By break of day in the morning, we discovered three ships about three or four leagues to leeward.”1
The victims of Barbary Coast piracy produced dozens of captivity narratives. Most are harrowing. Some are heroic. The odd few are rather hateful. But everyone’s story contains a sentence like this. The memory of fear is palpable, unstated, and common to all. The moment remains the same.
This particular moment, which came as the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, August 10, 1639, belongs to William Okeley, author of the most remarkable captivity narrative of them all. Okeley’s ship, the Mary of London, was taking cloth and colonists to Providence Island, a settlement off the coast of present-day Nicaragua. The Providence Island Company was founded in 1629 by a group of English Puritan noblemen, who dreamed of creating a God-fearing sanctuary where Protestants could worship in their own way, free from interference by church or state. They did, however, manage some interference of their own. In its short life, Providence had already become notorious for its buccaneers, anti-Catholic crusaders who preyed on the Spanish silver fleet. As a hopeful Providence Island settler, Okeley was imbued with a fair amount of righteous Puritan xenophobia, ranting against Catholics, Turks, Jews, “lying miracles,” priests, friars, atheism, pride, and impudence.2
When the pirates came into view that dawn, the Mary was six days out from the Isle of Wight and traveling in convoy with two other vessels that were also making the crossing to the New World. Well out into the Atlantic by now and away from the corsairs’ more obvious hunting grounds, she should have been safe.
The ship had suffered a run of bad luck ever since leaving Gravesend in June. For five frustrating weeks she lay becalmed in the Downs off the coast of Kent. Then, when the wind finally picked up and she was able to make her way around the south coast of England toward the Isle of Wight, the beer went sour. The crew had to throw it overboard and take in vinegar to mix with water for the rest of the voyage.
The Mary set off from the Isle of Wight on Sunday, August 4, 1639—and promptly ran aground on a sandbank, where she had to wait for the tide to lift her off. Rattled by their misfortunes, crew and passengers prayed for a fair wind—and reaped a whirlwind six days later, in the shape of the three Algerian corsairs. “God appoints it the moment when it should come about to blow us into the mouths of our enemies,” said Okeley.3
As soon as the as-yet unidentified strangers were sighted, the masters of the English ships passed worried messages between them. They agreed that the best plan was to stay together, heave to, and wait for the strangers to come up to them. The day wore on, the ships came closer, and, even when it was obvious that they were pirates and steering a course toward them, the English resolved to stay and fight.
At dusk the corsairs were still a little way off, and the master of the Mary lost his nerve and gave the order to hoist sail. In the darkness the vessel almost managed to escape, but dawn saw the pirates closing fast. After a short fight in which six of the English were killed and others wounded, the pirates took control of the Mary. The survivors joined the crews and passengers from the other two vessels, both of which had been taken in the night. They were kept belowdecks in one of the corsairs’ ships for five or six weeks, “condoling of each other’s miseries” in the stinking darkness and learning lingua franca.4
William Okeley’s description of arriving in Algiers in chains reads disconcertingly like a page from a guidebook:
Algiers is a city very pleasantly situated on the side of the hills overlooking the Mediterranean, which lies north of it, and it lifts up its proud head so imperiously, as if it challenged a sovereignty over those seas and expected tribute from all that shall look within the straits. It lies in the thirtieth degree of longitude and hath somewhat less than thirty-five degrees of north latitude. The city is considerably large, the walls being about three miles in compass, beautified and strengthened with five gates. . . .5
The houses are fine, he says. The temples are magnificent. The castles are strong and the baths are stately.
But there is no such thing as a fair prison. And he at last admits that beautiful though Algiers is, “in our eyes it was most ugly and deformed.”6
The prisoners spent their first night ashore in a “deep, nasty cellar,” one of the holding pens by the quay. The following morning they were herded en masse to the Hall of Audience at the palace and paraded in front of the pasha, Yusuf II, who sat cross-legged on blue tapestry cushions in a gown of red silk and a great turban. The pasha had the right to one in every ten captives as his dividend (some accounts say one in eight, or even one in five), and with ransom in mind, he usually chose those who seemed to be or claimed to be well-born. Okeley was not, and he accompanied the remaining prisoners back to the bagnio, where they waited for market day.
