Post-classical history


No Part of England: The Evacuation of Tangier


The siege of Tangier was a triumph for Morocco and a disaster for English hopes of a permanent base on the Barbary Coast. The short-term consequences were dramatic enough: some of the explosives at Charles Fort failed to go off, and Umar ben Haddu managed to retrieve 3,300 hand grenades and all of the guns, which his men un-spiked and un-wedged and turned on the town. They were helped by one of the captured English soldiers from Henrietta Fort, who turned Turk—or, rather, Moor—and was promptly promoted to master gunner in Umar’s army. Four days after the fall of Charles Fort, Inchiquin sued for peace. Of his thirteen outworks, ten were either demolished or in enemy hands, while the three remaining were “not defensible, when it shall please the enemy to reduce them.”1 Whitby and its stone quarries were lost, which meant that all work on the mole had to stop. “We shall be brought to the condition the Portuguese were in,” wrote an anxious member of the garrison, “but we can’t bring the Moors to the same they were in.” Umar and his Algerian and Levantine siege specialists had turned the Moors “from a cowardly and inconsiderable enemy . . . to a puissant and formidable foe.”2

No one was surprised when the Earl of Inchiquin concluded a four-month cease-fire with the qaid and set sail with his pair of ostriches for a difficult interview with Charles II and a quiet retirement at his family mansion in County Cork. Nor when soldiers aboard ship in the Thames heard that they were destined for Tangier and “leaped overboard to escape, where they were taken up half drowned and secured again.”3 The English government responded to the news of Umar’s victory by sending troops to reinforce the deputy governor, Sir Palmes Fairborne, and his survivors. A contingent of volunteers led by the young Earl of Plymouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, landed on July 2, 1680, along with 600 regular troops under the command of Colonel Edward Sackville of the King’s Own Royal Regiment.4 Over the summer their numbers were supplemented by twelve Scottish and four Irish companies led by Sir James Halkett, a major in Dunbarton’s Regiment; by four troops of English horse and 200 Spaniards; and by 500 or so English seamen who were put ashore to help with the defense of Tangier by their admiral, Sir Arthur Herbert. By the time Inchiquin’s four-month truce with Umar ben Haddu expired, on September 19, there were well over 3,000 English, Irish, and Scots soldiers crammed into the town. At five o’clock the next morning the gates of Tangier opened and this army marched out in battle array and took up positions on the site of Pole Fort, 300 yards south of the town.

The Moors hadn’t expected such a dramatic resumption of hostilities. Relatively unprepared, they hurtled down from the mountains “with violence, in twenties and hundreds in a rude, unexpert, promiscuous way to interrupt the work”;5 but the English were ready for them, and by nightfall laborers under the direction of Henry Sheres and a Swedish military engineer, Major Martin Beckman, had erected a wooden stockade around the ruins of Pole Fort, strengthened it with earth and stone, and garrisoned it with 500 men.

The sally was the start of a bout of vicious fighting which lasted for the next five weeks, as the two sides struggled for control of the no-man’s-land of hills and ditches and ruined blockhouses surrounding Tangier. Dunbarton’s Regiment lost 250 men and 24 officers killed or wounded in a single engagement. In retaliation, they made a pile of the enemy dead in plain view of the Moors and set about cutting off the corpses’ genitals “to make purses.”6

At the end of October, when another truce was called and negotiations began between Mawlay Isma’il and Charles II for a more lasting peace, England had managed to regain some of the territory it had lost in May. The victory, if victory it was, was bought at a heavy price. The Earl of Plymouth died early on in the fighting, not from wounds but from the dysentery he contracted when he spent the night in Pole Fort and foolishly drank the water. Sir Palmes Fairborne was shot by a sniper on October 24 when he rode out with some officers to survey the defenses; he died of his wound three days later as he sat on a balcony watching Colonel Sackville leading what turned out to be the final attack on the Moorish lines. Between six and seven hundred were killed altogether on the English side, and perhaps as many as two thousand Moors.

