British Tangier




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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