There is a huge painting hanging in the banqueting hall at Trinity House painted by Carmichael, a prolific local artist, in 1826. It is a dark picture, with ships and boats firing their guns into Algiers harbour in an attempt to rid Europe of the scourge of the Barbary pirates.
The Barbary Corsairs, as they were known, had raided England and Ireland since the 17th Century to capture people for the slave trade in North Africa. In 1630, it was known that as many as 32,000 Christians were for sale, 3,000 of them English. In 1631, on June 19th, they landed early in the morning at the fishing village of Baltimore in Ireland. Taken from their beds, practically the whole population of 22 men, 33 women and 54 children were herded into boats and taken to North Africa, there to be sold as slaves.
The pirates also wreaked havoc along the coast of South West England, landing in Cornwall in 1645 and taking 240 people. In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell, realising that shipping was also affected by these raids and insurance rates were increasing, decreed that any pirate captured should be taken to Bristol and slowly drowned! Even this did not deter the corsairs and the practice continued into the 19th century.
After the Napoleonic war ended in 1815, the British Royal Navy no longer needed the Barbary States as a source of supply for the garrison at Gibraltar. Therefore, considerable political pressure was put on the Dey of Algiers to free the slaves, with warnings that if he didn’t mend his ways then he would be subjected to military attack. Earlier, the Dutch and the Spanish had bombarded the towns of Algiers and Tunis but the practice of enslaving Europeans, and others, continued.
Edward Pellew, Admiral Lord Exmouth, was given the task of bombarding the city. He had already unobtrusively surveyed its defences and was aware of weaknesses in their field of fire. He gathered a small fleet of five ships of the line and one 50 guns vessel, four frigates and five ‘bombs’; these latter being small, specially designed naval vessels with mortars carried near the bows, which fired explosive shells in a high ballistic arc. His flagship was HMS ‘Queen Charlotte’ of 100 guns.
They were joined, before leaving Gibraltar, by five Dutch frigates and the fleet set sail to anchor close to the harbour of Algiers, where bombardment began at 15:15hrs, immediately following a shot fired by an Algerian vessel.
The explosive mortar shells set fire to the ships in the harbour, which burned so fiercely that warehouses along the harbour were also burnt down. At 22:15hrs, Exmouth gave orders for the fleet to weigh anchor and sail out of range of the few remaining defensive batteries.
Shortly after this, the Dey of Algiers capitulated after being warned that the bombardment would continue if he didn’t free all the slaves. He was not to know that the fleet had very little ammunition left! More than 4,000 slaves were freed.
by Terry Took © 2014
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.