Post-classical history


Treacherous Intents: The English Send a Fleet Against Algiers


James I’s resolution in 1617 to “draw our sword against the enemies of God and man” produced no immediate results, but it did at least lead to the creation of a commission of courtiers and merchants, who were charged with the task of putting the king’s rhetoric into practice. They focused from the outset on Algiers, “the nest and receptacle of the pirates,” and the advice they received was that a frontal assault would fail.1

Sir William Monson, onetime admiral of the Narrow Seas, suggested an international force of up to thirty-six English, Spanish, and Dutch ships, “as most able to perform the service in respect of their strength and swift sailing.”2 They should be prepared for a war of attrition lasting years rather than months, and since all the maritime nations of Europe would benefit, those who couldn’t send ships and men should be asked to contribute to the finances. Spanish cooperation would be especially important: the fleets would need to be revictualed, careened (hauled over on a safe beach so that their hulls could be cleaned of barnacles and other impediments to good speed), and perhaps refitted every four or five months. Access to Spanish naval stations at Majorca, Alicante, Cartagena, and Málaga was essential.

So was timing. It would be best to blockade the harbor at Algiers while the pirates were out on the cruise. None of the other friendly ports they might run for—Tunis, Safi, Agadir—could offer the same shelter as Algiers. But this meant stealth was important. “If they understand of a greater force than their own to be made out against them,” warned Monson, “they will not adventure to put to sea.”3

Some members of the commission quailed at the diplomatic hurdles involved in organizing an international force. Wouldn’t it be simpler to stick with an exclusively English fleet and to ask the Spanish for the use of their ports? There were two objections to that. For one, Spain would benefit more than other nations from the destruction of the pirates, and popular opinion would not be happy at the idea of English ships and English sailors being sent to fight the Spaniards’ battles at English expense. For another, an international operation meant that the costs of mounting the expedition could be shared.

Everyone recognized that among the king’s subjects, the merchants and shipowners had the most to gain, so it was only fair that they should contribute the lion’s share of the finances. London was the country’s largest port, and the London companies were asked to stump up £40,000. Outside the capital, the provincial ports would have to raise another £9,000 between them. But from each according to his trading links with the Mediterranean: the Levant Company was required to give £8,000 and the Spanish Company £9,000, while the Muscovy Company was assessed only £1,000.

The pattern of variation was repeated with the ports outside London. Bristol was asked for £2,500, Plymouth, Exeter, and Dartmouth for £1,000 each. King’s Lynn and Chester, which depended much less on the Mediterranean trade, had to give only £100 apiece, and Carlisle and Berwick weren’t asked for anything at all.

Exactly how each body raised the levy was left up to them. Trinity House taxed ships using the port of London. The companies put a levy on imports and exports, as did most of the outports. And, predictably, the complaints and petitions and explanations of mitigating circumstances poured in to the government. The Muscovy Company insisted their £1,000 was unfair, because they didn’t trade with Barbary. The Spanish Company suggested the tax might be unconstitutional, and that in any case the Levant Company ought to pay more than they did because their Mediterranean trade was much more extensive. Outports objected they were too poor to pay, or that their trade wasn’t really affected by pirates. They claimed merchants would take their business elsewhere rather than pay levies, or that duties would harm local manufacturers, or that their neighbors deserved to contribute more than them.

Politely, inexorably, the Privy Council considered—and usually overruled—each objection, and the money for the expedition started to trickle in. Meanwhile English diplomats were attempting to engage the Dutch and the Spanish in a joint venture, a process that proved harder than herding cats. After forty-one years of fighting for their independence against Spain, the United Provinces had concluded a Twelve Years’ Truce in 1609. It was an uneasy cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and neither side trusted the other. The Spanish weren’t happy with a Dutch naval presence in the Mediterranean, while the Dutch suspected that the Spanish would use the expedition against Algiers as a pretext for an unwelcome naval buildup. Both sides suspected James I of colluding with the enemy.

The English did their best to allay Dutch and Spanish fears. But as negotiations dragged on into 1618, then into 1619, it became obvious to James and his advisers that the prospect of mounting a tripartisan expedition against Algiers was disappearing with the approach of the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1621. By the summer of 1620, England had come to an arrangement of sorts with Spain, who would put their Mediterranean ports at the disposal of the English and were, in addition, preparing to send a couple of squadrons into the Straits. The Dutch were sending a fleet of their own to patrol the western Mediterranean.

But when, after three years of negotiation and preparation, an English expedition finally set sail on the first stage of its 2,000-mile journey to Algiers, it was, for all intents and purposes, alone.


The valiant but venal Sir Robert Mansell, leader of the 1620 expedition to Algiers. Private collection

The Algiers expedition of 1620 was remarkable for many things, not least its leaders. The expedition’s admiral and general-at-sea was Sir Robert Mansell, a naval administrator of long standing and, as lieutenant to the admiralty, second in rank only to the Lord High Admiral himself. Sir William Monson, who had fallen from grace after being suspected of treasonable dealings with Spain, had hoped to stage a comeback by being given command of the expedition, but he was passed over. Mansell chose as his rear admiral his own nephew Sir Thomas Button, the celebrated leader of an expedition to Hudson Bay, who had spent the past seven years trying, without much success, to keep the coast of Ireland free from pirates. The vice-admiral was Sir Richard Hawkins, an Armada veteran and the son of the great Sir John Hawkins, who had fought the Spanish Armada with Sir Francis Drake in 1588. Now about sixty years old, Sir Richard was still famous for his privateering exploits against the Spanish in the 1590s, which had ended in a desperate three-day fight against two heavily armed Spanish galleons off the Pacific coast at San Mateo, followed by an eight-year spell as a prisoner of war in Spain.

