourites’, who ‘fight with great courage’. Those captains who did tend to view Africans as inferior could also point to the Kroomen as the exception that proved the rule.

The story of the Kroomen as veteran slaver-hunters reached its conclusion in the final quarter of the 19th century, when the Americans halted their anti-slavery patrols, the British West African squadron wound down and the Admiralty issued an edict from London in 1870 barring the use of Kroomen on Africa’s east coast and beyond. This met with strong opposition among the captains who valued them so much. The Admiralty’s justification was that it was inconvenient to return the Kroomen to their home coast after their service terms, but since Royal Navy ships routinely stopped in Sierra Leone, this is an odd claim to make. A better explanation might have to do with the progress of scientific racism, reflected in a growing tendency to make non-European crew work as unskilled labour in stoke-holes and so forth.

This did not dull the Kroomen’s drive to seek work in the world’s ports. Krooman Jack Nimrod did not take the Admiralty’s new rule seriously. He had joined the celebrated slaver hunter HMS Daphne in Sierra Leone in 1867. After the Admiralty’s edict, he simply went back on the books in his next ship as an East African – a ‘Seedie’ – serving for the next 20 years and earning four service medals before retiring.

John Broich is an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University and the author of Squadron: Ending the African Slave Trade (Overlook Press, 2017).