Post-classical history


The Greatest Scourge to the Algerines: The Occupation of Tangier


Wenceslaus Hollar, “scenographer and designer of prospects” to King Charles II, sat on the wall and watched the little procession trooping past along the breakwater that snaked out into the harbor. He sketched quickly: first the driver, flicking his whip at the flanks of his stocky Barbary horses, shouting, urging them on as the two-wheeled wagon, piled high with stones, bumped and shivered over the rutted ground. Then two workmen, deep in conversation, with picks on their shoulders and high-crowned felt hats on their heads. Finally a pair of wary soldiers in scarlet and green coats, keeping their eyes out for snipers who might lie hidden in the sandhills. A third soldier was on sentry duty on the shore, marching up and down outside a little guardhouse built against a massive outcrop of rock a few yards from the beach; ten more soldiers lolled around in the sun, talking and smoking. They seemed relaxed. But their muskets were lined up ready against the guardhouse wall, and the ramparts and towers and gun emplacements which loomed over them were not for show.

Tangier was a dangerous place.

England acquired its first and only outpost on the Barbary Coast under the terms of Charles II’s marriage treaty with the Portuguese infanta, Catherine of Braganza. The king announced the match at the opening of Parliament on May 8, 1661, telling the Lords and Commons that he would “make all the haste I can to fetch you a Queen hither, who, I doubt not, will bring great blessings with her, to me and you.”1 So she did. Catherine brought the English free trade with Brazil and the East Indies, the promise of a portion of £300,000 in ready money, and the trading center the Portuguese had established on the west coast of India at Bombay, now Mumbai.

But the jewel in Catherine of Braganza’s bridal crown was Tangier. The Portuguese, who had occupied the town since 1471, were in no position to hold it against the Spanish, with whom they were currently at war and against whom they needed the support offered by an alliance with England. The outpost’s position on the Moroccan coast at the western entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar meant it possessed an obvious strategic value for any maritime power with trading interests in the Mediterranean. No vessel could pass through the Straits without being seen from Tangier during daylight hours, and regular nighttime patrols by four or five men-of-war could easily intercept any which tried to slip through in darkness. If money were invested in building a proper harbor, ships could ride at anchor securely in all weathers and, as one of Charles II’s admirals told him, a nation could “keep the place against all the world, and give the law to all the trade of the Mediterranean.”2

The place could be developed into a commercial hub to rival Livorno or Genoa. Even Algiers, that “den of sturdy thieves, form’d into a body,”3 would make use of the port when it wasn’t actually at war with England, their ships anchoring in the bay while the Algerians sold their prizes in the market square and supplied themselves with fresh provisions.

Best of all, Tangier was perfect as a base for naval patrols engaged in convoy work and punitive raids against the corsairs. The Salé rovers, who still made a nuisance of themselves by preying on smaller merchantmen and fishing vessels off the Atlantic coast, were only 140 miles south; by using Tangier as a safe haven at which to careen and revictual, three or four small frigates could maintain a blockade of Salé so that “those inconsiderable rogues would by such care be soon reduc’d to nothing.”4 Five hundred miles to the east, the pirates of Algiers posed a much more serious problem, but a carrot-and-stick approach which made use of the base could yield results, as an ardent advocate of English occupation, the military engineer Henry Sheres, pointed out:

Tangier well managed, may be rendered the greatest scourge to the Algerines in the world: and may afford them the best effects of friendship. For if in time of war we can force them from this so beloved station, and attack them or their prizes bound in or out; and in time of peace (which we cannot refuse them) they can be admitted to make use of Tangier, and the port, as their occasions require; they may perform their voyages in half the time, and with half the trouble of returning home, to refit and victual.5


A view of Tangier in 1669, by Wenceslaus Hollar. The Royal Collection © 2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Commercially, politically, militarily, the place was, as Charles II told his ministers, “of that strength and importance, as would be of infinite benefit and security to the trade of England.”6

There were a few stumbling blocks. Tangier possessed no defensible harbor, only an open bay which offered no protection against the elements or an enemy. And potential enemies were gathering: Portugal was at war with Spain and the Netherlands, and both nations had designs on the place. Moreover, it was by no means certain that the Portuguese governor of the city would relinquish control to the English, royal wedding or no royal wedding. And, last but not least, Tangier was surrounded on three sides by a hostile army of Moors. Their leader, Abd Allah al-Ghailan, was trying to establish a breakaway state in northern Morocco, and his response to an infidel settlement in his territory was jihad.

