The Algiers Expedition of 1620


The Antelope was a ship of the English Tudor navy, launched in 1546. She was rebuilt three times, in 1558, 1581 and 1618. She thus served in various forms from the time of King Henry VIII to the English Civil War. She is mostly remembered for being a part of the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada. She was again rebuilt in 1618 and classified as a middling ship of 450 tons and 34 guns. The only remarkable action in her later career is her participation in Sir Robert Mansells disappointing expedition against Algiers in 1620/1621.


Robert Norton, The Platt of Argier & the pts. adoiyning within the View therof Made by Robert Norton the Muster Mr of his Mats Fleet ther Ao Di 1620 & by his owne carfull & dilligent obseruations then not without danger, 1620.

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,” 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.

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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”

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.” 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,” 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.”

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,” 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.”

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.” 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.”

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.” And no prisoners were recovered, he might have added.


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