Neither the vice-admiral nor the rear admiral had an unblemished record in public office. On his release from a Spanish jail in 1602, Hawkins had been compensated with an appointment to the vice-admiralty of Devon, a position he abused with gusto, letting pirates go free in return for a share of their loot. After a particularly awkward incident in which some personal valuables stolen from the Venetian ambassador turned up in his Devon home, Hawkins was fined, imprisoned, and relieved of his post. Sir Thomas Button had narrowly escaped punishment in 1605 for taking a bribe (two chests of sugar worth £42) to let a pirate go free. He came under investigation again in 1618 when a commission of inquiry discovered he had been receiving two royal pensions for the past ten years when he was entitled to only one.

And yet both men were models of probity in comparison to their leader. In an age in which public office and corruption went hand in hand, Sir Robert Mansell stood head and shoulders above his colleagues in his relentless, shameless pursuit of public funds which were not his to spend. After a spell as a privateer, and then as Elizabeth’s admiral of the Narrow Seas, in 1604 he obtained the post of treasurer to the navy, and he clung to it for all it was worth for the next fourteen years. And it was worth a lot. He fitted out his own ship at the crown’s expense, then hired it to the crown at an inflated rate, while simultaneously using it to carry private cargo. He routinely demanded bribes from naval suppliers as a condition of paying their bills. He ran a lucrative business buying timber and other materials from merchants, selling them to the navy at a handsome profit, and, as treasurer, authorizing the purchases himself. And when, in spite of his best efforts to stop it, the 1618 commission of inquiry into abuses in the navy began to examine his dealings, he resigned his post, mislaid his accounts, and handed the commissioners a £10,000 bill for his traveling expenses, which they were unable to pay. Instead, they quietly dropped their investigation.

Mansell, Button, and Hawkins were all venal men. But they were venal men in an age that routinely blurred the boundaries between service to the state and service to self, an age that regarded bribery, embezzlement, and nepotism as legitimate business practices. No one raised an eyebrow, for example, when Mansell appointed his brother-in-law, John Roper, as one of his captains; his nephew, Sir Thomas Button, as his rear admiral; and yet another kinsman, John Button, as one of his officers. The only voice raised in complaint was Sir Thomas’s, in annoyance that he had been passed over for the vice-admiral’s job, which would have paid him £1 6s. 8d. (£1.33) a day instead of the 13s. 4d. (67p.) he received as rear admiral.

And it is worth bearing in mind that courage and corruption aren’t mutually exclusive qualities. Button and Hawkins had both distinguished themselves under fire, and if Mansell hadn’t had the same opportunities to prove himself, his personal bravery was beyond question. He had a disabled right arm to remind him of a duel he had fought back in 1600, and during an embassy to Spain in 1605 he not only had chased a pick-pocket through the streets of Valladolid and into the house of a local judge, where he “by force recovered a jewel stolen from his person,”4 but also had caused a stir at a diplomatic banquet when he noticed a Spanish guest secreting about his person a piece of plate that was meant as a gift for the English: he dragged the man into the middle of the hall and shook him till the silver fell out on the floor with a clatter. Sir Robert Mansell was a bold man, especially where his honor, or his purse, were concerned.

The fleet slipped out of Plymouth Sound early on October 12, 1620, heading toward the Lizard and then striking south across the Bay of Biscay to the coast of Spain and the Straits.

There were eighteen vessels in all. Mansell’s flagship was the 600-ton Lion, Hawkins was in the 660-ton Vanguard, and Button was in the Rainbow , also 660 tons. All three ships were relatively new, and each carried a complement of 250 men and forty brass cannon. They were accompanied by three more of the king’s ships, the Constant Reformation, the Antelope, and the Convertine ; ten armed merchantmen, hired for the purpose; a pinnace for in-shore pursuit; and a supply vessel. Two more pinnaces were being built especially for the expedition, but they weren’t ready and Mansell didn’t want to delay any longer. Altogether the expedition consisted of 2,250 men. Almost a third had been pressed into service.

Mansell had with him at least two men who had been on intimate terms with the enemy. Thomas Squibb, captain of a support ship, had been a captive at Algiers and was able to give valuable information on the state of the place. Robert Walsingham, the fearsome one-armed corsair captain who had so nearly taken the Dolphin off Sardinia, was also on the expedition: after being captured in Ireland in 1618 and condemned to death he had saved his neck by putting his considerable knowledge of Barbary pirates at the king’s disposal.

