In 1985, whilst serving as a diplomat at the British Embassy in Luanda, Angola, I took some photographs of old British graves. It was nearly 30 years later that I learnt their significance. The men had all played a role in the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade and one of them was an unsung hero of the story. His name was Edmund Gabriel.

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Four graves photographed by the author in 1985. Left: Charles Francis Fynes Clinton. Middle left: Edmund Gabriel. Right middle: Sydney Metcalf Right: John William Brown. Click on image to enlarge it.

In March 1807 Britain abolished the slave trade during its war with Napoleonic France. Although Britain had the largest stake in the slave trade and had shipped some 50,000 slaves a year from Africa to the Caribbean it switched, with remarkable speed, from being the biggest beneficiary of the slave trade to its most implacable opponent.

Portugal had been invaded by the French in the same year and turned to Britain for help. British and Portuguese forces under Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) eventually expelled the French, and there was a feeling in London (not least from William Wilberforce himself) that Portugal should follow Britain’s example and ban the slave trade from its African colonies. Portugal was not enthusiastic but was obliged to sign treaties to reduce the trade and eventually in 1836 to abolish it altogether.

A treaty of 1815 that restricted the slave trade to south of the Equator had actually increased it in Portugal’s West African colony of Angola. Indeed the whole Angolan economy had become corrupted by the trade that not only embroiled Portuguese administrators and Brazilian merchants but also the African chiefs who provided the slaves from the interior where few foreigners dared to venture. According to one estimate (Henderson 99) the trade accounted for 88.1% of Angola’s economy. Angola relied particularly heavily on trading slaves to Brazil, which obtained its independence from Portugal in 1822. In fact Brazil was far more important to Angola than its colonial masters in Lisbon. Portuguese ships traded only 10% of Angolan slaves whereas Brazilian vessels accounted for the remaining 90%.

Slaves below deck Capture of a slaver, the Brigantine “Paulina” 30th April 1853

Left: Slaves below deck. Lt Francis Meynell. c.1846. Watercolour. Right: Capture of a slaver, the Brigantine “Paulina” 30th April 1853 by Captain Henry Need of HMS Linnet. Both images courtesy of the of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, which hold copyright. Click on image to enlarge it.

As early as 1808 Britain had established the West Africa Squadron (also known as the Preventative Squadron) to patrol the African coast from Cape Verde to Benguela in Angola. From 5 ships in 1819 the squadron grew to 16 in 1832 and 21 in 1844. Between 1808 and 1860 the Royal Navy captured 1600 slaving vessels and freed 150,000 slaves. Most of those liberated were released in Sierra Leone.

For the Royal Navy the patrols were intensely hot and frustrating work, with long periods of discomfort waiting at anchor in rolling seas, and the constant threat of disease. Crewmen were five times more likely to die on West African patrols than in home waters or the Mediterranean. However, little by little the British ships won the ascendency over the initially faster slavers, firstly by using captured vessels and later, from 1840, employing steam-powered ships.

Although Sierra Leone was the focal point for most of this activity, the Angolan trade was considerable. It has been estimated that Angola supplied 4 million slaves for the transatlantic trade; more than half went to Brazil but with significant numbers to Cuba and the United States. In spite of abolition by Portugal in 1836 the trade continued, so, in July 1842 Portugal and Britain signed an agreement to set up a prize court known as a Court of Mixed Commission in the Angolan capital of Luanda (at the time sometimes referred to as St Paul de Loanda). The purpose of the court would be to decide on the fate of slaving ships and commanders captured by the West Africa squadron.

St. Paul de Loanda — a plate from the Internet Archive of David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches In South Africa (1858).

In 1843 John Thomas was appointed as the first Commissioner (or Commissary Judge) in Luanda with Charles Francis Fynes Clinton as his deputy with the title of Arbitrator. Clinton did not last long, dying in June 1844 at the age of only 29. Following Clinton’s death Edmund Gabriel’s appointment to replace him was announced in January 1845.

St. Paul de Loanda, Quarters of the Livingstone Congo Expedition. Source: The Graphic (18 October 1873). Livingstone was at Luanda 20 years earlier in 1854; but 1873/4 was the period during which he became a national hero, 3 years after his death.

Thomas appears never to have taken up his position and was replaced by Sir George Jackson, a career diplomat who had served in Madrid, Berlin and Washington before, in 1828, taking up the post of Commissioner in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and then Rio de Janeiro. At first sight it may seem odd that such a senior diplomat with such an apparently distinguished career would accept a posting in a small African town of 12,000 inhabitants and with only one other member of staff. But judging by his salary, these anti-slavery jobs were remarkably well paid; as they would have to be because a few years on the pestilential west coast of Africa was akin to a death sentence. Jackson appears to have been pompous, venal, lazy and argumentative. However, as often happens with scoundrels, he was also lucky. He returned home to England safely in 1859 after 13 years in Angola to his generous pension of £700 pa.

