Post-classical history


Deliverance: The Liberation of Barbary Captives


R obert Blake and Jawdar ben Abd Allah left the English court and returned to Morocco in May 1638, taking with them fulsome expressions of friendship, a one-sided trade agreement which gave members of a newly founded English Barbary Company a monopoly to sell high and buy low, and some extravagant presents for the sultan, including a gilded coach painted with flowers and five Denmark horses to draw it, a hundred lances, several pieces of fine linen, and “the king and queen’s pictures drawn after the Van Dyck originals.”1

As they set sail from Portsmouth there were already rumors that Thomas Rainborow’s triumph at Salé was unraveling, and by the early summer those rumors had been confirmed. The Saint’s followers in Old Salé were ignoring the peace with the corsairs of New Salé; the corsairs were ignoring their promises of loyalty to the sultan, and English merchant vessels were ignoring the Anglo-Moroccan treaty and selling arms to the sultan’s enemies. It was business as usual.

Or almost as usual. The threat from Salé rovers in the Narrow Seas did diminish in the wake of Rainborow’s expedition, although this was as much due to the continuing civil unrest along the Moroccan coast. Abd Allah ben Ali el-Kasri, the leader of the Salé corsairs, was killed fighting the Saint’s men across the Bou Regreg, and the citadel at New Salé was taken, besieged, and retaken by different Morisco factions. When the sultan marched on the coast to restore order, his camp was overrun by hostile mountain tribesmen and he had to ride for his life. In 1641 the Saint was killed in battle with the Moriscos he had ousted from New Salé, who had entered into an alliance with rival rebel groups.

The surviving Salé rovers eventually regrouped and resumed their activities against European shipping outside the Straits. In October 1641, for example, four English merchant vessels were on their way home from La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast of France, when they were intercepted by a heavily armed man-of-war who rounded them up without a struggle, brought them back to New Salé, and sold their crews to an Algerian merchant. In 1650 the Dutch blockaded Salé as Rainborow had done, in an unsuccessful attempt to put a stop to their activities. Seventy years later the Salé rovers were still a potent force: at the beginning of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe has his eponymous hero surprised off the Canary Islands “in the grey of the morning by a Turkish rover of Sallee” who captures the crew and carries them into Salé to be sold.

But for much of the mid-seventeeth century the dominant force along the Barbary Coast was Algiers, whose corsairs moved effortlessly and terrifyingly to fill the gap in the market; and their captain-general was Ali Bitshnin, the Italian renegade from whom Francis Knight escaped so dramatically during the Battle of Valona in 1638.

Under a bewildering variety of names, Ali Bitshnin was a Barbary Coast legend. He was probably the Ali Pizilini who owned sixty-three Christian slaves in Algiers in 1619. He was certainly the Ally Pichellin who by the 1630s was “for greatness renowned in all Africa”;2 the Ali Piccinino who terrorized and terrified Venetian merchantmen the length and breadth of the Adriatic; the Ali Pichinin who kept forty young pages “for ostentation” but refused to let them out of doors for fear they might be sodomized; and, last but not least, the Alli Pegelin whose cheerfully impartial approach to spiritual matters enabled him to laugh at the Qur’an during Friday prayers while smiling benignly at a Carmelite priest who told him to his face that he was bound for hell because he had “no other religion than an insatiable avarice.”3

Ironically, Ali Bitshnin is remembered today for building a mosque. The domed, almost Byzantine Djemaa Ali Bitchine (yet another variant on “Bitshnin”) still stands in the Bab al-Oued district at the heart of the Algiers medina—albeit in a rather mutilated state, having been turned into a Catholic church by the French. Put up in the early 1620s at Ali Bitshnin’s command soon after he arrived on the Barbary Coast from the Adriatic, it was one of Algiers’s first Ottoman mosques, built above a vast complex of basements and shops. His bagnio was nearby “in a street of his house,” according to the Spaniard Emanuel D’Aranda, who was captured off the coast of Brittany in 1640 and spent the next two years as Ali Bitshnin’s slave. D’Aranda’s description of the bagnio suggests that far from being the squalid slave-pit of popular imagination, it was actually a thriving community resource:

