Sometimes, a slave escaped.
Francis Knight was an English merchant who was captured by Algerian corsairs in December 1631, six months after Murad’s raid on Baltimore. He was twenty-three years old and destined to spend the next five and a half years with a succession of masters in Algiers, “that city fatal to all Christians.”1
In the summer of 1637 he was sold—for the fourth time in less than six years—to an Italian renegade, Ali Bitshnin, as a galley slave. Ali was a powerful figure in Algiers: “one of the greatest slave-merchants that Barbary ever produced,” said John Morgan in his eighteenth-century Complete History of Algiers.2 He was also an ambitious corsair admiral, and in May 1638, Knight found himself embarked as an oarsman in a combined expedition of sixteen Algerian and Tunisian galleys which set out for Italy, with his master as commander.
With flags, standards, and streamers blowing in the breeze, the fleet grouped at La Goulette and sailed up into the Tyrrhenian Sea, past volcanic Stromboli (where several of the inhabitants were so frightened at the sight of the Turks that they ran straight into the “affrighting fires perpetually burning”3), and along the Calabrian coast, before doubling back through the Straits of Messina and into the Adriatic. They wrought havoc as they went, kidnapping hundreds of terrified citizens—including a bishop and fifteen nuns “whom they prostituted to their lust”4—and destroying isolated farmsteads, small villages, and big towns. Encountering no resistance at all, they burned fishing boats, slaughtered horses and cattle, and laid waste to fields of corn. “Thus was Italy the eye of Christendom infested by these rovers,” said Knight ruefully.5
In October a Venetian fleet caught up with Ali Bitshnin’s galleys off the coast of Albania, and the corsairs were forced to seek refuge in the heavily fortified Ottoman garrison of Valona (modern-day Vlora), Ali persuading the governor of the castle to defend his men “from the violence of the Nazerene misbelievers,” even though his own raid had very definitely not been sanctioned by the Sublime Porte. Fearing at one stage that the Venetians might storm ashore and capture their slaves, Ali and his captains placed them in one of the castle’s towers, more than a thousand men, women, and children, “all lying 10 and 10 in chains, [in] a place as dark as pitch, and a foot thick in dust.”6 Ali eventually escaped inland, taking with him the Algerians, the Tunisians, and all the captives who could still walk. Among those left behind because they were too sick to travel was Francis Knight.
“God that had preserved us in so many inevitable dangers,” recalled Knight in the account he wrote of his captivity, “did also restore some of us to more than an ordinary strength of body. . . . No sooner were we able to stand upon our legs, but we are studious how to bring to pass our liberty.”7On Saturday, October 22, 1638, their Turk jailer went to a neighboring town for the day, and while he was away the prisoners managed to unchain themselves “and the locks again so put in as to be taken out with our fingers.” Soon after midnight, Knight and twelve others—a cosmopolitan bunch which consisted of three more Englishmen, a Welsh-man, a Jersey man, two Frenchmen, a Spaniard, a Majorcan, a Neopolitan, a Greek, and a Maltese boy—slipped out of their chains while the jailer was sleeping. “What became of our keeper I cannot tell,” Knight said a little uneasily. “My consorts told me they had not done him any violence.”8
The fugitives took bread and water, and a rope that they used to scale the walls of the castle. Then they walked along the shore for a couple of miles in the darkness until they came on two little boats pulled up on the beach. They stove in the planks of one, and took the other out to sea, rowing for two nights and a day until they finally reached Venetian-held Corfu, about eighty miles south of Valona. Greek Orthodox monks sheltered them, and eventually they were brought before the governor of the island, who gave them passes to board a galley bound for Venice. From there, Knight found passage on a Bristol merchant ship, the Charles, arriving in England in 1639, and the following year he published the story of his seven years’ captivity, in the hope that it would rally support for “my poor country-men, groaning under the merciless yoke of Turkish thralldom.”9
An opportunistic escape from captivity like Knight’s was unusual, but not unique. The master-slave relationship on the Barbary Coast was not at all clear, and those victims of piracy who were determined to find their way home sometimes exploited this ambiguity. In 1634 or 1635, for example, an English sailor named John Dunton was captured off Land’s End in the Little David, which was bound for Virginia with fifty-seven men, women, and children aboard. They were all taken to Salé and sold, including Dunton and his young son. Soon afterward Dunton’s Algerian master invested in a slaving expedition setting out from Salé for the south coast of England, and he sent Dunton as pilot, keeping the little boy behind in Algiers. The captain of the vessel was a Frieslander, John Rickles, who was also a slave; so was the gunner, Jacob Cornelius, and two other Dutch crewmen. The rest were Moors.
