Smuggling the Consul’s Family

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.

Barbary DeyThe 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.

Royal Navy gibraltar battle of algiers bombardmentAs 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.

Royal Navy night battle of algiers bombardment

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.



Slavers & Pirates – Midshipman Crawford’s Great Escape

The story of the abolition of slavery within the British Empire is one of forward thinking triumphs and deplorable setbacks. There can be no denying that slavery played a big part in the building of the empire in the first place especially when it came to colonising North America and other parts of the so-called New World but by the dawn of the 19th century a more enlightened British society demanded an end to the act at home and within the Empire. Other countries too tried outlawing slavery but there were always those who stood to lose from its abolition and often these people were the most influential in their countries which was a major obstacle to overcome.

slavery-abolition-ukIn Great Britain, the House of Lords repeatedly stood in the way of ending slavery in the Empire citing that the cost of first losing this abundance of cheap labour in the colonies and then having to employ the freed slaves would significantly weaken the Empire’s economy. They made it clear in the first quarter of the 19th century that they would block any effort to end slavery in Britain’s colonial possessions but they did make one important concession in 1807 with the passing of the Slave Trade Act. The act finally put an end to British vessels transporting slaves and a fine of £120 per slave (approx. £8,500 today) was put in place for any captain caught in such activity. It was hoped by the Abolitionists in Britain that the Slave Trade Act would itself lead to an end of slavery in the colonies since they would be denied fresh slaves from Africa and the Caribbean but this didn’t happen until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

In the meantime, as was often the case in the time of the British Empire, it fell to the Royal Navy to enforce the law across Britain’s vast colonial possessions. As such, in 1808 the Royal Navy established a dedicated patrol force to combat slavers still engaged in the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas. The new tasking, while morally praiseworthy, was met initially with a level of consternation by the Admiralty who were concerned by the cost of maintaining such a patrol force especially given the ongoing conflicts with Napoleonic France. Nevertheless, the West Africa Squadron was formed although initially it consisted of just two ships – the 32-gun frigate HMS Soleby and the 18-gun HMS Derwent.

A special court was established in Sierra Leone to prosecute cases and Britain used its considerable political influence to force other imperial powers such as Portugal, Spain and Holland to either submit to the ban on the slave trade or as was the case with Portugal impose limits. French slave ships were often taken as prizes under the articles of war. Despite this unprecedented level of international legal cooperation, the Atlantic slave trade continued especially regarding South America. The risks involved in transporting slaves drove costs up increasing profits for captains who were looking to make their fortune which in turn kept the West Africa Squadron busy throughout the middle of the 19th century.

In 1826, the 18-gun brig-sloop HMS Elk stumbled upon two vessels, the Netuno and the Esperanza, from the newly independent nation of Brazil attempting to make it home from West Africa. Suspecting they were transporting slaves, the British warship boarded them and confirmed that their cargo consisted of around 200 African slaves. Interpreting the law of King George IV, the captain of the Elk elected to sail the two vessels and their cargo to Sierra Leone to release the slaves and put the two captains on trial; a potentially inflammatory act since slavery was still very much rife in Brazil forming a significant part of the economy and would continue to do so until 1888.

The incident that followed was recounted in Admiral Edward Giffard’s collected work Deeds of Naval Daring: Anecdotes of the British navy published after his death in 1910. The Netuno was assigned eight men from the Elk to act as prize crew and to command the captured Brazilian crew back to Africa. The prize crew were under the command of Midshipman R. R. Crawford, a promising young officer at the time and one who would later fulfil that promise having a successful career. On March 6th 1826, Crawford and the Netuno sailed for Sierra Leone in company with the Esperanza. However, it was quickly realised that the Esperanza was the faster of the two ships and the Netuno began to fall behind until both ships had effectively parted company.

The journey proved uneventful for the most part until the night of March 20th. Most of the Brazilian crew were kept below deck during the night hours to reduce the chance of them attempting to retake their ship under the cover of darkness. Crawford had retired for the evening but was suddenly awoken by the Brazilian captain who alerted him that they had spotted a vessel on the horizon, its large square rigged sails reflecting the low light enough for a keen eye to spot. Calling his men up on deck, Crawford reasoned that the vessel was HMS Redwing, a sister-ship of his own vessel the Elk and one that was very active in combatting the slave trade on the west of Africa. Having been at sea for almost two weeks he couldn’t have known that the Redwing was herself dealing with a Spanish illegal slave ship hundreds of miles away.


HMS Clio, sister to ship to Elk and Redwind

The pursuing ship fired a shot across the bow of the Netuno and still under the impression that it was the Redwing, Crawford ordered the British red ensign to be raised and that sail was to be reduced to allow them to come alongside. The pursuing vessel manoeuvred to sail parallel to the Netuno allowing Crawford and the Brazilian captain to take a good look at it. What they saw made them realise the predicament they now found themselves in. The vessel that had been pursuing them was in a rather poor condition, lacked any identifying colours and manned by a crew that were both loud and seemingly undisciplined; clearly not a warship of any of the imperial powers. It was however armed with at least 12 visible guns making her a formidable opponent to a vessel such as the Netuno that was armed with only two six pounders that were only useful for discouraging bandits.

