Friday, 23 November 2012

Europe and the Barbary Pirates, Part 2

From the 16th to the early 19th centuries pretty much all the European countries with a coast line suffered slaving raids from vessels of the North African Barbary states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Sale, as well as seizure of their ships. It´s estimated that between 1530 and 1780 1-1.25 million Europeans were taken as slaves to North Africa, as well as many more Africans. Most of the European slaves came from Italy and Spain, but about 20,000 British and Irish suffered the same fate, many were kidnapped sailors. Records are incomplete, but show 466 vessels taken between just 1609 and 1616, whilst 160 British ships were captured by the Algerians alone between 1677 and 1680. In 1641 the John Filmer, was captured just outside Cork, the crew taken to Algiers, whilst in 1656 seven fishing boats and 42 men were kidnapped near Falmouth.

 Initially there was little that could be done, due to the strength of the Barbary powers, but gradually a pattern emerged of individual European navies bombarding the pirate ports until an agreement was reached to exclude that particular country's ships from piracy. Such agreements tended to be temporary, and especially in the Mediterranean slave raids were a constant fear until the power of the Barbary pirates was eventually destroyed.


Various peace treaties made by England with the Barbary states, but most are quickly broken.

1661 and 1663
The Dutch Navy under Michiel de Ruyter forces an agreement with the Barbary states, but it doesn't last long.

The Dutch Navy launches a punitive expedition against the Barbary States.

 The Dutch fleet at Tripoli, 1670

An English squadron under Edward Spagge destroys 10 pirate ships at Bougie Bay near Algiers, the strongest of the Barbary states. Spragge follows this up with a bombardment of the city, sinking several ships, and Algiers signs a peace treaty with England

A Royal Navy squadron under Sir John Narborough forces a treaty with Tunis and, after bombardment of the city, with Tripoli.

Sale signs a peace treaty with England

Algiers,. not unexpectedly, breaks their peace treaty with England, but a series of defeats at the hands of an English squadron under Arthur Herbert forces them to make peace in 1682, which actually lasts until 1816.

French Navy bombards Algiers

 The French attack on Algiers, 1682

French Navy bombards Algiers again

French Navy bombards Tripoli and forces a peace treaty

French Navy bombards Algiers yet again and finally a peace treaty is signed.

1783 and 84
The navy of Spain, long one of the worst sufferers of Barbary piracy, bombards Algiers, with 4x ships of the line, as well as two each from Portugal and Naples and one from Malta, in a rare example of national cooperation. Over 20,000 cannon balls are fired, much of the city and it´s fortifications are destroyed and most of the Algerian fleet sunk. The Spanish threaten to return every year until a peace treaty is signed and the Algerians give in, as do the Tunisians when threatened with similar treatment.

The Venetian Navy blockades Tunis and several neighbouring towns, but isn't strong enough to force an agreement.

1784 - 1802
Algiers, Morocco and Tripoli demand huge amounts from the USA to prevent piracy of American ships.

The USS Enterprise, of the newly formed US Navy, defeated the Tripoli, from, actually, Tripoli.

Tripoli forces capture the USS Philadelphia and take her crew hostage.

American forces under Lt. Decatur board and destroy the Philadelphia. US forces blockade Tripoli and try to capture the city, unsuccessfully. US and allied forces conquer the nearby city of Derma in 1805. Tripoli signs a peace treaty, though gains a large ransom for the captured American crews.

Following renewed piracy against US ships, two squadrons of the US navy are sent to the Mediterranean. The Algerian flagship is captured and under threat of bombardment Algiers returns all prisoners and signs a treaty.

The End of the Barbary States

The Napoleonic Wars ended with Europe united as never before, and England having the most experienced and powerful navy the world had yet seen. England was also acquiring a new mission, the abolition of the slave trade. These factors should have encouraged the Barbary states to "keep their heads down" - it didn´t.