As they approached England, Dunton and the Dutchmen agreed they would try to bring the ship into port. They captured an English fishing boat with nine crew “with intention to make a party against the Moors,” and when they reached the Isle of Wight, Rickles called on the Europeans “to stand up for their lives and liberties, whereupon they drove the Moors into the hold.”10 They hoisted a white flag, hung the Salé colors over the stern into the water, and sailed into port to give themselves up.
The ambiguities didn’t end there. There was some question as to their real motives in taking the fishing boat, one of whose crewmen had leaped overboard and drowned; at their trial in Winchester at the end of October 1636, the Dutchmen were consistently referred to as renegadoes rather than slaves and admonished by the judge to repent their apostasy. At one point Captain Rickles collapsed in a faint at the bar, “which was occasioned, as he himself stated, and as was conceived by the standers-by, seeing the sweat run down his face ere he fell, by the consideration of the foulness of his sin being laid open to him.”11 Pirates who were apprehended by the authorities, or who simply had had enough of the life and come home, often claimed they had been enslaved and forced into a life of piracy by their owners; unless anyone was found to bear witness against them, it was hard to prove they were lying.
Rickles, Dunton, and the other Europeans were all acquitted of piracy, while the Moors were convicted and sentenced to death. Two of them offered to convert to Christianity if it would save their lives; others hinted that their comrades back home in Salé would willingly exchange them for Christian slaves. The Europeans asked that none of the Moors should be allowed to go free, in case word of what had happened got back to Barbary and their countrymen suffered as a result. Dunton, though, pleaded with the court to be given one of the Moors so that he could exchange him for his ten-year-old son in Algiers. He also produced petitions from local fishermen who had had their own children and friends taken, to the same purpose. They were all refused.
Exchange was an accepted way of liberating victims of piracy, as it was any captive or prisoner of war. In the same year that Dunton and the others seized their chance to escape, Charles I received an anonymous letter proposing that idle and lascivious women should be exchanged with the Turks for their male captives, “so that one harlot might redeem half a dozen captives that are made slaves to fulful the lustful desires of the heathen Turks.”12 (The notion that Turks used men to gratify their sexual desires merely because they couldn’t find suitable women suggests the writer was woefully ignorant of human sexuality. Or that he was a sailor.) Tit-for-tat expeditions to capture sailors, fishermen, or coastal villagers who could in turn be exchanged for sailors, fishermen, and coastal villagers captured by the other side played a big part in perpetuating the cycle of Christian-Muslim violence all round the Mediterranean basin throughout the seventeenth century.
In general, citizens of Catholic Europe who had the misfortune to be taken by pirates had more chance of getting home than their Protestant counterparts, because there was more contact between Barbary and the Catholic nations which bordered the Mediterranean, and also because ever since the Crusades, when the need arose to rescue Christians taken prisoner by the Saracens, the Catholic Church had operated two religious orders whose raison d’être was the redemption of captives held in the Islamic world. The clerical Order of Trinitarians, founded in France in about 1193, and the lay Order of Mercedarians, which was founded in Barcelona twenty-five years later, worked extensively along the Barbary Coast, the former tending to send its monks to Tunis and Algiers, and the latter concentrating on Salé, Tetouan, and the other Moroccan strongholds.
Redemptist friars negotiate to ransom European slaves.
Mercedarian friars gathered goods, livestock, Muslim prisoners, and money to ransom Christian slaves. They collected from door to door, delivering sermons in churches and marketplaces, always emphasizing the cruel treatment meted out to Christians by Moors and Turks, and the terrible possibility that captives might lose their souls by converting to Islam. When enough money had been collected to mount an expedition, and all the necessary safe-conduct permissions had been obtained, those friars who had been chosen as redeemers set out, carrying a banner painted with an image of Christ’s descent into limbo. If the expedition was successful, redeemers and redeemed made a triumphal entry into their city in a grand procession with the redemption banner at its head, followed by the redeemed, all wearing the white Mercedarian scapular, accompanied by the local clergy, and with the redeemers bringing up the rear.
The monks and friars who worked with the redemptist orders were dedicated men who cheerfully put their own lives at risk to save others. Unless it was absolutely impossible, they always traveled to Barbary themselves, rather than sending proxies, and if they found captives who were in danger of converting to Islam and there was not enough money to redeem them, they sometimes stayed behind as hostages in their place. But they weren’t all that concerned about the saving of Protestant souls, and British victims of piracy had, by and large, to look to less formalized methods for their redemption.