On a foggy Wednesday in June 1661 an English war fleet of seventeen vessels, commanded by the Earl of Sandwich in the Royal James, weighed anchor in the Downs and headed out into the Channel. The earl’s official instructions were to sail to Algiers and to find the best means of persuading the Algerians to desist from searching English vessels and removing goods and persons from them. He could either negotiate a new treaty, or “fight with, kill and slay, sink, burn or destroy the persons, fleets, ships and vessels belonging to the said town or government of the town of Algiers.”7

Sandwich arrived in the Bay of Algiers at the end of July and presented his demands to the governor, Isma’il Pasha, who refused point-blank to agree to any treaty which didn’t allow his men to search English shipping. This was the signal for an apparently inconclusive exchange of fire between the fleet and the town, after which the earl moved out of range and waited for a favorable wind so he could send his fireships into the harbor. It didn’t come, and after a week of watching helplessly as Algerian troops strengthened the boom across the harbor, reinforced their forts, and mounted more guns, the fleet sailed away again.

But Sandwich had other business. One of his objectives was to visit Lisbon to arrange for the evacuation of Portuguese subjects from Tangier. Another was to monitor the movements of a Dutch fleet under Michiel de Ruyter which was also in the Mediterranean, also with the publicly declared purpose of suppressing the Algerian corsairs. (At one time or another every maritime power in Western Europe used the corsairs as an excuse to justify its navy’s presence in the Mediterranean.) With half an eye on that Dutch fleet, Sandwich was told to put in at Tangier and to ensure that nothing untoward happened before the English governor could arrive to take possession. Henry Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough, was appointed to that post in September, and Sandwich anchored in the Bay of Tangier on Thursday, October 10, to await his arrival.

By the beginning of January 1662 there was still no sign of Peterborough. Sandwich, who had spent the winter in the bay, watching and occasionally pursuing Turks as they passed through the Straits, was getting anxious. It wasn’t the Dutch who worried him but the threat from Abd Allah al-Ghailan’s Moors, and on January 4 he wrote to the Portuguese governor, Don Luis de Almeida, with an offer of 400 men to help with the defense of the town. The offer was refused.

Eight days later the mayor of Tangier took 140 mounted soldiers—the town’s entire contingent of horse—on a particularly ill-judged raid deep into the hostile countryside beyond the network of trenches and forts which divided the Portuguese from the Moors. The raiders rounded up 400 cattle and a smaller number of camels and horses, and captured thirty-five women and girls before turning for home. Six miles from the gates of Tangier they were ambushed by one hundred angry Moors armed with muskets. The mayor was shot in the head in the first volley, at which his men forgot their booty and ran. Al-Ghailan’s men killed another fifty-one Portuguese in the chase that followed, which continued right up to the gates of the town.

Beleaguered and in desperate need of reinforcements, Don Luis had second thoughts about the Earl of Sandwich’s offer, and within days the 400 English seamen had been put ashore, armed with muskets, pikes, swords, and bandoliers. They stood sentry around the town and manned the walls day and night. Sometimes, when they caught sight of Moors in the fields, they fired a volley or two of small shot, “to put them in fear and let them know that the town was well manned.”8 This went on for several weeks, with the earl torn between relief “that now I have between 3 and 400 men in the town and castles, and the command of all the strengths and magazines,”9 and anxiety that reinforcements might not arrive until it was too late.

Finally, at noon on Wednesday, January 29, 1662, Lord Peterborough’s fleet sailed into the Bay of Tangier, bringing with it 2,000 horse and 500 foot. Peterborough took formal possession of the town the next day, and Don Luis de Almeida presented him with the keys to the gates, a pair of silver spurs, and a problem which would afflict the English for the next two decades.