James I’s instructions, signed at Windsor on September 10, were precise and prescriptive. Mansell was to cruise the western Mediterranean in pursuit of “any pirates of what nation soever they be,” but not to sail farther east than Sardinia, because “the islands of Archipelago” offered so many hiding places that “it were a wild chase and to little purpose” to follow pirates who took refuge there. He was to go to Algiers and demand that the pasha hand over all of the king’s subjects, whether they were slaves, renegades, or free men. He was to demand restitution for all the English vessels taken by Algerian corsairs over the past five years and punishment for the pirates. And if he received no satisfaction he was to destroy the Algerian fleet.5

He was not to attempt “any hostile act against the town,” both for fear of offending the Ottoman sultan, Uthman II, and prompting reprisals against English merchants and diplomats in Istanbul, and also because Algiers was far too well defended for an open assault. Nor was he to put his ships at risk “without some likelihood of success”—a catchall phrase that meant that if the operation went wrong, he was in for it when he got home. If all else failed he was allowed to attack any pirates he found at anchor inside Algiers harbor; he had explicit permission from James I to send in two or three of his smaller vessels as fireships—just so long as he used the hired merchant ships rather than any of the king’s own.

The fleet was to rendezvous at Gibraltar, and Mansell put in there at the end of October, disembarking some sick crewmen and asking the Spaniards for news of pirates. John Button, who was aboard the Constant Reformation and who kept a journal of the expedition, recorded that the captain of a Spanish warship rowed over to the Lion and told Mansell that Turks were out and raiding farther along the coast.

The fleet’s next port of call was Málaga, sixty miles to the east, where Mansell split his forces into three squadrons and began the hunt in earnest. Sir Thomas Button’s squadron spread out in a line, keeping about nine miles off the Spanish coast; Mansell’s sailed on his bow, another nine miles out; and Sir Richard Hawkins’s ships sailed on Mansell’s bow, another nine miles out. The fleet could thus sweep a huge area as they moved eastward, farther into the Mediterranean. To make the strategy more effective, the pinnace and “two ships of least draft of water” were deputed to search the bays and coves for pirates as they passed. In case anyone tried to slip through their net during the night, the fleet agreed on a password, “Greenwich Tower.”

In the two weeks it took them to cruise the 250 miles from Málaga to Alicante, they didn’t come across a single pirate.

After putting more sick crewmen ashore and victualing with wine, fresh water, and other necessaries, Mansell struck out under full sail south-east for Barbary. He reached the Bay of Algiers on Monday, November 27, 1620. The weather was so bad that the fleet was tossed around in the bay, and some of the smaller vessels were blown back out to sea before their anchors could take hold.

Keeping out of range of the Algerian guns, Mansell and Sir Thomas Button raised the white ensign, which in the seventeenth century was a simple white flag with a red cross of St. George in the canton, and the whole fleet saluted Algiers with their ordnance. The reply to the booming roar which rolled across the bay—at once a greeting, a gesture of respect, and a show of force—was total silence.

Mansell had sailed up to the walls of Algiers before. He had even attacked them before. “The thundering artillery roared, the musketeers in numberless volleys discharged on all sides, the smoke (as it were) eclipsing Titan’s refulgent Beams, filling all the air with a confused cloudy mist.”6 But that was a pasteboard Algiers, and the battle took place in the safety of Whitehall one Saturday afternoon in 1613, part of an elaborate water pageant staged to celebrate the marriage of James I’s daughter, Elizabeth, to Frederick V, count palatine of the Rhine and elector of the Holy Roman Empire. Real life was more complicated (as Elizabeth was also discovering—just as Mansell dropped anchor in the Bay of Algiers, Spanish troops were overrunning the Palatinate and the Winter Queen and her husband were fleeing into exile); and real-life Algiers was a great deal more formidable than a pasteboard castle on the Thames.

The admiral waited impatiently for the storm to subside. The next day, Tuesday, November 28, he sent Captain Squibb ashore to present to the pasha the letter he carried from James I, setting out England’s demands. The delay was unlucky. Turbaned and jeweled and seated on Turkish carpets and damask pillows, Kassan Qaid Kussa received Squibb politely, welcoming him to his palace of marble and porphyry, “the most goodly house in Algier.”7 He was prepared to accept the letter, he said—but not until the next meeting of the council of state, the diwan. Since the diwan met only on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday mornings, the fleet was going to have to bob around in the bay in foul weather for another four days before Mansell received any kind of official answer.

He wasn’t happy when Squibb came back with this unwelcome piece of news, and on Wednesday he convened a council of war aboard the Lion with Button, Hawkins, and the other senior officers to discuss whether the fleet should stay, or break off negotiations and adopt a more aggressive strategy. But what would that strategy be? After some debate Mansell decided it would be better to wait rather than “to depart leaving his Majesty that sent me thither unsatisfied and myself doubtful how to proceed.”8 In any case, the fleet’s appearance had raised the hopes of the Christian captives; he didn’t want to disappoint the thousands of men and women “who had received great comfort by the sight of our approach.”9

The comfort was short-lived. That afternoon the English sailors watched, appalled, as captives were herded down to the harbor and forced into ships being made ready to sail. Meanwhile pirate vessels came and went, apparently unconcerned with the presence of an enormous battle fleet anchored in the bay; they even brought in two English prizes, one from Great Yarmouth and another from Plymouth.

