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John Finnemore

The Battle of Algiers

But Algiers was now about to receive the most terrible blow that its history can record. For hundreds of years this "famous and warlike city," as its people loved to call it, had lain basking in the African sun, the home and nest of insolent robbers who treated all Christian nations as dirt beneath their feet. And now England was roused. She struck late, but she struck hard, and Algiers reeled under the crushing blow. In 1816 the anger of Europe was roused by a raid of Corsairs from Tunis upon one of the Sardinian islands, which they ravaged in their accustomed fashion. At that time England had sent Lord Exmouth with a British squadron to deal with the Barbary States, and he obtained from the rulers of Tunis and Tripoli a promise that Christian slavery should cease in their cities. He then went to Algiers and made a like demand. The Algerines laughed him to scorn and openly insulted the admiral himself, who had gone into the town to treat with the authorities. Two British officers who had gone on shore were seized by the mob, dragged from their horses, and led off to the Dey's palace with their hands tied behind their backs. Mr. M'Donell, the British Consul-general, was placed under guard, and his wife and family were treated with great rudeness. The ladies were at Mr. M'Donell's country house, and thence they were driven into the town on foot like slaves.

Lord Exmouth knew not what to do. He had no power at that moment to proceed to open warfare with the Algerines, and he sailed home, without doubt in deep vexation. He had hardly returned to England when news came that many Italians, living under British protection at Bona, had been put to death by order of the Dey of Algiers. Lord Exmouth was at once ordered to punish the Corsairs for this cruel massacre, and in August 1816 he was back before Algiers with a powerful fleet. A Dutch squadron of six ships also joined in the attack, and rendered a first-rate account of themselves. Lord Exmouth knew that the consul and his family would be in great danger when the Algerines saw the hostile fleet, so he sent a ship, the Prometheus, ahead to bring off Mr. M'Donell and his family.


A Barbary corsair.

The Prometheus arrived at Algiers to find the Dey and his officers and, indeed, the whole city, full of suspicion. They had got wind of the expedition, and Captain Dashwood, in command of the vessel, saw that the coming of the Prometheus had deepened the feeling, and that all suspected what he was about to do. The first object was to secure the safety of Mr. M'Donell's family, his wife, daughter, and baby. The two ladies came down to the shore dressed as midshipmen, and in this disguise they gained the first boat in safety and were rowed to the ship. The baby came behind in charge of the ship's surgeon, who had undertaken to make sure that it should not cry and so betray its presence. To carry out his object, the surgeon gave the baby something to make it sleep very soundly, and then he packed it in a basket of fruit and vegetables, and carried the basket as if it only contained provisions for the ship.

But, unluckily, as the basket was taken past the sentinel at the Marine Gate, the baby woke up and began to cry. The sentinel gave the alarm, and the second boat was stopped and seized. Baby, surgeon, three midshipmen, and fourteen sailors were seized and carried before the Dey. Officers and men were thrown into dungeons, but, wonderful to relate, the Dey sent the baby on board next morning, "a solitary instance of his humanity," as Lord Exmouth remarks. Mr. M'Donell himself remained a close prisoner in the hands of the Algerines.

When the fleet arrived, Lord Exmouth sent in a flag of truce and made his demands for satisfaction to the Dey. No reply was made, and the British fleet attacked at once. The battle began at a quarter to three in the afternoon, and the firing did not cease till half-past eleven. The cannonade was terrific on both sides. Lord Exmouth took his ships right in under the batteries, and hammered them and the town with tremendous force. His guns were splendidly handled and the spirit in the fleet was magnificent. As he says in his despatch: "The battle was fairly at issue between a handful of Britons, in the noble cause of Christianity, and a horde of fanatics assembled around their city, and enclosed within its fortifications, to obey the dictates of their Despot. The cause of God and humanity prevailed; and so devoted was every creature in the fleet, that even British women served at the same guns with their husbands, and, during a contest of many hours, never shrank from danger, but animated all around them."