Ransom was one such method, and licensed collections were regularly taken in British churches to buy the freedom of slaves. In 1643, for example, a group of women successfully petitioned Parliament for collections to be held over a two-month period in churches in London, Westminster, and the surrounding suburbs to raise money to ransom their husbands, who “were taken by Turkish pirates, carried to Algier, and there now remain in miserable captivity, having great fines imposed upon them.”13 But poor private citizens were at the mercy of a government bureaucracy which moved very slowly and took its cut at every conceivable opportunity. Collectors took a percentage; officials at the Admiralty, which was supposed to organize the payment of the ransoms, took a percentage; consuls and merchants and the middlemen who brokered the handover took a percentage. And what money was left was often diverted toward securing the freedom of the more influential captives, leaving common sailors nothing but dreams of ever seeing their wives and families again.
Estimates of the numbers of European slaves in Barbary varied wildly from one observer to another. In 1634 the Trinitarian Pierre Dan reckoned that 32,000 were being held in Tunis and Algiers. Francis Knight, on the other hand, put the number of Christians “groaning under the yoke of Turkish tyranny” in Algiers alone at nearly twice that number.14 Inevitably, such rough estimates are less than reliable. But the threat was real enough, with corsair raiding parties making their presence felt right along the south coast of England. In September 1635 the governor of Pendennis Castle, Sir Nicholas Slanning, reported that six Turkish warships stood off Land’s End, lying in wait for the return of the Newfoundland fishing fleet. “This news terrifies the country,” he said. As well it might—a few days later the mayor of Dartmouth reported that two ships on the way home from Newfoundland had been taken by Turkish pirates less than ten miles off Cornwall’s Lizard Point, thirty miles east of Land’s End. Sixty seamen were carried off “to increase the number of the western captives.”15 A thousand poor women petitioned Charles I to send an ambassador to Salé to plead for the release of their husbands, who were in “woeful slavery, enduring extreme labour, want of sustenance, and grievous torments.”16
By 1636 there was a definite air of panic among the merchants and fishing fleets that operated out of the south-coast ports. Shipowners from Exeter, Dartmouth, Plymouth, Barnstable, Southampton, Poole, Weymouth, and Lyme Regis got together and complained to the king that over the past few years they had lost an alarming eighty-seven vessels to piracy, which, along with their cargoes, were worth £96,700. In addition, 1,160 English seamen were kept “in miserable captivity”; and the burden of caring for the wives and children of those captives was becoming intolerable. The petitioners begged that the Admiralty would issue letters of marque for taking the pirates, as well as mounting regular patrols “of some nimble ships” to protect coastal waters.17
The raiders were back that summer. Another forty-two seamen were captured off the Lizard, and two fishing boats were taken by a Turkish man-of-war in full view of the fort at Plymouth. In September 1636, with the Newfoundland fleet due home at any time, the same group of merchants petitioned the king again, complaining there were now so many pirates about that “seamen refuse to go [to sea], and fishermen refrain to take fish, whereby customs and imposts are lessened, merchandising is at a stand, petitioners are much impoverished, and many of them utterly undone.”18Plymouth organized monthly collections to ransom captives, and in October the Cornish divine Charles Fitzgeffry preached three sermons before the mayor of Plymouth, urging compassion toward “our brethren and country-men who are in miserable bondage in Barbary.” Taking as his text Hebrews 13:3 (“Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them”), Fitzgeffry’s impressive rhetoric railed with an alliterative flourish against “miscreant Mahometans” and urged his congregation to ponder the recent “tragical transportation of our brethren from Baltimore into that Babylon, Barbary.”19 Praising the men who had died trying to defend their families, he was in no doubt that they had the happier fate: “Better it is to fall by the hands, than into the hands of those tyrannous Turks, whose saving is worse than slaying.”20
The miscreant Mahometans currently causing such havoc for West Country merchants and shipowners were the Salé rovers of Morocco. In 1613, during the last Spanish expulsion of the Moriscos, a group of Moriscos from Extremadura, in western Spain, found their way to Salé on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, where Mawlay Zidan allowed them to settle in a decrepit old fortress at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River. Taking their name from their home town of Hornacha in Extremadura, the Hornacheros repaired the fort and came to an informal arrangement with Mawlay Zidan whereby they took care of his defenses along that particular stretch of the North Atlantic coast in return for being allowed to make their living as privateers. Within a decade the Morisco settlement at “New Sallee” had attracted several thousand Muslim exiles (and several hundred European renegades and outlaws), and when Mawlay Zidan died, in 1627, the Hornacheros decided they were powerful enough to dispense with the patronage of his ineffectual successor, Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik. Encouraged by a charismatic religious leader named Mohammed al-Ayyashi, who was simultaneously waging a holy war against the Spanish and making a play for control of the northwestern corner of Morocco, they broke away and set up their own small republic, presided over by a Grand Admiral and his council.
