The Forgotten History of a British Ship that Fought a Notorious Slaver– and Won


B y the time Henry Downes took command of the Black Joke, the ship had actually just been on the waters under that name for simply a year. A previous servant ship itself, the Black Joke was caught in 1827 by the British Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, its unbelievable speed repurposed for ferreting out and catching servant traders as they tried to make their method to the Americas.

For 5 months, Downes, had actually been on look for simply one ship– the infamous slaver El Almirante, deemed to be withdraw the coast of Western Africa and understood to have currently unlawfully carried countless the shackled to the Americas in its sordid profession. In mid-January 1829, the Black Joke, while patrolling near Lagos, discovered what seemed a number of Brazilian slavers embarking Africans. Standing off the coast so as not to alarm them, report reached Downes that a person ship was an elegant, familiar Spanish brig almost all set to set sail– after the waiting and ineffective travelling, El Almirante had, all unanticipated, made its look.

On the water, reports took a trip both methods; simply as Downes had actually heard that this was the brig he looked for, El Almirante had, in turn, been alerted of the look of Black Joke. Damaso Forgannes, the just recently promoted captain of El Almirante, might not have actually been less worried about the possibility of capture. Reputed to have actually chuckled upon hearing the news, Forgannes scoffed openly at the ridiculous idea of the Black Joke catching his vessel, continuing to freely acquire enslaved individuals. The response wasn’t completely unreasonable– El Almirante was an extraordinarily costly ship, even for a slaver, purpose-built and geared up with every advance in style its (unquestionably American) shipwrights might develop. If making a break for open water was not a choice, the slaver crewed up of 80 males and brought 14 effective weapons.

There was no concern that the two-gunned Black Joke, with a team of 47 plus a short-term supplement of 8 males from another Squadron ship, was extremely outpowered in practically every step. Downes, as undeterred as his opposite number on the slaver, set the Black Joke simply out of sight of the harbor, occasionally sending out boats to look at the development of the Spanish brig and make certain it continued to pack human freight, because the existence of the shackled would be the important proof versus El Almirante that may eventually condemn it.

Continuing to collect details quickly showed rewarding, specifically when a team member reported back to the Black Joke with the slaver’s location. Having actually therefore found El Almirante’s next port, Downes invested every idle hour determining the very best method to get to the Antilles, relocating to a position that ideally prepared for the appropriate course. Black Joke was as prepared as it might be. Now, really, all they might do was wait. On Jan. 31, an elegant Spanish brig appeared with very first light. Primed as the team aboard the Black Joke should have been, they right away crowded on all sail and, capturing a little breeze, provided chase … however the hold-ups weren’t over. In the essential minute, after 5 months of browsing and 2 weeks of waiting, the wind passed away. Becalmed, yet undeterred, the team set to rowing. 9 hours and 30 grueling miles later on, they captured the slaver at sundown, who satisfied the Black Joke’s arrival by right away firing on it.

Read more: How the Origins of Epidemiology Are Linked to the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Everything about capturing the Spanish brig had actually been hard, and Forgannes had no objective of bucking that pattern. Throughout the night, El Almirante consistently tried to close on its potential captor, firing broadside after broadside. The tender’s bulwarks were not geared up to secure its team from the servant trader’s heavy weaponry, so still primarily becalmed, Downes purchased the tired team back to oars. For the remainder of the night, far from taking the break they ‘d highly made, the Black Joke averted the slaver by ways of paddling instead of adding sails, constantly simply out of reach of El Almirante’s weapons. The relocation was smart, reliable and entirely tiring. By strike Feb. 1, both ships were much as they had actually been the eve, still becalmed less than a mile and a half from each other, and with the arrival of the sun, the battling briefly stopped. Plainly everybody was gotten ready for the coming fight, however for the period of the hot, still early morning, both teams might do little else however rest.

Just previous twelve noon, the breeze returned. Instead of run, Forgannes approached the Black Joke, still particular of success. Downes, modifying his position, wasn’t daunted. As quickly as the Black Joke was within series of grapeshot to the aft of the slaver, Forgannes pursued another broadside. Mortal danger regardless of, the team of the Black Joke had actually been awaiting this minute for months, and they reacted with 3 cheers and 2 double-shotted cannons intended straight at the servant trader’s deck. For 45 minutes the Black Joke held, however when it concerned weapons, absolutely nothing had actually altered– El Almirante had a lot of them. Instead of continue when they were so plainly outmatched, and with the slaver once again closing in, Downes changed techniques totally and provided the order to bring the Black Joke together with and prepare to board. Unexpectedly, in what need to have been an aggravatingly familiar turn of occasions, the wind passed away. Once again.