It was a frightening time. On top of the disorientation and discomfort there was a dreadful apprehension as the prisoners remembered lurid tales of cruelty, male rape, and forced conversion, of being beaten and tortured and made “either to turn Turk or to attend their filthiness.”7 Such things did happen. Slave owners would deliberately mistreat new slaves before allowing them to write home for their ransom, just to give an added urgency to the pleas for money. Sodomy, both consensual and nonconsensual, was more common in North Africa than in Britain, although not as ubiquitous as Europeans liked to maintain. And while most descriptions of Christian captives being tortured into converting to Islam rely on hearsay or are colored by a strong element of anti-Islamic propaganda, there is no doubt that the more pious owners did bring pressure to bear on their slaves to become Muslims.
A European slave being bastinadoed.
Okeley’s induction into Algerian society was less dramatic than he expected, but still deeply humiliating. A few days after his encounter with the pasha, he and the other prisoners were led out into the open market, or bedestan, where slaves and plundered goods were offered for sale. It was here, eight years earlier, that curious onlookers had watched as Murad Raïs’s bewildered Baltimore captives were paraded up and down, had seen them clinging to each other and weeping as wives were taken from husbands and children separated from their parents.
Now an old dealer with a staff marched each man up and down, while prospective purchasers poked and prodded. They examined Okeley’s teeth—“a good, strong set of grinders will advance the price considerably.” 8 They felt his arms and legs, and paid special attention to the state of his hands. Calluses were evidence that a man was used to labor, which was good; although paradoxically, those with delicate or tender hands might command more money, since buyers “will suspect some gentleman or merchant, and then the hopes of a good price of redemption makes him saleable.”9
When everyone had had a good look, the prisoners were made to sit in a row on the ground, and the old man took each in turn and led him round the market again, crying out, “Who offers most?” Prices varied wildly, depending on the profession of the captive, his or her physical state, and the perceived potential for ransom. Gunners and skilled artisans were in great demand. A professional soldier could sell for 200 Spanish dollars, nearly £50. Once the bargain was struck, the slaves were taken once more to the pasha’s palace, their selling prices written on placards hung round their necks or on pieces of paper tucked into their hats. Yusuf not only took his tithe of new prisoners, he also had the right to any of the remaining slaves if he was prepared to match the price offered in the bedestan.
Okeley was sold to a Morisco—he doesn’t say for how much—and immediately received a sharp lesson in deference. His new master brought him home from the palace and left him in the care of his old father, who amused himself by sneering at Okeley’s Christian faith. “My neck was not yet bowed nor my heart yet broken to the yoke of bondage,” the Puritan recalled.10 He responded by miming a cobbler stitching, intending to suggest that Islam was nothing more than a patchwork of nonsense cobbled together by the Prophet, the Nestorian monk Sergius, and a Jewish doctor named Abdallah. He referred to an anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic legend that was common in seventeenth-century Europe which claimed that Mohammed had almost been converted to Christianity by Sergius, and that the Qur’an had been tampered with by Abdallah after the Prophet’s death.11
You might think this was quite a hard mime to get. But get it the old man did. He flew into a frenzy, punching and kicking Okeley savagely. When his son came in and heard what had happened, he drew a knife on Okeley and was only prevented from stabbing him by his wife.
The new slave learned two lessons from the episode. One, that it was not a good idea to criticize another’s religion; and, two, that “where the whole outward man is in bondage, the tongue must not plead exemption.”12
For the first six months of his captivity Okeley worked as a domestic servant in his master’s home until, in the late spring of 1640, he was suddenly sent to sea.
Like most wealthy Algerian citizens, his master invested in piracy, contributing a share of the finance for a voyage in return for a share of the prizes. When the ship in which he had an interest took an English merchantman with a cargo of silver and other rich commodities, he and his fellow investors were so encouraged by their success that they decided to fit the prize out as a corsair, increase her armament, and send her on the cruise. Okeley was sent down to the shipyards to help with fitting her out for the voyage. Then he was told to join the crew.