The Hornacheros signed a treaty with England in 1627, each side agreeing not to engage in acts of piracy against the other. But the treaty broke down four years later, when the William and John of London got into a fight with a Salé man-of-war off Cape St. Vincent. Each side blamed the other for the incident, but the end result was that the Salé rovers no longer felt any compunction about preying on English shipping.
In 1626, Trinity House had reckoned there were between 1,200 and 1,400 English captives at Salé, all or mostly taken in the English Channel. “When the ships are full of the King’s subjects, the pirates return to Sallee, sell the captives in the common market, and then return for more.”21 Ten years later, and five years after the breakdown of the treaty with the Hornacheros, a ransomed English sailor reported that ten Salé men-of-war were preparing to set out for the English coast, and the authorities at Plymouth were told that 200 Christian captives were landed at Salé on one single day. “In times past,” complained West Country merchants, “only the pirates of Algiers sometimes came into the English and Irish channels; now the pirates of Sallee are become so numerous, strong, and nimble in their ships, and are so well piloted into these channels by English and Irish captives” that no one dared put to sea.22
Something had to be done. The Salé corsairs of the Bou Regreg estuary were disrupting English trade, selling English citizens in markets from Tetouan to Tunis, and putting the fear of Mohammed’s God into coastal communities throughout the West Country. In the summer of 1636, pirates were seen lurking in the Severn estuary, and reports of losses started to pour in from ports along the coasts of Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall. John Crewkerne, a representative sent from Weymouth to petition Charles I for help, told the king to his face that coastal patrols weren’t enough, a view that (fortunately for Crewkerne) was seconded at the meeting by Archbishop Laud, who assured the merchant that “whilst he had breath in his body he would do his utmost endeavor to advance so necessary and consequential a business.”23
The merchants of Exeter argued that as well as providing regular patrols, the king should issue letters of marque to allow suspicious vessels to be stopped and searched for “supplies of munition and provisions for war”; that Exeter and the other western ports should be allowed to commission a ship or ships of their own to attack pirates in the Channel; and, most important, that the king should send a punitive expedition to mount a blockade of Salé and to intercept those pirates who were out on the cruise as they returned home. Four ships of 300 tons each and two pinnaces could mount a blockade that would ruin the corsairs within a year.
Weymouth and Exeter weren’t the only ports to propose direct action against the pirates of Salé. In June, Captain Giles Penn, a Bristol merchant who traded regularly with Morocco, approached the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Francis Cottington, and suggested the king mount an expedition against “the heathen moors of Sallee.”24 Penn was well acquainted with the complex political scene in Morocco—he may have been acting at the behest of the sultan in Marrakesh, who saw an English naval blockade of Salé as an inexpensive way of bringing down the Hornachero rebels—and Cottington gave Penn enough encouragement for him to take his proposal further. In October 1636 he wrote to the secretary of state, Sir Francis Windebank, and in December to the Lords of the Admiralty, each time setting out the requirements for a successful venture. The expeditionary force should consist of 800 men in four ships and two pinnaces, with “able surgeons, doctors of physic, and good divines.”25 Shirts and jackets should be provided for the poorer seamen, and the force should take some captured Moors along as exchange prisoners. Penn sketched out the political situation on the Bou Regreg: there was growing tension between the rovers in their fortress at New Salé and their erstwhile ally, the holy man Mohammed al-Ayyashi, who was based across the river in Old Salé. He ended by urging the fleet to set sail before the end of January. Otherwise the corsairs would leave on their spring cruise before it arrived.
And because it had all been his idea, and because private gain and public office were inseparable in seventeenth-century culture, Captain Penn asked the Admiralty to make him commander of the expedition—and “surveyor of all goods taken in reprisal during the voyage.”26
The political will to suppress the activities of the Salé pirates and to secure the release of their English captives was there. And so, for a change, was the cash to fund an expedition. The writ for the first ship-money levy of 1634, which was directed solely toward the maritime counties, stated that one reason for its imposition was the need to finance action against “thieves, pirates, and robbers of the sea.”27 When writs, now extended to the inland counties, were issued in 1636 to fund the ship-money fleets for the following year, nearly £190,000 was collected. As resistance to the ship money began to grow, it would do the king no harm to produce a very public demonstration of how well that money was being spent.
