Unus et Omnes


The Bombardment of Algiers, 27 August 1816
George Chambers, Sr.  1836, oil on canvas.

On Friday, eight sailors and seven marines from HMS Cornwall (F99) were in Iraqi waters, conducting a routine search of a vessel suspected of smuggling automobiles.  Cornwall is the flagship of Combined Task Force 158, a surface action group comprised of Royal Navy and allied destroyers, frigates, coast guard cutters and patrol boats.  CTF 158 is tasked with performing maritime interdiction operations (MIOs) in Iraqi waters, in support of UNSC 1723.  Upon completing their search, Cornwall’s sailors and marines were set upon by six boats from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and taken hostage by the Iranians.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps pulled a similar stunt in July of 2004, kidnapping two sailors and six marines they claimed had strayed into the Iranian side of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.  The men were released three days later, having been subjected to mock execution and a forced apology on Iranian television.

Iran has made a habit of hostage-taking brinkmanship, and it may be instructive to look at the Royal Navy’s historical dealings with others who did the same.

Two hundred years ago on March 25, 1807, George III gave royal assent to An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, forbidding Britain’s many colonies, dominions and territories from trading in slaves with Africa.  Instigated by an alliance of Quakers and evangelical Protestants, led by one William Wilberforce (a Tory MP), the Act was the culmination of many years of effort.  Until he finally succeeded in 1807, Wilberforce had introduced motions for the abolition of slavery in every session of Parliament since 1791.  The British Empire finally legislated the eventual emancipation of all its slaves in 1833, one month after Wilberforce passed away at the age of seventy-four.

As abolitionist ideas became more prevalent, the Empire began to use the globe-spanning Royal Navy as an instrument to wipe out slavery.  Squadrons were dispatched to remedy not only the plight of African slaves, but that of Europeans taken by Barbary State corsairs.  Peculiar in England’s case, because she had a long-standing alliance with Barbary; a formal treaty had been signed and a consul posted to Algiers since the end of the 17th century.

England’s reasons were fairly obvious; no Christian ally existed in the Mediterranean, and Catholic Spain, France and Italy were judged to be equally hostile.  English warships and merchants, therefore, turned to Algiers, Tunis and Morocco for resupply.

In the eighteenth century there were additional reasons for avoiding any serious quarrel with the Barbary States. For, while France and Spain were still likely to be hostile, the provisioning of Gibraltar made a new problem. In order to secure food for the garrison, which could only come from the African coast, numberless insults were overlooked and countless presents made. With the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, the need for procuring supplies in Barbary became intensified as the English forces in the Mediterranean grew in numbers…

The Peninsula War rather intensified than lessened the demand for supplies from Africa, and to the very end of the war the English Government would make any sacrifice to preserve the alliance with Algiers, Tunis and Morocco. With the end of the fighting, the situation altered. Troops and ships were withdrawn from the Mediterranean, and there was no longer any need for supplies. England had, besides, a variety of allies from whom future supplies could be obtained. The Algerines had, without knowing it, suddenly ceased to be useful. It was not long before they were made to realize the fact.

— Parkinson, C. Northcote.  Edward Pellew: Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red.  London, UK: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1934.

So it was that in early 1816, Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, 1st Baron Exmouth, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, was dispatched with a squadron of warships and transports to Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers.  His orders were to negotiate the release of Christian slaves on behalf of their respective national governments; they were mostly poor fishermen of Spain and Italy.  England had leased the right to fish in Barbary waters, and then licensed that right to foreign nationals in the Mediterranean.  Those licensed fishermen were considered to be under her protection.

Complicating the admiral’s task was Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Princess of Wales.  Estranged from her husband the Prince Regent, she had been on a Mediterranean tour since 1814 and was currently monopolising one of Exmouth’s frigates, HMS Clorinde, 40.  Aware of the Princess’ reputation for philandering, Captain Pechell of the Clorinde warded off danger by making her uncomfortable.

Eventually the princess declared that she would rather sail in a transport than ever go on board the Clorinde again whereupon Pechell breathed a sigh of relief. The state of cold perspiration in which she had kept him was ended. Nor did he greatly care when he received a horribly correct rebuke from Exmouth. The chief himself had been glad to be able to refuse her a battleship when she asked for one instead of a frigate. Her hiring an Italian polacre in the early spring of 1816 was a relief to every one.

— Parkinson, C. Northcote.  Edward Pellew: Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red.  London, UK: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1934.

The fleet made its way along the North African coast, and Pellew’s diplomacy paid off.  The Beys of Tunis and Tripoli agreed to stop the practice of Christian slavery and ransomed those that they currently held; a total of 1,349 men were released from captivity in these two cities.  Note that they did not agree to stop piracy per se, only that anyone captured as a result of those piratical acts would now be treated as a prisoner of war, rather than a slave.  One rather great stroke of luck was that the Bey of Tunis agreed at all;  the British fleet arrived there to find Princess Caroline’s hired vessel at anchor in the harbour, and Her Royal Highness a guest of the mogul they had come to chasten.