This shift in conditions permitted Forgannes to get off a shot that might well have actually been fatal for everybody aboard the Black Joke had it been much better intended. A light wind 15 minutes later on permitted El Almirante, buoyed by the near miss out on and a lot more confident in success, to when again take the offensive and relocation in for another attack. The breeze wasn’t much, however it sufficed to provide the more maneuverable ship the benefit, and Downes understood precisely which ship that was. Because minute, Downes asked every bit of ability from his team and whatever of Black Joke– and both provided.

The Black Joke effectively obtained El Almirante’s leeward quarter, and from there it offered the slaver all it might deal with and after that some. For 20 minutes, without time out or reprieve, the tender raked the quarter and stern of the slaver, and the Black Joke did not miss out on– seeing the damage consequently, the Squadron’s Commodore stated that he had “never ever in his life saw a more stunning specimen of excellent gunnery.” The duplicated attack to simply one area of the servant trader produced a severe threat of structural damage that, if continued, may well have actually rendered the ship completely unseaworthy. Recognizing this, El Almirante at last struck its colors and gave up.

Get your history repair in one location: register for the weekly TIME History newsletter

When the Black Joke’s team lastly boarded, they found that, unfortunately, 11 enslaved individuals had actually been eliminated in the extended action. Amongst the slaver’s team, 15 were eliminated, consisting of Forgannes, and every officer however the 3rd mate and 13 injured. Black Joke had actually fared much better, however had actually 6 injured, 2 of whom would ultimately catch their injuries. Both ships’ rigging had actually taken substantial damage, though El Almirante had the worst of it. The Black Joke had at least one Black, non-Kru seafarer, a totally free African called Joseph Francis, who had actually been identified to “strike an individual blow” versus the notorious slaver. Throughout the fight, he ‘d got 12 feet of chain into among the ship’s weapons as it was being packed; when it was fired, “the starboard primary shrouds of the slaver were cut off [. . .] as if by the single blow of an axe.”

Even with the damage, El Almirante was still an important reward, however there was more. Among the Black Joke’s officers, upon browsing the slaver, found a big cache of gold doubloons; the capture eventually cost the slaver’s owners approximately “35,000 dollars.” Of probably more significance– a minimum of to the Squadron– was the extra discovery of puzzling letters in cipher. Less than a week later on, Sybille, the Squadron’s flagship, would record the slaver Uniao, which, throughout the chase, had actually been seen tossing documents. When Sybille recuperated the letters, they, in combination with those discovered on El Almirante, revealed the nature and area of secret servant trade paths to Havana, then among the world’s busiest toiling ports. They likewise cautioned other slavers that the West Africa Squadron had actually ended up being an efficient force, and just quickly, well-armed ships might have an opportunity of escape. Reports would continue to spread out– the Black Joke was more than simply another WAS ship to prevent. It was the ship to prevent.

The Black Joke would cruise for 3 more years prior to being burned in1832 When a house to abhorrent suffering, and regardless of a period made complex by suspicious diplomacy, pirates, revolt, pandemic, mystical disappearances, and catastrophes both natural and manufactured, the Black Joke had actually ended up being the scourge of enslavers and the sign of a squadron, evidence that the suppression of the servant trade wasn’t a difficult objective.

This is not, nevertheless, yet another story in which Britain mainly conserves the day. The history of the Black Joke (and definitely that of the Royal Navy) withstands such simplified evaluation. Far from a story of straight-out White Saviorism, this complicated history has couple of straightforward heroes, even when writ as little as a single ship in a much-larger landscape. The servant trade, it’s laggardly, stutter-step death– the options made then have actually filtered into every element of our modern-day world, and the Black Joke’s cruise is still in the food we consume and clothing we use, in our borders and economies, in how historic traditions of racialized violence, manifest destiny and exploitation are viewed and kept in mind. The effects of the transatlantic servant trade surround us, still, and no matter which side of the Atlantic we reside on, we can feel the reverberations of centuries of industrialized human trafficking and the unstable years including the battle to stop it. Leaving the servant trade was challenging; leaving its tradition has actually shown difficult.

A.E. Rooks is a two-time Jeopardy! champ with finished degrees in theatre, law, and library and details science, and upcoming degrees in education and human sexuality. Her brand-new book THE BLACK JOKE: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade will be launched from Scribner on Jan. 18.

Contact us at