It had a very narrow entrance, which led into a spacious vault, and that received its light, such as it was, through a certain grate that was above, but so little, that at mid-day, in some taverns of the said bath, there was a necessity of setting up lamps. The taverners, or keepers of those taverns are Christian slaves of the same baths, and those who come thither to drink are pirates, and Turkish soldiers [i.e., Janissaries], who spend their time there in drinking, and committing abominations. Above the bath there is a square place, about which there are galleries of two storeys, and between those galleries there were also taverns, and a church for the Christians, spacious enough to contain three hundred persons, who might there conveniently hear Mass. The roof is flat, with a terrace, after the Spanish mode.4

D’Aranda spent his first night as Ali Bitshnin’s slave up on this roof terrace, under a coverlet provided for him by the pasha’s men. The next day he was ordered out (in lingua franca, “the common language between the slaves and the Turks, as also among the slaves of several nations,” he noted5) and set to work making rope in Bab al-Oued. He reckoned Ali Bitshnin kept about 550 Christian slaves of all nationalities in the bagnio; they spoke twenty-two languages between them—in addition to lingua franca—and included Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, and a smattering of minor sectaries. For years a Dominican friar, “a fat, corpulent person,” celebrated Mass for everyone on Sundays and got drunk on weekdays until, despairing of ever being ransomed, he converted to Islam, “with extraordinary acclamations of the Moors and Turks.”6

The son-in-law of a legendary Albanian renegade named Murad Raïs the Elder (not to be confused with the Dutch renegade Murad Raïs, who carried out the Sack of Baltimore in 1631, or the Genoese renegade Agostino Bianco, also known as Murad Raïs), Ali Bitshnin was appointed Captain of the Sea in the early 1620s. As head of the taifat al-raïs, the guild of pirates, he managed to maintain an equilibrium of sorts between the interests of the corsairs, those of the merchant class which financed his raids, and those of the Janissary corps which was at once both eager for a slice of the pie and suspicious of anyone who threatened their supremacy. By the later 1630s he had become an immensely powerful figure in Algiers—so powerful, in fact, that European outsiders regarded him as the de facto head of state above the pasha, above even the agha, who commanded the Janissary corps. When he entertained on his country estate, the pasha was there, along with all the other naval commanders, the captains, “the richest setters-out of galleys.”7 When he went to sea, the admirals of Tunis and Tripoli were happy to serve under him.

Yet he remained an outsider, even in a community well used to making outsiders its own. He refused to provide his slaves with food, encouraging them instead to steal what they could and allowing them out for two or three hours every evening to burgle, scavenge, and pick pockets. On one occasion, his galleys were taking in water near Oran when a Moor came up to him and asked if he might be allowed to kill one of the Christian slaves, “which is the most acceptable sacrifice that can be made to the Prophet.” The Captain of the Sea told him he’d be happy to oblige, and then gave a sword and a dagger to his biggest, roughest galley slave and sent him to chase the Moor away. When the man summoned up the courage to come back and complain, Ali Bitshnin laughed at him, saying there was no honor in killing a man who couldn’t defend himself: “Mahomet was a generous and valiant man; go and bid your sherif [Muslim priest] furnish you with a better explication of the Alcoran.”8

The problem in understanding Ali Bitshnin as a man and a leader is that most of our knowledge of him is both fragmentary and filtered through uncertain European eyes. And because the anecdotes are personal and partial, the picture is inconsistent. How is it that a convert to Islam who built one of Algiers’s finest seventeenth-century mosques could mock the Qur’an? Or that to Francis Knight, “Ally Pichellin” was an arrogant, pompous tyrant—“in truth we were all exquisitely miserable that were his slaves”9—while Emanuel D’Aranda, who knew him just as well if not better, saw him as that stock seventeenth-century figure, the jovial, amoral pirate who spurned convention and invited grudging admiration because of it?

The Captain of the Sea’s reputation suffered some hard knocks in the late 1630s and early 1640s. The 1638 Battle of Valona, in which he commanded a combined Algerian and Tunisian force, and where Francis Knight made his spectacular escape to freedom, ended disastrously with the loss of sixteen galleys and ten times that number of slaves. Violent recriminations flew so thick and fast in Algiers among Janissaries, corsairs, and merchants that the pasha declared it a capital offense for anyone to remove their thumbs from their girdles while they were arguing with another: “The contending parties, blaming each other for the late miscarriage, could only vent their spleen by bitter invectives and reflections, scurrilous language, punches with their elbows, and, as occasion offered, now and then throwing their head in each others’ jaws.”10 Ali Bitshnin took a lot of the blame for the defeat—according to one source he was actually sentenced to death, but the sentence was rescinded. In 1643 he fell out with both the Ottoman court at Istanbul, for refusing to contribute to Sultan Ibrahim I’s battle fleet against the Venetians without a hefty subsidy, and the Algerian Janissary corps, for refusing to pay them money they claimed he owed them. Forced to flee Algiers for a time, he was reconciled with Ibrahim in 1645 and came back, only to sicken and die. It was popularly believed in Algiers that agents of the sultan had poisoned him.