Back in England, questions were asked about Tangier. Parliament, obsessively and paranoically anti-Catholic in the wake of the Popish Plot, was anxious about the high proportion of Irish (and hence Catholic) troops in the garrison. About the fact that the Catholic Lord Belasyse, currently imprisoned in the Tower on charges of plotting to poison the king and muster a secret Catholic army, had once been a governor of Tangier, as had the Catholic Earl of Teviot. Even about the fact that the Dominican church in Tangier was prospering in a most sinister fashion.

The mole remained unfinished, and since the Moors retained control of the quarries at Whitby, there wasn’t much prospect of it being finished in the near future. As things stood, after eighteen years of work and an expenditure of £340,000, the harbor was still virtually unusable by big ships, which crashed into each other in bad weather, fouled each other’s lines, and even broke from their moorings to be driven right out into the Straits in the westerly gales which lashed the coast from time to time. The flow of money assigned by the king out of his private revenue for the maintenance and service of the town, between £60,000 and £70,000 a year, was unsustainable, and when in November Charles asked Parliament to provide some financial support for Tangier, he was refused. Granted that the outpost was “a place of consideration for trade, and a guard from pirates, where our ships may retreat,”7 the cost was just too great, as most of the MPs who spoke in the debate on the matter made clear. “Tangier is no part of England, and for us to provide for it, as things stand now, is to weaken our own security,” said Sir William Jones. “Tangier is not only a seminary for Popish priests, but for soldiers too,” said William Harbord. “I should be glad,” said Sir William Temple, “either that we never had it, or if it was by an earthquake blown up.”8

In the end the Commons linked a vote in favor of more money for Tangier to the king’s acceptance of the Exclusion Bill, which would bar the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding to the throne. Charles wasn’t prepared to put an ailing outpost on the Barbary Coast given to him at his marriage before the interests of his own brother. And for the time being, matters rested there in stalemate, with a beleaguered and undersupplied Tangier caught in the middle of a bigger battle between Parliament and crown.

Samuel Pepys was feeling a little bewildered. On only forty-eight hours’ notice Charles II had ordered him to travel down to Portsmouth. When he got there he was to board H.M.S. Grafton and accompany Admiral Lord Dartmouth, a man he hardly knew and liked less, on a voyage to Tangier. He didn’t know why they were going. He didn’t know what his role in this mysterious expedition was to be. And he had been left to cool his heels in port for three days while Dartmouth rushed up to Windsor for a meeting with the king.

Now Dartmouth was back, and Pepys was closeted with him in the admiral’s cabin. It was raining heavily, and the Grafton rocked and swayed at anchor. Timbers creaked and groaned, the wind blew hard, and sailors scrambled around uncertainly in the rigging. It was an August afternoon, but the interior of the cabin was dark, and the guttering tallow candles cast long shadows on Dartmouth’s firm and faintly quizzical features as he quietly explained the king’s orders. Their mission was to destroy Tangier.

The next morning, August 14, 1683, Dartmouth summoned Pepys to his cabin again and went into more detail, showing him secret papers he had received from the king. The Earl of Sunderland, one of Charles II’s two secretaries of state, had urged the abandonment of Tangier back in 1680, but he lost office and the idea fell out of favor when he did, to be resurrected when he returned to power in January. Now Charles was keen to push ahead. To ensure there were no leaks, Dartmouth’s commission and instructions had been written personally by the king’s other secretary of state, Sir Leoline Jenkins, rather than being entrusted to a clerk. Those instructions appointed Dartmouth as admiral, captain-general, governor, and commander-in-chief of Tangier and ordered him “to demolish and utterly to destroy the said city and the mole erected in the port belonging to it, so as they may be altogether useless, and no pirate or enemy of the Christian faith may at any time hereafter make their abode or retreat there.”9

Pepys’s role was to act as “sole counselor” to Dartmouth and, in collaboration with an Admiralty lawyer, William Trumbull, to assess claims for compensation from the European inhabitants of Tangier. Other members of the party included Thomas Ken, who was aboard the Grafton as Dartmouth’s chaplain (and who would later earn himself a place in history as one of the seven bishops sent to the Tower for objecting to James II’s insistence on religious toleration for Catholics); Martin Beckman, the Swedish military engineer who had directed the fortifications during the 1680 counterattack against the Moors; and Henry Sheres who, ironically enough, was to be given the job of destroying the “stupendious mould” he had worked so hard to build.

