Post-classical history


Breaches of Faith: Making Peace with Barbary


There was a moment at the end of the 1640s when England seemed to have achieved a peace of sorts with the two most troublesome Barbary states. The treaty Edmund Cason had negotiated with Algiers in 1646 was holding, due in part, at least, to his continued presence there; and Thomas Browne, an agent appointed by Parliament, was treating with the authorities at Tunis for the release of English captives and the confirmation of an agreement between England and Tunis not to molest each other’s shipping.

Tunis had gone through some major upheavals since the death of Yusuf Dey in 1637. His successor as dey, a capable Genoese renegade named Usta Murad, encouraged and regulated piracy, played off the interests of Tunisians against those of the Turkish Janissary corps, and constructed a new and heavily fortified harbor for corsairs on the northeast coast of Tunisia at Porto Farina (present-day Ghar al Milh). But Usta Murad Dey died in 1640; the next two deys, Ahmad Khuja (1640-47) and Mohammed Laz (1647-53), had to contend with a particularly astute and powerful bey, Hammuda.

Under Uthman Dey, at the beginning of the century, the bey of Tunis had been a finance officer responsible for collecting taxes; and since the nomadic tribesmen of the interior were reluctant to hand over their taxes, the process often involved an element of compulsion. Hammuda’s father, Murad Bey, a Corsican who had been captured by pirates as a child and converted to Islam, was thus able to gather together a private army separate and distinct from the Janissary corps, which formed the basis of his political power as bey; and Hammuda, who inherited the beylicate in 1631 as a sixteen-year-old after Murad persuaded the Ottoman emperor to appoint him pasha of Tunis, continued the rise to power begun by his father. He built himself a palace at the Bardo a few miles outside the city, where he would be safe from the hostile Janissaries, and consolidated his influential connections with both rural Tunisia and with Tunis itself. One of his wives, for example, was the daughter of a tribal chieftain, while another was the daughter of an important Provençal renegade. His good opinion was essential when it came to electing the dey, and in 1658 he followed his father’s example by buying the office of pasha from the emperor.

Power in mid-seventeenth-century Tunis was delicately balanced among the dey, who had been the de facto ruler for fifty years; the bey with his own private army; and the agha, the powerful head of the Janissary corps. All of them were happy to invoke the authority of the sultan in Istanbul when it suited; all of them were equally happy to ignore him when it didn’t. The Tunisian corsairs remained an important economic force in the community—the state still received ten percent of their prizes, the Janissaries still accompanied them on raids, everyone who could afford to still invested in their ventures—but they were expected to conform to government policy and to prey only on those nations with whom Tunis had not concluded a treaty.

By and large they towed the line, even when it involved a loss of income all round. So when in April 1651 an English ship, the Goodwill, whose captain had contracted to carry thirty-two important Tunisian citizens from Tunis to Smyrna, was intercepted by Maltese galleys, and when that captain, a man named Stephen Mitchell, handed over those thirty-two Tunisian citizens without a struggle, the dey, the bey, and the agha were understandably aggrieved. When word reached them that the captives had been put into the galleys of the Knights of Malta as slaves, their disappointment with their English friends was acute. And when they heard that Captain Mitchell had not only handed over their comrades without a fight, but might actually have sold them to the Knights, they were very cross indeed.

So were the townsfolk. There was a riot as a 500-strong mob stormed through the streets, looking for Englishmen and crying, “Stone the dogs who have sold our fathers, brothers, kindred and friends!”1 Members of the English community were taken into custody for their own protection, and English property in Tunis was confiscated until the captives were returned safely.

Subsequent events show how difficult it was to arbitrate when complicated international episodes like this occurred. The Parliamentarian naval commander William Penn (father of the prominent Quaker colonist in America), who happened to be cruising with his squadron in the western Mediterranean in search of the remains of the Royalist fleet commanded by the late king’s nephew, Prince Rupert, remonstrated with the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. “If by means of such necessity our merchants should be subject to such deep inconveniences,” Penn threatened, “what resentment the State of England may thereupon make, I cannot conclude.” 2 Meanwhile Penn secured the release in Tunis of the most senior of the English merchants, Samuel Boothouse, who was allowed to travel to Sicily to obtain a letter from the Archbishop of Palermo in the name of the Viceroy of Sicily (who, technically, had feudal domain over the Knights) demanding the release of the thirty-two Turks. Boothouse also tried to prosecute Captain Mitchell in the English courts, and Mitchell was held on his return to London, only to be released when no evidence was offered.

The Grand Master, who didn’t take kindly to being squeezed between Penn’s squadron on the one hand and the Viceroy of Sicily on the other, responded to English threats by pointing out that the Knights of Malta were friends to England, but that since the time of the Crusades their role had been to harry the Turk, “the enemies of the name of Jesus Christ.”3 Penn suggested the affair might be solved if Tunis paid a ransom of 3,200 dollars (£770) for the lot. The Knights demanded a lot more than that. They wanted 40,000 dollars (£9,600), and they refused to part with a single slave until the entire sum was handed over.