In 1815 a squadron from Tunis sacked Palma on the island of Sardinia and carried off 158 inhabitants to slavery. This caused outrage in Europe, and a number of accusations that Britain´s new found enthusiasm for abolition was more about reducing the competitiveness of their rivals in the Americas than slavery as such. In response Lord Exmouth was sent to the Mediterranean with a Royal Naval squadron to wring concessions from the Barbary powers, not least a pledge to treat Christian captives prisoners of war rather than slaves, as the pretext for the Palma raid was a "war" between Tunis and the Kingdoms of Sardinia and Sicily.

 The bombardment of Algiers, 1816

Exmouth´s diplomacy had appeared to work, with agreement form all parties, only for a group of Sardinian fishermen to be attacked and massacred. Fed up with this, Exmouth returned with an Anglo-Dutch squadron and on August 17th 1816 bombarded Algiers. Following this Algiers and Tunis signed new treaties.

And again slave raiding continued, with another bombardment of Algiers in 1824 by a British fleet under Admiral Sir Harry Neal (it´s amazing there were any buildings still standing by now), but the scourge was only ended for good with the occupation and annexation of Algiers by the French in 1830.

The Tunisian fleet was defeated by the British in 1826 and by the French in 1827, but perhaps because it was technically under Ottoman Turkish protection, the city was not occupied until the French arrived in 1881.

Tripoli had long been, technically, part of the Ottoman empire, but infact was ruled by the descendants of a Janissary rebellion. However in 1835 the Ottomans took back control, and Tripoli was part of the Empire until conquered by the Italians in 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Prussians on the High Seas, 1870-71

The French fleet was generally considered to be completely superior to the Prussian at the start of the Franco-Prussian war. Of course their army was considered by many to be superior too, and that didn´t work out too well. Nonetheless, the French navy was much bigger, with for instance 17 new armoured steam frigates compared to just three Prussian. The problem was what to do with this superiority - a direct attack on the north German coast was ruled out as the French didn´t have enough armoured ships with the shallow draft required for coastal work in the Baltic. Even a blockade was problematic. This might imply that the French fleet was a failure, but it did achieve at least two strategic aims;

a) The seizure of 200 Prussian merchant ships effectively prevented any sea borne imports into Prussia
b) Conversely, French naval dominance allowed unrestricted imports into France. This became especially important when the French capital was moved to Bordeaux after the fall of Paris, and arms imports from America kept the French armies supplied.

And what of the Prussian navy? In fact the three armoured cruisers did venture out on sorties in August and September 1870, only to not find any French to fight! The tiny sloop SMS Meteor (370 tons) fought a dramatic little duel with the slightly-less-tiny French ship, the Bouvet (800 tons) off Spanish Havana, their guns (both had only 3) unable to find a target in the high seas until the Bouvet tried to ram the Meteor. The resulting damage, and point blank gunfire, damaged both ships so much that they both limped back to Havana.
 The SMS Meteor during her battle with the Bouvet, as painted by the German artist Christopher Rave.

The Meteor won fame and glory for Prussia,  but it was left to the steam corvette the SMS Augusta to take the war to the French coast.

The voyage of the Augusta

The Augusta was a steam and sail powered corvette, with a crew of 230 and 8x 24 pdr and 6x 12 pdr guns. She had already had rather an eventful life. She had been built in France, with a Japanese name, the Osakka Yeddo, but actually intended for the Confederate navy, where she was due to be named the Augusta Mississippi. However, her delivery was vetoed by the French government, not wanting to get dragged into the American Civil War, which left a ship for sale. The Kingdom of Prussia, then at war with Denmark in the Baltic, snapped her up, naming her simply the Augusta.

The Augusta in 1864, flying the Prussian seekriegsflagge (naval flag)

The Augusta missed the Danish war, but from 1867-9 was sent to show the Prussian flag in the Caribbean. Well, actually the North German Confederation flag, but that was effectively the same thing. Whilst there her captain nearly caused a diplomatic incident with the US by starting to negotiate with Costa Rica over a possible naval base, although Bismark later claimed  (vigorously, but not completely convincingly) that the captain was acting on his own initiative. Anyway, with war with France looming, she was ordered back to  Wilhelmshaven.