But when Ali Bitshnin was at his peak, the galleys of the taifat al-raïs took shipping from just about every European nation that ventured into the Mediterranean and raided coastal villages from the Adriatic to the Atlantic. In the nine months leading up to January 1640, English losses to pirates were estimated at nearly seventy ships and more than 1,200 sailors, a figure which almost matched the nine years of losses between 1629 and 1638. The casualties included the Rebecca, which was carrying a cargo of silver worth £260,000 to England; when the news of her capture broke at the beginning of 1640, it caused a slump in the pound and a crisis in European banking. (The corsairs who took her were so pleased with their prize that they gave the crew a boat and set them free.) Coastal raids on the British Isles, while not as common as they were in the western Mediterranean—where whole communities moved inland for fear of pirates and chains of watchtowers were built to give advance warning of their arrival—were still a reality. In the summer of 1640, the presence of Algerines off the Cornish coast caused first anxiety and then downright panic when a raiding party landed by night at Penzance and captured sixty men, women, and children. The following year, 1641, Algiers put no fewer than sixty-five pirate ships on the cruise, bearing out the opinion of the great Levant merchant Lewis Roberts when he listed Algerian commodities as “Barbary horses, ostrich feathers, honey, wax, raisins, figs, dates, oils, almonds, castile soap, brass, copper, and some drugs; and lastly, excellent piratical rascals in great quantity, and poor miserable Christian captives of all nations.”11

William Rainborow had proposed taking a fleet to Algiers in January 1638, as a follow-up to his Salé expedition of the previous year. But Algiers was a much more daunting prospect than Salé. Not for nothing was the city known in the Arab world as al-Mahroussa, “the well-guarded”; the Algerians had developed, and were still developing, an elaborate defensive system of forts, batteries, and ramparts. The walls were of brick and stone, with square towers and bastions and trenches, and there were seven fortresses, all built “regularly according to the art of modern fortifications,” well-manned and equipped with heavy guns—two of which, according to a guidebook of 1670, once belonged to “Simon Dancer [i.e., Danseker], a notorious Flemish pirate.”12

Rainborow suggested an expensive three-year-long blockade of the harbor by ten men-of-war and six pinnaces, reckoning that by the end of that period most of the Algerian vessels would be rotted out and trade with the city would have been destroyed.13 Around the same time, Sir Thomas Roe reminded Parliament of an earlier proposal of his, in which he had argued for a trade embargo of the entire Ottoman Empire and the sending of a strong fleet to Alexandria, to attack Algerian and Tunisian vessels trading to the Levant. From there the fleet should “range the coast of Barbary, land among the villages, and make prisoners of all men, women and children,” exchanging the captives at Algiers and Tunis for English captives. If the corsairs refused to exchange, added Roe, the prisoners could be sold “for money” in Majorca, Sardinia, or Spain.14

Both schemes were ambitious. They would have been difficult to resource and manage at the best of times. And these were not the best of times. The Spanish assembled a fleet at Dunkirk in the spring of 1638, ostensibly to take on soldiers for an expedition to Brazil; the English government decided that ships were needed in the Channel to ensure there was no trouble. The following January, deteriorating relations between Charles I and his Scottish subjects led the king to dispatch a fleet to blockade the Firth of Forth, rather than Algiers. And that autumn, sixty-odd Spanish vessels faced a hundred Dutchmen off the coast of Kent, as a dozen English men-of-war looked on, having received the optimistic instructions to “take, sink, and destroy” any ship of either side that attempted anything which might be construed as disrespectful to England.15

In the spring of 1640, Charles I summoned Parliament, after eleven years of ruling without one. It was dissolved three weeks later when the king realized that the House of Commons was rather more anxious to discuss its long-held grievances than to vote him the financial resources he needed to resume his campaign against the Scots. But the Short Parliament was followed that November by the Long Parliament, so-called because it was to sit, in various incarnations, for the next twenty years; and the members of the Long Parliament included a fair number of people whose involvement in overseas trade gave them a powerful interest in finding a solution to the problem of piracy. The Levant Company, the East India Company, and the Massachusetts Bay Company were all represented by the four MPs for the City of London. Some London merchants held seats further afield, like John Rolle, a Turkey merchant who sat for Truro, and Edward Ashe of the Drapers’ Company, who sat for Heytesbury in Wilt-shire. And local merchants predominated in the returns for the West Country, which had suffered more from the depredations of pirates than any other part of England.