At four o’clock on the afternoon of Friday, March 24, 1637, three English ships anchored off New Salé and began a blockade of the harbor. There was a 400-ton merchantman, the Mary, which had been chartered for the voyage, and two 600-ton men-of-war, the Antelope and the Leopard. John Dunton, the English captive who had helped to steer his captors to the Isle of Wight and justice the previous year, had got a place as master aboard the Leopard, the expedition’s flagship, still hoping for news of his little boy in Algiers.
Giles Penn was nowhere to be seen. Having accepted his advice and his proposal, the Lords of the Admiralty decided he wasn’t the man to command the fleet, in spite of his plaintive assertions that he had no equal when it came to a knowledge of the Moroccan people. Their choice as “general of the south squadron of the Salé fleet,”28 and Dunton’s captain aboard the Leopard, was William Rainborow, a forty-nine-year-old professional mariner and shipowner. One of the most respected figures in the English maritime world, Rainborow was a past master of Trinity House, an adviser to the government on naval matters, and the flag captain to the Lord High Admiral, the Earl of Northumberland, when the latter commanded the king’s fleet in the Channel in the summer of 1636.
It was probably Northumberland who put his flag captain’s name forward for Salé. Rainborow was known as a man who understood maritime warfare, and he had direct experience of dealing with corsairs: back in 1618 he had earned a commendation from the Levant Company for his service against pirates in the Mediterranean.29 And in 1628 he achieved considerable renown when, as the master (and co-owner) of the Sampson, a heavily armed merchantman that sailed back and forth between London and Istanbul for the Levant Company, he fought off an attack by four galleys manned by the Knights of Malta, who maintained, quite falsely, that the Sampson had just robbed a Maltese cargo ship. The battle, which was “as sharp as hath been upon these seas in many years,” lasted for seven hours, during which time the Knights scored 120 hits on the vessel’s hull, masts, and rigging.30 The English ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, returning home aboard the Sampson after more than six years at the sultan’s court, narrowly missed death when he was knocked flat by a flying piece of timber. (His wife’s parrot was not so lucky—it was killed by a shot that smashed into the cabin.) But Rainborow, “who behaved himself with brave courage and temper,” gave as good as he got, and the galleys eventually retreated with the loss of 300 men. The Sampson lost the parrot, two sheep, and one unnamed passenger.
Rainborow was a good leader, a good sailor, and a good choice to command this expedition. But a series of events beyond his control meant that things were going badly. His fleet arrived off Salé seriously under strength. The Hercules, another merchant ship that had been chartered for the expedition, had lost its main mast in a storm off the coast of Portugal and been forced to put in at Lisbon for repairs. And the Leopard, the Antelope, and the Mary should have been supported by two 300-ton pinnaces, the Providence and the Expedition, specially designed for fast inshore work, intercepting any pirate galleys that might try to slip in and out of harbor by keeping to the shallow coastal waters where the big men-of-war couldn’t follow. But neither vessel had been launched by the time Rainborow was ready to sail, and he made the decision to leave without them, fearful that, as Penn had pointed out, the corsairs might be gone when he reached Salé. And he was right not to wait: French and Spanish slaves who swam for the Leopard and their freedom when they saw the English fleet arrive told Rainborow that the renegade captains of Salé were on the point of setting off for the English coast on a slaving raid.
The harbor at New Salé was behind a small headland at the mouth of the river, out of sight and out of range of the English guns; for the moment at least, the corsairs had little to fear from their enemy. When the governor of New Salé, Abd Allah ben Ali el-Kasri, heard that the three ships which had appeared off the coast were English, his response was defiant: “What care I for the King of England’s ships, or all the Christian kings in the world? Am I not King of Salé?” And his reaction to the letter that Rainborow sent in to the citadel, demanding the release of all Christian slaves and “satisfaction for ships and goods, and for all those Christians that they sold away both to Algier and other countries before we came here” was simple and, for the English, frustrating. He did absolutely nothing.31
Rainborow deployed the Antelope and the Mary to the north and south of the estuary, while he took the central position in the Leopard. The loss of the Hercules was inconvenient, but the absence of the two pinnaces was much more serious, as the English found out three days into their blockade, when a corsair arrived from Algiers. By staying close in to the shore, he sailed straight into harbor in the middle of the afternoon, despite the fact that the Antelope, which had to stand off in deep water, “did shoot above 100 pieces of ordnance at that ship.”32
There was no way of knowing when the other half of the fleet would turn up. (The Hercules sailed into Salé Road in mid-April, nearly four weeks after Rainborow and the others; the two pinnaces didn’t arrive until the middle of June.) But as Rainborow pondered the unpleasant prospect of sitting helplessly at anchor while all the thirty or so vessels in the Salé pirate fleet slipped away in ones and twos, the watch on the Leopard reported that fighting had broken out along the shores of the Bou Regreg between the inhabitants of Old Salé, the walled port that lay on the northern bank of the river, and the corsair community on the south bank. It was more than just a skirmish, too: the battle lasted all day, “and a great many men and horses were killed and hurt.”33
That evening a white flag of truce appeared on the ramparts of Old Salé. Rainborow dispatched a party of men in longboats, heavily armed and wary. They returned with two hostages, a request for a surgeon to treat the wounded, and a letter from Mohammed al-Ayyashi, the rebel leader and holy man who had encouraged the corsairs to set up their own republic in the first place, and who was now using the old town as his headquarters. His hopes of enlisting the pirates of New Salé in his holy war to drive the Spanish out of their Moroccan enclaves had gone sour—their political and religious aspirations didn’t match up to their passion for profit and privateering—and from taking the occasional potshot at each other across the Bou Regreg, the two communities had graduated to skirmishes and now to pitched battle.
