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.