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“Shots, and nothing but shots”

Posted by Sumantra Maitra, on April 18th, 2022

I recently acquired a commissioned original watercolour of Admiral Edward Pellew’s bombardment of Algiers, by John Christian, depicting Viscount Exmouth’s naval taskforce undertaking punitive operations against North African Deys in Algiers. The title comes from the (arguably apocryphal) orders of Viscount Pellew to his gun battery to “negotiate” with the Algerians with “shots, and nothing but shots.” An underrated naval officer from a better age that produced far too many heroes to count, his rising in the ranks from a relatively modest background to lead a campaign against slavers, human traffickers, and pirates, is a topic historians perhaps might do well to revisit, given our times.

Political scientists would argue that the proximate cause of one of the greatest “shows of force” in the history of the Royal Navy was both moral as well as strategic. In 1816, Edward Pellew, Admiral Lord Exmouth, commanded an Anglo-Dutch force consisting of six battleships, four frigates and a few sloops that bombarded Algiers for seven straight hours. This was in retaliation for the massacre of 200 enslaved Christian fishermen held captive by North African pirates. Pellew’s force did not have enough ammunition to sustain operations after that day, but he destroyed the entire Algerine fleet and coastal defences. He then wrote a letter to the Algerine Dey offering the terms.

‘‘England does not war for the destruction of cities. I am unwilling to visit your personal cruelties on the inoffensive inhabitants of the country; and I therefore offer you the same terms of peace conveyed yesterday’”,

This forced the Dey to release thousands of captive slaves. Stephen Taylor writes in his magisterial edition, that “Algiers renounced Christian slavery once and for all, the ransom money paid by the Italian states earlier was returned, and new treaties of peace were signed with Britain, Holland and the Italian states.” [1]

Of course, history isn’t just prosaic political science. Pellew’s final adventure was also a quest for personal glory, an almost providential effort part influenced by patriotism to serve the Crown and country, part also by a desire to prove one last time, in one last grand battle, in an age where imperial hierarchy was far more pronounced in society than merit, that he too possessed equal quality worthy of admiration, and for posterity to remember.

Ultimately, my quest for further research on Pellew, as well as the commissioning of this particular painting, was for a simple reason. The bombardment of Algiers remains one of the greatest case studies of a show of force from a great power, whose forces were commanded by men who were independent enough to think and decide for themselves. Overall these people were disciplined and patriotic, had a providential sense of purpose and destiny, were clear in their communications, and clever about achievable realist objectives instead of an affinity for utopian quests. They also knew the value of subtle “military signalling” in an era of contested multipolarity, much like our own.

Lord Exmouth’s actions were in line with the imperial British grand-strategy of “offshore balancing”, predicated upon a balance of power in the continent and “show of forces” on the periphery. The purpose of this was to ward off both predatory foreign great powers as well as enemies of free trade such as pirates and human traffickers.

The following letter was sent by Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington to the provisional Greek government during the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire. Codrington addresses the issue of piracy in the Aegean, which was perpetuated by Greek islanders even when British and Allied naval forces were intervening to further the cause of Greek independence.

Extract from ‘Piracy in the Levant, 1827-1828’ by Lt Cdr C.G. Pitcairn Jones, RN, NRS Vol. 72 (1934), pp. 217-218.

To the Persons exercising the Functions of Government in Greece.His Britannic Majesty’s Ship Asia, off Navarin,

3oth September 1827.

Gentlemen, Captain Davies of the Rose will carry to you ample proofs of the misconduct of the Greeks towards our countrymen, whilst the ships-of-war of the Allied Powers are actively employed in defending Greece. I have been informed that not an Hydriote vessel has joined the Greek fleet in the service of their country, whilst the piracies committed by the people of that and the neighbouring islands are increased to a greater extent than ever.

I request you will look back to your own decrees, and see if there is anything to justify Mr. Glaraki, your Secretary, in signing powers to cruise at all; much more under the circumstances of the Hydriotes expecting an attack on that island. In this power to cruise he directs that friendly flags are not to be molested, whilst you know as well as I do that these vessels cruise solely for the purpose of molesting friendly flags, and have no intention whatever of molesting the enemy. But reasoning under such circumstances is useless. My decision is, for the present, to allow no Greek vessel whatever to cruise; let the pretext be what it may, let the authority come from whom it will. The world knows no equal to the villainy which is now practised under the Greek flag. And if, instead of the encouragement now given to it, you do not exert yourselves to destroy it, I shall consider Greece as without a Government, and act as I myself think best for commerce under the circumstances.

But you may be assured, Gentlemen, the day of reckoning will come, when those who have fostered these base proceedings will be made answerable for the mischief they have done to the mercantile community, and when you yourselves will have to render an account to the assembled nation of the mode in which affairs have been conducted under your particular administration.

I am, &c.,

(sd.) EDWARD CODRINGTON,

 

[1] Stephen Taylor (2013) “Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain”, W. W. Norton & Company.

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About Sumantra Maitra

Dr Sumantra Maitra (@MrMaitra) is a national-security fellow at the Center for the National Interest, USA, and an elected, early career historian member at the Royal Historical Society, UK.