Nelson’s Touch: Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers, 1816

Nelson’s Touch: Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers, 1816

The Nelson Touch: noun, “a masterly or sympathetic approach to a problem.”1

Image

Admiral of the Blue, Sir Edward Pellew, Lord Exmouth.2

Sir Edward Pellew, Baron Exmouth, was C-in-C Mediterranean fleet in 1816: considered the “most brilliant frigate commander of the age” with a litany of achievements during the Napoleonic Wars.3 Pellew was 59 in 1816.4 First promoted to Captain at the age of 25 during the American Revolution, Pellew was a rising star in the Royal Navy, known as a gunnery specialist and a naval disciplinarian.5 A favourite of Chanel Fleet C-in-C, John Jervis (later First Sea Lord Earl St. Vincent) Pellew was given independent command during the blockade of Brest, where he excelled.6 Between 1804-9 Pellew commanded in the East Indies.7 Upon return to England in 1811 he was asked for choice of command and naturally selected the Mediterranean- where during the denouement of the Napoleonic Wars he covered Toulon.8 His command of the Mediterranean renewed in 1815, Exmouth remained C-in-C Mediterranean through 1816.

The bombardment of Algiers was ultimately justified as necessary to enforce the release of Christians enslaved there, significantly the new British subjects of the Ionian islands.9 As ordered Pellew was first to “call” at Tunis and Tripoli in March 1816.10 The Dey, the leading Algerian potentate backed by the Ottoman Janissary Crops, agreed to release any British prisoners and to ransom Christian Italian and Spanish slaves.11 Exmouth pressed to arrange the same deal the Tunisians and Tripolitanians had agreed to: in future, Christians captured would be treated as POWs rather than slaves.12 The Dey, whose income was at least partially reliant on the ransom of “slaves” could not agree to this.13

slavetrade

Medal commemorating the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, 1807. Intended to deter Arabic speaking slave traders.14

A detailed account of the events leading up to the bombardment was provided by Pellew’s great-great- grandson for The Naval Review in 1966 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle.15

The C-in-C had only limited success in arranging the release of Christian slaves during his first visit to the Algerian port in 1815.16 The Admiral, however, aware of the recent international arrangements at Vienna, knew that the British foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, had arranged to make the international slave-trade formally illegal. Unfortunately there was no political mechanism beyond the Royal Navy for enforcement.17 Exmouth was not certain how the reactionary Tory Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, would negotiate concerning a unilateral movement against Algiers, so Exmouth returned to England to seek clarification.18 It turned out Liverpool’s government was as resolute in foreign policy as it was reactionary in public policy19 and thus with carte blanche asked Pellew for his requirements. The Admiralty’s expectation, based on Nelson’s dictum that ten sail-of-the-line was the smallest contingent reasonable for such an operation, was confounded when Exmouth requested only “five or six” battleships and “as many” frigates and bomb vessels.20 In fact, Exmouth had good intelligence from one of his frigate captains, Captain Ware, concerning the structure of the Algiers harbour and was aware that a few shallow draft ships would be more suited than a larger fleet contingent.21

Exmouth’s picked squadron sailed from Plymouth on 28 July composed of the following warships:

Queen Charlotte (100 guns, flagship, flag-captain James Brisbane), Impregnable, (98, rear-admiral of the blue David Milne, flag-captain Edward Brace), Superb (74, captain Charles Ekins), Minden (74, William Paterson), Albion (74, John Coode), Leander, (50, Edward Chetham), Severn (40, Frederick Aylmer), Glasgow (40, Anthony Maitland), Granicus (36, William Wise), and the Herbus (36, Edward Palmer).22 The British assault compliment was five brigs and four bomb vessels: the Beelzebub, Fury, Hecla and Infernal.23

 capellen

Baron Theodorus Frederik van Capellen.24

Exmouth was reinforced by Dutch Vice-Admiral Baron Frederik van de Cappellen’s squadron at Gibraltar. The Dutch Admiral’s force added six warships, four 40 gun frigates, a 30 gun frigate and an 18 gun ship.25

 large

Cartographic map of the Algiers fortification complex with attack positions, showing the mole and inner harbour.26

The Algerian defences covering the harbour were formidable: in stone fortified positions around a shallow littoral there were emplaced 318 cannon firing various weight of naval ball (many in double or triple tiers, or batteries), eight mortars, and two long barrelled 68 lb heavy guns. These defences were flanked by additional cannon along the coast and supported by positions on the heights behind the city, the total number of cannon in excess of 1,000, manned by 4,000 Algerians.27

These fortified positions were supported by the entire Algerian fleet, positioned in the inner harbour and composed of nine large vessels (frigates and corvettes) and “nearly 50 gunboats”.28

The combined British and Dutch force arrived on 27 August 1816.29 Exmouth sent in shore parties under flag of truce to present ultimatums. The Algerian government was to release the British consul- then held hostage- as well as all other European prisoners, and to abolish Christian slavery.30 With an expectation of rejection amidst a burning desire to bring the enemy action, only two hours were allowed for a response.31

 attackplan

The plan of attack was minimalist but careful.32 Exmouth intended to concentrate against the mole: the enemy strongpoint covering the anchored fleet and destroy both.33 Each ship was provided with a copy of Captain Ware’s earlier reconnaissance and instructions of the position the C-in-C intended to occupy.34 Extensive firing practice and a novel gunsight aided preparation.35

Forming a perpendicular line, the battleships would shell the entrance to the inner harbour, with the Dutch frigates covering the city batteries. Bomb vessels would throw their shells and rockets from 2,000 yards, with the gunboats in support.36

Exmouth did not waste time, taking advantage of favourable wind, Leander led the first detachment followed by Queen Charlotte, Implacable and Superb, towards the heavily fortified “mole” position at 1435 hours. Apparently, the Algerians at this point opened fire. Exmouth immediately retaliated, ordering firing.37