So what do we know about Edmund Gabriel? He was born in 1821. According to his obituary he was “the son of a naval officer, entered his father's profession at an early age, and served for seven years in the African squadron, twice filling the position of Secretary to the Commander-in-Chief on the station. In this capacity he acquired a perfect knowledge of the slave-trade in all its bearings. Early in 1845, his distinguished talents and zeal brought him under the notice of the late Earl of Aberdeen, then Foreign Minister, who selected him to fill the important post of Arbitrator and Acting Judge at Loanda.”

Gabriel appears to have spent much of his time deputising for an absent Jackson. In that capacity he received the explorer David Livingstone who arrived in Luanda on foot from central Africa in June 1854. Livingstone later wrote that

I was labouring under great depression of spirits, as I understood that, in a population of twelve thousand souls, there was but one genuine English gentleman. I naturally felt anxious to know whether he were possessed of good-nature, or was one of those crusty mortals one would rather not meet at all. This gentleman, Mr. Gabriel, our commissioner for the suppression of the slave-trade, had kindly forwarded an invitation to meet me [and] when we entered his porch, I was delighted to see a number of flowers cultivated carefully, and inferred from this circumstance that he was, what I soon discovered him to be, a real whole-hearted Englishman. Seeing me ill, he benevolently offered me his bed. Never shall I forget the luxurious pleasure I enjoyed in feeling myself again on a good English couch, after six months' sleeping on the ground. I was soon asleep; and Mr. Gabriel, coming in almost immediately, rejoiced at the soundness of my repose. In the hope that a short enjoyment of Mr. Gabriel's generous hospitality would restore me to my wonted vigour, I continued under his roof; but my complaint having been caused by long exposure to malarious influences, I became much more reduced than ever, even while enjoying rest.

Gabriel’s hospitality towards Livingstone and his escort of Makololo warriors was offered in the British Consulate building high above Luanda close to the Fort of Sao Miguel. This building became the British Embassy when Portugal was obliged to grant Angola its independence in 1975. Outside the Ambassador’s Residence a plaque still marks Livingstone’s visit and a large tree in the garden is still known as Livingstone’s tree.

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Left: Livingstone's tree in the garden of the British Embassy, Luanda.. Right: The building south of Luanda where the slaves were baptised prior to the Atlantic crossing.. Both photographs (1985) by the author. Click on image to enlarge it.

Livingstone clearly took note of Gabriel’s views on the slave trade. His diary mentions.

In 1839, my friend Mr. Gabriel saw 37 slave-ships lying in [Luanda] harbour, waiting for their cargoes, under the protection of the guns of the forts. At that time slavers had to wait many months at a time for a human freight, and a certain sum per head was paid to the government for all that were exported. The duties derived from the exportation of slaves far exceeded those from other commerce, and, by agreeing to the suppression of this profitable traffic, the government actually sacrificed the chief part of the export revenue. Since that period, however, the revenue from lawful commerce has very much exceeded that on slaves. The intentions of the home Portuguese government, however good, cannot be fully carried out under the present system. The pay of the officers is so very small that they are nearly all obliged to engage in trade; and, owing to the lucrative nature of the slave-trade, the temptation to engage in it is so powerful.

Gabriel was unlucky to be a victim (to the considerable tune of £622) of a fraud perpetrated against Jackson by two members of the Foreign Office’s Slave Trade Department. This may have been the reason that he stayed on in Luanda for so long; in an attempt to recoup his losses. In 1859 Gabriel was finally promoted to the post of Commissioner. A considerable amount of his correspondence can be found online, but it is worth reproducing an extract from one of his letters to provide an example of his work in Luanda.

“Her Majesty’s Commissioners to Earl Russell.

My Lord, Loanda, November 21, 1861.

WE have the honour to acquaint your Lordship with the arrival here, on the 30th ultimo, of the American barque “J. J. Cobb”, which has been notoriously employed in the Traffic in Slaves between this coast and Cuba during the last two years.

This vessel was boarded by Her Majesty's ship "Arrogant" on the 18th of September last to the north of the Congo, but having an American register, which was found on examination to be apparently regular, she was allowed to proceed on her voyage.......

We take the liberty of submitting this case as one which merits the serious attention of Her Majesty's Government, because, although the instances of American vessels fitted for the Slave Trade arriving in the ports of this province have not hitherto been numerous, it is much to be apprehended that they will increase in frequency when it shall become generally known amongst the slave-dealers that their vessels may enter and remain in the harbour of Loanda with impunity, and sail from hence equipped in every circumstance for the Slave Trade


On Jackson’s departure in 1859 Gabriel had been joined in Luanda, as his deputy, by a man who rivalled Jackson for both his colourful career and for his rascality. Sir Henry Vere Huntley had served for many years in the Royal Navy and had been Lieutenant Governor in Gambia before becoming Governor of Prince Edward Island in Canada (1841-47) where he had got into a long drawn-out argument with the Speaker of the Assembly. His biography describes him “as an impetuous man prone to direct and dramatic actions” (Robertson). He, like Jackson, had accepted the job in Luanda for financial reasons. He was 64 years old and would, in normal circumstances, have been ready for retirement. But on leaving Prince Edward Island he was declared insolvent and even spent a short time in prison before, in 1850, leading a group of prospectors to the gold mines of California. One can assume that he did not strike gold or he would not have accepted the discomfort and danger of Angola. After Angola he would be posted to Santos in Brazil where he died in 1864, aged 69.