The Tunisians decided reprisals were in order. Their corsairs captured an English merchant ship, the Princess, and held her crew.

For the next couple of years, England had more pressing foreign affairs than Barbary to consider, in the shape of war with Holland. But when the First Anglo-Dutch War ended in 1654, the Commonwealth was in possession of a massive fleet, 160 strong; and that summer, Cromwell and the Council of State sent twenty-four ships under the command of Admiral Robert Blake into the Mediterranean, for the purpose of reminding other nations, principally the French and the Spanish, that England was a force to be reckoned with. While he was there, Blake’s instructions included the liberation of English captives held by the Tunisians, the restitution of the Princess, and the reestablishment of peaceful relationships with the dey of Tunis.

Blake, an inveterately republican veteran of the English Civil Wars (and not to be confused with the Robert Blake who mediated between the English and the Moors in 1637-38), arrived off Tunis on February 7, 1655. The moment he anchored, “I did forthwith send ashore to the Dey of Tunis a paper of demands for restitution of the ship Princess, with satisfaction for losses, and enlargement of captives.”4 There was a new dey in office: Mustafa Laz Dey was Hammuda Bey’s choice, and since Hammuda had bribed the agha to support him, Tunis was experiencing a rare moment of cooperative government without the usual trilateral infighting.

The Tunisians received Blake politely and expressed a desire to restore peaceful relations with England; but the thirty-two citizens taken from the Goodwill were still being held captive in Malta, and until they were freed the dey refused point-blank, in Blake’s words, “to make a restitution of satisfaction for what was past.”5 It was a stalemate; and the dey showed not the slightest sign of being intimidated by Blake’s war fleet, even though it boasted around 900 guns and more than 4,000 men. “They entrust an English runnagardo with their causing,” commented a suspicious John Weale, a junior officer with Blake’s fleet who kept a journal of the voyage.6

The fleet needed to replenish its supplies of bread and fresh water, so Blake couldn’t afford to stay in Tunis Road indefinitely. Moreover, he was a punctilious officer, and he was anxious that although his instructions authorized him “to seize, surprise, sink, and destroy all ships and vessels belonging to the kingdom of Tunis,” they didn’t specifically extend to actually entering Tunisian ports.7 So he sent letters back to England asking for clarification and sailed for Cagliari Bay in Sardinia to revictual his ships. On the way, the fleet anchored for more than a week at Porto Farina, where they found nine corsairs (including the refitted Princess ) drawn up close to the shore and unrigged. Blood-red colors were flying from the castle which guarded the harbor, as well as from eight of the pirate ships; a silk flag of white and green flew from the corsair admiral’s vessel. There were signs of frantic activity along the shoreline: batteries of guns were being erected, as were a sea of tents. And thousands of horsemen and infantry had gathered, flourishing their scimitars in the sunlight and firing at English boats which attempted reconnaissance closer to the shore. The Tunisians were clearly anticipating an English invasion.

Blake was back at Tunis on March 18, when he found Mustafa Laz Dey less inclined to negotiate than before. Accusing the Tunisians of obstinacy, insolence, and willfulness—by which he presumably meant they still wanted their citizens back—he reported to England that such “barbarous provocations did so far work upon our spirits, that we judged it necessary for the honor of the fleet, our nation, and religion, seeing they would not deal with us as friends, to make them feel us as enemies.”8 Having now resolved on commencing hostilities, his plan was to fire the pirate fleet, which still lay in harbor at Porto Farina. After withdrawing his ships to Trapani in Sicily—a deliberate ruse to lull his enemy into a false sense of security—he returned to Porto Farina on the afternoon of April 3.

At sunrise the next morning the English fleet entered the harbor. The biggest men-of-war, including Blake’s sixty-gun flagship, the George, anchored within musket range of the Tunisian fortifications and opened fire, “the Lord being pleased to favor us with a gentle gale off the sea, which cast all the smoke upon them.” Out of these rolling clouds emerged the English boats of execution filled with armed men and incendiaries, and at the sight of them the pirate crews, who had been returning fire with small arms, lost their nerve and swam for the shore. All nine vessels were boarded and set alight.

By mid-morning the operation was over and the English sailors were back aboard their ships. Twenty-five had been killed and about forty hurt, mostly by small-arms fire from the shore. The fleet continued to play its guns on the burning ships to deter any attempts to extinguish the flames. That night the English lay at anchor outside the harbor and watched them light up the sky “like so many bonfires.”

