In early August 1816, a growing number of British warships were assembling under the command of Admiral Edward Pellow, Lord Exmouth aboard HMS Queen Charlotte in the Mediterranean. Among their number was HMS Prometheus, an 18-gun sloop commissioned nine years previously. Despite being a relatively young vessel in the Royal Navy at a time when it was not uncommon for ships to serve for several decades, the Prometheus had already seen a good deal of action in the service of King George III.
During the Anglo-Russian War 1807–12, the Prometheus was part of a force that on July 7th 1809 captured six Russian gunboats, sank a seventh and captured 12 cargo ships laden with supplies for the Russian Army. The Prometheus had also encountered a number of privateers – armed ships owned and crewed by private individuals holding a government commission to capture or sink merchant shipping – the first being the French vessel Messilina off the coast of Pillau, Russia on August 2nd 1810. The Prometheus then fought an action against the French privateer Vengeur off Belize in 1812 and against an American privateer off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1814.
In 1816, the British government had turned their attention toward the problem of the Barbary States of North Africa who frequently took to kidnapping Europeans and forcing them in to slavery. Known as “the White Slaves”, their plight was largely ignored during the Napoleonic Wars which had ended a year earlier in 1815 because the British had worked with the Barbary States such as Algiers against Napoleon. Now, the situation had become a source of embarrassment for the British who felt compelled to respond not just on behalf of Britain but of the Christian world itself.
The Barbary States were ruled by a series of Deys; a term given to those who ruled over their people. There were three Deys spread along the Barbary Coast in 1816 whom the British had to confront in their efforts to free the “White Slaves” and prevent further kidnappings. They were located at Algiers (modern-day Algeria), Tripoli (Libya) and Tunis (Tunisia). Lord Exmouth had undertaken a diplomatic mission to the three Deys in early 1816 to negotiate for the “White slaves” release. He took with him a small force of Royal Navy ships to show that the British were prepared to take action if necessary and this was enough to convince the Deys of Tripoli and Tunis but the Dey of Algiers was not so easily swayed. Nevertheless, he did agree to release British-born slaves but refused to abolish the practice of taking Christian slaves altogether.
Exmouth returned to England believing his mission was a success but those beliefs were seemingly destroyed when on June 20th the first reports began to reach London of forces belonging to the Dey of Algiers having massacred Italian fishermen at Bona the previous month. The Italians were under the protection of the British which the Dey knew and his agreement with Exmouth should have extended to them. It would later transpire that the soldiers who carried out the atrocity had received confused orders but by then the desire for retribution amongst the British people had to be satisfied. Exmouth himself had to make amends for what was seen as being the failure of his diplomatic mission and so he sailed in force from Portsmouth on July 28th 1816.
As his fleet assembled, Exmouth began to realise that some sort of action against the Dey was unavoidable and he had drilled his fleet intensively to prepare but this did present him with a problem. The British had established a consulate in Algiers and it was feared that the British consul, Mr Hugh M’Donell and his family would suffer immediate and likely brutal retaliation once the British fleet began their bombardment. Exmouth therefore ordered that one of his ships should enter Algiers and essentially smuggle Mr M’Donell and his family out the day before hostilities began. He selected HMS Prometheus to carry out the operation since sloops were frequent visitors to African ports and would not attract as much attention as a larger type such as a cruiser.
Prometheus was at that time under the command of Captain W. B. Dashwood and with the last diplomatic efforts exhausted, the Prometheus sailed for the North African city. With hostilities having not yet broken out, the ship was allowed to make anchor without interference but Dashwood and his men could sense the Algerian’s suspicion of them regarding their sudden visit. Indeed, the Dey’s men had interrogated numerous merchant captains over the preceding days and one Dutch trader had even told them of a force of British ships assembling out at sea.
With little time to waste, Dashwood ordered his men to begin the operation and two boats were sent ashore with 18 men each including the ship’s surgeon. The family had been secretly briefed on what to do when the Prometheus arrived and Mr M’Donell, his wife, his eldest daughter and infant made their way to a prearranged location to meet the men from the British warship. There they were split in to two groups, one for each boat. The two ladies found themselves being handed male sailor’s clothes in order to disguise them as two midshipmen and as they made their way to their boat they tried their best to mingle in amongst the men. The deception worked and the two women made it to their designated boat where they were rowed out to the safety of the Prometheus.
It was not so easy for the second group however for they had to contend with a baby which would surely arouse suspicion from the Dey’s men around the city as they made their way to their boat. The Prometheus’ surgeon therefore gave the baby a tonic to make her sleep very soundly and hid her in a basket of fruit which they then carried down to the shore. However, as they neared their boat the baby woke up and started crying. The game was up and the men found themselves swarmed by the Dey’s men who seized the surgeon, Mr M’Donell, the baby and seventeen of the Prometheus’ crew.
The fact they had been caught trying to smuggle Mr M’Donell and his family out left the Dey with no doubt that the British planned to attack and he threw the Prometheus’ men in to prison while Mr M’Donell himself was chained up in his own house. It was suspected at the time that a Jewish nurse employed by the family had betrayed them to the Dey although this was unsubstantiated. The Prometheus remained anchored in Algiers overnight in the hope the men would be returned but in the morning the Dey sent out a single boat to the warship. The boat carried Mr M’Donell’s baby daughter alive and well and much to the relief of Mrs M’Donell she was handed over to them without hesitation but they did have a message for Dashwood; his men the Dey had seized and Mr M’Donell would not be released.
Knowing that the British fleet, now supported by a small Dutch contingent, would be sailing in to Algiers in the coming days, Dashwood sailed the Prometheus out of Algiers to report back to Lord Exmouth that his rescue mission had only been partially successful. He had however used his time at anchor to conduct reconnaissance on the Dey’s defences to make sure that Exmouth’s fleet had the most up to date intelligence.
On August 27th 1816, Exmouth’s force of 27 warships sailed in to Algiers and carried out an intensive bombardment of the Dey’s ships and the harbour’s defences. The Dey lost a sizeable portion of his fleet and sustained heavy casualties amongst his men (exact figures are unknown since there was little in the way of record-keeping in Algiers at that time but it is believed to be in the hundreds). The Dey was forced to concede to British and Dutch demands and over 3,000 Christian slaves were freed as well as promises by the Dey to end the practice. His supporters blamed him for the disaster and he was overthrown a year later; the first of several coups in Algiers through the 1820s until it was colonised by the French in 1830.
Mr M’Donell would return to Algiers after the bombardment to continue his role as Consul-General and would survive a rather creative assassination attempt by one of the Dey’s successors when he was draped in a cloak by a plague-stricken woman.