Patrolling the seas on the HMS Cygnet

The slave trade – coast of West Africa   26th January 1849

HMS Cygnet was a small ship by any standards, being only 90 feet long with a maximum breadth of 30 feet, but she was fast and that was what was needed on the anti-slavery patrols of the West Africa station. She was packed with a crew of seventy men, including a file of eight Royal Marines and a sergeant and corporal. The ship was armed with six 32 pounder cannons: more than enough for any slave ships if they could be overhauled. The question was whether fast sloops like the Cygnet could catch the slave clippers.

The Cygnet had left England on 6 November 1847 bound for Freetown in the colony of Sierra Leone.; there to join the West Africa squadron commanded by Rear Admiral

Hotham.  This was no big ship fleet but one of small, fast craft who could enforce the anti-slavery blockade of the coast operated by the Royal Navy in compliance with the abolition of slavery in British territories. Slaves in large numbers were still being shipped however to Brazil and Cuba in particular -- from there some found their way to the cotton plantations of the southern states of USA. In 1848, it was estimated in official British returns that 60,000 slaves were shipped. Of these the Navy had returned 5.550 to Africa and seized 91 ships either carrying slaves or slave holding equipment. These ships were sent to auctions in Britain, and the crew received shares of prize money if the ships sold. A man could do well if he had a daring Captain and a fast ship. So mused Private 1st Class John Adamson RM as he watched the Master check the midshipmen’s dead reckoning before he wrote up the log. Maybe enough to marry Jeanie Bell with whom he had an “understanding”. 

It was 7am when the lookout spotted a sail on the starboard bow, sailing westwards. The Cygnet immediately put on all sail and moved to intercept.  However, there was very little wind, and the ocean was a flat calm. At 9am the pinnace and gig were lowered with the Royal Marines aboard, and the smaller boats rapidly gained on the suspicious sail. Mr Morgan, First Lieutenant was in charge, and John felt confident in the little Welshmen.  By 4pm the sail had turned into a Brig, called the Harriet, and following it downwind, John could smell the unmistakeable reek of slaves. It was however carrying the colours of the United States of America. Boarding an American ship could provoke a diplomatic incident. Care would be required. HMS Cygnet followed at a distance of ten miles, but what would Mr Morgan do?

Morgan glanced back into the middle of the pinnace “Riseborough – you have the loudest hail aboard. Kindly invite the captain to hove to in the name of Her Majesty.”

Adamson’s friend and fellow marine James Riseborough, formerly a shepherd from Tunstead in Norfolk advanced to the prow and bellowed the command. A figure at the wheel of the brig shouted back “We are Americans and intend to sail on.”  

Morgan said to no-one in particular “If that is an American accent then I am a Frog”.

This time, having got closer he shouted himself “When we board, and we will, we will hang the Master if you do not pull to immediately………..”

More discussion on the quarter deck of the Brig, and then slowly and reluctantly she turned and hove to on the calm sea.

“Right gentlemen – Marines on board if you please.”

After a dizzy scramble up the side, John Adamson and his comrades in their red jackets and black hats pointed muskets at some of the scruffiest seamen he had ever seen. From deep below the decks came a collective sigh and the sound of rattling chains.

Mr Morgan advanced to the Master of the Brig. “Papers and quickly”.

There was a long silence and then in broken English the Master said that there were no papers for the Harriet that he could show, and that the crew were like himself Brazilian. He continued to insist however that the Harriet was American ship and that the eight hundred slaves aboard could not be seized.  Morgan disabused him of this defence however, and he was transferred to the Cygnet when she caught up at 8pm

In the meanwhile, the Royal Marines had busied themselves by getting the crew to unchain and then feed the slaves aboard. In small parties they were taken up to the main deck for exercise and some sanitation.

One of the Royal Marines at least had a warm glow of satisfaction “Now to return these poor souls to Africa. And there must be at least another £10 for my wedding fund out of the Prize Money” he said to James Riseborough “Not a bad day’s work”. 


  1. At 8pm on January 26th, 1849, the log of HMS Cygnet records: “boats returned having detained a Brig under American colours called the                                                                                                         Harriet with 801 slaves on board. Took possession of ship in consequence of her not having any papers to prove nationality, and the Crew declaring she was Brazilian.     Received prisoners from Prize.”
  2. HMS Cygnet completed her posting and returned to Chatham. John McLaren Adamson and James Riseborough both left HMS Cygnet on 5 April 1850 prior to another posting afloat. Adamson was 38 years old, 5-foot 8ins, ruddy complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. He had no distinguishing marks -- Riseborough sported two tattoos of ships on his chest.
  3. By 12 April, Adamson was in London and received part payment for his share of prizes. He received £15, 5s and 3d for his share of the Harriet, and in all he was paid nearly £30 for shares in five prizes. He and every other member of the crew was given an Admiralty form 233. This form says, “Prize Money: Application at the Prize Office, Somerset House or by letter addressed to the Secretary of the Admiralty, London”. John’s form still exists, and each payment is receipted, on the form, by the paying Admiralty agent.
  4. At this time, The West Africa station had by far the worst mortality ratios of any Royal Naval posting. With an establishment of around 2,000 men – about 100 died annually from tropical fevers. 
  5. John McLaren Adamson was married in Dunfermline by the Rev Law to Jean Bell on 22 April 1850. He married her the same day that the notices were posted. Curiously he gave his occupation as collier, which it had not been for 17 years, rather than Royal Marine.
  6. He returned to Chatham, where he was in the 37th Company, Chatham Division, Royal Marines. In 1851 he joined the ship’s company of HMS Dido, a corvette, which was just about to leave for a prolonged cruise to the Pacific. This included discovering the dead bodies of Missionaries in Tierra del Fuego as she rounded Cape Horn; a visit to Pitcairn Island where the Bounty mutineers had ended up; several stops at South Sea island groups;  going to Hawaii; joining the Far Eastern Squadron when war with Russia broke out in 1854; seeing action of Sakhalin Island; exploring Alaska; putting in at the Burrard Inlet (now Vancouver) and San Francisco, before returning round Cape Horn. He left the Royal Marines in October 1856 at Chatham Royal Marine barracks. We still possess his discharge papers.
  7. In 1833, John Adamson would most likely have gone to London by ship or coach when he enlisted. In 1850, he was drawing his money in London on 12 April, and was getting married in Fife only ten days later. It is assumed that he travelled home as far as Edinburgh by train, and then transferred to one of the coach/ferry services serving West Fife. The age of steam had begun.

Mid 19th century slave ship

Prize list form belonging to John McLaren Adamson 1847-50

HMS Dido. John McLaren Adamson's last ship.

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