Wenceslaus Hollar made his drawings of Tangier when he visited the town in the autumn of 1669 with Henry Howard, who was on a diplomatic mission to Morocco. By this time it had achieved a semblance of normality, but it had been a struggle. The Portuguese had carried away everything that wasn’t nailed down when they left—and even some things that were, including doors, windows, and floors. So large parts of the town were remodeled or rebuilt after the English moved in. The bulk of the population, which fluctuated between 1,800 and 2,600 men, women, and children, consisted of British soldiers and their families. There was also a fair number of quarrymen and engineers who were working on the building of the harbor; most were from Yorkshire and had also brought their families with them. And there was a community of around 600 English, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian merchants, attracted by Charles II’s decision in 1662 to make Tangier a free port. (Fairly free, at least: merchants plying the East Indies trade were barred, as were ships from English plantations in the Americas.)

Houses were generally low, after the Spanish fashion, with walls of stone and mud, low-pitched roofs of tile, and interior walls and ceilings paneled with pine planks. The officers and senior officials had rather grander homes, but almost everyone had a little garden full of sweet herbs and shady orange trees. Vines were trained to run up pillars and along lattices of reeds, and they were heavy with grapes in the hot summers. Of the various Catholic churches which had served the town under the Portuguese, only two survived: the “Cathedral,” a plain aisled building without steeple or bells, about thirty yards square with ten side chapels, which belonged to the Dominicans; and St. Jago’s, which had been turned into an Anglican church, rededicated to Charles the Martyr (the king’s father, Charles I), and “very well filled on Sundays.”10 Some of the old Portuguese street names were retained—Terreiro do Contrato, Escada Grande, Rua Nabo. Others were newly invented reminders of home: Butcher Row, Cannon Street, Salisbury Court, even Pye Corner. A pavilion which stood between the town walls and the outer defenses, “where the ladies, the officers, and the better sort of people do refresh and divert themselves with wine, fruits, and a very pretty bowling-base,” was called “Whitehall.” The quarries just along the coast, where the North Yorkshire stonemasons had their base, was “Whitby.”

The town was dominated by a vast Portuguese citadel which glowered down from a hill to the northwest of the residential district and occupied almost a third of the entire area within the walls. Reinforced and partly rebuilt by the English soon after they arrived, its lower ward ran down to the bay and was used as a parade ground for the garrison. The seaward perimeter was guarded by a little fortified blockhouse and magazine, renamed York Castle, which dated from before the Portuguese occupation and was once a refuge for pirates.

The Upper Castle was much grander. It contained the governor’s house—a Portuguese dungeon which had been transformed into a “noble, large and commodious” Restoration mansion, with formal gardens and spectacular views out over the Straits. Ranged against the ramparts of the Upper Castle were storehouses for munitions and provisions, and a neat row of officers’ houses lay behind the governor’s. To the west, a heavily fortified gatehouse and lookout post named Peterborough Tower, after the town’s first English governor, opened onto a broken, hilly no-man’s-land.

The governorship was not a passport to success in the world. The Earl of Peterborough was recalled to England after eleven months in office, amidst allegations of corruption and incompetence. (He foolishly took home with him the only plan of the wells and springs that supplied Tangier with fresh water, which had been given to him by Don Luis—and, even more foolishly, he lost it.) Peterborough’s successor as governor, the Earl of Teviot, managed a year in the post before he was killed in a Moorish ambush. During a bout of diarrhea the Earl of Middleton, who took up the governorship in 1668, got up in the middle of the night to hunt for a candle, fell over his sleeping manservant, and broke his arm; he died two days later. The Earl of Inchiquin was recalled in disgrace after allowing the Moors to overrun the outer defenses, although he managed to calm the king’s anger by giving him a pair of ostriches. The Earl of Ossory fell into a fit of depression when he heard of his appointment as governor, and succumbed to a fever before he could even leave England. One lieutenant governor was killed in action against the Moors; another died of dysentery, the “bloody flux.”