Bombardment_of_Algiers_1816_by_Chambers (1)

George Chambers 1836 painting of the bombardment, showing the destruction of the inner harbour warships.38

Essentially, the fleet formed into perpendicular line, dropped anchors, and proceeded to obliterate the Algerian positions from ranges as short as 80 or 50 yards. Queen Charlotte poured in 50 gun broadsides, after three salvos completely demolishing the fortifications opposite.39 Leander closed with the Algerian frigates covering the entrance to the inner harbour, pinning their crews with overwhelming fire, while simultaneously engaging batteries opposite, despite suffering heavy casualties as a result.40 At 1600 hours Pellew dispatched Lieutenant Richards in one of Queen Charlotte‘s boats to set fire to the Algerian frigate covering the entrance to the inner harbour. Two Royal Navy seaman were killed in the process but the task was accomplished.41

HMS Impregnable, unable to close range, was firing from a distance with heavier guns but suffering serious casualties.42 At 1630 hours Admiral Milne requested support from Exmouth.43 Pellew dispatched the Glasgow to draw fire, but due to the now prevailing calm weather was unable to get into position.44

Meanwhile, the bomb vessels wrought deadly work to the Algerian’s anchored fleet in the inner harbour: by 1900 hours all of the Algerian gunboats were aflame and under continuous bomb and rocket attack.45

large (1)“The bombardment of Algiers, 27 August 1816” also showing Algerian frigate aflame.46 Note high angle bomb and rocket attacks.

The bombardment lasted nine hours,47 The general conflagration caused by the burning Algerian navy spread to the surrounding town as the bombardment continued into the evening. At 2200, with the enemy’s positions either totally destroyed or on fire (and the expedition ships running low on ammunition) Exmouth signalled that the fleet was to cut its cables and move out to sea.48 The fleet reformed at 0200 on 28 August out of range of any surviving batteries.49

Over 800 casualties were suffered by the Royal Navy, with 128 killed: a 16% casualty rate.50 Queen Charlotte had eight killed, 131 wounded. Impregnable 50 killed 160 wounded. Superb eight killed 84 wounded (including Captain Ekins). Minden seven killed, 35 wounded. Albion three killed, 16 wounded (including Captain Coode). Leander 17 killed and 118 wounded. Severn three killed and 34 wounded. Glasgow 10 killed and 37 wounded. Garnicus 16 killed and 40 wounded. Herbus, four killed and 17 wounded. Infernal had two killed and 17 wounded. The Dutch had 13 killed and 52 wounded.51

 medal1

Medal made between 1816 and 1820 commemorating the bombardment, with Exmouth’s bust on obverse (not shown).52

Exmouth’s flag-captain, James Brisbane met with the Dey of Algiers on 29 August during which, with the Algerian port defences still smouldering around, the Dey agreed to the expedition’s demands.53 Money changed hands, including large sums to compensate the British consul for loss of property and to Naples and Sicily for repatriating their former slaves, of which 1,200 Christians were freed.54

Admiral Pellew returned to England on 3 September and was shortly thereafter made Viscount.55 Amidst the numerous decorations and promotions handed out, Rear-Admiral Milne was knighted as Knight Commander and Captains Ekins, Aylmer, Wise, Maitland, Paterson and Coode were made Knight Companions.56

Memory of the devastation caused by the 1816 bombardment resulted in the absolution of a planned 1824 bombardment in advance of the Dey’s capitulation.57

exmouthSir Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth, painted 1818.58

“Admiral Edward Pellew’s thundering subjugation of Algiers reaffirmed that Britannia was still very much the unrivalled mistress of the oceans.”59

3 Herman, To Rule The Waves, p 400; see also A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 319

4 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 319

5 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 319

6 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 320; Jervis described Pellew’s efforts during the aborted capture of Belle Ille as “the most masterly I ever saw”

7 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 320

8 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 320

9 <http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/14159.html>; Charles Rathbone Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, London: Routledge, 1872 <http://books.google.ca/books?id=slgBAAAAQAAJ>, p 430; A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 321

10 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 322

11 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 430;

12 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 321

13 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 322

15 A. P. P. [Pellew?], “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” in The Naval Review 54, no. 4 (1966): 318

16 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 322

17 Paul Kennedy, The Rise And Fall of British Naval Mastery, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976, p 165

18 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 430

19 Ramsay Muir, A Short History of the British Commonwealth, vol. ii, third edition, London: George Philip & Son, Ltd., 1924, p 325-6

20 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 431

21 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 321

22 Grove, The Royal Navy Since 1815, p 5; A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 320

23 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 431; Grove, The Royal Navy Since 1815, p 5

25 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 431

27 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 431-2

28 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 432

29 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 431

30 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 432

31 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 432

32 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 323

33 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 322

34 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 324

35 A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 324

36 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 433

37 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 432

39 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 433

40 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 433-4

41 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 433

42 Grove, The Royal Navy Since 1815, p 5

43 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 434

44 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 434

45 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 434

47 Grove, The Royal Navy Since 1815, p 5

48 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 434; A. P. P., “Lord Exmouth and the Bombardment of Algiers” p 319

49 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 434

50 Grove, The Royal Navy Since 1815, p 5; Andrew Lambert, “The Shield of Empire” in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy, edited by J. R. Hill and Bryan Ranft,,Oxford Illustrated Histories, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, p 167

51 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 434-5

53 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 435

54 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 435

55 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 435 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viscount_Exmouth>

56 Low, The Great Battles of the British Navy, p 435

57 Grove, The Royal Navy Since 1815, p 5

59 John Sugden, Nelson: The Sword of Albion, London: The Bodley Head, 2012, p 853

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