An infuriated Mansell sent his brother-in-law, Captain Roper, to present the pasha with King James’s demands, diwan or no diwan. He explained that the English fleet was there to require restitution of, or compensation for, 150 ships taken by the Algerians over the past five years; the punishment or delivering up of all pirates and their armadores (shipowners); and the return of all English ships and goods currently at Algiers. In addition, the admiral demanded that “all his majesty’s subjects, either slaves, renegades, boys or freemen, might be presently sent aboard me.”10 The pasha listened politely again, and again said there was nothing he could do until the diwan met on Saturday.

Although Kassan Qaid Kussa was the sultan’s viceroy and hence theoretically the man in charge of Algiers, the real power lay with the ocak, the Turkish-speaking Janissary elite, whose officers controlled the diwan. Those officers were often major investors in pirate ventures, and provided them with fighting men. There were also the corsairs themselves to consider: the pasha couldn’t afford to ignore the voice of the taifat al-raïs, the powerful guild of captains which looked after their interests. And he had his own reasons for not wishing to interfere in their trade, since a percentage of the prizes and the cargo, human or otherwise, belonged to him by right as the sultan’s representative.

The ocak, taifat al-raïs, and pasha all profited in other, less obvious, ways from the trade in captives. Contemporaries estimated the total number of European slaves in Algiers at the time at between 8,000, which was plausible, and 50,000, which was not. They not only built houses and laid roads and acted as servants, some ran successful businesses for their masters, and kept their country estates, and repaired and sailed their ships. As a whole, they were absolutely essential to the Algerian economy. Backed by such a complex network of interests, the pasha was hardly going to smile sweetly and hand over captives, corsairs, and compensation without a struggle.

When Saturday came round, he decided he wasn’t going to allow the English into the diwan. It was the main council meeting of the week, taking place in the great court of the qasbah with a regular audience of a thousand or more people. Perhaps he thought it would give the English too public a forum, or perhaps there was just too much other business to attend to. But on Sunday morning Roper was brought before a much smaller, more select gathering of the diwan which met in the courtyard of the pasha’s house. The officer carried the king’s letter and had with him James Frizzell, an English agent who lived in Algiers. Since at least 1613, Frizzell had been looking after the Algerian interests of a powerful Levant Company merchant, Nicholas Leate. He “well understood the course of their proceedings,”11 and may well have acted as Roper’s interpreter, since all business was conducted in Turkish.

Roper began by formally presenting James I’s letter to the pasha. The pasha said he couldn’t read it.

Roper gave him copies in Turkish, Italian, and Latin.

The pasha asked for letters of authority from Istanbul. When Roper said he had none, the pasha announced that he couldn’t take notice of the king’s letter without them.

Not a good start. Fortunately for the English, Frizzell had primed friendly members of the diwan beforehand, and several now demanded to know exactly what was in this letter. Roper said the pasha was the proper person to explain it to them. The pasha said he couldn’t understand it.

At this an exasperated Roper told the council he believed the contents “were for the restitution of 150 sail of ships taken from his majesty’s subjects . . . and the punishment of the offenders,” at which the pasha rose from his damask cushions and moved effortlessly to Plan B. It was so long since most of those ships were taken, he declared, that many of them had sunk. Others had been sold, along with their cargoes. Most of the captured sailors were dead. That being understood, “those that remained should be presently delivered.”12

Roper replied that this wasn’t good enough, and Kassan Qaid Kussa countered with a list of English attacks on Algerian shipping, going back sixteen years to Richard Giffard’s raid of 1604. He was told James I would certainly give satisfaction for any of his subjects’ transgressions.

After listening to a noisy debate between the twenty-five senior officers of the Janissary corps who made up the inner cabinet of the diwan, the pasha rose from his cushions once again and proposed that losses sustained on both sides should be set against each other, that the city should return “such ships and goods as were forthcoming,”13 and that all English captives, including those who had turned Turk but now wished to change their minds and their religion, should be released and handed over to the English. “To all this the whole douana [i.e., the diwan] assented.”14

Either Roper misunderstood the audience and its outcome (which isn’t likely, considering he was accompanied by the experienced Frizzell), or the Algerians decided the quickest way to make him go away was to agree to his demands. They certainly made hardly any attempt to honor their pledges. No ships were forthcoming. No goods were forthcoming. And although the diwan handed over to Roper a derisory eighteen captives, they promptly took them back (and placed Roper under house arrest) the moment Sir Robert Mansell suggested that for the future Frizzell should keep a register of all English ships, men, and goods brought in by pirates. The diwan demanded a properly appointed consul, and it was only after Mansell dressed a hapless common sailor in fine clothes and put him ashore as the official representative of James I that Roper and the captives were released.

