The British Parliament passed the Act to Abolish the Slave Trade in March 1807, and within five months royal assent was given to a bill transferring the indebted Sierra Leone colony, which was owned by a corporation, to British Crown control on New Years Day 1808. Soon after, Freetown became the base for a Vice-Admiralty Court for the trial and adjudication of any captures of slaves offered as prizes. The Africans on board were to be enlisted, apprenticed to members of the earlier settler population, or disposed of according to the true meaning of the Abolition Act. Between 1808 and 1819, the Vice Admiralty Court was involved in several hundred cases involving over 15,000 people, who were removed from slave ships, seized from the colony and rescued following attacks on coastal barracoons. Many of the documents to be displayed herein were digitized from the archives at Fourah Bay College as a result of the British Librarys Endangered Archives Programme.
In Freetown, captured slave ships were first adjudicated by a British Vice Admiralty Court. After the 1815 Treaty of Paris formally ended the Napoleonic Wars, regular sittings of the Vice-Admiralty Court were suspended. The court, which had operated unilaterally and with few regulations, was replaced by bilateral Courts of Mixed Commission. These international courts, operational from 1819 onward, were the result of a series of treaties between Britain and Portugal (28 July 1817), Spain (23 September 1817), and the Netherlands (4 May 1818) and later Brazil (23 November 1826). There were four Mixed Commissions operating in Sierra Leone: the Anglo-Spanish, the Anglo-Portuguese, the Anglo-Dutch, and after 1828, the Anglo-Brazilian. In these international courts, British judges shared the bench with representatives of these four foreign governments, and prize money was divided between British officers and foreign judges. These tribunals held no jurisdiction over the punishment of the owners, masters, or crew of condemned slave ships. After 1819, these courts were responsible for adjudicating over 500 cases involving the emancipation of over 68,000 people. The courts in Freetown officially closed in 1871. Their records derive mostly from the British Foreign Office and Church Missionary Society.
After the signing of the Anglo-Spanish Anti-Slave Trade Treaty in 1817, the Havana Slave Trade Commission opened two years later. However, it would take another five years before the court would condemn its first ship. Between 1824 and 1865, this court of mixed commission tried over 100 cases mostly involving slave ships from Africa bound for Cuba. This court emancipated over 35,000 individuals, who came to be known as emancipados in the Spanish colony. In the judicial process, court officials registered 10,391 individuals involved in 44 cases, but only between 1824 and 1841. All of the trials took place in Havana, where 40 registers were compiled, while one register was made in Nassau in the Bahamas, and another in Port Antonio, Jamaica. Due to a shift in international policy after 1833, hundreds of Liberated Africans were resettled from Cuba to the British Caribbean colonies of Trinidad, the Bahamas, British Honduras, Grenada, and Jamaica. In some cases, court officials made a second set of registers documented this inter-Caribbean migration. Unfortunately, the practice of registering individuals discontinued after 1841, even though the court continued to operate into the 1860s. Primary sources mostly involve records from the British Foreign and Colonial Offices, Spains Ministerio de Ultramar, consular correspondence, baptism records, among others.
In June 1840, a Vice Admiralty Court was constituted in Jamestown, the capital town of the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Between 1840 and 1868 the Royal Navy brought 439 cases for adjudication, most of which were seized on the basis of having been equipped for the trade. Of the total, 258 were dispatched to Jamestown, while 143 were wrecked, run ashore or deliberately destroyed by the Navy at the point of capture; and the fate of a further 38 vessels is not specified in the surviving records. Of the total number of cases that went to the island, 87 vessels contained approximately 27,000 enslaved Africans, but upwards of 1,700 individuals perished before arrival, and another 800 people died between landing and adjudication. The Vice Admiralty Court liberated 24,221 women, men, and children. In addition, another 900 people were brought to the island by the British royal navy after being liberated from coastal barracoons in 1842. Since no slave ships were involved in these additional cases, the delivery of these people to the island and their subsequent liberation do not feature in court records. After arrival, the Liberated Africans were taken into two reception depots, but only a few hundred people settled on the island. The majority, however, were removed from the island and transported to Cape Colony in South Africa, as well as various British Caribbean colonies. Due to archaeological excavations of Liberated African graveyards in Rupert Valley, St. Helena provides unique insight into the world of the Atlantic slave trade and abolition efforts.