[Admiral Penrose, Exmouth’s second-in-command] left an interesting account of the visit he and Exmouth paid to the Palace of Bardo, where the Bey lived. The two admirals were made to sit on a commodious divan and were there regaled with coffee and sherbet.

“… While we were enjoying this display of Turkish manners, the Princess of Wales, who was at this time on a visit to the Bey, was ushered with two of her attendants through part of the hall, and into a side door, to take her farewell of the ladies of the harem. The Princess embarked before our squadron left Tunis, and it was an odd scene that so considerable a force of ships of the line and frigates should have to salute the royal standard of Britain flying at the head of a little hired Italian polacre…

The Bey, having complained of being subject to the gout, begged that the physician of the fleet might be sent to him. Doctor Denmark accordingly attended, and I was much amused when I heard that his advice was ‘temperance and exercise.’  The whole delight of the poor man was gluttony, and he never in his life was known to show any semblance of exertion, except one night when he got out of his bed to murder his brother…”

— Parkinson, C. Northcote.  Edward Pellew: Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red.  London, UK: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1934.

The negotiations in Algiers, however, were stormy and nearly resulted in war.  The Dey of Algiers gave instructions that all British subjects were to be detained, and two of Pellew’s fellow officers were pulled off their horses, robbed, beaten and brought into town.  The British consul was placed under house arrest, and the admiral himself was detained by Ottoman soldiers and very nearly killed before he could return to the flagship.  The only thing that prevented an immediate outbreak of war was unfavourable winds that forced the British fleet to stand offshore, out of cannon range.  Eventually the anger of both sides cooled and negotiations re-opened.

It was at this point in the discussion that the fact emerged that those messengers had been sent to Oran and Bona. The Dey apologized profusely. The counter-orders were sealed and dispatched in the presence of Sir Israel [Pellew, brother of Sir Edward] and his staff. They were given to understand that these would arrive in time to prevent anything unpleasant taking place: ‘and at all events every thing should be immediately restored on the same footing as before.’ Omar [Pashaw, the Dey] had the reputation of an honest man, but it is impossible not to see in all this a certain anxiety to gain time. The distance from Algiers to Bona is about 250 miles, that to Oran something less. The first messengers were sent off on the 16th, those bearing the counter-orders on the 19th. And here we have a man saying that the second party would overtake the first. How could that happen ? The journey would take a week or less, and the first set of messengers had three days’ start. There is a difference, we know, between the speed of one horse and the speed of another. But there is not as much difference as all that. One Barbe does not go twice as fast as another over a period of days. If the English officers saw nothing suspicious in this statement, they clearly should have done.

— Parkinson, C. Northcote.  Edward Pellew: Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red.  London, UK: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1934.

Pellew’s fleet then departed Algiers with some 401 ransomed slaves on the understanding that all would be as it was; this was, tragically, not the case.

On May 23rd, the Dey’s messengers had reached Bona. That town was the centre of the coral-fishing industry on the Barbary coast. The natives did no coral-fishing, and the fisheries were farmed by England. It was the custom for the English consul to issue licences to the coral-fishermen, who came from Corsica, Sicily and Sardinia. While on the Barbary coast they were regarded as under the protection of the country which rented the fisheries. On the 23rd, then, Ascension Day, some hundreds of these fishermen were on shore for the purpose of hearing Mass. When the orders arrived for the detention of British subjects, a body of Turkish troops was sent to arrest the fishermen. Some, it is said. attempted to resist or escape. The result was that 200 of them were massacred.

— Parkinson, C. Northcote.  Edward Pellew: Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red.  London, UK: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1934.

Exmouth had barely set foot in Britain before an enraged populace demanded that punitive action be taken.  The admiral’s offer to go back out and finish the job was readily accepted.  Although his mission was supposed to remain secret, virtually the whole of Britain knew where he was headed and why.  The news quickly spread to France, and thence to Algiers itself.  The Dutch had also been threatening Algiers since Exmouth’s departure, so any chance of finding the city’s defenders at ease was completely lost.  Algiers of 1816 was a well-defended city with stone walls, numerous fortifications and sheltered harbour with a mole (i.e. breakwater) high enough to prevent cannon fire from damaging the ships within.  There was some doubt in the British fleet as to whether her wooden walls could prevail against those of stone.

Exmouth arrived at Gibraltar on August 9th, 1816 to find a Dutch vice-admiral eager to co-operate with him.  Baron Van de Van de Capellan commanded five frigates and a corvette; they would be welcome additions to the British fleet.