On Thursday, the 7th of December, ten days after the fleet’s arrival and four days after the pasha’s promise, one of the English captains brought word that men were unrigging the two prizes in the harbor and unloading all their goods. Admitting to himself at last that the Algerians had no intention of honoring their bargain, Mansell sent the pasha a cross letter “to let him know how ill we took his perfidious dealing.”15 The next morning the fleet weighed anchor and sailed out of the bay, with the admiral feeling foolish and complaining bitterly about “the fair promises, faithless dealings and treacherous intents of the viceroy.”16

It was easy for contemporaries to criticize Mansell for his gullibility and his reluctance to fight. And they did. But having once opted for negotiation rather than intimidation, it is hard to think what else he could have done. The two new pinnaces still hadn’t arrived, and without them to stop the pirates from slipping in and out along the shore, he didn’t have the resources to mount an effective blockade. There was now no question of surprising the Algerians. And the pointlessness of a blustering show of force was brought home to him while Captain Roper and the pasha were engaged in their diplomatic dialogue at the Sunday diwan when a Spanish squadron of six warships sailed into the bay in hot pursuit of pirates who had just burned a 700-ton ship off Cartagena and carried off 270 men. The Spanish admiral exchanged cannon fire with the shore batteries, but he knew better than to come within range of their guns and he left soon afterward. “The distance between them was so far,” said John Button in his journal, “that the shot falling short, no harm was done on either side.”17 And no prisoners were recovered, he might have added.

For the next three months the English fleet cruised the western Mediterranean between Alicante, Málaga, and Gibraltar, waiting for supply ships and pinnaces to arrive from England and searching without success for pirates. The succinct but disconsolate entries in John Button’s journal tell their own story:

The 27 [December] at night the rear-admiral’s squadron went out to sea in pursuit of two Turks, pirates.

The 29 the rear-admiral returned but saw no Turk.

The fourth [of January] the Constant Reformation and the Golden Phoenix had order to go to sea to seek two pirates’ ships which we heard were on the Christian shore.

The fifth at night the Constant and the Phoenix returned into the road [at Alicante] again, but met not with any.

The 13 the Reformation, the Samuel and the Restore put to sea, to see if they could meet with any pirates.

The 18 the Reformation with the other ships returned into the road, where we found the rear-admiral with his squadron likewise returned, but met no pirates.18

On the single occasion when the fleet did encounter pirates—eight or nine accidentally sailed in among the English ships one night—a squadron chased them and fired at them but still couldn’t catch them, “by reason it was a dark night, and that they sailed better than our ships.”19 The expedition’s only trophy was a French merchantman captured on her way from northern Morocco to Algiers with a cargo of oil and some Moorish and Jewish passengers. Ironically, this was itself an act of piracy: although the vessel was crewed by Turks (who took to the boats and escaped), there is no suggestion that she was anything other than legitimate.

Mansell’s men had seen virtually no action, yet casualty rates were high. The fleet had sickness aboard when it left England, and by the time it reached Gibraltar, nineteen days later, the situation was bad enough for the admiral to put an unspecified number of ailing crewmen ashore and arrange lodgings for them. One of his captains, a Virginia trader named John Fenner, died there. More sick men were put ashore at Alicante less than three weeks later, including thirty-seven from Mansell’s own company. By the time the fleet regrouped at Alicante in the spring of 1621, sickness had claimed two more senior officers: Captain Eusabey Cave of the Hercules, one of the armed merchantmen, and Captain Arthur Manwaring of the king’s ship Constant Reformation, “a gentleman of an excellent temper . . . [whose] death bred a general lament in the whole fleet.”20 Manwaring’s chaplain, who had earned the crew’s respect by selflessly ministering to them “in the extreme of their sicknesses,” was also dead. One of the pinnaces was unable to sail because its captain and master were too ill, and Mansell was now paying to lodge a substantial number of sick men in Málaga, including forty-two from the Reformation alone. Button’s Rainbow was “so grievously infested [probably with dysentery] that he had not able men in her to manage her safely.”21

Altogether more than 400 men were seriously ill. Mansell asked that a physician and two surgeons be sent out from England, complaining at the same time that “the great sickness and mortality wherewith it hath pleased Almighty God to visit this fleet” was due to squalid living conditions, a lack of clean clothing, and inadequate supplies.22

The ships were in no better shape. Hawkins, the oldest and most experienced of the three commanders, wrote to the Lord High Admiral in England that all three flagships—Mansell’s Lion, Button’s Rainbow, and his own Vanguard—were “very unfit for these seas” and needed to be replaced. Mansell followed this up with a detailed report from his master carpenter, who confirmed that the Lion’s hull was so leaky at the bows that in a head sea (when waves were running directly against the course of the ship) the crew had to man the pumps constantly to keep her afloat.

And all the English had to show for their efforts were a small French merchant ship and a handful of rescued captives.

There were two reasons the hunt had been so disappointing. In addition to the English fleet, twenty-two Dutch warships and two Spanish squadrons were patrolling the western Mediterranean over the winter of 1620-21. It didn’t take long for the news to spread along the entire Barbary coast from Tangier to Tunis. As Sir William Monson had predicted, the corsairs were on their guard.

Even if the navies of three nations hadn’t been cruising the high seas in search of them, it was the wrong time of year for them to be out. There would always be corsair captains who were bored enough, broke enough, or reckless enough to venture out during the stormy winter months, but the season for Mediterranean piracy traditionally lasted from March or April until October, and over the winter most pirate ships were safely in harbor, being careened and repaired and refitted in preparation for the spring.

