After a long and bitter parliamentary campaign led, principally, by the ardent philanthropist William Wilberforce, who had first espoused the abolitionist cause in 1787, both Houses of Parliament finally passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on 16th March 1807. The following year saw the formation of the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron which was tasked to stop and search ships at sea suspected of transporting slaves, thereby beginning almost a century of highly effective policing operations which saw many spirited encounters and the birth of a plethora of legends. In addition to engaging slave ships at sea, the Royal Navy also took the fight 'to the enemy' and many a naval commander was prepared to sail his ship up the uncharted rivers and secluded creeks of the West African coast in search of the barracoons where the slaves were penned awaiting shipment. For most of its long crusade against the evils of slavery however, the Royal Navy acted alone and largely unrecognised. In addition to the African chiefs and Arab traders who profited from the slave trade on the African continent, there was also fierce opposition from the southern states of America and those European countries in whose empires slavery remained widespread until later in the nineteenth century. During this era of relative international peace, the Royal Navy - backed in full by the Admiralty and successive British governments - expended huge resources on its anti-slavery patrols and, well before 1900, was able to congratulate itself on the virtual eradication of this appalling scourge against humanity.
One especially colourful incident in the long campaign against the slave trade was Commander John Adams' celebrated capture of the notorious piratical slaver Gabriel in 1841 during the two-year commission of H.M.S. Acorn in which this gallant little brig captured no less than 3,300 tons of slave shipping. On 6th July that year, Acorn sighted the Gabriel, an Iberian pirate vessel, attempting to overtake (and perhaps engage?) the British emigrant barque India on passage to Australia; a contemporary report in the Journal de Havre takes up the story:
"The English brig Acorn having, in lat. 5.N perceived at great distance a vessel pillaging another, made chase, and instantly the Gabriel hoisted all her sail, and endeavoured to escape. At three in the afternoon the Acorn fired, and the Gabriel returned the fire, at the same time hoisting Portuguese colours. The chase continued for 12 hours, during the whole of which time firing was kept up by both vessels, but eventually the Gabriel was dismasted, and captured. She was sent to St. Helena, but her crew, consisting of fifty-eight men, Spaniards and others, were put on board an English vessel at Rio. The captain jumped overboard during the chase, with all his papers. The merchandise found on board the Gabriel was valued at 8,000 pounds. The Acorn had not time to ascertain to what country the vessel which was being pillaged by the Gabriel belonged, but she carried English colours."
This superbly atmospheric painting by Montague Dawson took its inspiration from a work by Nicholas Matthew Condy held in the National Collection at Greenwich, for which see Concise Catalogue of the Oil Paintings in the National Maritime Museum, published 1988, p. 131, no. BHC0628.