In spite of his short tenure in office, the Earl of Teviot was the most successful of the nine governors who tried to rule Tangiers during England’s struggle to maintain its Barbary Coast outpost. A professional soldier and ex-governor of Dunkirk (which Charles II sold to Louis XIV in 1662), he arrived in the colony on May Day 1663 and immediately set about reviewing the garrison and opening peace talks with Abd Allah al-Ghailan. These proved unfruitful—al-Ghailan responded that “the Mahometan law prohibited them to suffer the Christians to build any fortifications in Africa”11—and against a background of constant skirmishing Teviot began a network of redoubts, outworks, and trenches which extended as a buffer for nearly half a mile beyond the walls.

There would eventually be thirteen forts—Anne, Belasyse, Bridges, Cambridge, Charles, Fountain, Giles, Henrietta, James, Kendal, Monmouth, Pole, and Pond. Most were clustered to the south of the town, and only 200 or 300 yards beyond the walls; they were meant to do no more than slow down an enemy advance. But the two biggest, Henrietta and Charles, were more formidable affairs, heavy bastioned blockhouses big enough to hold garrisons of 150 men. Charles Fort, which was built on a hill 600 yards from the town—a spot from which the Moors had liked to keep an eye on comings and goings in the town—carried enough victuals and ammunition to withstand a six-month siege and was armed with thirteen heavy guns.

Henrietta Fort stood on a neighboring hill about 300 yards away. Dogs guarded the outer perimeters, and snares and spiked balls were placed in the communicating trenches to slow down the Moors, who usually went barefooted. The earl ordered that the long grass beyond the lines should be cut short so that snipers had no cover, and each night he went out himself to set ambushes “to prevent surprisals, it being the Moors’ custom to plant their ambuscade a little before day.”12

Stories of Teviot’s courage began to circulate inside and outside the walls, and he did his best to live up to them. Within days of his arrival at Tangier he ordered his men to open the city gates, and then rode out—alone—to reconnoiter the ground, “marking the best grass for hay, and the fittest places to essay a fortification.”13 His sense of honor earned respect: when two of al-Ghailan’s men were killed in a skirmish one Sunday morning, he ordered their bodies to be shrouded in white linen, placed on biers, and covered with flowers. Then he rode out under a white flag with his troops in formation until he reached the Moors’ lines, where he ceremoniously handed over their dead. By the spring of 1664 the Moors were saying that he was the Devil, that he had ships which could fly in the air and guns which fired without human intervention, that “he never sleeps but leaning against some part of the works; and that having scaped so many dangers . . . it is in vain to resist and impossible to worst him.”14

Teviot’s charmed life came to a sudden end on May 3, 1664, a year and two days after his arrival in Tangier and exactly two years after a force under Major William Fiennes had been massacred during a minor sortie against al-Ghailan’s men. Warning his men to take special care on the anniversary of the day when “so many brave Englishmen were knocked on the head by the Moors,”15 the earl took a party of 400 horse to cut down a wood which the enemy used as cover about a mile and a half out of town; and although his scouts reported that there was no enemy activity in the area, his scouts were wrong. The party rode straight into an ambush and only thirty men made it back.

The earl was not one of them. In London, they said it was little short of a miracle he had survived so long: “Every day he did commit himself to more probable danger than this.”16

A side from fortifying Tangier against al-Ghailan’s attacks, the main priority for the colonists was the harbor. From the outset, the English plan was to build a breakwater in the bay: the Earl of Sandwich noted in his journal for February 6, 1662, that “I went and sounded about the ledge of rocks, to see the most convenient place for making a mole.”17 The following year Christopher Wren, then a young Oxford professor of astronomy with only a passing interest in architecture, was invited out to advise on its construction. He declined the offer, and his place was taken by Jonas Moore, a professional surveyor who had worked on the Earl of Bedford’s great fen drainage project in the 1650s, and who had just mapped the Thames for the Navy Board.

Moore was in Tangier in the summer of 1663, returning to London with “a brave draft of the mole to be built there, and [the] report that it is likely to be the most considerable place the King of England hath in the world.”18 The same year, in that cheery blurring of the boundaries between private interest and public good which characterized Restoration society, the Earl of Teviot contracted with the crown to build the mole at thirteen shillings per cubic yard. He had two partners: Sir John Lawson, vice-admiral of Sandwich’s fleet and the commander of a naval squadron in the Mediterranean, and the Yorkshireman Sir Hugh Cholmley, who had recently established his reputation as an engineer with the construction of a new pier at Whitby. Teviot’s death, followed by Lawson’s recall to England on the outbreak of war with the Dutch, left Cholmley in charge. The contract was canceled in 1669 and he was named surveyor general of the works, directly answerable to Charles II’s Tangier Committee in London, of which he was a member, along with Samuel Pepys, the Duke of York, Prince Rupert, and the Earl of Sandwich.