He wrestled long and hard with his conscience over the morality of engaging in an action against fellow Christians. First he told himself that his job was only to manage the tackle, and that wouldn’t kill anybody. But, he argued, the management of the tackle enabled the ship’s guns to be brought to bear on a victim; so he could still be indirectly responsible for the deaths of Christians.
Next, he reasoned it might still be all right, because the pirates weren’t actually going looking for Christians as such, just for anyone who was rich enough to be worth the risk and weak enough to keep that risk to a minimum.
He still felt uneasy. But his master came up with a solution to his troubles. “He told me peremptorily, I must and should go.”13
The expedition wasn’t a success. After nine weeks cruising inside and outside the Straits, all the corsairs had to show for their efforts was “one poor Hungarian French man of war.”14 The enterprise left Okeley’s disappointed master in so much debt that when the reluctant corsair got back to Algiers, he was thrown out on the street and told to get a job. He had to find his own lodgings, and he had to earn enough to pay his master two Spanish dollars every month.
The idea of the slave as an unfettered freelance worker was not as odd as it might sound. Security was tight in the case of galley slaves, whose lot was so harsh that they would go to any lengths to escape: their heads were shaved to mark them out, and they were often kept in close confinement while ashore. Other Christians had a relatively free time of it, as Okeley found when he went looking for work. He first approached an English tailor, also a slave, who offered to teach him his trade but then changed his mind. Then he fell in with another English slave, who had set himself up as a general trader selling lead, iron, shot, alcohol, and tobacco. Okeley had managed to save a little money, his master lent him some more, and he went into partnership with the man. “That very night I went and bought a parcel of tobacco,” he said. “The next morning we dressed it, cut it, and fitted it for sale, and the world seemed to smile on us wonderfully.”15
For the next three or four years Okeley worked hard and prospered. His partner turned out to be a drunk, and he faded into the background, to be replaced by an English glover, John Randal, who along with his wife and child had been with Okeley aboard the Mary when she was taken. Randal made and sold canvas clothes in the little shop they ran together, while Okeley dealt in wine and tobacco. He locked his goods away each night in a cellar he had rented for the purpose, and regularly buried his money for safekeeping.
His abiding concern was the welfare of his soul. The Algerians allowed their slaves freedom of worship (they were much more tolerant in this respect than most European nations), but there was no Protestant minister in the city. A Spanish Dominican, Father Joseph, celebrated mass, but Okeley’s hatred of popery was as venomous as his contempt for Islam. “We were very much at a loss for the preaching of the Word,” he later recalled.16
God moved in a mysterious way to answer his prayers. In 1642 an Algerian corsair was on the cruise off the coast of County Cork when he intercepted and captured a merchant ship bound for England. She was carrying 120 Protestant refugees who were escaping from the Great Rebellion, a wave of vicious sectarian fighting that was currently sweeping through Ireland.
