Royal Navy sailors died while preventing the slave trade, but not tens of thousands
15th Oct 2020
Between 17,000 and 20,000 Royal Navy sailors died fighting illegal slave traders.
While it is true that sailors died as part of British efforts to combat illegal slave trading, it is unlikely to be this high a number.
This claim seems to have history; repeats of it date back to at least 2010. It seems to refer to the West Africa Squadron. The squadron, comprised of Royal Navy sailors stationed on the West African coast, was created in 1808 after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807, and tasked with prevent the illegal trading of enslaved people. Between 1808 and 1860, the squadron seized over 1,600 slave ships and emancipated 150,000 slaves.
So, did 20,000 members of the Royal Navy die while pursuing illegal slave ships?
It is true that, in some years, a large number of sailors succumbed to disease—in 1829, over 200 men were recorded to have died from diseases like malaria. Between 1825 and 1845, there were around 58.4 deaths from disease per 1,000 people each year in the West Africa Squadron. The squadron itself was fairly small during this period, only reaching an average of about 1,000 men per year in 1826, and then again after 1841. Total deaths for the period 1825 to 1845, from all causes, was reported to be around 1,400. The Royal Navy museum notes that there were 1,587 deaths from all causes between 1830 to 1865.
If you account for the overlap between the deaths in those two periods, it can be estimated that between 1825 and 1865, around 2,000 men from the West Africa Squadron died from all causes. While historians have noted that the men stationed in West Africa had a higher chance of death than those stationed elsewhere, this figure isn’t even close to 17,000 or 20,000.
Britain’s anti-slave trading pursuits were just as dangerous for the slaves being rescued—diaries and reports from the time describe enslaved people being in danger of being thrown from slave ships when captains saw the Royal Navy approaching.
Historian David Eltis, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor Emeritus of History at Emory University, told Full Fact that even if you accounted for other anti-slave trading campaigns by the Royal Navy, such as in the Indian Ocean, death figures for crew members would still be way off the initial claim.
This article is part of our work fact checking potentially false pictures, videos and stories on Facebook. You can read more about this—and find out how to report Facebook content—here. For the purposes of that scheme, we’ve rated this claim as partly false because while Royal Navy sailors died preventing illegal slave trading, deaths were not in the tens of thousands.