The great mole was one of the most ambitious pieces of engineering to be carried out by the English in the seventeenth century. By 1680, when it was still unfinished, it was 500 yards long, 90 feet wide, and 18 feet high at low water. Several houses had been built on it, along with a battery armed with “a vast number of great guns, which are almost continually kept warm, during fair weather, in giving and paying salutes to ships which come in and out.”19 It was a symbol of English aspiration and English pride, “the greatest and most noble undertaking in the world, (all other moles, as at Genoa, Malaga, Algier, etc. not deserving more than the name of a key [i.e., quay] in comparison of it).”20

It was also a symbol of English extravagance, costing a mighty £340,000.

Cholmley brought over forty masons, miners, and other workmen who had built his pier at Whitby—hence the name of their settlement, which consisted of stables, storehouses, and quarters for the men and their wives at quarries a mile along the coast from the walls of the town. Cholmley moved into Tangier with his wife and daughter, living in a house by the church and leading the sociable and civilized life of a Restoration gentleman. Lady Anne Cholmley, the daughter of the Earl of Northampton, usually held a dinner party for the governor, the minister, and a few other select guests after Sunday-morning service. “We had an extraordinary good dinner,” wrote the governor’s secretary after one such gathering, “some wild boar baked in a pot the best of any I ever saw, good claret . . . rhenish, and a mighty strong beer called blue John.” On another occasion Lady Anne treated her guests to “extraordinary good anchovies, potted wild boar, pickled oysters, and admirable claret.”21 After dinner the Cholmleys would stroll along to Whitehall to watch a bowling match between the married officers and the bachelors; or enjoy entertainments put on by visiting Spanish actors at the governor’s mansion; or sail out into the bay with their little girl, Moll, to see how work on the mole was progressing.

After a good start, it was progressing rather slowly. The Earl of Sandwich, who called in at Tangier in August 1668, reported that the mole was then 380 yards long; but as it extended into deeper water the task of construction grew harder, while winter storms caused breaches in what was already there. Cholmley’s original method was to drop loose stones onto the seabed and then to build upon these foundations with massive masonry blocks clamped together with iron. The structure was protected from the weather by a row of projecting pillars on the seaward side, which helped to dissipate the force of the buffeting waves.

To help with his survey of the work to date, Sandwich brought with him the military engineer Henry Sheres; the following May Sheres, who was described by Samuel Pepys as “a good ingenious man,” returned to Tangier to act as clerk-examiner on the project.22 Later that year he traveled to Genoa to see the mole there, and when he returned he did his best to persuade Cholmley that the Genoese model, which instead of masonry blocks used massive wooden caissons, or chests, filled with stones, was a better and cheaper way of proceeding. Cholmley was reluctant to follow his advice—“the work with chests seemed . . . superfluous,” he said23—but as each winter brought another breach and another round of emergency repairs, and as it became obvious that the deepwater work had slowed to a snail’s pace, criticism began to mount at home.

In 1676, when a new contract for completing the mole was drawn up, Sheres was able by using caissons to undercut Cholmley’s tender by £10,000, to the latter’s distress. He left Sheres to it and took Lady Anne and Moll back to England, where he entered Parliament and busied himself in court politics and self-justification.

The mole never was completed. Abd Allah al-Ghailan’s desultory assaults and ambushes came to an end in the late 1660s, when he was defeated by Mawlay al-Rashid, the Alawi emperor of Morocco. Tangier’s troubles didn’t end there. Neither al-Rashid nor his successor, the brutal Mawlay Isma’il, was particularly keen to see a fortified foreign enclave in their territory, and troops were frequently sent to chip away at the port’s outlying defenses.

