Shipwrecks of Tragedy: the Story of HMS Nimble and the Slave Runner, El Guerrero

As the illicit slave trade continued through the 1820Â’s, British and U.S. navies fought and captured slave runner vessels. As a result thousands of West Africans were freed from a life of servitude and returned to Africa. However, many died on the journey as a result of disease or drowning.

The British government passed the Abolition of Slave Trade act in 1807, warning that any British nationals engaged in the slavery trade would be fined 100 pounds per slave. America passed its laws to prohibit slavery in 1808 and by 1820 made participating in the slave trade equal to an act of piracy, punishable by death.

By 1820 Spain had also prohibited slavery, but the fact that the Africa-to-America slave trade was so lucrative made it difficult to control. Despite efforts, and some success, by the Royal and U.S. Navies to intercept slave runners on the Africa-to-America and Caribbean route, the slave trade saw a resurgence in the late 1820’s.

In 1827 officials in Havana contacted the British government who alerted the British Admiralty that no less than four, heavily armed, Spanish registered vessels, that were known slave runners, had left the port of La Havana, Cuba bound for the west coast of Africa. The ships were two large brigantine’s known as El Guerrero and El Gallo. They were accompanied by the schooners La Indagadora and Lambery.

The clipper HMS Black Joke firing on the slave runner El Almirante in 1827. By marine artist Nicholas Matthews Condy. 

Five months later the schooner HMS Nimble was patrolling for slave runners in the Straits of Florida when it sighted an unidentified brig. The brig was El Guerrero; the slave runner had returned from West Africa with 561 slaves in her hold. When the Guerrero sighted the Nimble it tried to escape but the faster schooner caught up with the slave runner. The Guerrero opened fire with cannon and musket. HMS Nimble returned fire. As night fell the chase continued as the Guerrero’s crew tried to evade capture by the Royal Navy. In the chaos the brig ran aground on a reef off Key Largo, and in its eagerness to apprehend the slave ship, HMS Nimble also ran aground on the reef, destroying its rudder and damaging its keel.

As the hull seams of El Guerrero parted, the brigs hull began to flood. The terrified screams of the trapped West Africans, who were shackled together, echoed through the sound of breaking surf and was clearly audible to the Nimble’s commander Lt. Edward Holland and his crew.

Forty one Africans drowned that night. Those who died are buried in unmarked graves, along with the bodies of other slaves from captured slave runners, at Higgs Beach in Key West, where there is an African cemetery. An estimated 295 African slaves are buried at Key West, many of which died of disease. 1,432 West Africans were given assistance then returned to Africa and the territory of Liberia which was obtained by America through negotiation and treaty’s.

Unable to board the Guerrero, HMS Nimble dropped anchor and waited until first light to access the situation. The following day three wrecking vessels came to the assistance of the stranded ships. Most of the surviving slaves and Spanish slavers were transferred to the wrecking vessel’s Thorn and Florida, which sailed for Key West. However, the Florida never arrived in Key West but headed for Havana. This may be because the Spanish prisoners, who out numbered the crew, commandeered the ship. Or it is more likely that the captain and crew of the Florida were bribed. The rest of the slaves and slavers were taken aboard HMS Nimble. The wreckers salvaged what was left of the Guerrero and used its rudder to repair HMS Nimble. The vessels then headed to Key West.

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