The fleet under Exmouth’s orders consisted of the following vessels: Queen Charlotte (100), Impregnable (98), Superb (74), Minden (74), and Albion (74) – five sail of the line, including two three-deckers.  Half-way between these and the frigates must come the Leander (50). There were four frigates: Severn (40), Glasgow (40), Granicus (36), and Hebrus (36). The sloops apparently numbered seven, some of eighteen, some of ten guns. The bomb-vessels were four in number. The Dutch squadron consisted of five frigates and a corvette: Melampus (40), Frederica (40), Diana (4o), Amstel (40), Dageraad (30), and Eendragt (18). Three transports came with the fleet to carry the slaves it was hoped to liberate. One of the sloops was fitted as an explosion vessel, in case it should be needed. Five gunboats hastily fitted out at Gibraltar brought the total number of vessels up to thirty-five. But the departure of a sloop with dispatches for England lessened the total by one before Algiers was reached.

— Parkinson, C. Northcote.  Edward Pellew: Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red.  London, UK: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1934.

Sir Edward Pellew had three objectives for the assault on Algiers: first, to liberate the remaining slaves; second, to punish the Dey for past offences; third, to convince the Algerians that their defenses were not impregnable.

To gain the first objective, it was necessary to frighten the inhabitants into seeking terms.  The concrete-built town would not to be vulnerable to ordinary cannon shot; to inflict serious damage, bombs would be needed — hence the four bomb-vessels.   These ships could smash the town from a safe distance of two thousand yards or more.

To punish the Dey he would have to harm the government somehow.  The only effective way was to burn the Algerian navy, as nothing else in the town would burn.  Since the bomb-vessels were not precision weapons it would be necessary to place a warship at the harbour entrance.  No other position offered a possibility since the breakwater walls were simply too high.

Finally,  to convince the Algerians of their vulnerability, he would have to destroy some of the shore batteries.  The only ones within reasonable capability were those on the breakwater.  There was an enormous three-tiered battery toward the northern end of the breakwater; the British ships would have to halt close to the city’s southern shore to be out of its zones of fire.

[The morning of August 27th] At a quarter past five the frigate Severn was detached from the fleet and sent in under a flag of truce. The fleet lay to, a mile and a half from the town, while a boat from the Severn approached the mole. After a brief parley between [Abraham] Salamé, Exmouth’s Jewish interpreter, and the captain of the port, the latter agreed to take the English ultimatum to the Dey. Salamé demanded an answer within two hours, but was persuaded to extend the time to three hours. The terms of the ultimatum included the total abolition of Christian slavery and the repayment of the money recently paid in ransoms.

…At about 2.30 half an hour after the Dey’s answer was due, the boat waiting near the mole hoisted the signal ‘no answer has been given,’ and this was immediately repeated by the Severn. The flagship at once made the general signal ‘are you ready,’ to which every ship replied ‘ready.’ Exmouth then gave the order ‘annul the truce’; and then ‘hoist the jib.’ The Queen Charlotte paid off and stood slowly towards the mole before a moderate breeze from the north.

— Parkinson, C. Northcote.  Edward Pellew: Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red.  London, UK: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1934.

The Anglo-Dutch fleet moved into their assigned positions and waited.  Exmouth did not plan on being the first to open fire; although the Dey had sworn that he wouldn’t either, Exmouth gambled — correctly — that the Algerians would lose their heads and fire without orders.  One of the city’s shore batteries fired twice, missing.  The British ships-of-the-line returned fire with a simultaneous broadside, and the battle got underway at approximately 3:00pm.  They fired more or less continously until their magazines were expended and the fleet was ordered to retire at 10:15pm, under covering fire from the Minden.  By 11:30pm Minden‘s gunner reported her magazine was empty, too.

At noon on the day following the battle Exmouth sent the Dey a well-worded message, offering him peace on the terms which had been proposed the day before. ‘As England does not war for the destruction of cities,’ he wrote, ‘I am unwilling to visit your personal cruelties upon the inoffensive inhabitants of the country;’ but, should the terms be refused, ‘I shall renew my operations at my own convenience.’ As if to lend colour to the threat, the bomb-vessels began to resume their position in a very expert manner. They had hardly done so before three guns were fired to signify that the terms were accepted.

… One thousand and eighty-three slaves were liberated and put on board the transports. The money was repaid which had gone to ransom those previously liberated, the consul received an apology from the Dey, and a treaty was signed in which the Dey promised not to enslave Christians in future …

— Parkinson, C. Northcote.  Edward Pellew: Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red.  London, UK: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1934.

