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.
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