In November 1870 the Augusta, under her captain Johannes Weickhmann, slipped out into North Sea. She steamed down the English Channel with no opposition and by December was at the mouth of the river Gironde, a few miles from the new French capital, Bordeaux. This daring act was rewarded with the capture of two merchant ships, the first captured by the Prussians in the war. Even better, she caused panic in Bordeaux, and Weickhmann toyed with the idea of steaming up the Gironde and bombarding the city, but turned back at the prospect of Fort Pate.

There was still fun to be had however. The Augusta sailed up the coast and anchored opposite Rochfort harbour where she picked off another prize. More embarrassingly for the French government her crew actually occupied for a time Fort Boyard. For anyone who has visited this sea-fort, or seen the tv show set there, this would seem impossible, but its 250 man garrison had been evacuated, handing an easy propaganda victory to the Prussians.

By now the Augusta was running out of coal, so she sailed down to the neutral Spanish port of Vigo. There her luck ran out and trapped by two French steam frigates, she stayed there until the war was over, her work done.


From 1874 to 76 the Augusta was back in West Indian waters. From 1877-8 she was even further afield, at Samoa in the Pacific where Imperial Germany (as her flag now proclaimed) had increasing commercial interest. After a respite back in Germany she was again sent to the Pacific in 1885, only to fall foul of a cyclone off the Gulf of Aden in 1885.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Curlew and The Panda

The road to promotion in the 1830s may have been to serve in the ships of the line, where you could be seen by Admirals, but for travel and adventure, the little ships were the place to be.

HMS Curlew was a 10 gun wooden sloop launched in 1830. In May 1833 the Curlew called in at Port Antonio on the Portuguese Ilha do Príncipe, off West Africa. There Capt. Trotter was informed of an attack on an American brig, the Mexican, by a Spanish pirate schooner, the Panda, which had seen the crew of the Mexican abandoned at sea in a burning vessel, which they had only just managed to survive. The Spanish captain, who had been identified as "Don" Pedro Gilbert, had reportedly abandoned the crew to their fate with the words "Dead cats don"t mew".

 HMS Curlew, at Rio de Janeiro

This Panda was believed to be in the nearby River Nazareth on the African mainland, and the Curlew set off in pursuit. On the 3rd June she anchored at the mouth of the river, and early the next morning three boats rowed up the river. After three miles they saw the Panda, but they themselves had been seen. Rowing against the current was heavy going and before they could arrive the crew of the Panda had left, and smoke was coming from their ship. Arriving at the Panda the astonished sailors saw the smoke was coming from a trail of cotton and brimstone leading to the magazine, where lay 16 barrels of gunpowder! Fortunately, they managed to put out the fire in time, and took the Panda in the name of the King, sailing it out of the river.

Captain Trotter now wanted the crew. These were now in the town of Nazareth, under the jurisdiction of King Passall, the local chieftain. Actually, he vigorously claimed that they had run off into the bush, but it was pretty clear this was not the case, so Trotter determined to make his message clear. The Curlew was too big to sail to Nazareth, so he sent the Panda back, with a Royal Naval crew. After an ultimatum had expired with no pirates delivered, the Panda fired a warning shot.

Unfortunately, though the crew was Navy, the ship was not. Firing the cannon set off loose powder still on the deck, probably from when the pirate crew had tried to fire the ship before. This time it succeeded, the magazine exploded, three men were killed, with many wounded, including Captain Trotter. Fortunately the water was so shallow that the ship didn`t sink and the wounded could be saved. However, much of the Curlew`s firearms and cutlasses had been lost, as well as members of the crew, and an attack on King Passall was unpractical. Anyway, Trotter learnt from his prisoners that the pirate crew had dispersed, and so he sailed along the African coast hunting them down.