None of these men knew the purpose of their voyage when they set sail that August. Dartmouth put a strict interpretation on his instructions, which urged him to take “all imaginable care how to prevent strangers and our own subjects’ from relaying the scheme to the Moors.10 Once they were well out to sea, Beckman was asked to produce a strategy for carrying out the demolition—a lengthy and complicated job involving engineers, fire-masters, miners, and drillers. (Most were to be supplied by the garrison, but a team of expert miners was taken aboard when the fleet called in at Plymouth.) He handed his plan to Dartmouth on August 28, recommending that they begin preparatory work on mining the fortifications without waiting until the civilian population had been evacuated. “I do not doubt,” he told the governor, “but the news (though it be but guessing) of demolishing of the place will arrive before we shall arrive there.”11

When Pepys wasn’t being seasick (which he was, rather a lot), he spent his nights watching the sailors dance on deck, and his days producing a paper for Dartmouth to justify the king’s decision. “Arguments for Destroying of Tangier” was a model of clarity, and it reflected governmental thinking pretty accurately. England’s high hopes for Tangier as a naval base and a major trading center had not materialized; without the help of Parliament, which was conspicuously unforthcoming, the king could no longer afford to support it. Sooner or later it would fall either “to some Christian enemy” or to the Moors, who would use the mole and the fortifications which had cost so much in blood and money, and would establish “such a den of thieves and pirates, as would prove of worse consequence to the whole trade of the Levant . . . than all that can arise from the whole united force of corsairs infesting that sea at this day.”12 It was better for the English to destroy Tangier than to let it fall into the hands of others.

The fleet arrived on September 14, 1683, one month after leaving England, to find a Moorish army camped outside the walls. This was going to make a clandestine demolition rather difficult, and Dartmouth hadn’t bargained on it. It was no secret that Mawlay Isma’il had designs on Tangier; or that the Ottoman emperor, Mehmed IV, was urging him to make holy war on all the Christian enclaves along the coast of Morocco—not only Tangier, but the Spanish and Portuguese outposts of Ceuta, Larache, Melilla, and Mazagan. But the four-year truce that had been brokered in 1680 still had just over a year to run, and Dartmouth’s latest intelligence had been that Umar ben Haddu’s successor as qaid, Ali ben Abd Allah al-Hammami, was eager to see it extended. What had gone wrong?

Before even stepping ashore, he invited the governor, Colonel Percy Kirke, aboard the Grafton and showed him the king’s commission. Kirke was perfectly happy to hand Tangier over to Dartmouth. “He do most seemingly collectedly bear it and very cheerfully,” Dartmouth told Pepys afterward.13 When the new governor read Kirke’s intelligence report on recent events, he saw why. Relations between the garrison and al-Hammami had begun to deteriorate in May, when the qaid complained that some stained glass which Kirke had promised to get for him from England hadn’t arrived. An escalating tit-for-tat exchange of sanctions followed. The Moors refused to sell the garrison straw for their horses until the glass arrived. The English refused (quite understandably) to hand over a supply of gunpowder, even though this had been agreed as a condition of the truce. The Moors barred the English from walking outside the town walls. The English barred the Moors from entering the town. Now the qaid had gathered an army, with a view to intimidating the garrison; but there was still a chance to avoid war, reckoned Kirke, adding disarmingly that this was “a work that seems to be reserved for your lordship’s prudence and dexterity.”14 Over to you, in other words.