Leaving aside the question of who held the moral high ground, Blake’s burning of the Tunisian fleet at Porto Farina was a remarkable action. “Planned with care and executed with precision,” said the twentieth-century naval historian J. R. Powell, it was the first time ever that “the guns of a fleet had overpowered shore batteries.”9 “A piece of service as hath not been paralleled in these parts of the world,” wrote young John We ale. 10 “We have great cause to bless God for His mighty deliverance in the sight of the heathen,” was the verdict of another officer.11

At home, the English hailed the burning of Porto Farina as a terrible demonstration of the nation’s naval might. A bit of contemporary verse gives a flavor of the triumphalist (and racist) sentiments that Blake’s victory provoked:

The poor Mahometans do trembling fly,

From their strong holds to mountains that were nigh

Whence like so many fiends of blackest hue,

(With scaring horrid faces) they might view,

In those sulfureous fiery streams below,

A new Gehenna, to their greater woe.12

England was also convinced that the friendly reception Blake received when he put in for supplies at Algiers six days after the Porto Farina attack was entirely due to the shock and awe his action had caused throughout Barbary. This wasn’t quite fair. The Algerians, increasingly adept at playing one European power off against another, had already decided that it was in their interests to maintain the peace with England—for the time being. When Blake’s fleet first entered the Straits, in November 1654, for example, four Algerines had made a great play of handing over some English captives whom they had just rescued from a Salé pirate.

Blake himself was more circumspect about his victory, and with good reason. The action was a tactical triumph, but it didn’t really achieve very much besides, of course, preventing nine Tunisian ships from causing any more mischief. Although he returned to Tunis and asked Mustafa Laz Dey to reconsider his refusal to hand over English goods and captives from the Princess (he could no longer hand over the Princess itself, as Blake had just burned it), the dey stuck to his obstinacy, insolence, and willfulness. Moreover, he chose this moment to remind the admiral that Tunis was under the protection of the Ottoman emperor.

This was no hollow threat. Blake took it seriously enough to dispatch letters warning Sir Thomas Bendysh, the English ambassador at Istanbul, to expect reprisals against English merchants in the city. Bendysh went straight to the Grand Vizier as soon as he received the news, “and very well pacified him concerning the burning of the ships at Tunis,”13 so the consequences Blake feared didn’t materialize. But it wasn’t until after April 1657, when the ransom of the thirty-two captives held at Malta was finally settled (by the English), that a lasting peace between England and Tunis became a real possibility.

Even then the Tunisian government would only give up the seventy-two English men and women it held when Admiral John Stoakes, who arrived off Tunis with six warships in 1658, agreed to pay out 11,250 dollars (about £2,700) for their release. This cleared the way for formal articles of peace, which were agreed to on February 8, 1658. They included a clause stipulating that “if any English ships shall receive on board any goods or passengers belonging to the kingdom of Tunis, they shall be bound to defend both them and their goods . . . and not deliver them to the enemy.”14

Maintaining good relations with the Ottoman Empire was important, as the Lewis affair demonstrates. In the summer of 1657 word reached London that Captain William Ell of the Lewis had turned up at Livorno with a cargo of rice, sugars, and other provisions, which he was trying to sell. The problem was that these goods were the property of Sultan Mehmed IV, and Ell had contracted with the pasha of Egypt to take them from Alexandria to Istanbul.

This had the makings of a major diplomatic incident, as Sir Thomas Bendysh pointed out to Oliver Cromwell. All his carefully laid plans for furthering English interests in the Levant were in danger, he ranted, “of being blasted by the unexpected and foul treachery and falseness of one (sorry I am, I must name an Englishman) William Ell, master of the Lewis.”15 In London the Levant Company, which employed Ell, shared Bendysh’s outrage. Trade was already poor because of the depredations of Turkish and Spanish pirates, and officials were in the middle of some delicate negotiations for the recovery of a company ship, the Resolution, which had recently been taken by men-of-war from Tripoli. Ell’s actions jeopardized everything, said the company, “to the great shame and scandal of the English, and disparagement of our ships, beside the evil consequences it may have on our trade.”16

Captain Ell’s version of events was delivered to Secretary of State John Thurloe at the beginning of September 1657, and it suggests the matter was more complicated than either Bendysh or the Levant Company appreciated. Ell claimed that after he contracted to carry the Grand Seignieur’s goods in January, he was kept hanging about at Alexandria for more than three months without any allowance for the delay. When he was finally given permission to set sail, armed Turks went with him and commanded him to put in at Rhodes, where he encountered a battle fleet of forty-four galleys and fifteen ships from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli which were preparing to attack Venetian territory in the Aegean. The Lewis was held there for a further two months, during which time the Tripolitans amused themselves by threatening that the moment Ell had unloaded his cargo, they were going to take over his ship and carry off two boys who were part of the crew “to satisfy their inhuman, unnatural lust.”17 Thoroughly rattled, Ell was ordered to accompany the fleet into the Aegean, unload at one of the Turkish-held islands, and refit the Lewis for service against Venice. He was all too aware that the Venetians hanged any Christians they found supporting the Turks, and while the Tripolitans—the same pirates who had captured the Resolution of London—continued their threats against him, the captain-general of the fleet showed no inclination to protect them against “this desperate destructive resolution of the Barbarian corsairs.”18 So on July 6, while the fleet anchored for the night off Samos, Ell seized his chance and made a run for it. The Lewis arrived at Livorno twenty days later.

