"Sir, for your atrocities at Bona on defenceless Christians..." - the Bombardment of Algiers in 1816
27 August 1816, a squadron of Dutch and British warships under the command of the naval hero Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth, bombarded Algiers to force the Dey Omar Agha to finally put an end to piracy and slavery on the Barbary Coast and the Western Mediterranean.
"Sir, for your atrocities at Bona on defenceless Christians, and your unbecoming disregard of the demands I made yesterday in the name of the Prince Regent of England, the fleet under my orders has given you a signal chastisement, by the total destruction of your navy, storehouse, and arsenal, with half your batteries.“ (Lord Exmouth in a letter to the Dey of Algiers)
|The British naval painter Thomas Luny’s (1759 – 1837) interpretation of the action at Algiers|
When the European nations finally stopped being at each other's throats in 1815, the days of the Barbary Pirates were finally numbered. Still nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, the corsairs operating from ports along the North African coast, Tripoli, Tunis, Salé and Algiers, were a force to be reckoned with, terrorising shipping in the Mediterranean and even the Atlantic, capturing cargoes and crews from European and American merchantmen and selling the latter as slaves into the Near and Middle East. The rise of the huge European navies and their modern warships during the 17th century was the beginning of their end, but their exploits were still threatening commerce, a reason why the young United States saw the need to maintain at least a small navy and even fought two wars against the Berber city states on the Northwest African coast at the beginning of the 19th century.
|A contemporary illustration showing negotiations with the Dey of Algiers while the Anglo-Dutch squadron is clearly visible to make a point|
With their hands free and the complaints of the Italian states that even Napoleon had offered a better protection of their coastal villages and fishing fleets against the corsairs, the former allies decided it was time to act and sent a task force from Gibraltar to North Africa. Most of the semi-independent rulers on the Barbary Coast decided that it was better to comply to the demands of the Europeans than to risk a full scale war and occupation and stop raiding and selling Christians, but the Dey of Algiers proved to be a bit obstinate. An American squadron under Stephen Decatur had bombarded the city the year before already and Omar Agha promised to be good after that but seemed to have crossed his fingers behind his back and the raiding continued. When the Dey came up with the bright idea to capture Italian fishing boats sailing under the British flag and execute their crews for good measure, Lord Exmouth’s task force and a squadron of Dutch frigates showed up off Algiers.
|George Chambers Sen (1803 - 1840): "The Bombardment of Algiers 1816" (1836)|
Omar Agha got his ultimatum to surrender every Christian slave in the place and stop raiding henceforth but the Dey thought himself well protected behind his shore batteries. A mistake. In the morning of August 27th 1816, the 5 British battleships-of-the-line, 5 frigates and 5 bombs as well as the 5 Dutch men-of-war opened fire after a nervous Barbary gunner began hostilities with firing on the allies. When the day was over, the coastal defences of Algiers were reduced to a rubble. Accounts of collateral damage vary, but it is very probable that the town suffered as well. Accounts speak of up to 6,000 dead civilians. Omar Agha had no choice but to give in and release 3,000 kidnapped Europeans. He gave up raiding after that and was finally murdered by his palace guard in 1817. The independence of Algiers ended in 1830, when the French finally occupied the place for the next 132 years.