Even outside the merchant class, there were plenty of MPs who took a keen interest in the activities of pirates. William Rainborow, described as “Captain Rainborow” in the Commons Journals, was returned for Aldburgh in Suffolk; Sir Thomas Roe was returned for Oxford University. And while one of the two members for Fowey in Cornwall was Jonathan Rashleigh, who came from a local merchant family, the other, Sir Richard Buller, was a lawyer and a commissioner for piracy. Richard King, who sat for Melcombe Regis in Dorset, was another lawyer and another commissioner for piracy. One of the provisions of the Offences at Sea Act of 1536, which aimed to make it easier to gain convictions against “traitors, pirates, thieves, robbers, murderers and confederates upon the sea,” was for the appointment of commissioners in the maritime counties who were empowered to try cases before a jury “as if such offences had been committed upon the land within the same shire.”16 While some commissioners regarded the job as more of a business opportunity than a judicial appointment, others pursued pirates with vigor and rectitude.

With a good many MPs having an interest in Algerian piracy and its consequences, it isn’t so surprising that in the midst of all its other pressing concerns, the Commons still found time to debate the problem. They also seemed to have received encouragement from the king himself: on October 3, 1640, exactly one month before the Long Parliament sat for the first time, Charles I had been presented with a petition from about 3,000 of his subjects who were currently held captive in Algiers, where they were undergoing “most unsufferable labours, as rowing in galleys, drawing in carts, grinding in mills, with divers such unchristianlike works most lamentable to express and most burdensome to undergo.”17 (It isn’t clear quite why rowing in galleys, drawing carts, and grinding in mills were “unchristianlike” pursuits.) That December Parliament appointed a committee to look into the matter. It included Roe, Rainborow, and Melcombe Regis’s Richard King.

King was appointed chairman of the Committee for the Captives in Algiers, as it was called, and he reported back to the Commons in March 1641. Between them, he said, Algiers and Tunis were holding up to 5,000 British subjects, and a fleet of thirty corsairs was expected off the English coast that summer. A further thirty pirate ships would be out on the cruise in the Mediterranean. There was no point in trying to ransom captives—that would only encourage the corsairs to take more, and it would persuade sailors to give in to their attackers without a fight, knowing their government would buy them out of trouble. Parliament should deploy six naval vessels “to guard the western coasts against the Turkish pirates,” and authorize private individuals to take reprisals against “any Turkish, Moorish, or other pirates”—an idea which caused concern among other European states, whose ambassadors recalled the propensity of the English to abuse privateering licenses.

The Commons agreed with the Committee’s findings, but asked it to think of a way to finance the patrols and the liberating of captives. The response was devastatingly simple. A tax of one percent levied on all goods coming into and going out of the kingdom would, in the words of the “Act for the Relief of the Captives Taken by Turkish, Moorish and Other Pirates,” raise enough money for the “setting forth to the seas a navy as well, for the enlargement and deliverance of those poor captives in Argier [sic] and other places.”18 The Act passed into law at the beginning of 1642.

This wasn’t at all what the merchants of England had in mind. It was “more than trade can bear,” complained the Levant Company. The Venetian ambassador maintained it was a clever ruse, so that Parliament could claim it was doing something about the pirate menace while diverting the revenue toward “other emergencies, which certainly are plentiful.”19 The Commons thought it necessary to convene another Parliamentary committee to “consider of the grievances pretended to be occasioned by the Bill for the Relief of the Captives of Algiers.”20 Merchants avoided paying the tax by offering promissory bonds instead.

