The Evacuation of Tangier I

British (English) School; The Siege of Tangier, 1683; National Trust, Dyrham Park; The Moroccan city of Tangier was given to Charles II in 1661 as part of the dowry of his Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza. It was besieged by the Sultan of Morocco in 1679 and the English withdrew in 1684, destroying the city’s fortifications before their departure. This bird’s-eye view of Tangier is thought to represent the deliberate destruction of the city’s defences by the troops of Admiral Lord Dartmouth, watched by Moorish troops in the foreground.

The siege of Tangier was a triumph for Morocco and a disaster for English hopes of a permanent base on the Barbary Coast. The short-term consequences were dramatic enough: some of the explosives at Charles Fort failed to go off, and Umar ben Haddu managed to retrieve 3,300 hand grenades and all of the guns, which his men un-spiked and un-wedged and turned on the town. They were helped by one of the captured English soldiers from Henrietta Fort, who turned Turk—or, rather, Moor—and was promptly promoted to master gunner in Umar’s army. Four days after the fall of Charles Fort, Inchiquin sued for peace. Of his thirteen outworks, ten were either demolished or in enemy hands, while the three remaining were “not defensible, when it shall please the enemy to reduce them.” Whitby and its stone quarries were lost, which meant that all work on the mole had to stop. “We shall be brought to the condition the Portuguese were in,” wrote an anxious member of the garrison, “but we can’t bring the Moors to the same they were in.” Umar and his Algerian and Levantine siege specialists had turned the Moors “from a cowardly and inconsiderable enemy . . . to a puissant and formidable foe.”

No one was surprised when the Earl of Inchiquin concluded a four-month cease-fire with the qaid and set sail with his pair of ostriches for a difficult interview with Charles II and a quiet retirement at his family mansion in County Cork. Nor when soldiers aboard ship in the Thames heard that they were destined for Tangier and “leaped overboard to escape, where they were taken up half drowned and secured again.” The English government responded to the news of Umar’s victory by sending troops to reinforce the deputy governor, Sir Palmes Fairborne, and his survivors. A contingent of volunteers led by the young Earl of Plymouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, landed on July 2, 1680, along with 600 regular troops under the command of Colonel Edward Sackville of the King’s Own Royal Regiment. Over the summer their numbers were supplemented by twelve Scottish and four Irish companies led by Sir James Halkett, a major in Dunbarton’s Regiment; by four troops of English horse and 200 Spaniards; and by 500 or so English seamen who were put ashore to help with the defense of Tangier by their admiral, Sir Arthur Herbert. By the time Inchiquin’s four-month truce with Umar ben Haddu expired, on September 19, there were well over 3,000 English, Irish, and Scots soldiers crammed into the town. At five o’clock the next morning the gates of Tangier opened and this army marched out in battle array and took up positions on the site of Pole Fort, 300 yards south of the town.

The Moors hadn’t expected such a dramatic resumption of hostilities. Relatively unprepared, they hurtled down from the mountains “with violence, in twenties and hundreds in a rude, unexpert, promiscuous way to interrupt the work”; but the English were ready for them, and by nightfall laborers under the direction of Henry Sheres and a Swedish military engineer, Major Martin Beckman, had erected a wooden stockade around the ruins of Pole Fort, strengthened it with earth and stone, and garrisoned it with 500 men.

The sally was the start of a bout of vicious fighting which lasted for the next five weeks, as the two sides struggled for control of the no-man’s-land of hills and ditches and ruined blockhouses surrounding Tangier. Dunbarton’s Regiment lost 250 men and 24 officers killed or wounded in a single engagement. In retaliation, they made a pile of the enemy dead in plain view of the Moors and set about cutting off the corpses’ genitals “to make purses.”

At the end of October, when another truce was called and negotiations began between Mawlay Isma’il and Charles II for a more lasting peace, England had managed to regain some of the territory it had lost in May. The victory, if victory it was, was bought at a heavy price. The Earl of Plymouth died early on in the fighting, not from wounds but from the dysentery he contracted when he spent the night in Pole Fort and foolishly drank the water. Sir Palmes Fairborne was shot by a sniper on October 24 when he rode out with some officers to survey the defenses; he died of his wound three days later as he sat on a balcony watching Colonel Sackville leading what turned out to be the final attack on the Moorish lines. Between six and seven hundred were killed altogether on the English side, and perhaps as many as two thousand Moors.

Back in England, questions were asked about Tangier. Parliament, obsessively and paranoically anti-Catholic in the wake of the Popish Plot, was anxious about the high proportion of Irish (and hence Catholic) troops in the garrison. About the fact that the Catholic Lord Belasyse, currently imprisoned in the Tower on charges of plotting to poison the king and muster a secret Catholic army, had once been a governor of Tangier, as had the Catholic Earl of Teviot. Even about the fact that the Dominican church in Tangier was prospering in a most sinister fashion.

