Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade. By Siân Rees. (Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 340. $27.95.)
Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
© 2013 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 75, Issue 1, pages 209–210, Spring 2013
How to Cite
Ford, C. H. (2013), Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade. By Siân Rees. (Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 340. $27.95.). Historian, 75: 209–210. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12004_68
- Issue published online: 13 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
Scholars may find Britain's suppression of the African slave trade a tired topic; after all, the famous W. E. B. Du Bois established the broad outlines of that story in the ninth chapter of his dissertation published in 1896. Nevertheless, the gritty details of serving in “the Preventable Squadron” and the nuances of diplomacy and intrigue needed to keep its implementation going have never been fully appreciated until now with the publication of Siân Rees's Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade. This work has, for the most part, the agreeable prose of old-fashioned narrative history, but it also features the up-to-date inclusion and scope of the latest academic research. Though covering Africans and Europeans alike, its greatest sympathies, however, are reserved for the common sailors and soldiers commanded to carry out this fifty-year struggle without adequate food and supplies.
The reader follows with both delight and horror the journeys of HMS Bann and Hope, among scores of other vessels tracking down slavers and their enablers. Many of these men gave their lives, in part to keep Africans free, even if, ironically, they viewed the objects of their rescue mission with conventional contempt. The killing of HMS Wasp's crew by Brazilian slavers in 1845 was an especially bloody reminder of the risks sailors faced, but it was usually tropical disease that was the bluejackets' most formidable foe. Most compelling for many of the everyday enforcers was the prospect of adventure, booty, and prize money, but the frequent epidemics of malaria and yellow fever quickly frustrated both personal and national ambitions. Indeed, some of the most gripping passages in the book deal with the sudden and deadly toll that yellow fever dealt Europeans along the Guinea coast.
Though the author does dwell upon the obvious pitfalls that bedeviled the Preventative Squadron, she does not blame Africans for their own fates or spare the reader from the continuing horrors of the slave trade that lingered long after the Squadron had left the seas. In Rees's account, though, the enforcers never appear as stock villains in an anti-imperialistic morality play, and Africans never seem to be passive victims of their perfidy. Indigenous kings negotiated with slavers and the Squadron, hoping for the best deal at the right price. Thus, as with most recent scholarship and commemoration on the various aspects of abolition and emancipation, all sides of all sides are portrayed with their humanity, if not their reputations, intact.
Liberal quoting from primary sources shows Rees's impressive erudition, but it does weigh down the flow of the story at key points. Having mentioned that minor quibble, the illustrations of the book are well chosen, and its select bibliography provides a wonderful launching pad for follow-up studies. Accordingly, this work should be acquired by both research and public libraries, and some of its chapters should be assigned in upper-level undergraduate courses on the end of slavery in the Atlantic basin.