Optimists continued to press for a punitive expedition to blockade Algiers. Henry Robinson, a reformer, pamphleteer, and fourth-generation City merchant, argued that even this wouldn’t be enough. In Libertas, or Relief to the English Captives in Algier (1642), he wrote that an English fleet before Algiers wouldn’t be able to prevent every single corsair from entering or leaving harbor; and that although the Ottoman sultan, Ibrahim I, had granted permission for England to attack Algerian pirates, it was, in practice, impossible to distinguish between pirate vessels and legitimate merchantmen: “Scarce a ship of them, but is both merchant, and a pirate, many times in the self-same voyage.”21 Istanbul would leap at the chance to retaliate against the English community there every time an Algerian “merchant” was attacked. Even if Algiers were brought to its knees, other nations along the Barbary Coast would take its place “and prove more pestiferous to us in matter of our commerce for the future.”22 No, the only sensible course was for England’s Turkey merchants to sell up their businesses in the Levant (at a cost estimated by Robinson at £300,000) and come home. All trade with the Ottoman Empire must cease, and the government should then dispatch a fleet of forty ships into the Bosphorus to blockade Istanbul itself. Cut off from trade with the Mediterranean, within a year or two the blockade would “raise the price of all provisions and merchandise, which used to come from thence, so much as will easily cause a tumultuous and rude multitude to rebel,” thus forcing Ibrahim I to treat for peace.

This was, in fact, exactly the strategy which the Venetians adopted fourteen years later. In the continuing struggle between the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire for control of Crete, Venetian troops in the eastern Aegean occupied the islands of Limnos, Samothraki, and Bozca Ada at the entrance to the Dardanelles, and blockaded Ottoman trade routes to Egypt and the Mediterranean so effectively that in Istanbul, famine “scorched Moslems with the flame of misery and filled them with sorrow.”23 But Venice was 700 miles closer to Istanbul than London was: the Republic had its own supply lines, its own bases in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its own more pressing need to halt the empire’s westward march. Robinson was a little hazy as to exactly how an English blockade of Istanbul would force Ali Bitshnin and the taifat al-raïs to free their captives and cease their piratical ways.

In any case, the question was academic. In August 1642, Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, the plentiful “other emergencies” to which the Venetian ambassador had referred coalesced and erupted into full-blown civil war, and Parliament pushed to one side all the plans for a punitive expedition to Algiers or to the Ottoman capital. By the following year the prime movers on the Committee for the Captives in Algiers had all gone: Rainborow had died at the age of fifty-five; Roe and King had deserted Parliament to join their sovereign in Oxford.

But the victims of piracy—or, more accurately, their grieving relations at home—refused to go away. Desperate wives and mothers clustered every day in Westminster Hall, to petition individual MPs, to remind the great and the good of the human cost of piracy, to beg for alms. Wives were placed in an impossible position by the prolonged absence of their husbands, and the law was confused about their options. According to civil law, a woman could marry again if her husband had been gone for five years “and nothing known whether he lived or no.” But common law dictated that a spouse couldn’t remarry “till the death of him or her that is missing be certainly known.”24

Uneasy at its failure to act, the Commons in the summer of 1642 ordered that the fines taken from members who came late into prayers should go to “the poor women that daily attend the House, whose husbands are captives in Algiers.”25 Still nothing happened, and the following spring seven of these poor women, unhappy that they had seen nothing of the promised one percent tax on imports and exports, organized another petition on behalf of themselves and the thousands of others like them. Katherine Swanton, Elizabeth Chickley, Susan Robinson, Mary Savage, Mary Taylor, Julian Morris, and Lucie Michell—all we know of them is their names. All they had in common was the fact that their husbands had been taken by pirates, and that in spite of having begged and borrowed money from friends and relatives and selling their possessions, they still couldn’t raise the ransom that Algiers demanded for the release of their men.

Parliament responded to the presence of these poor women with an admission of failure. The plans “for the setting forth of a fleet of ships, for the suppressing of those pirates, and deliverance of those poor captives . . . hath not taken that success which could be wished.” In a halfhearted attempt to remedy the situation, the Commons issued an ordinance which authorized collections to be taken at churches in and around London, with proceeds going toward the redemption of captives.26 With a war on, ships, guns, and men were too precious to be wasted on a high-risk operation to Barbary: ransom rather than liberation by force now seemed the best course.

Actually, that wasn’t quite true. The very best course was to ask, politely but firmly. In July 1643 the Lords and Commons sent a London merchant who traded at Livorno with polite but firm letters to the pasha and the diwan in Algiers, desiring them “to vouchsafe your justice and compassion unto those poor captives, and to grant them a speedy deliverance from their thralldom.”27 A reply from the pasha, Yusuf II, reached England about six months later, and although it doesn’t seem to have survived, Parliament understood its contents perfectly. Yusuf and his council would be happy to negotiate a peace treaty with England, but slaves were commodities with a monetary value, and if the English wanted their captives released, they would have to compensate the owners.

