Book Review: Africa Squadron: The U.S. Navy and the Slave Trade, 1842-1861


by Donald L. Canney

Washington: Potomac Books, 2006. Pp. xiv, 276. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $27.50. ISBN: 1-574-88606-1

 Although the U.S. declared the slave trade illegal in 1808, pro-slavery interests insured that attempts at enforcement were sporadic until the early 1840s, when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Britain led to a permanent U.S. Navy squadron dedicated to suppressing the slave trade.  From 1842 until the early months of the Civil War, the Navy seized over 50 ships and liberated several thousand people from slavery. This is the framework of the story told in Africa Squadron. The book does an excellent job of dealing with naval operations in hostile environments far from home, and gives the reader a good grasp of the nature of sea power in the period. 

But this book is more than just an interesting addition to naval history. 

Africa Squadron is also a valuable contribution to the exploration of the complexities of race, culture, economics, society, and politics in the ante bellum period and how these helped propel the nation into Civil War.   In these pages we encounter slave owning naval officers doing their duty, often with considerable effectiveness, venal prosecutors and juries letting capital criminals off the hook (no slaver tried in an American court received more than a slap on the wrist until after the start of the Civil War), and the intricate web of money, prejudice, and self-interest that hampered American ? and international ? efforts to suppress the slave trade.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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