Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees

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Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The tale of what happened in the aftermath of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and efforts made to make the law reality in the face of entrenched opposition from other countries and established slavers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-1845951177

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The Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed in Britain in March 1807, and the last legal British slave ship left Africa seven months later. Other countries were slow to follow suit. Everyone in Britain knew there would be resistance, and when the abolitionist Granville Sharpe purchased land in Sierra Leone to 'repatriate' freed slaves, Ottobah Cugoana, a former slave living in London, asked if it was possible for a fountain to send forth both sweet water and bitter. Could the slave trade, he wondered, be abolished from West Africa - when West Africa was its source?

Although the last legal British slave ship left Africa later that year, other countries and illegal slavers continued to ply their trade, as was to be expected. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, anti-slave trade treaties were negotiated, while government, Admiralty and Foreign Office jointly took on the responsibility of trying to police and enforce the end of it, and the trading activities of most European nations and of America as well. 'The Particular Service', which later became 'The Preventive Squadron', succeeded in liberating about 160,000 slaves during the next sixty years or so, but at high price, losing about 17,000 British seamen through disease or battle.

As the author explains in her prologue, it seems to have become customary in our guilt-ridden age that any story involving Britain, Africa and the nineteenth century cannot but be one of wicked imperialism, of a kind we would rather forget. This book therefore does history a service in restoring the balance, proving that the British were ahead of the rest of the world in eliminating a barbaric practice which still seemed perfectly acceptable to much of the world. At the very least it was a brave and well-intentioned exercise, but at the time it found favour with nobody. Among the British public it was resented on the grounds of expense, while it only engendered ill-will with governments in Spain, Portugal, France and America.

Helping to secure the abolition of slavery in practice as well as theory was a tortuous business. It involved among other things the manipulation of international law so that British officers could board ships belonging to other nations, and meeting head-on the hostility of African leaders to the whole concept of abolition. Above all, there was the question of what to do with the newly liberated slaves.

Yet this account does far more than give us the basic facts of what might have been (though certainly was not) a straightforward naval operation combined with a few careful diplomatic manoeuvres. There is no shortage of stark portrayals of what conditions were like for the unfortunate victims at sea, naked and ironed to each other on the canoes, lying on their side day after day as there was no room for them to sit upright. If illegal slave traders were caught red-handed, they thought nothing of throwing their human cargo of men, women and children overboard to die.

Over twenty years after the initial abolition, another measure – the Act for the Suppression of the Slave Trade – was passed in 1839, mainly thanks to the future Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, one of the most vociferous politicians among those determined to see an end to the practice. Although it angered several foreign nations, notably Portugal and Brazil, the Act proved remarkably successful in hastening the end. It took the election of President Lincoln in 1860 and the American Civil War to deal what was in effect the final death blow, but when Cuba, the last slave-worked colony, was emancipated in 1869, the barbaric transatlantic trade in human traffic became a thing of the past.

All in all it is a complex tale of cruelty, skullduggery, diplomacy, high principles, naval action and the like, but all held together well and told very readably.

Our thanks to Vintage for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoyed this, may we also recommend Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

Buy Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees at Amazon.com.

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