Fernando Po

Fernando Po

After several false leads Trotter was forced to call at the island of Fernando Po, modern day Bioko, where Britain leased two bases for use in anti-slavery patrols. Fernando Po was techniclly Spanish, but in fact run by local chiefteins, whose slave trade Britain had abolished. The Curlew needed supplies, also some of her crew, including Captain Trotter, had come down with fever and needed R&R. Actually this delay was a stroke of luck. An officer Captain Beecroft, had come across 5 Spanish sailors who claimed to be shipwrecked, and he had brought them to Fernando Po to catch a ship from there. Suspecting they might be part of the crew of the Panda, the Governor of Fernando Po, Colonel Nicholls, confronted them with the prisoners already taken, and they were promptly identified. The youngest Spaniard, Jose Perez, turned Kings Evidence, and later he was murdered in Havana by friends of Gilbert.

Cape Lopez

It appeared that the slaver captain, Don Pedro Gilbert, was still at Nazareth, but it wasn`t clear how to get him as king Passall could either fight, or melt away into the dense forest. Fortunately a trader, Captain Fatio of the Princess Elizabeth offered his services and a plan was hatched. Thirteen men of the Curlew, under the mate, Mr Matson, embarked the Princess Elizabeth and it sailed for Nazareth, with HMS Curlew following far behind. The plan was for the Elizabeth to moor like any other trader and when the King came aboard to inspect her, as was his custom, he would be seized and held until the Curlew appeared.

Something about the Elizabeth struck the locals as wrong, and they inspected her by canoe, but would not come aboard. Matson determined that he would have no choice but to go on land, however risky that turned out to be, so with 4 crew he took a row boat and went to Nazareth, only to be told that the King was now at Cape Lopez, 20 miles upstream. Rowing almost all night, Matson and his crew arrived around dawn.

 Cape Lopez

Unfortunately, almost the first person they met shore was "a gentlemanly looking man with a sword by his side", none other than Don Pedro Gilbert himself, who was immediately very suspicious that Matson was the trader he claimed to be. But unaware of this, Matson continued on to the Kings residence where he announced that he and his crew had come to trade for ivory, and they had many dollars to spend. The meeting went well and Passall was won over, even after a messenger came to inform him of Pedro`s suspicions. Walking back to the beach Matson was accosted by Pedro and a group of Spanish sailors and asked to a nearby house for questioning - he considered bolting for the row boat but held his nerve and somehow managed to appear convincing, or at least enough for Pedro to let him go. Matson and the others returned to the Princess Elizabeth with a pilot to direct the ship to Cape Lopes and one of Passalls younger sons, to find that Captain Fatio had almost given up hope of seeing them again. The two natives were plied with as much drink as they wanted, so when the Curlew appeared in the night they slept through the meeting, and had no clue the next morning that the two ships were connected.

The next morning both ships arrived at Cape Lopez, but separately, the Curlew flying the Brazilian flag. The King was on a Portuguese ship in the harbour, but his son Prince Nazeen and several head men boarded and were promptly seized, though well treated, and assured they would be released as soon as the Spanish were given up.

There now followed a day of haggling, and probably many threats from Don Pedro, but eventually a message was sent, and next morning Don Pedro was send to walk along the beach where, sword in hand, he was met by Captain Trotter and taken into custody. Meanwhile, predictably, Passalls men looted the Spaniard's stores in Cape Lopez. The prisoners were released, with gifts and even a full Naval uniform for Nazeen.

Sao Tome (St Thomas)

It had become clear for some time that the Esperanza was extremely suspicious, and this was confirmed by documents seized with Don Pedro. In fact she had been seen earlier at the Portuguese island of St Thomas, though the Governor there had sworn she was innocent of wrong doing. Trotter now sailed with all speed back to St Thomas, hoping to catch her there, accompanied by the Princess Elizabeth who could sart her normal trade again.