Dartmouth thought briefly of simply telling al-Hammami his plans, but Pepys and Sheres managed to dissuade him. There was nothing for it but to press ahead in an increasingly uneasy and unreal climate of semi-secrecy. Pepys and Trumbull convened a court to hear claims of title to property, pretending that they were carrying out a general survey and valuation, although everyone in the town now suspected the real reason. Sheres went round declaring that the demolition work would take at least three months, which infuriated Dartmouth, who insisted it could all be done in a fortnight. Colonel Kirke turned into a fawning yes-man, agreeing with every passing whim of Dartmouth’s and prefacing every utterance with the words “God damn me!” His wife dropped heavy hints that she knew all about the imminent evacuation of the colony, while Dartmouth withheld everyone’s letters arriving from England in case they held a clue as to his plans. Anxious to put on a show of force in front of the Moors, he brought a thousand seamen ashore and had them parade in full view of the enemy camp along with his soldiers, as though they were reinforcements for the garrison; but this only made matters worse, since al-Hammami now demanded to know why the English had sent such a powerful army to Tangier. Trumbull grew so depressed at the thought of all the fees he could have been earning back in London that he asked to go home. Dr. Ken kept everyone’s spirits up by delivering sermons in which he denounced the vicious ways of the townspeople and the garrison.

If Pepys is to be believed, those ways were indeed rather vicious. “Nothing but vice in the whole place of all sorts,” he wrote in his private notes, “for swearing, cursing, drinking and whoring.”15 The hospital was full of syphilitics. Kirke had got his wife’s sister pregnant and packed her off to Spain to have the baby. On one occasion he had sex with a woman in the middle of the marketplace, and he kept a whore in a little bathing-house he had furnished for the purpose; while he was visiting her, his wife entertained the colonel’s young officers in her bedchamber. Admiral Arthur Herbert, the admired commander of the Mediterranean squadron who had managed to secure peace with Algiers, kept a house and a whore in Tangier. His officers proudly recounted stories of his exploits, such as the time when he got his surgeon dead drunk, had him stripped naked, “and one of his legs tied up in his cabin by the toe, and brought in women to see him in that posture.”16

The garrison’s soldiers were often drunk, both on and off duty, and they beat the townspeople and stole from them with impunity. Kirke himself was said to owe the local traders £1,500, but when they asked him to settle his debts all they got was “God damn me, why did you trust me?”17

On the afternoon of Thursday, the 4th of October, three weeks after arriving in Tangier, Lord Dartmouth went to the town hall and announced “the great secret.” He had spent days working on his speech, discussing it with Pepys and Trumbull and making endless revisions. He took care to explain that everyone would be compensated for the loss of their property, all debts would be paid, transport home would be arranged at the king’s expense. If he expected a hostile reception, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Bells were rung in the steeples, bonfires were lit all over town in celebration. The mayor and aldermen wrote a letter of thanks to Charles II for his compassion in “rescuing us from our present fears and future calamities, in recalling us from scarcity to plenty, from danger to security, from imprisonment to liberty, and from banishment to our own native country.”18The officers of the garrison handed in an address for the king, expressing “all the joy that our hearts are capable of ” and telling him how much “we applaud and admire the wisdom of your Majesty’s counsels on this important affair.”19 No one was going to miss Tangier.

Dismantling an entire community was a complicated business. Pepys compiled a list of 180 freeholders and leaseholders who needed to be compensated—civilians, army officers, and absentee landlords. (Some were more absent than others: the list included the king of Portugal, legal owner of the Dominican church, and Sir Palmes Fairborne, who had been dead for three years.) There was some wrangling over values, but things were settled within weeks, at a cost to the crown of about £11,300. Debts had to be proved and paid. Goods had to be inventoried—one careful soul catalogued the contents of the public library, which included Fuller’s Worthies of England, the plays of Sir William Davenant, and Pascal’s Mystery of Jesuitism, but not Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was marked “lost.”