For his services at Algiers, Sir Edward Pellew was created 1st Viscount Exmouth on December 10th, 1816.   But the cost had been rather high by naval standards.  Although the fleet lost no ships, casualty rates were much higher than normal.  Some 818 men were wounded or killed; or roughly 16 per cent of the fleet’s combatants.  At the Nile, the figure was 11 per cent, and at Trafalgar — the greatest naval engagement of the age — it was even less, just 9 per cent.

Regrettably Sir Edward’s modern-day successors are rather more timid.  Fifteen sailors were plucked off their own boats without a fight, and the task force they came from did not give chase.  Why not?  Well, it wouldn’t be clever, says Admiral Sir Alan West, former First Sea Lord.

What are the rules of engagement in this type of situation?

The rules are very much de-escalatory, because we don’t want wars starting. The reason we are there is to be a force for good, to make the whole area safe, to look after the Iraqi big oil platforms and also to stop smuggling and terrorism there.

So we try to downplay things. Rather then roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back and that, of course, is why our chaps were effectively able to be captured and taken away.

If we find this is going to be a standard practice we need to think very carefully about what rules of engagement we want and how we operate. One can’t allow as a standard practice nations to capture a nation’s servicemen. That is clearly wrong.

— “To fight would not be clever“, BBC News | UK, 24 March 2007.

Yes, it is wrong.  It’s piracy, in fact.  And roaring into action and sinking something sounds like a pretty good plan when somebody commits piracy and kidnaps your sailors.  It might deter them from trying it again a few years down the road.  So far we have unanswered kidnappings in 2004 and 2007.  What is the threshold, exactly, where roaring around and sinking things comes into play?  The only reason Iran is even trying these head games is because it knows that the British lion isn’t going to maul something.  If the Iranians thought one of their naval bases might suffer a fate like Copenhagen or Algiers their decision tree would change pretty quickly.

And let’s not even give credence to the idea that these fellows (and lady) were out there without any idea of their position.  The Royal Navy has radar and tactical tracking systems, it knows where its men were, and knows they were in Iraqi waters.  One can safely surmise that the RN doesn’t send a few £180 million frigates into harm’s way without remembering to provide their boarding crews with a couple of £200 handheld GPS units.

What kind of equipment would the navy have to guide them?

They have GPS and they have a system which allows communications. It means they know where the mother ship is and the mother ship knows where they are. GPS means they know their position exactly.

It’s not like the old days when you went away in a boat and didn’t really have a clue where you were. But all they had were small arms, they don’t have heavy weapons. So of course to actually start fighting patrol boats would not be a clever thing.

— “To fight would not be clever“, BBC News | UK, 24 March 2007.

Incidentally, what where the helicopter and frigate doing while all this was going on?  Who had overwatch on those boarding parties?  What exactly is stopping CTF 158 from steaming for the nearest Iranian naval facility and emptying the magazines?

Tony Blair has said he would have sent a task force to liberate the Falkland Islands if he had been Prime Minister when Argentina invaded 25 years ago.

The Prime Minister praised the courage of Lady Thatcher who took the decision to try to retake the desolate South Atlantic islands which had been a British Crown colony since 1833. “I have got no doubt it was the right thing to do,” Mr Blair said. “But for reasons not simply to do with British sovereignty but also because I think there was a principle at stake.

— Andrew Pierce,  “Blair ‘would have sent force to Falklands’“.  Daily Telegraph, 24 March 2007.

I would have thought that there was also an important principle to be defended in not letting other nations run roughshod over you by kidnapping your sailors and interfering with your internationally-sanctioned mission.  Time to start thinking about that.

This little gem from an unofficial RN forum sums up the calculus nicely for me:

Lose fifteen guys? Desk job forever.
Blow the Iranians into Allah`s front parlour and you the man my son
No one would dare sack a Captain with such balls.

Right then.  Beat to quarters.  Clear the decks for action.

UPDATE 261554Z MAR 2007: Kateland, mother of The Last Amazon, is not too impressed and reminds us that there is a significant, albeit seldom discussed, Arab aspect to the slave trade.  The Tiger in Exile also remembers the bicentennial of slave trade abolition, and weighs in on the Iranian act of piracy as well.

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2 Responses
  1. Kateland says:

    Great post Chris, and of course your right, but you know, I find it incredible how little media play this story has been gettting. I really did expect to see it splashed across each of the dailies in TO….apparently its not that big deal of a story….puzzling, truly puzzling.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    I strongly suspect it is an admirable but misguided sense of objectivity on their part. They surmise — correctly — that widespread reporting of the incident would probably create a public consensus for action and baying for blood. So it’s back-burnered.
    The problem is that sometimes, it’s entirely appropriate for nations to extract their pound of flesh from each other. I happen to think it would be highly appropriate in this case. But I imagine a lot of newsroom editors outside the UK would disagree.