Huzzah for the HMS Pickle!

One of the best things about the Regency Era (although it was done during the seeming recovery of King George III, rather during the decade of George IV’s regency which gives the time period its name) was the 1807 Act suppressing the slave trade. King George III, die-hard conservative Tory and intermittently insane though he may have been, agreed with the majority of the Tories and Whigs that the slave trade was a disgusting affront to God and Humanity and Decency and happily signed away slave trading. (King George III was much more moral, religious and intelligent than most people bother to remember.)

I wound up learning a fair amount about British efforts to stop slavery during my research for Mansfield Parsonage since my heroine, Mary Crawford, is an ardent abolitionist (a perfect foil for the slave-owning Bertram and Rushworth families).

That’s how I learned that another one of the best things about the Regency Era is that the British government made a commitment to ACTIVELY enforcing the suppression of the slave trade via the Royal Navy, even though its budget was stretched thin by the Napoleonic Wars and multiple domestic problems.


British suppression of the slave trade ticked off the recently-independent Americans, since the slaves were usually imported from Africa via the Caribbean Islands, and the big ol’ meanie heads in the tricorn hats kept stopping slave ships and freeing slaves on the way to American markets. (How very dare they!) By the time slavery was over in the USA, the British had captured over 500 slave ships and freed approximately 150,000 enslaved Africans.

The British public, while sometimes grumbling about the cost of maintaining the anti-slave squadron, were justifiably proud of the way their Royal Navy African Squadron crushed slavers. Soon, the “pursuit and capture of slave ships became celebrated naval engagements, widely reported back in peace-time Britain with its expanding print culture, and was often memorialised in souvenir engravings” to the public’s delight.

One of the most famous captures of an American-bound slave ship was by the HMS Pickle (my all-time favorite name for a ship, ever). On 5 June 1829 the Pickle, a 5 gun schooner just recently put to sea in 1827 under the command of J.B.B. MacHardy, caught sight of this ship off the coast of Cuba, not far from Puerto de Naranjo. The ship fled, further arousing the suspicions of Captain MacHardy, and the Pickle sped after it. It was nearing midnight before the Pickle caught up with the ship it was pursuing.

A ferocious battle ensued. In the wee hours of 6 June, the valiant crew of the Pickle succeeded in forcing a surrender after blowing their rival ship’s main masts to smithereens. The ship they captured was the heavily armed slaver the Voladora (also spelled Baladora):

“The Voladora, alias Mulata … under the command of Ignacio Domingo del Corral, began its voyage at Havana and set sail for Little Popo on 1 October 1828 loaded with aguardiente and money. On 29 April 1829, this ship sailed from Africa with 367 people on board and 32 individuals died during the middle passage.

The Voladora had 60 crew members, 10 of whom were killed in the fighting. The Pickle had only 30 crewmen, 4 of whom died as result of the action. The outnumbered crew of the Pickle towed the Voladora into Gibara, where they jury rigged some masts before sailing it (with considerable difficulty) to Cuba’s main port to turn it over to the Havana Slave Trade Commission. The courts of the Commission condemned this ship to be sold (earning a nice bounty for the Pickle’s crew) and emancipated the 330 Africans who had survived their initial enslavement and the voyage to the New World. In total, 223 men and 97 women escaped the brutal bonds of slavery thanks to the efforts of the HMS Pickle.

The capture of the Voladora (Boladora)  and rescue of 300 enslaved people caught the public’s imagination. Several artists commemorated it, both at the time of incident and in later decades. Two of those artists was John Moore of Ipswich and Edward Duncan, both of whom have paintings of the battle hanging in the Royal Museums Greenwich.

Dunkin slaver versus HMS Pickle

Edward Duncan’s painting was produced in 1831, while John Moore’s was an homage to it painted much later.

Pickle versus the slave ship

Moore’s painting shows the Voladora flying the American flag, because the slaves were bound for American plantations.

According to the Royal Museums Greenwich, the name ‘Voladora’ either means ‘flying fish’ or is the name of “a witch who could turn herself into a bird in the mythology of Chiloe (an island on the Chilean coast)”. Either way, the ship was bragging to could practically fly across the water, it was so fast at sea. Nonetheless the Pickle caught it, bagged it, and clipped its evil wings. A Pickle of the fleet was the fleetest of all, no?


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