Some of the British men-of-war suffered very severe loss, for the Algerines fought their guns in most stubborn fashion. In the end the over-powering fire of the British fleet beat down all before it, and the Algerine shipping was set ablaze by discharges from the mortar and rocket boats. Only one large Corsair ship escaped destruction by the guns, and that was because it had already been destroyed by boarders. This was the frigate nearest the fleet. Lord Exmouth says: "I had long resisted the eager entreaties of several around me to make the attempt on the outer frigate, distant about a hundred yards, which at length I gave in to. The frigate was instantly boarded, and in ten minutes was in a perfect blaze. A gallant young midshipman, in rocket-boat No. 8, although forbidden, was led by his ardent spirit to follow in support of the attack; in which attempt he was desperately wounded, his brother officer killed, and nine of his crew. . . . The enemy's batteries around my division were about ten o'clock silenced, and in a state of perfect ruin and dilapidation. . . . All the ships in the port were in flames, which extended rapidly over the whole arsenal, store-houses, and gunboats, exhibiting a spectacle of awful grandeur and interest no pen can describe.

The whole was conducted in perfect silence, and such a thing as a cheer I never heard in any part of the line; and that the guns were well worked and directed, will be seen for many years to come, and remembered by those barbarians for ever."

A most graphic account from a spectator in the city is given by Mr. Shaler, the brave and kindly American Consul-general, who was a good friend to British interests from first to last. When the attack was near at hand the consuls left the city with the exception of Mr. Shaler and the Danish Consul, who stayed with him, and at his house. The unlucky M'Donell was, of course, in the hands of the Dey. Mr. Shaler's house was on the seashore, within point-blank range of the British cannon, and fully exposed to the utmost fury of the bombardment. Here he stayed and watched the battle from beginning to end. He notes in his diary:—

"Tuesday, August 27.—At three o'clock the British admiral took his position in most gallant style within about fifty yards of the Mole (harbour) head, the other ships taking theirs in succession in like manner; at this moment the Algerines opened their fire on the admiral, and the battle instantly became general. At about twenty minutes past three the Marine batteries appear to be silenced. The cannonade endures with a fury which can only be comprehended from practical experience; shells and rockets fly over and by my house like hail. The fire is returned from several batteries, and from one of four heavy guns directly under my windows. At half-past seven the shipping in the port is on fire. At half-past eight the cannonade endures with unabated fury on the part of the English, and is returned from the batteries iii this quarter. The upper part of my house appears to be destroyed, several shells have fallen into it, whole rooms are knocked to atoms; at nine, the fire slackened; at half-past eleven it ceases entirely. At one, from my terrace everything in the harbour appears on fire; two ships wrapped in flames have drifted out of the port. Heavy thunder and rain. The lightning enables us to discover the combined fleets at anchor in the bay."

Lord Exmouth now held the fate of Algiers in his hands, and he offered terms of peace. The terms were too easy. The Algerines had had a tremendous drubbing, and now their power should have been broken once and for all. It was not done. The Corsair navy had been destroyed: they ought to have been forbidden to build another ship. Their batteries had been silenced and beaten to pieces: they ought to have been forbidden ever to mount another gun. They were left free to build and repair, and remount. They were forbidden to hold Christian slaves for the future. They were told that all prisoners of war must be held for exchange, and, when hostilities were over, must be restored without ransom according to the custom of civilised nations. They were ordered to deliver up all Christian captives in Algiers. This was done, and every captive was set free. Among them were slaves who had been in captivity for forty and fifty years, and had long since forgotten any home save the foul prison dens of Algiers. Finally, the Dey of Algiers was compelled to offer a public apology to Mr. M'Donell, the British Consul.


Walls of the Kasbah, Algiers.

"The sufferings of the unfortunate Consul had been very great. For several weeks he had been imprisoned in one of the lower apartments of his own house, deprived of all communications with other Europeans, and even of fresh air, during the greatest violence of the summer heat, his only sustenance being one meal a day brought to him by his guards. On the day of the bombardment he was dragged half-naked to the Kasbah, his hands tied behind his back. He was confined in a dilapidated and roofless dungeon, chains were riveted by a blacksmith to his wrists and ankles, and fastened to a staple in the wall. To the roar of the artillery succeeded that of thunder and torrential rain, to which he was exposed all night. Next morning, two small loaves were given, as the only nourishment for himself and two malefactors who shared his captivity, and it was not till 4 p.m. that he was released from this state of suffering on the Dey's becoming convinced of the danger of persevering in the course he had so wantonly adopted. During his absence his house was plundered of plate, jewels, and other property to a considerable amount."

Lord Exmouth publicly thanked Mr. M'Donell for his valuable services and his manly firmness in face of such barbarous treatment. Mr. M'Donell was now replaced in the consulate, and the fleet sailed away from Algiers on the 4th of September.