The “HMS Arrogant” off Sierra Leone. Copyright Bonhams 1793 Ltd. With the kind permission of the owner. Click on image to enlarge it.

Another grave to catch my attention in 1985 was that of Lieutenant Sydney Metcalfe of HMS Arrogant, the ship which apprehended the J. J. Cobb. He had passed his seamanship exams on 26th June 1855. In 1857 he was posted to Arrogant’s sister ship HMS Dauntless then transferred to Arrogant. HMS Arrogant was commanded by Commodore William Edmonstone, Commander in Chief of the West Africa Squadron. She was a steam driven, wooden frigate with 46 guns whilst also having a full set of sailing masts. She was launched in 1848. Her first captain was Robert Fitzroy who had been Charles Darwin’s captain on the Beagle voyage to South America. In November 1859 she left Portsmouth for West African duties and boarded a Mexican slaver which she sent to Sierra Leone for adjudication. By the end of 1860 the ship had suffered 637 cases of sickness during the year, in addition, 2 officers and 6 ratings died. One of the officers was the unfortunate Metcalfe.

Quite unconnected to Fitzroy and the Beagle, Gabriel was in correspondence with Darwin himself. In November 1856 we learn from Darwin that “I hear some poultry skins are on their voyage from Natal for me; and that a large collection is making for me by Mr Gabriel, Her. Majesty’s Commissioner on the W. & S coast of Africa” and in 1868 (long after Gabriel’s death) he comments that “Mr Gabriel of Loanda told me that certain fowls there had black bones”. In fact Gabriel was clearly a keen zoologist. He presented 4 items to the Zoological Society of London; a male spotted hyena, an African civet cat, and a Marabou stork (all in August 1860), and a Black crested Eagle (September 1860). Sending such living creatures, presumably courtesy of Preventative Squadron ships can have been no easy matter.

In 1861 Gabriel was joined by a third member of staff, John William Brown, in the role of clerk with the rank of Vice Consul, but he too died soon, in June 1861 aged 36. He was followed by his boss, Edmund Gabriel himself. According to his obituary,

Mr. Gabriel eventually fell a victim to the deadly influences of the climate, operating on a constitution impaired by the hard work of seventeen years. He died on board HMS Torch, having gone afloat in the hope of recovering his health. After his death the vessel returned to Loanda, where his remains received the honours of a public funeral; the Viceroy, and other foreign authorities, with the inhabitants of the place, joining with his own countrymen in this mark of regard, the universal sentiment being one of deep sorrow for his early death.

One cannot avoid the thought that Gabriel had a pretty thankless life. He appears never to have married. In Jackson and Huntley he can hardly have enjoyed much comradeship. And the Portuguese authorities in Luanda merely tolerated the British presence without ever fully committing to the supposedly joint effort. Gabriel died in December 1862. His grave shown in my photograph ,which originally stood overlooking Luanda bay on the heights at Miramar, was later moved in the mid 1980s (to make way for the future United States Embassy) to the huge cemetery on Estrada de Catete. He might have comforted himself that the slave trade had so nearly been eradicated by 1862. But the Atlantic slave trade did not end until the whole of the United States banned slavery in 1865, Cuba in 1886, with Brazil finally following suit in 1888.

Further reading

Davidson, Basil In the eye of the storm, Angola’s people. London; Longman, 1972.

Gribbin, John and Mary. Fitzroy. London: Review, 2003.

Hamilton, Keith and Salmon, Patrick. Slavery, diplomacy and empire. Sussex Academic Press, 2009.

Henderson, Lawrence. Angola. Five centuries of conflict. Cornell, 1979.

Huntley, Henry Vere. Seven years on the slave coast of west Africa. London, 1850.

Huxley, Elspeth. Livingstone and his African journeys. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.

Jeal, Tim. Livingstone. London: Heinemann, 1973.

Correspondence with the British Commissioners, Sierra Leone, The Havana, Rio de Janeiro and Surinam relating to the slave trade. London: HMSO, 1834-1862.

Newitt, Malyn. Portugal in Africa. London: C. Hurst and Co, 1981.

Rees, Sian. Sweet water and bitter. The ships that stopped the slave trade. London; Chatto and Windus, 2009.

Robertson, Ian Ross. Sir Henry Vere Huntley. University of Toronto, 1976.

Wheeler, Douglas and Pelissier, Rene Angola. London: Pall Mall Press, 1971.

Wilson, Ben. Empire of the deep. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2013.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historians. History Note 17. Slavery in Diplomacy. The Foreign Office and the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade. London, 2007.

Chasing freedom. Information Sheet National Maritime Museum, 2008.

Darwin correspondence project. Cambridge University, 2014.

List of the vertebrated animals living in the gardens of the Zoological Society of London. London; Longman’s, 1862.

Last modified 13 December 2014.