Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sîân Rees - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Found At Sea

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


Chatto & Windus 340pp £20

For over sixty years during the nineteenth century, following Britain's 1807 abolition of the African slave trade, the Royal Navy's Preventative Squadron attempted to stop the traffic of stupendously profitable human cargoes to the New World. While those ships did not stop the trade, as the subtitle of Siân Rees's detailed and sometimes stirring study states they did, it is nonetheless a story of maritime derring-do, of peril, idealism, courage, and cruelty. Rees rightly contends that the Squadron's sailors were ‘in the most unpromising of circumstances; inflexibly xenophobic, unthinkingly racist yet dying in their thousands to save individuals with whom they had nothing in common but humanity’.

The extent of the slave trade cannot be exaggerated. As vividly expressed in William St Clair's The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade (which I reviewed in LR, August 2006), not cited in Rees's generally comprehensive book, ‘every person in the Europeanised world

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