A groundbreaking history of the Black Joke, the most famous member of the British Royal Navy’s anti-slavery squadron, and the long fight to end the transatlantic slave trade.
The most feared ship in Britain’s West Africa Squadron, His Majesty’s brig Black Joke was one of a handful of ships tasked with patrolling the western coast of Africa in an effort to end hundreds of years of global slave trading. Sailing after the spectacular fall of Napoleon in France, yet before the rise of Queen Victoria’s England, Black Joke was first a slaving vessel itself, and one with a lightning-fast reputation; only a lucky capture in 1827 allowed it to be repurposed by the Royal Navy to catch its former compatriots. Over the next five years, the ship’s diverse crew and dedicated commanders would capture more ships and liberate more enslaved people than any other in the Squadron.
Now, author A.E. Rooks chronicles the adventures on this ship and its crew in a brilliant, lively narrative of the history of Britain’s suppression efforts. As Britain slowly attempted to snuff out the transatlantic slave trade by way of treaty and negotiation, enforcing these policies fell to the Black Joke and those that sailed with it as they battled slavers, weather disasters, and interpersonal drama among captains and crew that reverberated across oceans. In this history of the daring feats of a single ship, the abolition of the international slave trade is revealed as an inexplicably extended exercise involving tense negotiations between many national powers, both colonizers and formerly colonized, that would stretch on for decades longer than it should have.
Harrowing and heartbreaking, The Black Joke is a crucial and deeply compelling work of history, both as a reckoning with slavery and abolition and as a lesson about the power of political will—or the lack thereof.
A.E. Rooks hopes to always be a student of history, though that hasn’t stopped her from studying everything else. A two-time Jeopardy! champion with completed degrees in theatre, law, and library and information science—and forthcoming degrees in education and human sexuality—her intellectual passions are united by what the past can teach us about the present, how history shapes our future, and above all, really interesting stories.
“Rooks is a masterful storycrafter, layering drama of swashbuckling moral battles on the high seas over labyrinthine nuances of maritime law to honor the true protagonists: African peoples, their suffering made plain and their identities preserved in Sierra Leone’s Liberated African registers. Full of primary sources, diagrams, and images, The Black Joke combines information with voice, the best of straight nonfiction with narrative nonfiction, as it adds to the history of the translatlantic slave trade."
—Booklist, starred review
"Rooks has a keen eye for compelling shards of information ... The Black Joke is worth remembering.”
“Adds global and historical context to the travesties and tragedies that took place along the coast of West Africa in the 1800s ... Rooks introduces a cast of ambitious commanders, insensitive rulers and policymakers, heroic ship captains, beleaguered sailors and heartless enslavers. Rooks greatly enlarges the context of the Black Joke’s legendary four-year run, delving into the maritime, economic and political issues of the day.”
"Full of action and heroism."
“In this beautifully written book, Rooks paints an exciting portrait of the exploits of [the Black Joke] and its crew ... a recommended read."
—Library Journal, STARRED review
“Well worth a close look. A tale skillfully teased out of the vaults and made vivid by an artful narrative.”
“An accessible history… Rooks succeeds in capturing the human dimensions of the story. This is an enlightening take on a lesser-known aspect of the fight to end slavery.”
"A.E. Rooks' dynamic narrative expertly uncovers and examines the high stakes and political intricacies of Britain’s attempt to abolish the global slave trade ... This engrossing and meticulously researched account of The Black Joke is essential reading."
—Samantha Seiple, author of Louisa on the Frontlines