Friday, February 19, 2016

Dismantling a Colony: Samuel Pepys at Tangiers

By Mark Patton

A current exhibition at London's National Maritime Museum (open until 28th March) explores the life and times of one of England's best known diarists, Samuel Pepys. Concerned that he might be jeopardising his eyesight, Pepys gave up writing his diary in 1669. What is less well-known, however, is that, quite separately from the famous personal diary, Pepys also wrote an account of a visit that he made, on business as a naval administrator, to the North African city of Tangiers, in 1683.

The strategically important city, commanding the southern side of the Straits of Gibraltar, had been a Portuguese colony since 1471. In 1661, it was ceded, together with the Indian port of Bombay (modern Mumbai), to the English Crown, as part of the dowry of the Portuguese Infanta, Catherine of Braganza, on her marriage to King Charles II. Charles's advisers hoped that the new British colony would play a key role in controlling the passage from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and, more specifically, in suppressing the activities of the Barbary pirates, who, from the North African ports of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, were regularly harassing shipping along the coasts of both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and conducting slave-taking raids along the coasts of Italy, Spain, France and Southern England.

"A Sea-Fight with Barbary Corsairs," by Laureys a Castro, c1681, Dulwich Picture Gallery (image is in the Public Domain).

In 1662, work began on the fortification of Tangiers, including the construction of a harbour, or mole, projecting almost 1500 feet out into the Mediterranean, and, in 1668, Charles II declared Tangiers to be a "free city," to be administered by a mayor and corporation, similar to an English county town, a Southampton or a Plymouth, perhaps, planted on an African shore; a Christian enclave in a land that had been Muslim for around a thousand years; at liberty to trade with the world.

Tangiers, c1670, by Wenceslaus Hollar, University of Toronto (image is in the Public Domain).
The Mole of Tangiers, Kings Own Royal Regiment Museum, Lancaster (image is in the Public Domain).

The reality, however, was quite different. The Alouite Sultan of Morocco, Mulai al-Rashid, who claimed direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad, had, by the mid-1660s, succeeded in uniting the diverse Berber and Arabic tribes of North-West Africa. His forces took the city of Fes in 1666, and Marrakech in 1669. Tangiers itself held out against them, but at the unsustainable cost of around £100,000 a year, any possibility of trade forestalled by an effective blockade imposed by the Sultan's forces. A survey conducted in 1676 showed that Tangiers had, at that time, just 2225 British inhabitants, of which 50 were military officers, 1231 other ranks, and 302 army wives and children.

Map of Tangiers in c1680, showing conflict with the Muslim armies in the surrounding hills, National Army Museun. Image: Lubiesque (Public Domain).

In 1683, the decision was taken to dismantle the colony of Tangiers, and Admiral Lord Dartmouth was sent out to oversee the process, assisted by Samuel Pepys, who has left us his impressions of the visit:

"The ship weighing anchor, up by break of day (entering the mouth of the straits) to see the shore on both sides, to my great pleasure; the Levanter [an easterly wind] still very strong ... Kirke, the Governor, saluted us with all the guns of the town, near which we found the Alcade [an envoy of the Sultan] encamped. But, Lord! how could anybody ever think a place fit to be kept at this charge, that, overlooked by so many hills, can never be secured against an enemy ... Amazed to think how the King hath lain out all this money upon it. Good grapes and pomegranates from Spain. Tonight, infinitely bit with chinchees [mosquitoes]."

"Du Pas tells me of Kirke's having banished the Jews without, or rather contrary to, express orders from England, only because of their denying him, or standing in the way of, private profits. He made a poor Jew and his wife, that came out of Spain to avoid the Inquisition, be carried back, swearing they should be burned; and they were carried to the Inquisition and burned ... Everything runs to corruption here."

"The Alcade and his company appeared like very grave and sober men. His discourse and manner were very good, and, I thought, with more presence of mind than our master's ... My Lord moved the Alcade, and he readilly, and very civilly, shook hands with Kirke ... They agreed on a treaty, to begin tomorrow, by persons chosen on both sides. His army was drawn up not so thick as ours, but very artificially, two deep, and that in but few places to make a greater show, though, we believe, they had not above 2500 in the field, but we few horse, and they a great many."

A Prospect of Tangiers, Queen's Royal Surrey Regimental Association (image is in the Public Domain).

Before leaving Tangiers, taking with them the remaining British personnel, Dartmouth and Pepys supervised the blowing up of the town's defences, including the mole, ensuring that these could never be used either by the forces of the Ottoman Empire (to which the Moroccan Sultan owed at least nominal allegiance), or by the Barbary Pirates, who posed, perhaps, the greater threat to British maritime interests. Pepys returned to London, his account largely forgotten, although it ought, surely, to have been essential reading for the future administrators of the British Empire, and for those who would, ultimately, have the responsibility of dismantling it. If the ghost of Samuel Pepys were peering over the shoulders of Lord Mountbatten, In India, or of Chris Patten, in Hong Kong, one suspects that he would have seen very little to surprise him.

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. Fascinating bit of history I hadn't heard anything about before. Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. Well, I never knew that, how interesting!

  3. I have been wondering if the descendants of the Barbary pirates might be founding members of ISIS today?

  4. Thanks for this. I'm currently working on the 1640 period and my novel includes Salé, the pirate stronghold. I had no idea about Pepys in Tangiers. There was still a lot of white slaves going into or through Salé at the time. Tangiers appears to be a very different sort of place, though.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.