It’s impossible to know how much of this was true. But it cut no ice with the English government, or with Sir Thomas Bendysh, or with the English agent in Livorno. An aggrieved Ell complained that the Grand Duke of Tuscany was threatening to return him and his ship to the Turks because his behavior was prejudicial to European interests in Turkey. He offered to hand over the balance due to the Grand Seignieur as soon as the goods were sold. In desperation he reminded Cromwell that he and most of his men had fought for their country against the Dutch in the last war. By way of reply, Oliver Cromwell personally wrote to the Grand Duke, asking him to impound the Lewis and its cargo and to arrest the captain and crew. The disputed goods were sent to Istanbul—at Captain Ell’s expense. The Turks refused to accept them, saying they were spoiled and claimed further that they were only worth 16,000 dollars (£3,840), while the original consignment was valued at well over four times that amount.

While the English government went to some lengths to avoid upsetting Mehmed IV, its relations with the Barbary Coast states were complicated by the fact that they were less inclined than ever to keep to Istanbul’s rules. Almost the first thing the new English ambassador, the Earl of Winchilsea, did when he presented his credentials to the Grand Vizier on his arrival in Istanbul in January 1661 was to draw attention to renewed complaints about the behavior of Algerian pirates, to which the vizier airily promised redress. They both knew he didn’t mean it.

Like France and Holland—the other two major European nations with trading interests in the Mediterranean—the English knew that, as well as going through the motions with the sultan and the vizier, they would have to come to separate accommodations with the governments of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. The Dutch did their best to make themselves indispensable to the Turks by supplying sails and munitions; the French relied on a shared hatred of Spain to endear themselves to Barbary; the English, after Blake’s action at Porto Farina had boosted their confidence as a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean, developed a confrontational policy of cannon diplomacy.

The apparently inconclusive attack on Algiers which the Earl of Sandwich mounted in the summer of 1661, before he moved on to supervise the handover at Tangier, had done more damage to the city than he realized. A month after he withdrew from Algiers he was surprised to hear from a Frenchman who’d just left the place that “when we shot against Algiers we killed them many men and beat down many houses, and that they have made a great heap of our shot in the Palace yard.”19 Back in England, where a restored monarchy wanted its own Porto Farina, the assault was hailed as a major victory: Turkish insolence had been answered by a terrifying display of naval power in which English guns battered down half the town, demolished the citadel, destroyed eighteen enemy ships, and rescued 1,100 Christian slaves.

This was a wild exaggeration. But it confirmed the obvious: that a powerful English presence in the Mediterranean at least had a chance of making Islamic pirates choose to prey on the merchant ships of other nations. Sandwich’s vice-admiral, the rough, tough, career mariner Sir John Lawson, remained on the Barbary Coast for the next four summers, harrying Algerian shipping and generally making his presence felt.

So effective was he that in the autumn of 1662 he managed to conclude three separate treaties within the space of thirty-six days. Hammuda was now pasha at Tunis, having appointed his son Murad as bey, and he confirmed the articles of peace on October 5. There were some very minor changes to the previous treaty, but the articles still included the clause about English ships defending their Tunisian passengers. Hammuda had not forgotten Captain Mitchell’s lack of goodwill toward the Tunisians on the Goodwill. To be fair, neither had Charles II. In a proclamation issued at Whitehall, he commanded the masters of all English ships carrying Turks or their goods “to the utmost of their power, by fighting or otherwise, [to] preserve and defend them against any whatsoever.”20

The rest of the Tunis treaty was commonsensical, if a little biased toward the English. Neither side should seize the other’s ships at sea or in port; both should treat the other’s citizens with respect; any English merchant or passenger captured by Tunisian ships of war was to be released with their “goods free and entire.”21 And the ship of either party “shall have free liberty to enter into any port or river belonging to the dominions of either party.”22 (How often did Tunisian merchants sail up the Thames or enter the port of Bristol?) Encounters between the two nations on the high seas were formalized through a system of passes. Tunisian men-of-war were to be provided with certificates by the English consul at Tunis, and were required to produce them when they met a ship flying English colors. In return, the English vessel had to allow two men—and no more—to come aboard to verify that its crew was indeed predominantly English. It was common practice for Italian merchant ships to sail under English colors because they carried two or three English crew, “to save them from the Turks.”23

On November 10, 1662, a month after concluding terms with Hammuda at Tunis, Lawson confirmed a treaty with Algiers. The details had been thrashed out the previous April, but the pasha, Isma’il, had neglected to inform the taifat al-raïs of the fact, since as a major investor in piracy he was keen to prolong their activities against English shipping for as long as possible. All was now well. No Algerian was to give any English subject “a bad word, or a bad deed, or a bad action.”24 English slaves were to be set free on payment of their first market price. (Charles II asked the Church of England to stump up the cash, and more than 150 captives were redeemed the following January.) No more were to be bought or sold in Algiers or its territories.