The mole remained unfinished, and since the Moors retained control of the quarries at Whitby, there wasn’t much prospect of it being finished in the near future. As things stood, after eighteen years of work and an expenditure of £340,000, the harbor was still virtually unusable by big ships, which crashed into each other in bad weather, fouled each other’s lines, and even broke from their moorings to be driven right out into the Straits in the westerly gales which lashed the coast from time to time. The flow of money assigned by the king out of his private revenue for the maintenance and service of the town, between £60,000 and £70,000 a year, was unsustainable, and when in November Charles asked Parliament to provide some financial support for Tangier, he was refused. Granted that the outpost was “a place of consideration for trade, and a guard from pirates, where our ships may retreat,” the cost was just too great, as most of the MPs who spoke in the debate on the matter made clear. “Tangier is no part of England, and for us to provide for it, as things stand now, is to weaken our own security,” said Sir William Jones. “Tangier is not only a seminary for Popish priests, but for soldiers too,” said William Harbord. “I should be glad,” said Sir William Temple, “either that we never had it, or if it was by an earthquake blown up.”

In the end the Commons linked a vote in favor of more money for Tangier to the king’s acceptance of the Exclusion Bill, which would bar the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding to the throne. Charles wasn’t prepared to put an ailing outpost on the Barbary Coast given to him at his marriage before the interests of his own brother. And for the time being, matters rested there in stalemate, with a beleaguered and undersupplied Tangier caught in the middle of a bigger battle between Parliament and crown.

Samuel Pepys was feeling a little bewildered. On only forty-eight hours’ notice Charles II had ordered him to travel down to Portsmouth. When he got there he was to board H.M.S. Grafton and accompany Admiral Lord Dartmouth, a man he hardly knew and liked less, on a voyage to Tangier. He didn’t know why they were going. He didn’t know what his role in this mysterious expedition was to be. And he had been left to cool his heels in port for three days while Dartmouth rushed up to Windsor for a meeting with the king.

Now Dartmouth was back, and Pepys was closeted with him in the admiral’s cabin. It was raining heavily, and the Grafton rocked and swayed at anchor. Timbers creaked and groaned, the wind blew hard, and sailors scrambled around uncertainly in the rigging. It was an August afternoon, but the interior of the cabin was dark, and the guttering tallow candles cast long shadows on Dartmouth’s firm and faintly quizzical features as he quietly explained the king’s orders. Their mission was to destroy Tangier.

The next morning, August 14, 1683, Dartmouth summoned Pepys to his cabin again and went into more detail, showing him secret papers he had received from the king. The Earl of Sunderland, one of Charles II’s two secretaries of state, had urged the abandonment of Tangier back in 1680, but he lost office and the idea fell out of favor when he did, to be resurrected when he returned to power in January. Now Charles was keen to push ahead. To ensure there were no leaks, Dartmouth’s commission and instructions had been written personally by the king’s other secretary of state, Sir Leoline Jenkins, rather than being entrusted to a clerk. Those instructions appointed Dartmouth as admiral, captain-general, governor, and commander-in-chief of Tangier and ordered him “to demolish and utterly to destroy the said city and the mole erected in the port belonging to it, so as they may be altogether useless, and no pirate or enemy of the Christian faith may at any time hereafter make their abode or retreat there.”

Pepys’s role was to act as “sole counselor” to Dartmouth and, in collaboration with an Admiralty lawyer, William Trumbull, to assess claims for compensation from the European inhabitants of Tangier. Other members of the party included Thomas Ken, who was aboard the Grafton as Dartmouth’s chaplain (and who would later earn himself a place in history as one of the seven bishops sent to the Tower for objecting to James II’s insistence on religious toleration for Catholics); Martin Beckman, the Swedish military engineer who had directed the fortifications during the 1680 counterattack against the Moors; and Henry Sheres who, ironically enough, was to be given the job of destroying the “stupendious mould” he had worked so hard to build.

None of these men knew the purpose of their voyage when they set sail that August. Dartmouth put a strict interpretation on his instructions, which urged him to take “all imaginable care how to prevent strangers and our own subjects’ from relaying the scheme to the Moors. Once they were well out to sea, Beckman was asked to produce a strategy for carrying out the demolition—a lengthy and complicated job involving engineers, fire-masters, miners, and drillers. (Most were to be supplied by the garrison, but a team of expert miners was taken aboard when the fleet called in at Plymouth.) He handed his plan to Dartmouth on August 28, recommending that they begin preparatory work on mining the fortifications without waiting until the civilian population had been evacuated. “I do not doubt,” he told the governor, “but the news (though it be but guessing) of demolishing of the place will arrive before we shall arrive there.”


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