They held off from making an all-out assault, and some recent British historians have suggested that the Moors were deliberately waiting until Sheres had finished the mole, so that they could move in and take over a fully functioning ocean harbor. In fact the real bone of contention for successive Moroccan rulers was not the state of the mole but the growing system of forts begun by Teviot. While they undoubtedly had designs on Tangier itself, they were determined that the English must not be allowed to expand their territory beyond the old limits set by the Portuguese. And with these forts, the English were doing just that.

On Thursday, March 25, 1680, the Irish governor of Tangier, the Earl of Inchiquin, dispatched seventy-five soldiers to relieve Charles Fort. The Moroccan qaid, or chieftain, Umar ben Haddu, was camped with an army of 7,000 men less than a mile from the town, and his troops were digging a network of trenches and cross-trenches which was coming closer and closer to the forts that defended the English lines. This was something new. Sniper fire, ambushes, and the occasional full-frontal cavalry charge were the tactics the Moors usually employed, not engineers and siegeworks. Now they were beginning a mine, an offensive tunnel, about 200 yards from Charles Fort, and cutting deep trenches between Kendal Fort and Pond Fort, and close to Henrietta Fort. Although they were only half a musket-shot from Charles Fort, they made no attempt to fire on it; and “our small firing did not much disturb them,” wrote a soldier in the Charles Fort garrison, “by reason of their being always under ground.”24

Four days later, on March 29, the Moors cut through the lines of communication between the fort and the town, and that night the English soldiers could see hundreds of them working feverishly by moonlight to mark out new positions. In the morning the commanders of Charles Fort, Captain St. John and Captain Trelawny, erected a cavalier, a raised gun platform, on the walls of one of their batteries, and from the vantage point it provided, thirty feet above the ground, eight or nine snipers overlooked and fired down into the Moorish trenches.

It made no difference. Day by day the siegeworks snaked around and through and beneath the English defenses. Umar ben Haddu had brought in specialists from Algiers and the Levant, men who had learned their trade during the siege of the Venetian stronghold of Heraklion on Crete, which had fallen to the Ottomans in September 1669 after a campaign lasting twenty-eight months. With their help, the Moors were no longer the unmethodical neighbors they had been to the Portuguese but were “grown to a great degree of knowledge in the business of war.”25

At eight o’clock on the night of April 11, a force of between 500 and 600 Moors suddenly rushed at Henrietta Fort. They pitched long timbers up against a section of wall, covered the planks with boards and branches, and brought in their pioneers to work on a mine under cover of the makeshift shelter. For more than seven hours the English commander, a lieutenant of foot named John Wilson, directed his men from the ramparts as they hurled hand grenades down on their attackers in the darkness and shot at them with small arms.

Just before dawn the Moors retreated without having managed to breach the wall, and Wilson, still not daring to open the gates of the fort, let down five men on ropes to clear away the timber siegeworks and burn them. They also decapitated two of the corpses left behind by Umar’s army and raised the heads on poles “in the sight of the Moorish camp, which all of that nation hold for the greatest indignity that can be put upon them, because according to their Mahometan superstition, they hold that when they die, their bodies immediately are translated into paradise; but if they are dismembered they can in no wise enter.”26 There were no more flower-strewn biers, no more expressions of mutual respect.

Torrential rains that week flooded Umar’s trenches, but he maintained his grip on the siege. All of the outlying English forts were now cut off; day and night their troops were subjected to the sound of drums and pipes coming from the Moorish camp, and whenever they tried to communicate with the town by speaking trumpet, “the Moors fell a-hallowing and shouting all along their lines.”27

At the end of April two renegades, a Frenchman and an Englishman, appeared before Charles Fort carrying a white flag. They brought the news that it had been undermined, and that Umar would give the order to light the gunpowder if Captains St. John and Trelawny didn’t surrender. The officers had one hour to decide.

To prove they weren’t bluffing, the renegades brought a safe-conduct for two English engineers to inspect the works. So they did, but the English remained defiant, telling Umar that they “would stand it out to the last.”28 Between three and four o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday, April 29, the Moors sprung the mine; there was a low rumble deep in the ground, and then a huge plume of sand and dust erupted into the air—forty yards short of the fort. Impatient to break the deadlock, Umar’s pioneers had got their measurements wrong.