And the population, which had more than doubled since the 1660s, had to be shipped out. There were currently 4,000 of the king’s men—soldiers, sailors, and engineers—in Tangier. Many had their wives and children with them (Lord Dartmouth reckoned there were 400 Christian children in the town). The civilian population had taken a dip after the siege of 1680, when a number of merchants and tradesmen moved to the safer shores of Spain, but it stood now at well over a thousand, and everyone must be moved to Christendom and safety.

The first vessel to go was a hospital ship called the Unity, which set sail toward the end of October, carrying sick and crippled veterans and a sprinkling of women and children. A few days later the mayor boarded the St. David and “he and the best families of the citizens sailed away at break of day for England.”20 The lawyer Trumbull, whose grief at his loss of earnings was boring the garrison to death, was given permission to go home at the same time.

Even as the Unity was leaving the Bay of Tangier, Lord Dartmouth’s engineers were excavating a series of experimental mines. On October 19, his master gunner, Captain Richard Leake, set off two explosive devices under the arches at the landward end of the mole, but the earth was so loosely packed that they did no damage. The next day, Sheres, who seems to have taken charge of the demolition of the mole, drilled out a cavity, packed it with powder, and detonated it to more effect. But there was a vast amount of earth and rubble to move. He computed it at 2,843,280 cubic feet, or 167,251 tons, and estimated that it would take a thousand men nearly eight months to clear the site.

The other teams were more efficient. By November 5, Dartmouth could report to London that the mines laid in the town and the citadel were all finished and ready to blow. In the meantime Sheres managed to break up the caissons at the seaward end of the mole, but he was still having huge problems with Sir Hugh Cholmley’s earthworks. Dartmouth deployed 2,000 men at a time to remove the rubble by hand and tip it into the bay: “This good will follow,” he said, “that the harbor will be fully choked up by it.”21 The sight of 2,000 laborers swarming over the mole from dawn till dusk and hurling it stone by stone into the bay did give the watching Moors a bit of a clue that something was afoot; but by now Dartmouth had acquainted al-Hammami with his intentions. There was no point in secrecy.

On January 21, 1684, Dartmouth’s officers reported that the mole was “so entirely ruined and destroyed, and the harbor so filled with stones and rubbish” that it was “in no capacity to give any kind of refuge or protection to the ships or vessels of any pirates, robbers, or any enemies of the Christian faith.”22 The withdrawal of the English garrison had begun the previous week, when mines were sprung at Pole Fort and the other outlying defenses, and the ground between them and the town walls were strewn with iron spikes to deter an opportunistic cavalry charge by the Moors. On February 3, Dartmouth gave the order to blow up one of the mines at York Castle, the old Moorish fortress on the shore, and another in the Upper Castle. The senior officers of the garrison gathered to hear Dr. Ken read a prayer of thanks to God at the town hall, the church having been stripped of its furnishings, its seats, even its marble pavement, which Lord Dartmouth sent home to decorate the king’s chapel at Portsmouth. For the next two days soldiers pulled down as much of the remaining buildings as they could, throwing the debris into the common sewer. At nine in the morning of February 6, the troops who were left ashore began to embark in small boats for the fleet at anchor in the bay, as one mine after another was blown. Rubble flew high into the air. Fires were started. Peterborough Tower in the Upper Castle collapsed with a roar, “on which many of the Moors appeared, giving a great shout.”23

Lord Dartmouth was the last to leave, springing the final mine himself before being rowed out in his barge to the Grafton, as thousands of Moors rode down from the hills toward the ruined town. He delayed sailing for home for several days, to negotiate the release of Lieutenant Wilson, the commander of Henrietta Fort who had been captured by Umar’s soldiers four years earlier. “I thought it not for your Majesty’s honor to leave a commissioned officer behind that had behaved himself so very well in your service,” he told Charles II. “And I believe [he] will do again upon a little encouragement, though at present his misfortunes and long captivity seem too much to have dejected him.”24

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