cover image The ‘Black Joke’: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade

The ‘Black Joke’: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade

A.E. Rooks. Scribner, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-982128-26-5

Jeopardy! winner Rooks debuts with an accessible history of the Black Joke, the flagship of Britain’s anti-slavery West African Squadron. Enforcing multinational treaties banning the slave trade, the Black Joke captured 13 slave ships off the west coast of Africa between 1828 and 1832 and freed at least 3,000 people. Describing the Black Joke as “an image of morality and principle, regularly disrupted by waves of indifference to and profit from the trade in human chattel,” Rooks documents its early use as a Brazilian slave ship (called the Henriqueta), its capture by the Royal Navy, and its repurposing to fight the slave trade. She then delves into each of the Black Joke’s victories, profiling captains and crew members and reproducing documents from Sierra Leone’s Liberated African registers listing the people who were freed. Rooks also describes the politics behind Britain’s attempts to get other European powers to follow its lead in abolishing the slave trade and draws a vivid picture of life aboard the Black Joke, where dangers included disease, pirates, and foul weather. Though the writing occasionally lacks polish, 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. Illus. Agent: Jess Regel, Helm Literary. (Jan.)