It is a measure of how seriously everyone viewed the piracy problem that even in the middle of a civil war—and a civil war which could still go either way—Parliament resurrected the one percent levy on imports and exports with the aim of raising £10,000 for the captives’ ransom. As an incentive, those merchants who came forward and answered for the bonds they had lodged in lieu of payment only needed to find a quarter of the amount they owed; if more than £10,000 was raised, Parliament promised the surplus would go toward reimbursing them.

The levy, which gave the Lord Admiral and the Committee of the Navy responsibility for disposing of the money, was to continue for one year. It was still in operation at the Restoration, seventeen years later. Cynics might say that Parliament had discovered a useful way of financing the navy. And they would be right: out of a total of nearly £70,000 raised by the levy, only £11,100 ever found its way to Barbary.28

Edmund Cason was the agent charged by Parliament with leading the negotiations with Yusuf II and the diwan of Algiers about the freeing of English captives. He is a shadowy figure. We know that in 1638 he owned a reasonable-sized house near Old Fish Street at the northern entrance to London Bridge, and he is referred to in government records as a “gentleman” rather than a merchant. He was never an MP, but he was a founding member of the powerful Committee for Taking Accounts of the Whole Kingdom, formed in February 1644, which meant he was also one of the City men empowered to supervise the collection of the levy for the redemption of distressed captives.

Cason’s name first appeared in connection with the Algiers expedition on August 15, 1645, when the Lords and Commons agreed:

That Edmund Cason Esquire be sent as agent to Argier, with the ship and goods prepared, for the redemption of the captives in Argier and Tunis, and renewing the ancient peace with them. And it is further ordered, that the Committee of the Admiralty and Navy do draw up letters credential, commission, instructions, and all other documents fit for him: which the Speakers of both Houses are, upon presentation of the same unto them, to subscribe; that so the said agent may, with all speed, be sent away.29

In the late summer of 1645 (as it happened, just a few weeks after a raiding party of Turks landed on the Cornish coast and kidnapped 240 men, women, and children), Cason set sail for Barbary aboard the Honor, taking with him several thousands of pounds in cloth and ready money with which to ransom English captives.30

The voyage was a disaster. The Honor sailed down the Portuguese coast and through the Straits, where she waited in the Bay of Gibraltar for favorable winds. While she lay at anchor, a fire broke out on board, and locals “rescued” the cargo, which was never seen again. Cason managed to save some of the cash, and put it aboard an ancient Levant Company ship, the 140-ton Diamond; but a few days later the Diamond went down off Cadiz, and the money went down with it. “Thus one affliction is added to another,” lamented the anonymous author of a contemporary pamphlet about the expedition, “and misery, like waves, tread one on the other’s heel. And now who could have otherwise thought, but that with this sad disaster, the work itself would have been laid aside?”31

But it wasn’t laid aside. In July 1646 a determined Parliament issued a second order, identical in every way with their first, and an undaunted Edmund Cason set off once again for the Barbary Coast, now in the frigate Charles.

He had better luck this time. The Charles arrived safely off Algiers on September 21, and Cason was granted an audience with the pasha the following day. Yusuf entertained him well and agreed straightaway to the idea of a peace treaty between the two countries. (Perhaps the £2,500 which Cason offered him helped to make up his mind.) From now on, neither side would interfere with the other’s shipping; any Englishman—and for all intents and purposes that meant any Briton—who was brought into Algiers as a captive would be released immediately. “So this peace shall be continued,” declared the members of Yusuf ’s diwan, “and that if it please God it shall not be broke, so long as the world endures and that God and the Great Turk’s curse may fall upon him that breaks this peace.”32

As Cason must have anticipated, Yusuf was less enthusiastic about giving up the English slaves. They had been bought in good faith, and their owners couldn’t be expected to part with them for nothing. The agent tried initially to negotiate a single flat rate per head, but eventually he agreed to pay every owner the original purchase price of their slaves.

