Posted by: Rob Viens | July 8, 2013

Pirates! And the Tale of the HMS Black Joke

For the next few days Darwin continued to work on specimens while the crew worked on readying the Adventure (formerly the Unicorn):

“All hands of the Beagle continue to be employed in working at the Schooner (for the future the Unicorn). My occupations likewise are the same & I do not stir out of the Ship.” (July 3-7)

But on July 8th, things got a little interesting, when a crewman from the Unicorn turned out to have a shady past:

“It was discovered to day that one of the Mates, belonging to the Unicorn, had formerly been in the President, a vessel supposed to be piratical & which brought the English man of war, the Black Joke, to action. It has, since the Trial, been suspected that this same ship took & murdered every soul on board the Packet Redpole. — Captain FitzRoy has determined to take the man a prisoner, to the Consul at M. Video.” (July 8)

A former pirate on board the Beagle – now that would have been a story to write home about!  Darwin was clearly getting the adventure of a lifetime.

Of course, pirates are at least one step above slavers in Darwin’s mind, and the pirate ship Presidenté had been captured by one of the greatest anti-slavery ships of the day – the HMS Black Joke. Given his passion against slavery, I’m sure that the Black Joke was a ship that Darwin would have heard of (see Darwin the Abolitionist).

The Black Joke, and some of the ships it captured – clockwise from the upper left these include Providentia, Vengador, Presidenta, Marianna, El Almirante, and El Hassey.

HMS Black Joke

The HMS Black Joke was built for speed – it was a Baltimore clipper sold to Brazil in 1825 and named the Henriquetta.  Between 1825 and 1827, the Henriquetta carried more than 3,000 slaves from Africa to Brazil during its life as a slave ship. But in September of 1827, that career for the ship ended when it was captured by the Royal Navy, renamed the HMS Black Joke, and converted into one of England’s finest anti-slave ships of the 19th century.

The Henriquetta was captured by the HMS Sybille – commanded by Lieutenant William Turner.  The Sybille was a captured French frigate that went on to have a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. Turner went on to command the Black Joke through many of its famous encounters.

The Black Joke became part of what was then called the West African Squadron of the Royal Navy – established after the 1807 Slave Trade Act was passed in England to fight slavery in the Atlantic. The West African Squadron patrolled the west coast of Africa, intercepting slave ships, capturing their crews and freeing their slaves.

The Black Joke was fitted with one 18 pound cannon (for more on cannon ratings see Defending the Beagle with Nine-Pounders) and crewed with 35 men – including royal marines and Liberian Kroomen (said to be experienced African sailors from Kroo tribe). What the Black Joke lacked in armaments, it made up in speed.  The story of the little clipper is filled with examples of how it defeated ships that were much larger and much more heavily armed by using its speed and agility.  A few examples of ships it captured include:

  • Vengador – 45 men and 8 guns (645 slaves freed)
  • Carolina – 2 guns (420 slaves freed)
  • Dos Amigos – 34 men, 1 gun (567 slaves freed)
  • El Almirante – 80 men and 14 guns (466 slaves freed)

The Black Joke chased down the later ship for 31 hours before out maneuvering and defeating it.

HMS Black Joke battling the El Almirante

HMS Black Joke

But the Black Joke didn’t just face off with pirates. The well-armed pirate vessel (from which our Beagle pirate came), called the Presidenté, was also defeated by the smaller ship after an epic 2-hour battle. The crew were captured and ultimately convicted of piracy (and presumable put to death, though I can’t seem to find a record of that trial).

In the end, the Black Joke freed far more slaves that it had carried in its former life, and became one of the star ships of the West African Squadron.  The Squadron itself, captured over 1600 ships in its existence (from 1808 to 1860), which is credited with the freedom of over 150,000 potential slaves.  Many of these freed people settle in (the then British colony) Sierra Leone.

Alas, the Black Joke eventually “wore out”.  Just a year before Darwin wrote this entry (in 1832), it was deemed that its wood was becoming to rotten, and the Black Joke was burned.

After its fiery demise, Peter Leonard, from the HMS Dryad (another anti-slaver ship) wrote that the Black Joke, ” has done more towards putting an end to the vile traffic in slaves than all the ships of the station put together”.

Meanwhile, the Beagle was doing its part to bring a pirate to justice, and on the night of the 8th it departed for Montevideo to bring the scoundrel to justice:

“I have just been astonished to hear the order, “to reeve the running rigging, & bend sails”. And we now a little before 12 at night have weighed anchor & are under sail.” (July 8)




  1. […] Navy’s West Africa Squadron was quite successful during this period. In 1828-1829, the HMS Black Joke successfully took eleven slave ships, a fraction of the overall accomplishments of the Royal Navy. […]

    • Greetings! I don’t know if you are aware of references made to H.M.S. Black Joke in “Darwin’s Sacred Cause” by Adrian Desmond and James Moore; Allen Lane, London, 2009. Her commander at the time, Lt. William Ramsay, was closely connected with both Darwin and Fitzroy. If you are not already aware, it will interest you to know that one Able Seaman Morgan, “an extraordinarily powerful man”, serving on the Beagle, was “one of the gallant party who in 1827 had seized the Henriquetta, since refitted and become renowned as “The Black Joke”.

      A dozen or so years ago, I carried out quite a lot of research into the Hired Armed Lugger “Black Joke” which also had a most distinguished career. I wrote a romance about it, but the manuscript was unfortunately lost. I still have the research material, however. It is my intention now to conduct research into this latest incarnation of the Black Joke and then write a book about her. So there is a chance that the pirate from the Unicorn shall have his story told!

      This fascinating conjunction between ships, men, slaves and the anti-slavery movement so strongly supported by the Darwin-Wedgwood women cries out for an historical fictional treatment. I should be obliged if contributors were able to assist me in any way as I go about the task of adding to our collective heritage of such glorious tales of derring-do upon the sea.

      • Is there any way for me to contact Mr. Christopher St. Johanser?

  2. […] West Africa Squadron was quite successful during this period. In 1828-1829, the HMS Black Joke successfully took eleven slave ships, a fraction of the overall accomplishments of the […]

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