For one of those refugees, a twenty-two-year-old minister named Devereux Spratt, capture by pirates seemed the last straw. He had lost his mother and his eight-year-old brother during the recent siege of Tralee. He had nearly died himself of a fever in Limerick, and had survived two attacks by rebels on the road down to Cork. And now this—a thing “so grievous that I began to question Providence,” he wrote in his journal, “and accused Him of injustice in His dealings with me.”17
It was only when the despairing Spratt arrived in Algiers and realized that the Protestant slaves had no one to minister to them that he revised his opinion and found a divine plan in his capture and enslavement. So did Okeley, although he had the grace to wonder “that the wise God should supply our necessities at the cost and charges of others of His dear servants.”18 The Protestant community agreed to pay a levy to Spratt’s master for his services, and before long he was conducting services three times a week in Okeley’s storage cellar, to a congregation of as many as eighty slaves. He was so successful in his preaching that although his ransom was soon paid by English merchants based at Livorno, he elected to stay on as a free man, “considering that I might be more serviceable to my country by my continuing in enduring afflictions with the people of God than to enjoy liberty at home.”19
Okeley’s master never recovered from the financial disaster of his last venture into piracy, and his debts mounted until they reached a point where he was forced to sell off all his slaves. Okeley was passed to an old gentleman with a country estate twelve miles out of Algiers, who treated him exceptionally well. “I found not only pity and compassion but love and friendship from my new patron,” he wrote.20 The man took him into the country, showed him how markets operated, gave him produce to bring back to the city to share with his fellow Christians, and groomed him to take over the management of the estate. “Had I been his son, I could not have met with more respect nor been treated with more tenderness.”21
Okeley’s attitude toward the Algerians was complicated, ambivalent, and very human. He naturally resented his enslavement, and he kicked against Algerian culture, regarding it as brutish and cruel, and dwelling at length on the appalling punishments he saw being meted out to transgressors. A Dutch slave who threatened his patron with a knife had his arms and legs broken with a sledgehammer; a Turk was crucified for an unspecified offense, while another was thrown off a high wall onto a big meat hook and left there to die. Two Moors who struck Turks (presumably members of the Janissary corps) had their right hands amputated and hung round their necks on strings. A third was dragged through the streets, his heels tied to a horse’s tail: “It was a lamentable spectacle to see his body all torn with the rugged way and stone, the skin torn off his back and elbows, his head broken, and all covered with blood and dirt.”22
This was a favorite topic with Christians in Barbary, who took possession of the moral high ground while conveniently forgetting how their own societies dealt with miscreants—the public and horribly inefficient hangings, the brandings and ear-croppings and nose-slittings. Okeley also loathed Islam with all the strength in his Puritan soul, and this deep contempt led him to view its rituals harshly. Ramadan, for instance, he saw as a perversion of Lent, “an observation which they [i.e., Muslims] may be presumed to owe to that Nestorian monk who clubbed with Mahomet in the cursed invention of the Alcoran”—another reference to the Sergius myth. He ignored or was ignorant of the study of the Qur’an, which was an integral part of Ramadan, and regarded the dawn-till-dusk fasting as meretricious and insincere. “When they have drunk and whored themselves into sin [each night], they fancy they merit a pardon by abstinence, a piece of hypocrisy so gross that whether it be to be sampled anywhere in the world, unless perhaps by the popish carnivals, I cannot tell.”23
Religious toleration was a rarity in Europe, and Okeley was amazed to discover that in Islam “every man may be saved in that religion he professes,” whether he was a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim; and that at the last, all will “march over a fair bridge, into I know not what Paradise.”24 Not that he condoned such a liberal attitude to salvation—he subscribed, after all, to a Puritan theology which believed most Christians were going to hell, never mind the unbelievers. He was impressed, however, by the respect which ordinary Algerians showed toward authority. “It’s worth admiration,” he wrote, “to see in what great awe they stand of the meanest officer, who is known to be such by his turban and habit.” These officers patrolled the streets and arrested violent offenders without weapons or helpers, because resistance was unthinkable.
And Okeley was prepared to notice and condemn the vices of Christians—particularly drunkenness, which he regarded as a European introduction. He hinted darkly at worse in the book he wrote about his experiences, claiming he could “relate a passage during our captivity in Algiers that had more of bitterness in it than in all our slavery, and yet they were Christians, not Algerines; Protestants, not Papists; Englishmen, not strangers, that were the cause of it.”25 But he refused to elaborate.
Almost imperceptibly, Okeley was becoming assimilated into Algerian society. He held fast to his own religion and his own kind, socializing primarily with other English captives, but step by step he became acclimatized to slavery and Barbary. “The freedom that I found in servitude,” he recalled, “the liberty I enjoyed in my bonds was so great, that it took off much of the edge of my desire to obtain and almost blunted it from any vigorous attempt after liberty.” 26 Perhaps this was bound to happen when the repatriation rate for victims of piracy was as low as it was. Only one of the victims of the Sack of Baltimore had been ransomed, for instance. All the others (except for two who were put ashore almost immediately), 106 of them, were dead, enslaved, or turned Turk.