Algiers did manage to extract ten percent custom duty on imports and exports, although this hardly operated in its favor—very soon the Algerian merchants were complaining that English traders didn’t come to their city anymore. All English ships sailing in the Mediterranean were required to carry a pass:

The Algier ships of war meeting any merchant-ship belonging to the subjects of the King of Great Britain . . . have liberty to send one single boat, with but two sitters more than the common crew of rowers, and no more to enter on board the said merchant-ship but the two sitters, without the express leave of the commander of the merchant-ship; that upon producing unto them a pass under the hand and seal of the Lord High Admiral of England, the said boat to presently depart, and the merchant-ship to proceed on his voyage. 25

Examples of these passes were handed over to the authorities in the Barbary states for their men-of-war to carry to sea, so they could distinguish them from counterfeits. But even if the master of a vessel couldn’t produce a pass, the Algerians were required to leave it alone as long as the majority of the company was English.

Lawson was a busy and determined man, with a strong and well-armed squadron. Between signing the Tunis treaty on October 5, 1662, and the Algiers treaty on November 10, he also managed to agree “a good and firm peace” with Uthman, the pasha of Tripoli.

Until quite recently, the corsairs of Tripoli hadn’t posed too much of a threat to European trade. For one thing, they weren’t as adventurous as their comrades to the west, never venturing as far as the Straits, let alone into the Atlantic. For another, Tripoli was poorer than either Algiers or Tunis, and the bloody battles for supremacy which frequently shook its hierarchy of dey, bey, diwan, and Istanbul-appointed pasha tended to distract Tripolitans from the business of piracy. Uthman was a Greek renegade who became dey in 1649 on the sudden but not unexpected death of the incumbent, another Greek renegade named Mohammed al-Saqisli. Uthman moved quickly to secure the support of Mehmed IV, who appointed him pasha; at the same time he secured popular approval by the excellent and simple expedient of lowering taxes.

This bought Uthman time, but his hold on power depended on a juggling act involving a bewildering patchwork of different and often overlapping factions: Turkish Janissaries; corsair captains; European renegades; native Tripolitans; sheikhs who ruled the tribes in the deserts beyond the city walls; kulughis, the offspring of Janissaries and local women, who formed a separate, unempowered, and resentful class in Tripoli, as they did in Algiers and Tunis. Every one of these groups had to be placated, neutralized, or actively suppressed.

Uthman’s natural allies were the renegades; it was they who had propelled him to power in the first place, and he tried to ensure their continued support by rewarding them with positions of authority. For the same reason, he built up the fleet, turning it into a strong force of some twenty-four ships. Around half of the corsair captains in Tripoli were renegades.

It was the activities of this fleet which attracted the attention of Sir John Lawson’s squadron. During the 1650s, Uthman’s “Tripoli men” preyed on Levant Company ships to such an extent that the company petitioned Cromwell for help, while the port itself gained a reputation all the way along the Barbary Coast as a safe haven for pirates: an Englishman calling there in the spring of 1651 noted without surprise that one evening a Moroccan man-of-war from Salé, 1,400 miles westward, sailed in with a prize. (The same Englishman also encountered renegades from Kent and Devon during his stay and ransomed a captive so he could return to his native Dorset.)

Lawson’s articles of peace and commerce with Uthman Pasha were basically the same as those he concluded with Tunis and Algiers. They announced a new start in relations between the two countries, the first clause of the agreement stating that “after the signing and sealing of these articles, all injuries and damages sustained on either part shall be quite taken away and forgotten.”26 Lawson installed a consul, Samuel Tooker, who, like most English consuls in seventeenth-century Barbary, was destined to have an unhappy time: promised a generous salary of £400 a year from the crown, he had only received £200 after eight years of service, while the two percent “consulage” he was supposed to receive on goods imported and exported in English ships was withheld by Uthman, who declared it was an unwarranted restraint on trade.