On October 4th 1833 the Curlew was back at St Thomas, anchoring at the port of St Ana de Chaves. The Esperanza had gone, but they were tipped off by an American merchant that some of the Spanish pirates had stayed, and infact had bought a boat from the Governor himself, despite his official claim that they had never been on the island at all! Another American, Captain Pollard of the Henry Hill, told him that the Esperanza was in fact moored on the far side of the island, waiting for the Spaniards to cross the island and join her. Matson was promptly dispatched with a crew in row boats and they captured the Esperanza just after dark, bringing her back to St Ana de Chaves.

The Governor now changed his tune, claiming that he had been hunting for the Spaniards, and had word that they were on a distant part of the island. With no way of forcing the issue Trotter had to be content with seizing the Esperanza, and the ex-ship of the Governor, and sailing for the neighbouring Portuguese island of Principe.

Cape Lopez again

Trotter now had most of the crew of the Panda, including the officers, but in January 1834 he received news that one of the pirates was still at Cape Lopez. The Curlew had been back since, and been recieved well, so they didn't anticipate trouble, but when Matson went ashore with a small party he was seized, as was Lt McNeale and a group of sailors who were searching a Portuguese ship in the harbour.The prisoners were stripped naked, apart from Matson who had a degree of protection from his friend Prince Nashin. They were questioned about how many people remained aboard and Matson invented the huge number of 125, which he later believed was what dissuaded an outright attack on the Curlew.

It was unclear even afterwards what had prompted this sudden hostility by Passall, other that the fact he was extremely drunk at the time. In any event he now demanded 3000 dollars ransom for the hostages. When this was brought down to 100 dollars it was paid, only for Passall to demand another 300 and several more days passed. Fortunately at this point the HMS Fair Rosamund, another sloop, arrived, and Passall send the hostages back.

Clearly this could not be tolerated and another sloop, HMS Trinculo, was summoned. The water was too shallow to approach Cape Lopez directly but the combined boats for the squadron were loaded with sailors, and also a 12 pounder cannon and some rockets , and sent in. The rockets drove Passalls forces out of the town, but they assembled in large numbers in the forest and a plan to burn the town was abandoned.


The Curlew and the captured Esperanza returned to Ascension island, and then England, the Esperanza being eventually handed over to the Portuguese authorities in Lisbon, and entered the Portuguese navy. The Spanish pirate prisoners were sent to be tried in Massachusetts for their part in the seizure of the Mexican. They were carried on HMS Savage, the first time in 50 years that a British warship had entered Salem harbour, which naturally caused great excitement. By chance the Mexican, with her original captain and mate were in harbour, and of course were called as witnesses. It was a cause celeb, with even the President being involved, but finally most of the prisoners, including Don Pedro, were hanged.

 A contempory print of de Soto and Gilbert. Gilbert was noted for his "gentlemanly aspect" and seemed to be always carrying a sword. The crew of the Panda were noted at the time for having red caps.

Trotter went on to command the Niger Expedition in 1841, and by 1857 he was a Commodaore, commanding the newly established Cape of Good Hope squadron based in Simonstown. 

Matson was to visit Havana again, two and ten years after the trial, and on both occasions he met up with the former Chief Mate of the Panda, Bernardo De Soto, who had been pardoned. Matson was a captain in the Royal Navy, and De Soto a well established and respectable trader

"The world had gone well with him since his trial, and he was now undoubtedly a reformed character. He never looked like a pirate, he had a benevolent expression of countenance, and was particularly mild and gentlemanly in his manners. During ten years he had commanded a large steamer, running between Havana and Matanzas, and latterly had become part owner. He told me he had made a considerable sum of money, but had never been engaged in the slave trade since his liberation. This was strictly true, for I heard it, confirmed from other sources. He was then moving in a very respectable sphere at Havana, and was known generally as "Don Bernardo."

Further Reading

The full story of the Curlew and the Panda can be found in The Nautical Magazine, volumne 20 (1851), in Google books.