The man whose job it was to procure the release of captives in Algiers was James Frizzell, the Levant Company agent who had helped Sir Robert Mansell during his unproductive negotiations in 1620. Three years afterward, England concluded a treaty with the Ottoman Empire which was supposed to signal the end of piratical attacks on both sides, the official recognition of English consuls in Algiers and Tunis, and the repatriation of 800 English slaves. Frizzell was appointed to Algiers—by the Levant Company rather than the English government, which tended to leave such diplomatic initiatives to merchants, along with the task of paying for them—and for the next two decades this influential but strangely elusive character did his heroic best to serve English interests in the city.
He began his long term in office with a success, by negotiating the release of 240 captives; but things went downhill from there. The pasha placed him under house arrest if avanias—the taxes levied on European merchants—weren’t paid, and confiscated his goods if English pirates interfered with Algerian shipping. The Levant Company stopped employing him when it judged that trade with Algeria was just too dangerous and unprofitable. The English government ignored him. Frustrated relatives of captives spread nasty rumors that he was slow at handing over ransom money sent from England because he hoped captives would die in the interim so that he could pocket the cash.
And through it all, it was Frizzell who kept the register of prisoners brought in by corsairs; Frizzell who badgered the English government with tallies of the lost and tried to arrange the credit which would enable their friends at home to find them; Frizzell who promised the pasha anything and everything that might lead to liberty for slaves, even—to quote a 1627 agreement he made with the diwan—“that he will restore to the city of Algiers all the ships and slaves of the Muslims taken by the English from the time of his appointment.”27 In 1643, long after the Levant Company and the English government had dispensed with his official services, he was still being described in Parliament as “Mr. James Freesell, residing as consul at Argiers.”28
Frizzell was an English captive’s best hope of repatriation. But it was a slim hope at best. Of 708 prisoners taken by pirates between 1629 and 1632, only twenty-four had been freed by the latter date. In 1637, Frizzell reported that 1,524 English subjects had been taken by Algerian corsairs, and not one hundred of them had been ransomed. And in any case, by 1644, when Okeley was losing his desire for liberty, Frizzell was old. He may even have been dead: after 1643 nothing more is heard of him in England.
After five years of slavery, William Okeley was jarred out of his complacency by the kindness of his master, who proposed that he give up the business in Algiers and take over the running of his country estate. “If I once quitted my shop,” Okeley reasoned, “I should lose with it all means, all helps, and therefore all hopes to rid myself out of this slavery.” He might have a comfortable life as an estate manager for a benevolent patron; but “fetters of gold do not lose their nature; they are fetters still.”29 If he wanted to see England again, he had to act.
He had to escape.
Running away posed a whole new set of problems. Escape from Algiers was rare, and the few Christian slaves who succeeded did so either by seizing an opportunity while crewing a pirate ship near friendly coasts, or by taking a chance and swimming out to a European merchant vessel which might happen to anchor in the bay of Algiers. The punishment for recaptured runaways was at the whim of their owners, and could be brutal: John Randal, the glover who went into partnership with Okeley for a time, received 300 strokes on the soles of his feet merely because he was suspected (wrongly, as it happened) of trying to escape. He was so badly injured that he had to give up work.
Okeley hit on an amazingly audacious plan. He meant to build a small boat in secret, in sections, in his cellar; then to dismantle it and carry it in pieces, so as not to arouse suspicion, to a secluded spot outside the city walls. Under cover of darkness he would put it back together and row or sail due north across 190 miles of open sea until he reached Majorca, where he would throw himself on the mercy of the Spanish governor.
He obviously couldn’t do any of this on his own, and his first step was to sound out Reverend Spratt and other members of the English community. They all told him it was a brilliant idea, while at the same time discovering pressing reasons why they couldn’t join him. After making discreet inquiries over the spring of 1644 he eventually recruited six fellow slaves, all Englishmen. John Anthony and another John, whose surname Okeley doesn’t give, were carpenters. A third John, John Jephs, was a sailor. William Adams was a bricklayer—not an obviously useful skill when it came to boatbuilding, but Adams regularly worked outside the city walls, carrying substantial pieces of timber which he used to level his work. These men had thirty-six years of slavery between them.