Rainborow realized that the situation could work to his advantage. He agreed to al-Ayyashi’s request for medical help, and while his surgeon’s mate was tending the wounded, he opened peace negotiations with “the Saint,” as the English called the Muslim holy man.
This infuriated and scared the New Salé pirates. They accused al-Ayyashi and his men of “turning Christian”—an ironic twist to the familiar English insult—and on April 20 they launched another assault on Old Salé. “The two towns . . . were in fight very hard one against another,” wrote John Dunton, “and did kill a great many men on both sides. We did stand and look upon them in our ships as they were at fight.”34 The next day the Saint, convinced now that his enemy’s enemy must be his friend, invited Rainborow’s senior gunner ashore to inspect his fortifications, telling him “he should have all the old town at his command, as castles, forts, and guns, and men, and all to lay siege and battery against the new town.”35
The Leopard’s gunner, Richard Simpson, had combat experience stretching back at least to the Duke of Buckingham’s ill-fated 1627 expedition to La Rochelle, where by his own account he “made many a shot . . . before any other.”36 Now he was sent ashore with a couple of others to find suitable emplacements on the northern bank from which the fleet’s heaviest guns could be brought to bear on New Salé—and on the corsair fleet, still at anchor in the shallow waters of the Bou Regreg. The English gunners mounted four of al-Ayyashi’s guns on the ramparts of Old Salé and provided their new allies with shot, barrels of powder, and expertise. Sending for the best gunners on each ship, Rainborow “appointed every gunner and his company his day, and to take power and shot with them, and so to go to work with their ships to sink and burn them all.”37
Three of the corsair men-of-war were sunk the first day, and ten more in the coming weeks. The walls of Old Salé and New Salé were about 750 yards apart and to achieve greater accuracy with their shot, English sailors excavated a huge defensive earthwork on the sandy northern river bank, half that distance from the enemy’s city, where they set up a platform and mounted their heaviest guns.
Day in and day out the guns boomed, and the heavy shot rained down on ships and storehouses and homes. Timbers splintered and cracked. Plumes of dirt and dust filled the air. Dense clouds of smoke drifted across the river as raiding parties sent by al-Ayyashi set fire to the corsairs’ corn in the fields. Ships that tried to slip in or out of harbor were intercepted or sunk or driven onto the shore, where the Old Salétians captured or killed survivors. Slaves ran for their freedom whenever the opportunity presented itself. Food began to run short. Pirates slipped away and deserted to the other side. And at the beginning of June those who were left in the city mounted a coup. The governor, Abd Allah ben Ali el-Kasri, was deposed, and the rebels sent him in chains to the new sultan at Marrakesh, the eighteen-year-old Mohammed ech-Cheikh el-Ashgar, in the hope that now that they were at war with his enemy al-Ayyashi, he would come to their aid, or at least intercede against the English. Dunton noted ruefully that although the English fleet had intelligence that this was about to happen, “it was such a night, and so dark, and such a fog, that our boats could not meet with him.”38
A week later, on June 13, the arrival of the two pinnaces and the sight of their crews using their oars to chase after a ship that was trying to get into harbor, as though they were swift Mediterranean galleys, alarmed the beleaguered pirates so much that they sent a delegation out to the Leopard to sue for peace. But Rainborow maintained his demand that the pirates not only surrender all their Christians, but also provide adequate compensation “for all that ever had been taken by them,” and the negotiations broke down.39
Not so the blockade, which was maintained with awesome efficiency. On July 3 the Leopard forced a Salé man-of-war ashore, with the death of fifty-five Moors and Turks; on July 12 the Providence chased another into the arms of al-Ayyashi’s men, who captured and killed its crew of eighty-five. Ships that came to trade at New Salé were all turned back. They included the Neptune of Amsterdam, which arrived with a cargo of gunpowder that, her captain claimed rather unconvincingly, was really intended for rebels farther down the coast and not for the corsairs at all. Rainborow confiscated forty of the fifty-one barrels and sent the Neptune on its way.