Mansell was feeling isolated and frustrated. His instructions from the Lord High Admiral were to remain in the Mediterranean for at least another six months, and James I was talking of maintaining a presence there for three years. The fleet was in desperate need of supplies, which proved inadequate when they eventually arrived, along with the two new pinnaces, in mid-February 1621. (And the word “arrived” needs qualification: the supply ships had sailed from England with orders to go to Málaga, where their masters refused point-blank to obey Mansell’s command to sail on to Alicante, forcing the fleet to weigh anchor and sail 300 miles to meet them, and making him very cross indeed.) He didn’t know how he was to receive fresh orders or supplies from now on, either, “for being resolved in my intention to spend most of this summer on the Turkish shore, I know not whither the pirates may lead me.”23

At home, rumors were spreading that the expedition had proven a fiasco. Government officials and diplomats started to distance themselves; the City merchants who had put up the money for it were muttering; and there were stories put about by Mansell’s enemies that he had “made an agreement with the pirates to [his] shame.”24 Count Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador in England, complained that “the English and those robbers are now all one,”25 and the Venetian ambassador sent a coded message home to the doge, reporting that the fleet was “very short of provisions and money, upon which account the men complain and are half mutinous, some having deserted to join the pirates, while many have died of sickness.” 26 (There were in fact no desertions.)

To make matters worse, Admiral Mansell was fretting over his business interests in England. He had acquired a monopoly on glassmaking in 1615 and had “melted vast sums of money in the glass-business,” according to James Howell, whom he sent abroad to look for foreign expertise. Though it was, again according to Howell, “a business, indeed, more proper for a merchant than a courtier,” Mansell clung tenaciously to his patent, investing some £25,000 in glassworks in London, South Wales, Dorset, and Newcastle-on-Tyne, and news that elements in the government were trying to have the patent revoked added considerably to his woes.27

Mansell could have ignored his orders and gone home, arguing that crew shortages and an unseaworthy fleet made his mission impossible, and trusting to ride out the humiliation and the awkward questions. Or he could have continued patrolling the seas between the Straits and Majorca in the vague hope that his quarry would venture out before his demoralized men died of dysentery and his ships fell apart.

What he decided to do was to attack the corsair fleet as it lay in harbor. That April he hired a 120-ton polacre and three two-masted brigantines. All were fast and maneuverable compared with the lumbering warships, and the brigantines were equipped with nine pairs of oars each. Then he rented a house in Alicante and turned it into a bomb factory.

The harbor at Algiers was still protected from the elements by Khair ad-Din’s Great Mole, a causeway of stone and earth that was six or seven yards wide and three hundred yards long. The mole connected the city to a small fortified island in the bay, forming a giant capital J, which, as one English observer noted, “giveth shape to the port, where there are usually above an hundred vessels for piracy, and others.”28

Even if the fleet could maneuver through the shallow inshore waters until it was close enough to the mole to cause serious damage to the ships moored there, by doing so it would come within devastating range of the heavy ordnance mounted along the city walls. The other obvious course, a lengthy blockade, required the kind of reliable supply network that was conspicuously lacking. Mansell’s best hope was to trust he would find a good number of pirate vessels moored within the mole when he returned and to send in fireships to destroy them under cover of darkness.

In the house at Alicante, his gunners went to work. They cooked up buckets of lethal wildfire from brimstone, gunpowder, and petroleum oil; made a quantity of incendiary grenades; and prepared fire-pikes, which they would use to pin bags of explosives to the timbers of a pirate vessel. Mansell eschewed the traditional way of deploying fireships—setting fire to a couple of smaller ships and setting them adrift among the enemy—and opted instead for a more tactical approach. He had his men prepare two fireships, one of one hundred tons and the other of sixty. (John Button describes both as having been “taken from the Turks”—presumably one was the Frenchman captured in February, but it isn’t clear how they laid their hands on the other.) The one-armed reformado, Captain Walsingham, whose previous career had provided him with firsthand experience of the harbor at Algiers, was given the command of one; a Captain Stokes had the other. Both were filled with incendiaries, piled high with dry timber, oakum, pitch, tar, and brimstone, and equipped with chains and grapnels for fixing them fast to their victims. Their crews were to sail them into the mole, fasten them to a couple of suitable pirate ships, fire the incendiaries, and at the last moment make their escape in longboats, which they towed behind them for the purpose.

A third fireship, a much smaller single-masted barge, was also fitted out with incendiaries and iron grapnels: she was to be sailed right into the middle of the pirate fleet and set alight; and her crew were also to make their escape in a longboat.

The fireships were supported by the three brigantines Mansell had hired in Alicante. They carried fire-balls, buckets of wildfire, and fire-pikes, all of which could be hurled onto the decks or jabbed into the timbers of the pirate ships.

Finally, there were seven longboats “which we called boats of rescue,” recalled John Button. They were to wait outside the mole. Armed with incendiaries to throw at any pirates they found within range, they were “well-filled with armed men, who were to rescue and relieve the boats of execution if they should chance to be pursued by other boats or galleys at their coming off.”29

It was a desperately dangerous venture. The fireships and the brigantines would have to pass under the walls of Algiers, exposing their crews to fire from heavy ordnance and small arms. The mole itself had a strong parapet running its full length, and if this was properly manned and defended by the Turks, the English boats would be caught in a lethal crossfire. The element of surprise was crucial.