The other two conspirators aren’t named at all. They were employed in washing and drying clothes down by the seashore, which meant they could both travel out of the city without being challenged, taking small pieces of the boat with them hidden in their laundry baskets. All seven men could come and go fairly freely during daylight hours, but besides the sentries who manned the city gates around the clock, Algiers had an ad hoc system of watchmen and concerned citizens who would apprehend any slave they saw acting suspiciously beyond the walls.
The prospect of going home was exciting, and rather frightening. No one knew quite what to expect when and if they reached England again: the civil war had been raging for nearly two years, and unsettling scraps of news of the battle between king and Parliament had reached the Barbary Coast, brought by passing ships. Being the earnest Puritan that he was, Okeley also tussled with the propriety of deserting his kind patron—but only briefly. “One thought of England and of its liberty and Gospel, confuted a thousand such objections and routed whole legions of these little scruples.”30 His co-conspirators, on the other hand, became markedly less enthusiastic about the project when they stopped to consider the logistics of building a boat, smuggling it out of the city, and then surviving the voyage. Again, Okeley’s response was brisk. He told them that “if we never attempted anything till we had answered all objections, we must sit with our fingers in our mouths all our days and pine and languish out our tedious lives in bondage. Let us be up and doing, and God would be with us.”31
That June, the cellar where Okeley stored his goods, and where Spratt ministered to the Protestant congregation on Sundays, was turned into a clandestine boatbuilding yard each night. The slaves got hold of a twelve-foot-long piece of timber for the keel, which they cut in half and prepared for jointing: Adams the bricklayer might get away with carrying a six-foot piece of wood out of the city, but one that was twice that length (and keel-shaped) would be a bit of a giveaway. The same held for the ribs of the boat. The carpenters hit on the ingenious idea of making each rib in three sections and boring two holes at each joint. They could quickly reassemble them simply by fitting nails into the holes, and each joint was designed to make “an obtuse angle and so incline so near toward a semicircular figure as our occasion required.”32
They agreed it would be folly to use wooden boards for the hull: the hammering and sawing would attract too much attention. Instead they bought enough stout canvas to cover the frame twice over, and one night Okeley and the two carpenters set about waterproofing it with hot pitch, tar, and tallow.
That nearly brought the plan to an abrupt and tragic end. They worked in the close confines of the cellar, melting their materials in earthen pots, with the door closed and rags stuffed into every gap to prevent telltale steam escaping into the street. Before long the room was filled with noxious fumes. Okeley was overcome and staggered out into the night, gulping for breath before he collapsed. His comrades brought him to and dragged him back inside, but within a short time they were also complaining of nausea and dizziness.
Eventually the three men agreed to put their faith in God and work with the cellar door wide open, Okeley keeping lookout while the others applied the molten pitch. It took them two nights; when it was done, they crept 200 yards through the narrow, dark streets to Okeley’s shop, where they stowed the canvas safely until it would be needed.
Step by step the group got everything ready. They practiced putting the boat together and taking it apart, and putting it back together again. They fashioned wooden seats, and made oars from pipe staves, and bought more canvas to use as a makeshift sail. They got hold of two tanned goatskins to use as water bottles, and decided to take fresh water, a small quantity of bread, and nothing else, “presuming our stay at sea must be but short, for either we should speedily recover land or speedily be drowned or speedily be brought back again.”33 Okeley sold off the goods from his shop and entrusted the money to Devereux Spratt in a false-bottomed trunk made specially for him by John Anthony, one of the two carpenters.