As those owners came to see him over the next five weeks, he and an Algerian scribe took down names, prices, and places of origin. Judging from the partial list which survives, fifty percent of the victims came from the West Country, as one might expect, and around thirty percent from London. But there were also captives from every corner of the British Isles, from Swansea and Aberdeen and Newcastle and Youghal. “Divers Turks and Moors caused us to set down much more than their slaves cost,” complained Cason, but Yusuf promised that no one would be allowed to cheat him.33Others thought they could get more money by holding out for a ransom: they made over their slaves to Tunisian friends who, because they weren’t Algerian nationals, were exempt from the agreement. An unknown number of captives had converted to Islam, and they weren’t part of the deal, because Cason didn’t want them or because Yusuf wouldn’t release them or because they were happily settled in Barbary. In any event, Cason was told, “the young men (after turned) they carry to Alexandria, and other parts to the eastwards.”34 Even so, more than 650 men, women, and children from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were entered on the register. Another hundred men at least were away on the galleys, sweating at their oars in a long and bloody Ottoman campaign to take the Venetian citadel at Heraklion on Crete.

The English were a tiny minority in a slave population which was estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000, and they were scattered all over Algiers. Most of the women and children worked in household service. The men worked as dockers and porters. They built ships and labored on urban construction sites and outlying farms. They ran shops of their own in the souks, selling tobacco and wine, lead shot and iron goods. Wherever they were, on the quays and in the fields and in the bagnios, they heard the story that an Englishman had come to Barbary to take the lost ones home. Peter Swanton, whose wife, Katherine, led the 1643 Westminster petitioners, heard the news. So did Thomas Sweet, who had been captured off the Barbary Coast in 1639 and who, like so many slaves with special skills, was prized by his master, a French renegade: “I do keep his books of accompts and merchandise, and that keeps me here in misery.”35

There were old men and boys. There were young mothers with babes-in-arms. There were whole families waiting patiently and impatiently for liberation. The Puritan Robert Lake waited, “an ancient person . . . very wise and religious.” Joan Broadbrook, who had been taken in Murad Raïs’s dawn raid on Baltimore fourteen years earlier, waited. John Randal, the glovemaker who had worked making and selling canvas clothes in William Okeley’s shop, waited with his wife, Bridget, and their little son for the moment when the three of them might see England again. There were slaves from Dartmouth and Dover and Liverpool and Lyme Regis and Southampton and Sandwich. There were masters of ships and carpenters, caulkers, coopers, sailmakers, and surgeons. They all waited.

And they all wanted to go home.

The logistics of the ransom were formidable. Cason had a limited amount of ready money and a consignment of cloth, which he could exchange for captives or sell. If he sold, he might get his price in doubles—the native Algerian currency—or in Spanish dollars, “pieces of eight.” The exchange rates fluctuated, with a double worth around an English shilling and a dollar worth between 4s. 4d. and 4s. 11d. (roughly between 21.5 pence and 24.5 pence). The price per captive varied enormously. It depended on an individual’s age, status, and skills, and his or her master’s greed. Cason paid a paltry £7 for one Edmond Francis of Dorset, and well over £80 for Elizabeth Alwin of London. The average price was just under £30 per captive, which was the usual rate for ransoming ordinary mariners and boys, but rather more than Cason had hoped to pay. “The reason is, here be many women and children which cost £50 per head first penny, and [which their owners] might sell . . . for an 100 [pounds].”36

There were other charges to be paid over and above the purchase price. Normal expenses for redemption included port taxes and fees for taking a bill of exchange; payments to the pasha and the customs officer and the officials who inspected the outgoing ship carrying the slaves; gratuities to the interpreter and the Janissaries who stood guard during negotiations. The final cost of liberating a slave whose ransom was set at 1,000 doubles might end up being well over 1,600 doubles. Cason managed to negotiate this down, but he still had to pay the pasha a charge of six percent on all the money he brought into Algiers. He then had to pay twenty dollars in export duty for each slave, again to the pasha, and half duty to the pasha’s officers—a total of between six and seven pounds sterling. Food and drink for each freed slave on the homeward voyage came to between ten and fifteen shillings (50-75p.) a person. It all mounted up.

Cason just didn’t have enough money to redeem all the slaves. He wrote and explained to Parliament that he originally hoped “to have taken away the better sort of people first, and the rest afterward,” but that in the event he had opted for quantity rather than quality.37 Swanton and Lake and the Randal family and Joan Broadbrook of Baltimore were all freed. Poor Thomas Sweet, whose French renegade owner was determined to hold out for a ransom of £250, was not. Sweet remained behind, still doing his master’s accounts, “when others that are illiterate go off upon easy terms for cloth, so that my breeding is my undoing.”38 Altogether, Cason negotiated the release of 245 captives; they sailed for home aboard the Charles in the autumn of 1646.