On Thursday, July 27, 1637, four months after the English fleet began its blockade, a Moroccan ship arrived off the coast of Salé. It brought a delegation from the young sultan. There was an English merchant named Robert Blake, who lived in Marrakesh and who had volunteered to act as interpreter; Mohammed el-Ashgar’s personal representative; and, much to everyone’s surprise, el-Kasri, the deposed former governor of New Salé. Instead of beheading el-Kasri, as the English had expected, the sultan had offered to restore him to office—but only if the corsairs would disband their republic and recognize Mohammed’s (i.e., the young sultan’s) authority, pay him a huge sum in customs duties which they had originally promised to collect on his behalf, and accede to all the English demands.
Rainborow’s initial response was to bring el-Kasri aboard the Leopard and threaten to hang him, “at which he trembled very much.”40 On the Saturday, after talking with Blake, the besieged corsairs sent out thirteen Christian captives as a token of goodwill, and Rainborow finally agreed that el-Kasri and the sultan’s official, or qaid, could enter New Salé to present terms to the besieged Moriscos. “They desire to see whether you have any Moors amongst the renegadoes,” Rainborow informed George Carteret, his vice-admiral aboard the Antelope. “If they say they be Moors, I pray let them have them. If they say they be Christians, I pray keep them.”41
The deal was done by Monday, and over the next three days another 293 slaves were handed over. “They did make as much haste to bring our Christians aboard as they could,” wrote Dunton, “because they would have us gone.”42
After four months the blockade was over. The English force suffered its share of casualties. One sailor had a leg blown off by the Moors while he was working on the gun platform on the exposed northern bank of the river. He survived, but others weren’t so lucky. A member of the Leopard’s crew was shot in the head as the blockaders tried to set fire to two men-of-war that were leaving the harbor. Two men from the Hercules were killed in the same action, both hit in the back by arrows, and thirty more were wounded in the arms and legs by small shot.
Against this, Rainborow had delivered a catastrophic blow to the Salé rovers, destroying more than a dozen ships and killing hundreds of men. By making alliances with both the Saint and the sultan (who remained implacable enemies to each other), he had completely destabilized the pirate republic. And if he hadn’t managed to extract much in the way of compensation from New Salé, he had liberated its Christian captives. The final count was an impressive 348, comprising 302 English, Scottish, and Irish (including eleven women); twenty-seven Frenchmen; eight Dutchmen; and eleven Spaniards. The expedition was a tremendous success, by any standards. And there was more to come.
By August 8, 1637, all the freed slaves had been handed over. Rainborow sent off the Antelope, the Hercules, and the two pinnaces, telling them to “rove and range the coast of Spain, and to look for Turks’ men-of-war.” 43 They were all back in England six weeks later, having cheerfully disregarded their instructions.
Meanwhile, the Leopard and the Mary, reinforced by two supply ships which arrived from England days after the main fleet left for home, sailed down the coast to Safi, where Blake and the sultan’s representative disembarked and set out for Mohammed’s court at Marrakesh. They took with them Rainborow’s son, one of his lieutenants, a couple of chastened representatives from the erstwhile corsair republic, and a mixture of ambitions and aspirations. Rainborow hoped that the delegation would secure the freedom of more British slaves, and that the sultan would undertake to suppress corsair bases on the Atlantic coast. Blake, who had commercial interests in Morocco, was trying to broker a trade agreement with England. The Moroccan qaid hoped for English aid against el-Ayyashi and other rebel leaders who were threatening the sultan’s authority. At the very least, he looked to Charles I to put a stop to the activities of English merchants who happily traded guns to rebel strongholds farther down the Atlantic coast at Essaouira, Agadir, and Massa.
It was a month before the English party returned to Safi, and when they did, they brought with them four Barbary horses, four hawks, and sixteen English captives, all gifts from Sultan Mohammed to Charles I. They also brought a draft treaty which confirmed the peace between England and Morocco. And they brought Mohammed’s ambassador to the English court—a Portuguese renegade and his retinue of twenty-eight officials and servants. The sultan’s letter to Charles I which accompanied them announced grandiloquently:
We send to you the slave of our lofty abode and our emissary to you for sultanic purposes the favored and most approved and noble and fortunate qaid Jawdar ben Abd Allah in the company of our servant the merchant Robert Blake. . . . Our aforementioned slave has received from us that which he will deliver to you, so accept graciously what he will give to you and God (who is exalted) will fulfill the aims in going out and coming in.44
The sultan went on to urge King Charles to look kindly on Robert Blake, who had worked hard to broker the agreement. He ended on a particularly optimistic note. “Your desires in this lofty territory will be fulfilled and your petitions all accepted and observed. We shall find none of them too difficult.”