By the end of June everything was ready. The keel, the ribs, the waterproof canvas, and all the other bits and pieces had been smuggled out of the city and hidden in fields around a little hill which stood a safe distance beyond the walls and about half a mile from the coast. On the night of June 30, 1644, about an hour after dusk, the little party gathered by the hill, retrieved the parts of their boat, and got to work in the darkness:
The two parts of our keel we soon joined. Then opening the timbers, which had already one nail in every joint, we groped for the other hole and put its nail into it. Then we opened them at their full length and applied them to the top of the keel, fastening them with rope yarn and small cords, and so we served all the joints to keep them firm and stable. Then we bound small canes all along the ribs lengthways, both to keep the ribs from veering and also to bear out the canvas very stiff against the pressing water. Then we made notches in the ends of the ribs, or timbers, wherein the oars might ply, and having tied down the seats and strengthened our keel with the fig tree [they had sawed down a small fig tree which stood on top of the hill to serve as reinforcement for the keel], we lastly drew on our double canvas case, already fitted, and really the canvas seemed a winding sheet for our boat, and our boat a coffin for us all.34
Four of the group hoisted the boat onto their shoulders and carried it the half-mile to the sea. The other three followed in the pitch-darkness, like mourners at a ghostly funeral.
When they reached the sea they all stripped naked and threw their clothes into the boat, tossed the goatskins and the bread in after them, and dragged the craft as far out into the waves as they could manage. Then they jumped in.
There were no leaks, and the frame held up to the waves. It was simply that the little dinghy couldn’t bear the weight of seven men. This was enough for one of the washermen, who was already nervous at the prospect of going to sea in such a frail craft; he volunteered to stay behind. So they rescued the boat, bailed her out, and refloated her; but she was still so low in the water that there was no question of taking her any farther. They jettisoned most of their clothing, leaving themselves with just shirts or loose coats, but it was not enough. After an awkward pause, the second washerman waded ashore, and the remaining five slaves—Okeley, John Jephs the sailor, the bricklayer William Adams, and the two carpenters—said a prayer, bade their friends farewell, and set sail for Majorca.
They were still a long way from liberty. For the rest of the night they worked frantically to get clear of Algiers. Four men manned the oars while the fifth bailed out the seawater that was seeping through the canvas hull. But the wind was against them. When the sun rose at five-thirty the next morning they were still in sight of the ships in Algiers Road, making them redouble their efforts and row like men possessed. No one came after them, but they soon found another problem: their entire store of bread was soaked with seawater—“like a drunken toast sopped in brine”—and the same seawater had seeped into the goatskins, bringing out the tanning liquor in the skins and turning the fresh water foul. In desperation they ate the bread anyway. There was none left on the third day. By then they were drinking their own urine.
They kept on, heading north all the time. One of the group—presumably John Jephs—had a small mariner’s compass that he used to take their bearings by day. At night they followed the stars. By early on the fifth day they stopped rowing, too exhausted now to do anything but bail out the boat. They were ready to give up—blistered by the scorching sun, faint with hunger, and dehydrated by the seawater they were now drinking. Their lives were saved by an unsuspecting turtle that was dozing in the sea. “Had the great Drake discovered the Spanish plate fleet,” wrote Okeley, “he could not have more rejoiced.”35 They hauled the unlucky creature aboard; chopped its head off; then drank its blood, ate its liver, and sucked the warm flesh. “Really it wonderfully refreshed our spirits, repaired our decayed strength, and recruited nature.”36
Around noon they sighted land. It was still a long way off but, overcome with relief, the whole crew leapt into the sea and swam for joy. They climbed back into the little boat and fell asleep and drifted. “And here we saw more of divine goodness, that our leaky vessel did not bury us in the sea and we awaking find ourselves in the other world.”37 But they rowed hard all night and all the next day, finally coming ashore on the coast of Majorca late on the night of July 6, six days after escaping from Algiers and slavery.