But Tooker’s woes didn’t count for much in light of Lawson’s considerable achievement—separate peace treaties with three of the four Barbary states. By the end of 1662, England had renewed its old articles of capitulation with Istanbul and had put in place signed and sealed agreements with Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers. If relations with Morocco were still a little rocky, at least Tangier was now a free port. English ships could move around the Mediterranean unmolested and were free to carry foreign goods and persons—“a great advantage for the trade and reputation of England,” in the opinion of the Venetians.27 Joy in England was all the keener for the news that a Dutch fleet under Admiral de Ruyter was having less success in negotiating with Barbary. Tripoli refused terms; so did Algiers. Now the news from Livorno was that fourteen pirate ships were out on the cruise, looking for Dutch merchantmen and saying that “since they had a peace with the English, they should do well enough, and were resolved to make no further agreement” with the Netherlands.28 The English government and the English people applauded Lawson’s success in negotiating a good and firm peace with Barbary, and he returned home in January to a hero’s welcome, “with great renown among all men [and] mightily esteemed at court by all.”29

Tunis kept the articles of peace, although Hammuda Pasha allowed Algerian pirates to sell their prizes there. Tripoli could be difficult, especially in the years between Uthman’s overthrow and death in 1672 and the signing of a new treaty with England by “the pasha, dey, agha, diwan, and governors of the city and kingdom of Tripoli” in 1676: the troubled state had six deys in that four-year period.30 But Tripoli posed less of a threat than Algiers because its corsair fleet was weaker—twelve ships in 1676 as opposed to at least fifty at Algiers. In any case, the treaty held after 1676, and the pirates of Tripoli focused their attention on capturing French shipping.

Algiers broke the treaty, and broke it often. Algerian corsairs boarded English merchant ships on the high seas; they took foreign cargo, passengers, and occasionally crew; and they treated English consuls in Algiers with contempt whenever they complained. (At least one consul was hacked to death.) And this, even though the articles of peace stated quite clearly that no one was to do the consul or any of the king’s subjects “any wrong or injury in word or deed whatsoever,” and that “though there be strangers and their goods on board [an English vessel], they shall be free, both they and their goods.”31

The favorite explanation in Europe for the failure of the articles of peace was the one voiced by the veteran English naval officer Sir Thomas Allin: “Never any one met with such artful, dissembling, hypocritical traitors in this world!”32 His opinion was shared by Francesco Giavarina, the Venetian resident in London who was standing in for the absent Venetian ambassador: “Anyone who knows the Turks and especially those assassins of Barbary is aware that they rarely keep their word.”33 It was shared too by Robert Browne, English consul at Algiers, who reported that it was “impossible for any but those that have been eye-witnesses to believe the rash, unjust and inconsiderate proceedings of these people.”34 Turks were treacherous—it was as simple as that.

Every nation constructs its own narrative of conflict. The English believed that although in 1662 the “perfidious pirates” of Barbary had made “an entire submission to the English flag,” they had proved to be “faithless,” going back on their word and committing “new insolencies” on English shipping, for which the fleet would “chastise” them. All these value-loaded words and phrases were used by the Earl of Clarendon, Charles II’s Lord Chancellor, in an angry speech to the two Houses of Parliament in October 1665.35 Consciously or not, Clarendon speaks of the Algerians as a conquered people.

The Algerian narrative was different. The English, according to the dey of Algiers, were “a people without faith, not observing their promise; they [have] made war with us without cause, and without declaring against us; they have taken vessels, and made slaves of our people.”36 Algiers was convinced that nations with whom they had no treaty were packing their ships with English crew, or flying English colors illegally: “English” ships with Spanish crews and Spanish goods were plying back and forth across the Straits to supply Tangier; Dutch vessels sailed under English colors, the Algerians claimed. This was perfectly true. When a Venetian merchant ship was intercepted by an English squadron off Sardinia while flying the flag of St. George, its Dutch master freely admitted that for the past fourteen years he had “got free of all Barbary corsairs with his Royal Highness’s pass.”37

The Algerians couldn’t accept that when they searched an English ship and found it carrying Turks and Moors as slaves for sale in another country they must let it go without saving their fellow Muslims. When they met a ship flying English colors and sent a boat to examine its credentials—something they were allowed to do under the terms of the treaty—they were often fired on “and not suffered to come near enough to speak with and examine them, so that they cannot possibly tell who they are, and, for aught they know, foreigners.”38

England did make concessions. In the summer of 1669, as Sir Thomas Allin set off on a peacekeeping mission to Barbary, he was authorized by the Lord High Admiral, Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York, to insert a new clause into the Algerian treaty declaring that no English ship could carry more foreigners than Englishmen, passengers, or crew; and another that English ships would henceforth not carry any Muslims “that are slaves or that are sent to be sold in any other country.”39 On the same expedition, Allin was told explicitly that he was to behave with “all possible truth and fidelity” toward the Algerians. If they agreed to a new peace, he was to return to them all ships, goods, and men he might have taken on his way through the Straits, without keeping anything back, and to give presents to the pasha (although James’s suggestion that he might reward the Algerians with gunpowder seems rather rash in the circumstances).40

But it was a case of small carrot, big stick. The incident which had led the Admiralty to send Allin to Algiers on this occasion had involved the taking of an English ship carrying sixty-one Spaniards, whom the Algerians sold. If the pasha and the diwan wouldn’t agree to terms and promise to mend their ways, Allin was empowered to attack their ships wherever he found them, to go into the harbor and torch their fleet, and to sell any Turks and Moors he captured. In a separate, and presumably secret, order, the Lord High Admiral also told Allin that if conditions were favorable when he arrived at Algiers, he should attack the corsair fleet immediately without waiting to begin negotiations.