At four in the afternoon of Wednesday, September 21, with a light wind and a calm sea, the Leopard hoisted its anchor and set sail for home.
As the shadows lengthened on a cold Sunday afternoon in November 1637, crowds of Londoners filled the narrow streets to watch a spectacular procession wend its way from Wood Street in the heart of the capital to the sprawling labyrinth that was the Palace of Whitehall. One of the city marshals led the way on horseback, accompanied by half a dozen servants who shouted and pushed people back, clearing a way through. Then came seven trumpeters, followed by four Moroccans in red livery. Each Moor led a fine Barbary horse covered with cloths of damask; two were equipped with saddles, bridles, and stirrups “plated over with massif gold of rare workmanship, esteemed each worth 1000 £.”45 Next walked the sixteen freed slaves—the hawks that should have preceded them had been handed over to the king four days previously, because he feared “their misusage from unskillful keepers.”46 There were city captains with great plumes in their hats, ten Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber in black velvet (there should have been twelve, but two didn’t turn up), and Charles I’s master of ceremonies, Sir John Finet, who choreographed the entire procession.
But all eyes were on the figure who followed Finet. Flanked on his left by the Earl of Shrewsbury and on his right by Robert Blake, rode Jawdar ben Abd Allah. His page walked beside him. One servant carried his scimitar, another had his slippers and his horse’s golden bridle. He was escorted by four footmen in blue livery and followed by eight more members of his household, “Moors in their country habits on horseback.”47
The pageant marched slowly past the soaring Gothic walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral (covered in scaffolding to receive a classical face-lift from Inigo Jones), and along Fleet Street, until it reached Temple Bar, where the Moroccan ambassador was met by a 400-strong contingent of Westminster’s local militia, who formed up on either side of the way as a guard of honor to escort him into Whitehall. There he was introduced to Charles I, and then to Henrietta Maria, whom he addressed in Arabic, interpreted by Blake. The four Barbary horses were presented to the king, along with the sixteen captives, and after a short private conference, Jawdar ben Abd Allah returned through the darkness to his Wood Street lodging—this time in a royal coach, because it was so dark that he couldn’t find his horse.
This spectacle was intended not only to honor the representative of a new and important ally, but also to provide a public display of English might, a loud proclamation of the Salé expedition’s success against the pirates. From the moment Rainborow arrived in the Downs, his mission was hailed as a triumph. He was fêted as a conquering hero. The king offered him a knighthood, which he declined, accepting instead a gold chain and medal worth £300.
The procession through the streets of London by a symbolic group of freed slaves (most had been dropped off at Torbay in Devon as soon as the fleet reached England) was a first, and a vindication of the ship-money levy—as the king’s ministers were quick to appreciate. “This action of Salé is so full of honor,” Thomas Wentworth told Archbishop Laud, “that it should, me thinks, help much toward the ready and cheerful payment of shipping monies.”48 Even Giles Penn was finally rewarded for having the idea in the first place: in December the king authorized him “to be his Majesty’s consul at Salé, and to execute that office by himself and his deputies in Morocco and Fez.”49 John Dunton published an account of the expedition, mentioning sadly that his little boy in Algiers was now “like to be lost for ever.”50 Then he, too, disappeared forever from the history books.
The ambassador stayed in London for six months, with the English treasury meeting his expenses to the tune of £25 per day while he and Blake ironed out the terms of the treaty with government ministers and City merchants. And he remained both actor and spectator in the king’s self-congratulatory pageant. The great Twelfth Night revels hadn’t taken place for three years: now they were reinstated. This year’s masque, Britannia Triumphans, by William Davenant and Inigo Jones, was a carefully orchestrated paean to “Britanocles, the glory of the western world, [who] hath by his wisdom, valour, and piety, not only vindicated his own, but far distant seas, infested with pirates.”51 While the French and Spanish ambassadors sulked because they hadn’t received VIP invitations and squabbled over who had the better seats, the master of ceremonies made sure that Jawdar ben Abd Allah and his retinue were given prominent places in the new Masking House at Whitehall. They were, after all, part of the show.
Viscount Conway, a seasoned observer of court affairs, summed up the lavish reception given to the ambassador succinctly—and accurately. “The reason of all,” he wrote, “is the shipping money.”52