The Brazilian captain turned to Crawford and repeatedly began saying the word “Ladrone! Ladrone!” over and over which loosely translated means “robber”. Realising that they were pirates, Crawford ordered his men to make sail and fire their only gun aimed at them to catch them off guard and make good their escape. However, discipline amongst his own hybrid crew of Royal Navy sailors and Brazilian slavers would be his undoing. The sails were unfurled but the gun crew were unable to load a shot quickly enough for many of them feared the consequences of taking on such a heavily armed opponent.

Seeing that the Netuno was attempting to escape, the pirate vessel fired a shot which sent a cannon ball between the masts of the Brazilian slave ship. To Crawford’s amazement he then spied them hoisting French colours before hailing the Netuno demanding that they stop and identify themselves as well as present their papers. Crawford nor the Brazilian captain were fooled but knowing that to attempt to run now would only invite a barrage of gunfire to which they had little response decided to comply if only to buy themselves time. The “French” captain ordered Crawford to come aboard his ship to present his papers which Crawford was unable to do because the Netuno lacked its own sea boat. Therefore, the “French” captain said he would provide him with his own boat and one was readied with five men commanded by what appeared to be an officer although to Crawford his attire was in poor order for a man claiming to be of such a position. The men rowed to the Netuno where the officer again repeated his captain’s demands that Crawford produce his papers. The officer spoke French to one of his men who then relayed the words in English to Crawford with a distinctly Irish accent. During the exchange of words the “French” officer revealed his true identity by accidentally breaking in to Spanish although Crawford feigned ignorance so as to not ignite the situation.

Crawford acknowledged that he would produce the papers and that he had to go to his cabin to get them. The pirates waited in their boat alongside the Netuno and Crawford ordered that under no circumstances were they to be allowed on board. In his cabin, Crawford readied two pistols and prepared himself for whatever was to come next knowing that whatever he did to appease the pirates they would try and take his ship at some point. He left his cabin with his hands behind his back clutching the two pistols and made his way towards where the pirate boat was positioned alongside his captured slave ship. He spoke to the officer and asked if the papers could be inspected by his captain without Crawford having to come aboard their ship but as they conversed the pirate spotted one of Crawford’s pistols and attempted to leap aboard and rush at him. Crawford’s hand was too quick however and he put one of the pistols to the man’s chest and shot him dead at point blank range. A second man then leapt aboard the Netuno and Crawford put him down with his other pistol.

The four remaining men in the boat including the Irishman threw their hands up and Crawford instructed them to get in the water and hold on to the sides of their boat. This was to prevent them from making similar attempts to board the Netuno. Suddenly, the air boomed with the sound of the pirate vessel opening up on the Netuno with their guns despite the fact they still had four of their own men in the water alongside it. Their aim was good enough to get several hits on the Netuno and despite the David and Goliath odds, Crawford had no choice but to return fire with his single six pounder gun pointing in the pirate ship’s direction. The gun was handled by Crawford, one of the prize crew and the Brazilian captain while efforts were made to get the vessel under sail. Once mobile again, the Netuno tried to pull away from the pirate ship hoping they would attempt to recover their men who were still clutching to their boat thus giving the Netuno time to escape but instead it gave chase.

Despite their superior firepower, the Spanish pirates were unable to inflict a mortal wound on the Netuno which managed to either escape from or survive barrage after barrage. Incredibly, Netuno’s six pounder scored a lucky shot that must have ignited the gun powder on board for it produced a large explosion that Crawford’s men speculated killed or wounded at least twenty of their number. Crawford put their lack of success down to poor discipline and training for he noted that many of the pirate’s guns were firing at high angles of elevation that sent the rounds flying between the Netuno’s masts.

For nearly two hours the two ships exchanged fire while Netuno attempted to make good her escape. Then, to the relief of the men aboard the Netuno the pirate vessel began broke off the engagement. Testimony from the Netuno’s men later claimed that as the pirate ship broke off, fighting between its crewmembers could clearly be seen up on deck. The captured slave ship had survived the encounter but did not come off entirely unscathed. A single shot had hit the slave hold killing a woman and taking off a young girl’s arm while up on deck Crawford himself had been severely wounded by splintering wood that struck him in the temple and hand. He collapsed on deck and had to be nursed back to health during the voyage to Sierra Leone but he made a full recovery.

During the investigation by the courts in Sierra Leone, Crawford was praised for his actions and was soon promoted for his deeds. The key piece of evidence came from the Brazilian captain of the Netuno who had nothing but praise for the British officer despite the fact Crawford’s own ship had seized his vessel a few weeks prior.

FINAL NOTE: HMS Redwind, the ship Crawford initially believed was the vessel approaching them before realising they were in fact pirates, would be lost at sea under mysterious circumstances just a few weeks after this incident. Pieces of the vessel would wash up on the African shore but it is still unclear what her fate was.



Royal Navy & Slavery Advert

This Royal Navy advert was produced in 2008 for a nationwide cinema release and was intended to celebrate the fact that the Royal Navy was one of the first military services in the developed world to first abolish the trade of slaves and then secondly to actively take part in combating the trade by patrolling the coast of Africa. This is a role it continues to undertake even today. 

While the British government agreed to abolish slavery because of a public outcry at home the embargo was also used as a means of strangling the US economy which still relied heavily on slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. It was also used as a justification to tackle the French and to a lessor extent the Dutch both of whom had interests in Africa that conflicted with British ones.