At the end of April the fleet moved to Majorca, where for weeks Mansell rehearsed the coming operation over and over again until the crews—more than 230 men in thirteen vessels—knew exactly what they were to do.

There was a full moon on the night of May 24, and the tumbling clusters of low houses gleamed white through the darkness. Silhouetted against the hillside, the minaret of the Djemaa el-Kebir loomed over the harbor, a landmark for the little flotilla as it made its way across the bay. The stench of brimstone and sweat and fear was wafted away in the light southwesterly that carried the boats closer and closer to their quarry.

This was Mansell’s fourth attempt to burn the corsair fleet. His own fleet had reached Algiers three days before, and the battered men-of-war had anchored within sight of the town while six of the merchantmen were deployed to patrol the coast “to prevent the coming in of any pirates between the fleet and the shore.”30 As soon as everyone was in place, the admiral had summoned Walsingham, Stokes, and the captains of the brigantines and the “boats of rescue” aboard the Lion to go over the plan one more time and give them their orders.

The crews were already aboard their vessels and ready to set off for the mole when Mansell decided to abort the operation. There was not enough wind to fill the sails of the two fireships, and Button, Hawkins, and the other senior commanders advised against going in with just the boats and the brigantines.

The next night the men prepared again, and again the assault was called off, for the same reason. The night after that was stormy, but the flotilla braved gales, thunder, and lightning to set out—only for the skies to clear and the wind to shift against them before they came near the mole, pushing them out into the bay and forcing them to abandon the attack for a third time.

The Algerians didn’t show the slightest sign of being concerned at the reappearance of the English battle fleet. They didn’t place an extra watch on the city walls. They didn’t attempt to open negotiations. According to a Christian captive who escaped and swam out to the fleet, they hadn’t even put guards on their ships, “saving one or two in a ship.”31 They simply didn’t believe that Mansell would attack.

Tonight, the admiral watched from the deck of the Lion as his assault force approached the entrance to the harbor, in what was to prove their final attempt to destroy the pirate fleet. They were almost there. The open boats of rescue and the fireships were passing beneath the ramparts when once again the wind veered and began to push them slowly, inexorably, back out into the bay. “The two ships with the fireworks having almost recovered the mouth of the mole,” Mansell told the Marquess of Buckingham a few weeks later, “the wind, to our great grief, turned to the opposite side of the compass.”32

As they milled around in the darkness calling to each other, a Captain Hughes cried out from the deck of one of the brigantines, “Go on! Give the attempt with the boats!” The others took their cue from him, and pulling hard on their oars, the crews of boats and brigantines crossed into the harbor, chanting “King James! King James! God bless King James!” Sentries on the walls raised the alarm, and the watchers out in the bay heard shouts and then the popping of muskets coming from across the water. The flotilla pressed on, returning fire as best they could in the darkness and trying to keep the moored ships and galleys between themselves and the gunners and militiamen on the city walls. They lit their buckets of wildfire and grenades and hurled them onto the decks of one vessel after another, until seven of the pirate ships were burning. “Striving in the end who should have the honor to come off last,” said Mansell, “the which at length, as a due to his former resolution and courage, they left to Captain Hughes, and so returned, all the ships continuing still their cheerful cry, ‘King James!’”33 As they rowed out from the cover of the moored ships, they came under sustained fire from the Algerians. Six men were shot dead and seventeen or eighteen wounded; four or five later died of their injuries.

It was all for nothing. The English boats made their way back to the fleet and the Bab al-Gazira, the great gate that connected the harbor to the town, burst open. Citizens, slaves, corsairs, and soldiers streamed out along the mole and began to extinguish the flames. Almost immediately, clouds covered the moon and a sudden shower of rain made its own contribution toward undoing the work of Hughes and his fellow incendiaries. When dawn came Mansell reckoned only two pirate ships had been rendered unserviceable.

That day eleven pirates slipped into harbor past the English patrols, and although the admiral bided his time and waited for a favorable wind so he could send in the fireships again, he had missed his chance. Two Genoese captives who swam for their freedom a week after the attack told him that “the pirates had boomed up the mole with masts and rafts, set a double guard upon their ships, planted more ordnance upon the mole and the walls, and manned out twenty boats to guard the boom.”34 They had also dispatched galleys east and west along the coast to warn off other pirates.

So Mansell retired to Alicante to refit his ships, to plan another assault, and to await orders, supplies, and reinforcements. The Spanish repeated their accusations of his being in league with the pirates. The supplies didn’t come. Nor did the reinforcements. The orders did, but they were not what Mansell wanted: Lord Admiral Buckingham, anxious about rising tensions in the Narrow Seas following the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce between Spain and the United Provinces, told him to send home Hawkins and Button with the Vanguard, the Rainbow, the Constant Reformation, and theAntelope, and to carry on the fight against the pirates with what he had left.