The weather was too calm for a surprise attack when Allin arrived at the end of August 1669, but when the agha and pasha responded to his demands by “raving like so many mad dogs, calling us all their language would afford them,” he deployed his considerable fleet of eighteen warships and three fireships to blockade Algiers, to patrol the coast for returning corsairs and their prizes, and, as necessary, to convoy English merchant shipping through the Straits. Prisoners were sent to Spain or Minorca and sold, including noncombatants. Fifty-four men, women, and children were dispatched to the slave market at Cadiz in September. Two months later, Allin recorded that he left with the Spanish vice-consul at Port Mahon on Minorca “one blind, one lame, one old Moor and one about 30 years, to be sold for his Majesty’s use.” At Málaga in December, “we disposed of ten slaves I sold and one presented to the governor free for his civilities.”41 The Turks didn’t have a monopoly on slavery.

But they didn’t have a permanent garrison on the moral high ground, either. The Algerian economy depended on piracy, to a much greater extent than that of its neighbor Tunis. In order to function as a state, Algiers needed to be free to prey on at least one of the major trading nations—England, France, or the Netherlands. As all three engaged in an arms race during the third quarter of the century, building up powerful naval presences in the Mediterranean in response to the threat posed by the others, the taifat al-raïs found it harder and harder to make a living. The French and the Dutch, like the English, periodically sought and enforced treaties that would safeguard their merchant shipping in the Mediterranean, and which, consequently, curtailed the activities of the corsairs. With or without legitimate pretexts, the Algerians had to break those treaties simply in order to survive.

In 1664 an English squadron had sailed into Algiers Bay to demand that the Algerians keep their side of the bargain. This show of force was followed by a renewal of the articles of peace and a humiliating public confession from the Algerians that the breach was caused by their subjects, and theirs alone, “for which,” they promised in a certificate appended to the renewed articles, “we have drowned one, banished another, some others fled to escape our justice, and divers have been imprisoned to give satisfaction in part to his most excellent majesty [Charles II].”42

Five years later, in 1669, the Mary Rose, which was taking Wenceslaus Hollar and Henry Howard back to England from Tangier, was fired on by Algerian corsairs off the Spanish coast and chased into the Bay of Cadiz. They left off the attack, but only after eleven members of the Mary Rose’s crew had been killed, seventeen wounded, “and the ship much damaged.”43

In 1671 Admiral Sir Edward Spragge, then in command of the Mediterranean fleet, came on seven new and heavily armed corsair vessels at anchor on the Algerian coast in the Bay of Béjaïa (known in Europe as “Bugia” or “Bougie”). The corsairs tried to defend themselves by throwing a boom across the bay made of their topmasts, yards, and cables, all buoyed up with casks. But Spragge’s men cut the boom, and the fireship he sent in among the Algerians, the Little Victory, burned them all. “Our lovely bonfires,” the admiral wrote in his journal, “was the most glorious sight that ever I saw, so great variety was in it, some of the ships’ ports appearing in the flame, others their sterns, and some their timbers all naked. When the powder came to blow up, it was terrible.”44

By his own account, Spragge’s squadron dealt a deadly blow to the Algerian fleet at the Battle of Bugia Bay, wounding the Algerian captain-general and killing seven of his captains (including a renegade called Dansiker—the name had lived on, until then at least) and 300 Janissaries. The incident was followed by a palace coup in which the agha was murdered and power transferred to an old raïs named Mohammed Tariq, or “Old Treky,” as the English called him. With the new regime there was a renewal of the articles of peace.

Five years later Admiral Sir John Narbrough burned four ships of war in Tripoli harbor, destroyed Tripolitan merchant ships, and bombarded the city itself, a prelude to a public apology from Tripoli for contravening their treaty with England and a payment of reparations to the value of £18,000 in money, goods, and slaves. There was a renewal of the articles of peace.

