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West of Suez: Britain and the Mediterranean, 1704-1967

The bombardment of Algiers

The bombardment of Algiers, with a view of the Anglo-Dutch fleet undertaking the bombardment of the coastal cityThe bombardment of AlgiersOn 27 August 1816, under the command of Admiral Lord Exmouth (1757-1833), an Anglo-Dutch fleet undertook a huge bombardment of Algiers, the aim of which was to stop the Dey of Algiers from pursuing the policy of enslaving Christian Europeans.

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain no longer needed the North African Barbary states (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) for supplying Gibraltar and its Mediterranean Fleet, so an intervention of this kind appeared both expedient and moral.

Allied to this, anti-slavery movements were gaining credence and support in the early 19th century, with the slave trade banned in the British Empire in 1807. It would however be a further 26 years before slavery itself was outlawed in the Empire.

Following the bombardment, a letter was sent by Lord Exmouth to the Dey of Algiers demanding surrender. Unknown to the Dey, however, was the fact that the Anglo-Dutch fleet had used nearly all its ammunition during the bombardment, so the letter was in effect a bluff. Nevertheless, it was accepted – the Algerian forces had suffered heavy losses, as did the British and Dutch themselves – and a treaty was signed in a bomb-damaged room resulting in the eventual freeing of 3,000 slaves, and the British Consul.

European powers’ military interventions in the Mediterranean region were often played out for more explicit national self-interest. In the period leading up to the bombardment of Algiers, Britain and France battled for territory and influence, in the Mediterranean Campaign of 1798 and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars.

The plate reproduced here shows the bombardment of the harbour at Algiers. It has been said that the writer CS Forester based the character of ‘Hornblower’ on Lord Exmouth, or Edward Pellew, as he was before ennoblement.

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