Nothing daunted, they set to work again, while Umar sent for more ordnance. On Saturday, May 8, the defenders saw a group of Moors hauling “carriages of great guns” up to a hill overlooking Henrietta. They were actually only fairly light cannon, a two-pounder and a six-pounder, but within twenty-four hours they had opened a breach in one of the fort’s walls. Using their speaking trumpet and shouting in Irish in the hope that no one in the Moorish camp would be able to understand them, the officers of Charles Fort got a message to Governor Inchiquin to say that Henrietta was about to fall to Umar and that the garrison of about 175 men was threatening mutiny. They couldn’t hold out much longer—could they have permission to evacuate the fort?

Sir Palmes Fairborne, the deputy governor and commander-in-chief of the military at Tangier, was a professional soldier who had just returned from Europe. He and Inchiquin immediately convened a council of war in the Upper Castle. They decided that Henrietta Fort was lost (as indeed it was—Lieutenant Wilson surrendered that very night), and that the men in the other outlying forts must be brought into the town. A ship should stand by the next morning to take on board the thirteen-man garrison from Giles Fort, which lay on the coast close to the quarries at Whitby, and at the same time the men from Charles Fort must run for it across the 600 yards of open ground that lay between them and the relative safety of the town walls. To cover their retreat, 500 men would sally out from the town toward Moorish lines in five groups: the main body, a right and left wing, a reserve, and a “forlorn hope,” which was the name given to the first wave of soldiers in an assault, the men who bore the brunt of the enemy’s fire and enabled the main body to gain ground while the enemy was reloading. (Apt though it sounds, the phrase is an Anglicization of the equally apt Dutch verloren hoop, which means “lost troop.”)

The men in Charles Fort spent the night spiking and wedging their heavy guns, so that Umar couldn’t use them. At dawn the Moors blew up Henrietta with a mine, and the attempt to rescue the garrison of Giles turned into a farce when all but one of the soldiers surrendered to the enemy, apparently because they couldn’t pluck up the courage to swim out to the ship waiting to take them off.

Meanwhile, the men of Charles Fort broke all the small arms they couldn’t carry, and threw all their powder and hand grenades into a counter-mine they had been digging to intercept Umar’s mine. They spoiled their provisions and did their best to render their surplus ammunition useless to the enemy. Then they waited.

The two captains had agreed between them that St. John would lead the retreat while Trelawny, who had his little son with him, would bring up the rear. At seven o’clock they lit a fuse to the train of powder which was to detonate the counter-mine. By the time they opened the gates of the fort only one inch was left. As they ran, two things happened in quick succession. The forlorn hope, which was led by a Scotsman named George Hume, emerged from the town and advanced relentlessly toward the enemy trenches which crisscrossed the no-man’s-land between Tangier and Charles Fort, followed by the main body, then the reserve and the two wings. And Umar’s soldiers poured out of their camp and into those trenches, determined to take both the fort and its garrison.

The counter-mine was sprung just as the retreating troops scrambled over the first trench, and the noise and confusion bought them a little time. Then they were over the second trench. The forlorn hope was only a couple of hundred yards away. And still the Moors hadn’t reached them.

Now there was only one trench left between them and the safety of the town. But it was the Great Trench, the hardest obstacle of all, fourteen feet deep and half flooded with rainwater. Hundreds of armed sailors lined the ramparts of the town wall, firing volley after volley at the Moors, urging their comrades on. Hume’s men were hurling grenades at the enemy as fast as they could.

The soldiers of Charles Fort were in the Great Trench, splashing through the mud and filth, when Umar’s men caught up with them. St. John was one of the first out. He took a musket ball in his side as he ran for the gate, but he managed to stagger inside. Trelawny wasn’t so lucky. He was killed in the trench as he tried to pass his child over the parapet to safety. The boy was taken alive, along with fourteen others.

Thirty-nine soldiers made it back to safety. The rest died. The next day, Umar invited the English to come out and retrieve the dead under a flag of truce. They had all been decapitated.

That afternoon he sent back their heads.

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