Okeley and John Anthony went in search of some fresh water, leaving the other three to keep an eye on the boat. The pair immediately got lost in a forest and fell out rather nastily over which way to go. “Good Lord!” recalled Okeley. “What a frail, impotent thing is man! That they whom common dangers by sea, common deliverances from sea, had united should now about our own wills fall out at land.”38 After wandering around and arguing for a while they came upon one of the watchtowers that lined the coast of Majorca, mostly built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to provide advance warning of raids by corsairs. After they’d shouted up to the armed sentry and explained their circumstances—keeping a discreet distance in case they were fired on—the man threw them down a moldy old cake. “But so long as it was a cake, and not a stone, nor a bullet,” said Okeley, “hunger did not consider its mouldiness.” 39 The man also gave them directions to a nearby well. The pair returned to the boat, gathered up the others and went in search of the well. They were all in a bad way, wearing only their soaked shirts and limping on blistered feet, and they started bickering amongst themselves about what to do next.
The bickering stopped abruptly when William Adams suddenly collapsed at the side of the well, his throat so swollen that he couldn’t drink. His comrades immediately rediscovered the sense of solidarity that had carried them across the Mediterranean. They lifted up their distressed comrade, who croaked, “I am a dead man,” and forced him to take sips of water interspersed with little pieces of the cake. Slowly they managed to revive him.
The five of them slept beside the well that night, and went back to the watchtower the next morning to ask for directions to the nearest town. It took them another two days to hobble the twelve miles to Palma.
The island was sparsely populated, and only as they entered the outskirts did they begin to attract serious attention. “The strangeness of our attire, being barefoot, barelegged, having nothing on but loose coats over our shirts, drew a crowd of inquirers about us: who we were? whence we came? whither we went?”40 Brought before the viceroy in the ancient Almudaina Palace, they answered questions on the strength of the Algerian fleet, the size of the Algerian military. But what intrigued the viceroy most of all was the story of their escape. It so impressed him that he announced he would maintain them at his own expense until a passage to England could be arranged. The people of Palma held a public collection to buy clothes and shoes; and the prefabricated boat that had carried them across 190 miles of open sea was rescued from the beach where it lay, and hung in Le Seu, Palma’s great Gothic cathedral. It was still there, battered and now skeletal, nearly thirty years later—a monument to their miraculous deliverance.
William Okeley got back to a war-torn England in September 1644, just over five years after he had left for the Caribbean. The English merchant ship which was taking him home narrowly escaped capture by Turks off Gibraltar, a reminder that the threat of piracy had in no way diminished during his time in Algiers. The experience was so frightening that Okeley and the two carpenters went ashore and made the rest of the journey in stages, first to Cadiz, then overland to St. Lucar, before obtaining passage on another homeward-bound English vessel.
In London, Okeley met up with Devereux Spratt, who had come home by more conventional means and who dutifully handed over his money, still in its false-bottomed trunk. Nothing more is heard of him until 1675, when with the help of an unidentified friend who tidied up his prose, he published Eben-ezer, or, A Small Monument of Great Mercy Appearing in Miraculous Deliverance of William Okeley, William Adams, John Anthony, John Jephs, John—Carpenter, from the Miserable Slavery of Algiers, with the Wonderful Means of Their Escape in a Boat of Canvas. The book was sold by Nathaniel Ponder, a prominent Nonconformist bookseller who acquired the nickname of “Bunyan” Ponder three years later through publishing John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Okeley reframed his Algerian experience as a Protestant parable, seeing his capture as evidence of the mysterious workings of Providence, and his escape as a testament to God’s redemptive power. “We called on Him in the day of our trouble,” he tells his readers in his lengthy and earnest preface. “He delivered us, and we will glorify Him.” The book’s title, Ebenezer (Hebrew for “stone of help”), is a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, in which after defeating the Philistines, Samuel took a stone “and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” The message is reinforced by the book’s epigraph from Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies.”
Okeley’s readers were exhorted to take heart and take heed from the narrative. Servants who were unhappy with their lot should think themselves lucky that they were not slaves to Turks. Those whose thoughts turned toward sin should realize that if provoked, God could punish them in terrible ways for their transgressions, just as He could reward them for their faith with the gift of eternal life. Everyone must learn to walk in the ways of righteousness and remember that “God can carry us to Rome or Algiers, or else send Rome and Algiers home to us.”41 Even for those who would never see the bagnios of the Barbary Coast, slavery was a spiritual reality.
For William Okeley, it was more than that.