By the later 1670s, Algerians were taking English ships in the Channel, just as they had half a century earlier. Admiral Narbrough was blockading Algiers. English and Algerian ships were engaging in pitched battles in the western Mediterranean. Now there was no renewal of the articles of peace for five years. England and Algiers were at war from 1677 until 1682, when the dey and his son-in-law Baba Hassan tired of the losses their fleet was suffering and concluded yet another treaty with Narbrough’s successor in the Mediterranean, Sir Arthur Herbert. A list published in London in 1682 showed that between 1677 and 1680, 153 British ships had been taken by the corsairs of Algiers. Some were small: the Robert of Dartmouth, for instance, captured on October 29, 1677, with its crew of six; or the Speedwell of Topsham, taken with five crew in September 1679. Some were not: the Phoenix of London, which was taken two days before the Robert, had forty-nine men aboard. The William and Samuel, also of London, was blown up, and of its crew of forty-six, twenty-five were killed in June 1679; the other twenty-one were taken to Algiers to await ransom or slavery. Gregory Shugers, master of the Danby, escaped in his longboat with twenty-one of his crew when they were attacked; no one knew the whereabouts of the remaining twenty-five. The anonymous author of the list reckoned that altogether around 1,850 seamen and passengers had been captured. When the ransoms of the sailors (£100 a man) and the ransoms of the more important passengers (up to £1,000 each) were added to the value of the vessels and their cargoes, he put the cost to England of Algerian piracy in those three years alone at anything up to half a million pounds.

It was the 29th of July, 1683, and in the scorching heat of an Algerian summer, Janissaries and a few townspeople watched as a heavy Venetian cannon was dragged into position on the battery overlooking the bay. Out beyond the mole, a French battle fleet lay at anchor.

Admiral Abraham Duquesne had visited Algiers before. In 1682, shortly after Herbert concluded England’s most recent peace treaty with the dey, the French had arrived to demand terms and reparations from Mohammed Tariq. But Algiers had made peace with the Dutch, peace with the English. Tariq could not afford peace with the French as well. So he refused Duquesne’s demands, and the French admiral used a new and terrible weapon of war to punish him. Heavy mortars mounted on specially adapted ships known as bomb-ketches lobbed huge explosive shells into the city, causing terror among the population and destroying dozens of houses and shops. The great mosque was badly damaged, and thousands of people fled to the safety of the countryside, “crying out with a general voice, that the world must needs be now at an end, that never such things as these were seen, that they certainly were not of man’s invention, but sent by the Devil from Hell.”45 Even the French consul, a saintly Vincentine priest named Jean Le Vacher, couldn’t persuade the admiral to stop. It was only the prospect of the coming winter which made Duquesne withdraw with a promise to return.

Now Duquesne was back, and threatening once again to rain down on Algiers his “allamode tennis balls,” as the English consul at Tripoli called them.46 At the first sight of the enemy ships, there was a general panic, which was only exacerbated when the sixty-four-year-old Père Vacher returned from an interview with the admiral and announced regretfully to the diwan that the French weren’t interested in negotiating. They wanted to hurt Algiers. They wanted to destroy the city.

Desperate to avoid a repetition of the previous year’s bombardment, Baba Hassan, who was now the real power behind his father-in-law, Mohammed Tariq Dey, panicked and handed over 560 French slaves without even asking Duquesne for ransom. The Janissaries and the taifat al-raïs were so incensed that they killed Baba Hassan. Tariq Dey fled to Tunis, and the captain of the galleys, Hajj Hasan, was elected in his place.

Mezzo Morto, the “half-dead,” as everyone called the new dey, was of the opinion that begging for mercy did not become an Algerian.

Hence the cannon.

He sent word to Duquesne that if the bombardment of the previous year was repeated, the fleet could watch as he blew Vacher and all the other French merchants and redemptist priests living in Algiers from the mouth of that cannon. Still the heavy French bomb-ketches moved within range of the city, and Mezzo Morto’s men dragged the old priest onto the gun platform and tied him across the barrel of the big Venetian artillery piece. More than a hundred years old, it was one of the most impressive guns the Algerians possessed. Handled by expert gunners, it could fire a shot a good two miles with accuracy.

But on this summer day, accuracy wasn’t needed. With a roar and a flash the first mortar-shells sailed over the mole and landed with a thick crump in the city. And Jean Le Vacher said a prayer and exploded in a dreadful burst of blood and bone which splashed into the blue waters of Algiers Bay.

The mortar-shells kept crashing down, and another twenty Frenchmen died in the same terrible way as Père Vacher. (The Dutch renegade who actually fired the cannon reportedly suffered from awful nightmares for the rest of his life.) Duquesne left without his articles of peace, but a French fleet was back in 1688. The population of Algiers fled, leaving the pounding mortars to wreck the city. For two weeks the ketches worked in shifts, dropping a total of 13,300 shells. When they left, the English consul went to survey the ruins. “Three-quarters of the town is defaced,” he wrote, “and I believe it will never be rebuilt in its former splendour.”47 The following year Algiers signed articles of peace with France.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!