That was quite an achievement, and both Houses of Parliament formally approved Cason’s conduct. But more than 400 Britons were left behind. Cason urged Parliament to send more goods and money, and to make haste:

I beseech your Honors not to think that this redemption may be part one year, and part another. And I desire your people may go home in summer, for I do assure you, their clothes be thin. I think two good ships and a pinnace will be fit to fetch away the rest of the slaves.39

The ships didn’t come. And it isn’t clear why. Perhaps it was just that government didn’t move that quickly. In November 1651, four and a half years after Cason’s letter reached England with the first group of redeemed slaves, the Parliamentary Committee of the Navy claimed to have got together “ten or fifteen thousand pounds in pieces of eight,” which they planned to send in the forty-four-gun Worcester “for redemption of English captives in Argier, Tunis, and Tripoli.”40 (The vagueness about the actual sum suggests that the operation had hardly reached an advanced stage.) The following March the Worcester actually set out for the Straits, but she had scarcely cleared the chain at Chatham when war broke out with Holland and she was recalled and ordered to the Downs.

Meanwhile Cason was still in Algiers. His original orders had been to travel on to Tunis to negotiate the release of English captives there, but because there were so many waiting for their freedom in Algiers, he had decided to wait with them. They were released in dribs and drabs as Cason found the money, and they went home whenever a suitable vessel could be found to take them. This didn’t happen very often: in the summer of 1653 Cason informed Parliament that he had freed Mathew Aderam of Plymouth at the beginning of 1649, and that Aderam had acted as his servant without pay for the past four years, “waiting in vain the arrival of a ship to take him to England.”41 A few weeks later he announced that he wasn’t going to lodge any more freed captives in his house, “as some of them have been troublesome.”

From 1648 to 1653 Cason shared his duties and his house with Humphrey Oneby, a Barbary merchant dispatched by Parliament to be the English consul in Algiers. With Oneby’s help, he continued to do an admirable job. By trading on his own account or getting credit with other merchants, he managed to redeem the old captives and arrange for their passage home, and he ensured that any English man or woman who came into harbor aboard a foreign prize was freed and eventually repatriated. He placated the pasha and the diwan, who after ratifying the peace treaty had become increasingly exasperated that every nation in Europe seemed to carry three or four English sailors and English colors to avoid being attacked by corsairs. (The pasha wasn’t imagining things, either: the English factor at Livorno openly admitted that he was shipping a valuable consignment of Neapolitan wine in Italian merchantmen which had “2 or 3 Englishmen in each, with English colors, to save them from the Turks of Algiers.”42)

And Cason sent back intelligence. No likeness of him survives, but we can still imagine him wandering down to the harbor through the narrow streets of brightly colored houses to see the cosmopolitan prizes that the galleys of the taifat al-raïs had brought home: a Frenchman carrying oil, figs, and almonds; a Flemish hoy bound for Spain with a cargo of raw linen; a Portuguese intercepted on its way to Brazil; a little English fishing boat which had been taken by the Dutch and captured from them by the Algerians. And the occasional English sailor, brought in among the crew of another nation’s vessel. “Since my last,” wrote Cason to the Navy Committee, “we have eight men given us by the governors. We do not want to keep them if we could dispose of them with safety.”43

It is much harder to imagine how he felt as the months turned into years and he became just another Frank in a foreign land, as much an outcast from his own kind as the renegades who drank in the taverns and whored in the brothels and knelt at Friday prayers before setting out on the cruise. He had a widowed sister in England, and a merchant nephew whom he saw occasionally. Did he yearn to be back in London, doing deals and gathering gossip at the Royal Exchange? Did the souks and alleys of Algiers come to feel more real than Cheapside and Cornhill, the Byzantine dome of the Djemaa Ali Bitchine more familiar than the soaring Gothic tower of St. Paul’s?

Unlike the hundreds of men, women, and children he rescued, Cason never saw home again. He died in Algiers on December 5, 1654, eight years after he arrived there aboard the Charles, and the authorities carefully inventoried his goods and shut up his house until his nephew Richard could come out and take stock of his possessions. The fact that in 1652 Parliament could note that “none of the vessels or mariners of this Commonwealth have been surprised by the men of Argier, since the confirmation of the peace in 1646” reflects some measure of his success.44 The treaty he brokered may not have lasted so long as the world endures, but it demonstrated that cordial Anglo-Algerian relations were possible.

And that, in the volatile political climate of Barbary, was no mean achievement.

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