He did as he was told, although the Lion was in such a poor state that she could not be kept at sea “without eminent peril of perishing,” so he swapped with Hawkins and kept the Vanguard for himself.35 He also dismissed four of the merchantmen after their captains convinced him they were no longer fit for service. The Venetian ambassador, with his customary grasp of events, reported to the doge that “the twenty ships under Mansfilt [sic] have fought, defeated and captured some pirate ships and inflicted much damage upon the port of Algiers.”36

Mansell could be forgiven for feeling a little dispirited. But for all his many faults, he wasn’t one to give up easily. He sailed round to Cadiz to refit and spent the month of July planning another attack on the harbor at Algiers, this time using galleys which he hoped to borrow from Spain. He intended to use the galleys—eleven would be good, but he reckoned he could make do with six—to blockade the harbor and to tow his remaining ships in close to shore, where their heavy guns could provide cover for his boats as they dismantled the boom. In spite of some misgivings, the Spanish agreed to provide him with “a great supply of fireworks, galleys, and other vessels,”37 and the galleys had actually been dispatched to Majorca to await his arrival when he received fresh orders from home. He was being recalled to England, to patrol the Narrow Seas.

In October 1621, a year after they left England with such high expectations, the remains of Mansell’s battered expeditionary force sailed into the shelter of the Downs, the anchorage off the coast of Kent which was the traditional gathering point for the fleet. In a final twist to the long comedy of errors, the government had changed its mind and decided to keep him in the Mediterranean, but he left for home before the orders countermanding his recall arrived. The adventure proved too much for his vice-admiral, the elderly Sir Richard Hawkins, who collapsed and died in front of the Privy Council—of vexation at not having his expenses for the Algiers voyage paid, according to one contemporary.38 Sir Thomas Button went back to chasing pirates round the Irish Sea. Mansell was left alone to bear the brunt of the criticism in Westminster.

No one could claim the mission had been a success—not even the Venetian ambassador, who reverted to saying that the English crews were so ill-paid and ill-disciplined that they had deserted en masse to the Turks. Mansell’s enemies seized the opportunity to condemn his failure of leadership. Sir John Coke, who had lost his place as deputy treasurer to the navy when Mansell took over back in 1604, and who as one of the Commissioners for the Navy had been involved in the 1618 attempt to bring him to book for corruption, described the fleet’s early efforts as “nothing but shooting and ostentation” and criticized the admiral for not spending more time at sea. Sir William Monson, still smarting from being passed over as commander of the expedition, agreed:

Such was the misgovernment of those ships, and the negligence and vainglorious humors of some to feast and banquet in harbor when their duty was to clear and scour the seas, that they rather carried themselves like amorous courtiers than resolute soldiers, by which means they lost the opportunity which offered itself to do hurt upon those hellish pirates.39

Monson also blamed Mansell for stirring up the pirates and thus actually making matters worse, a charge repeated by later historians. Josiah Burchett, author of the first general naval history of England, commented in 1720 that “in return for the civility of [Mansell’s] visit, his back was scarce turned, but those corsairs picked up near forty good ships belonging to the subjects of his master, and infested the Spanish coasts with greater fury than ever.”40

There was something in this. By the winter of 1621, MPs were complaining that the decay in trade was much greater than it had been in the summer “by reason of pirates.”41 In November two Portuguese carracks, big three-masted ships of the kind which dominated long-distance trade in the early seventeenth century, had almost reached home on their way from Goa on the west coast of India when they were attacked by seventeen Turks; one managed to get into harbor at Lisbon, but the other was sunk with the loss of all hands and cargo valued at nearly three million ducats. The following spring, merchants in the Exchange at London estimated recent English losses at £40,000. There were reports of savage behavior, too. An English merchantman which resisted three Turks in the Straits was blown out of the water; its master and seventeen crew clung to the wreckage for hours, but the pirates refused to pull them out of the water, and they all drowned. A group of women whose husbands were held captive in Algiers went down on their knees and wept in front of the Prince of Wales; they apparently obtained “fair words”—a remarkable enough achievement for the shy and stammering Charles.

It took a more than usually virulent outbreak of plague along the Barbary Coast in the summer of 1622 to rein in the activities of the pirates. John Ward was among the casualties in Tunis, while merchantmen calling at Algiers reported that pirate ships lay abandoned for want of crew, and that bodies were being thrown into the sea because there were so many dead. “God grant it be true!” exclaimed the Venetian governor of Corfu.42

Sir Robert Mansell was robust in his response to his critics, blaming the failure of his mission on poor communications, inadequate supplies, and bad weather—a fair assessment. He survived the whispering campaign against him, clinging to his vice-admiralty of England and his glassmaking patent, and even entered Parliament, so that he could secure an exemption for his precious patent from the Act of Monopolies.

One of his last appearances at Westminster—and in history—came in May 1641, when part of a ceiling in the Commons chamber gave way with a sudden crack, causing nervous MPs to assume they were under attack. There was an undignified stampede out of the chamber and into the adjoining Westminster Hall, where terrifed members ran straight into Mansell, who drew his sword and commanded them to “stand and fight like true Englishmen.” They didn’t. If they had turned to glance backward as they scrambled out into Palace Yard, they would have seen the old sailor, irascible and magnificent, advancing alone into the Commons chamber with his sword in his hand.

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