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Protector honours sailors who helped end African slave trade

HMS Protector's Guard of Honour and islanders in the Castle Gardens memorial area to the fight against slavery
20 October 2021
Crew of ice ship HMS Protector paid their respects to the thousands of sailors who helped put an end to the slave trade.

They joined leaders of St Helena in a service of remembrance and thanksgiving for the men of the West Africa Squadron – and the tens of thousands of slaves they liberated.

For more than half a century the tiny island – smaller than Edinburgh – was the hub of the fight against the evil trade by the Royal Navy squadron.

And for 30 years, the captains and crews of slave ships captured by the Royal Navy were brought to justice in a court established by the Admiralty, while freed slaves were allowed to settle in St Helena – or move on.

Some stayed, but many moved to the West Indies, Cape Town or Sierra Leone – founding the present-day capital Freetown.

But thousands of freed slaves never had the chance to enjoy their liberty due to the maltreatment at the hands of their captors; an estimated 8,000 died and most were buried in Rupert’s Valley to the east of Jamestown.

In all, around 150,000 Africans were liberated by the West Africa Squadron – crammed into 1,600 slave ships captured between 1808 and 1860.

The cost to the Royal Navy was heavy: one sailor died for every nine slaves freed – 17,000 men over the 52-year period – either in action or of disease.

It is a privilege for me to be able to remember my predecessors in the Navy and yours from St Helena, to celebrate the enduring relationship between the Navy and the Island

Commander Tom Boeckx

Among the losses was ten-gun sloop HMS Waterwitch which spent 21 years hunting down slave ships until one sank her in 1861.

The memorial to Waterwitch’s crew in Castle Gardens provided the setting for the service of remembrance attended by islanders and Protector’s ship’s company, including the island’s Lord Bishop, Dale Bowers, and Governor Philip Rushbrook.

Commander Tom Boeckx, HMS Protector’s Executive Officer, said the men and ships of the West Africa Squadron deserved honouring and remembering just as much as Nelson, HMS Victory and other more famous contemporaries who faced just as much danger “in pursuit of a better society and world”.

And he praised islanders for welcoming and tending to freed slaves landed on St Helena – at great personal risk given the high levels of disease.

“It is a privilege for me to be able to remember my predecessors in the Navy and yours from St Helena, to celebrate the enduring relationship between the Navy and the Island,” he told all present at the service.

Protector is patrolling the waters off St Helena as she updates charts used by fellow seafarers and supports environmental work to safeguard fishing stocks.

Once complete she’ll continue south ready for her first work period around Antarctica, her regular stomping ground during the austral summer.

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