The Dove being pursued by the Revenue cutter, 25 January 1825. From George Bumstead's illustrated diaryThe Dove being pursued by the Revenue cutter, 25 January 1825. From George Bumstead's illustrated diary
The Dove being pursued by the Revenue cutter, 25 January 1825. From George Bumstead's illustrated diary

Fascinating story of Hastings smuggler who ended up fighting the slave trade

A unique attraction at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery is the 200-year old diary of a convicted smuggler who had to spend several years in the Royal Navy fighting the slavery trade on the west coast of Africa.

Local historian Steve Peak explores the story here and writes: Not only is the smuggler’s diary on display in the Museum, but also one of his biscuits!

George Bumstead was a Hastings fisherman who was caught in Rye Bay on 25 January 1825 trying to bring ashore 43 tubs of contraband spirits. George and his five mates were on the big three-masted Hastings lugger Dove, which was pursued and then boarded by Coastguards from an armed Revenue cutter.

The six were taken to Dover, where on 3 February four of them were “condemned for sea service” and the other two imprisoned. The four, clad in “heavy irons”, were then put on board the 120-gun warship HMS Prince Regent in the River Medway. On 15 February they were transferred to the brig HMS Conflict which set sail for Africa a week later.

George served the next few years as a deck-hand in the West Africa Squadron, helping to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling 2,000 miles of coast around the British colony of Sierra Leone. Between 1818 and 1860 the Squadron seized more than 1,500 slave ships, and George himself was involved in, and recorded, many skirmishes. He spent much time on the three-masted man-of-war HMS Sybille, which freed 3,900 slaves from 1827-30. He noted in his diary the capture of the Brazilian ship Vangadore with 645 slaves on board.

The hand-written diary is an almost day-by-day record of what he saw and did during his “condemned” years. He was particularly struck by the many animals, plants and indigenous people he had never seen before. It is not known how long George spent off the coast of Africa, as the 88-page diary has lost its last pages, but he may have been on HMS Sybille when she returned to England in June 1830, and an 1836 census shows him again living in Hastings as a fisherman.

While in the Navy, George must have kept daily notes, which he wrote up as this diary on returning home. It has 11 watercolour illustrations, including one of the Dove being chased.

George’s diary is on display, alongside the long-life ship’s biscuit and the packet it was kept in. The Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm and Sundays 11am-4.30pm. Admission is free, and there is free parking in the grounds.