PIRATE KILLERS: THE ROYAL NAVY AND THE AFRICAN PIRATES

Reviewed by: DAVID CHILDS

One of the joys of being a book reviewer is that one is sent, occasionally, a book on a subject about which one knows but little.  Often these involve battles that should have better renown and Captains whose laurels should not have faded. So it is with this book that covers mainly specific anti-piracy operations in the 18th and 19th centuries with a very competent final chapter about today’s fight against the east African pirates.

The somewhat gory title is justified by a lengthy account of the chess-like campaign between Ogle of HMS Swallow and the West African coast pirate Bartholomew Roberts of the Royal Fortune, which ended with 52 of the crew of the latter being hanged in April 1722.  It is Boy’s Own stuff, a thoroughly fascinating tale of derring-do. However, allowing your reviewer to display his ‘woke’ credentials, it is worth noting that the Royal Navy was on anti-piracy patrol to prevent the pirates seizing British slave ships which they were tasked with escorting across the Atlantic until the abolition of this trade in 1807.

The slavery which the British were determined to end before that date was that of white slaves captured by the Turks and their Barbary Coast allies who for 300 years had preyed on merchant ships in both the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Agreements to end this practice were brokered and broken and were to climax in the Battle of Algiers on 27 August 1816. It was an engagement notable for many reasons:  it was the last major action in which Royal Navy ships moved solely under sail; it was one of the most major ship-to-shore bombardments conducted until the modern era; and, although victorious, British casualties on the day exceeded those suffered at Trafalgar.

In command was Admiral Lord Exmouth, Sir Edward Pellew, both of whose names were carried by later ships without, possibly, many knowing the reason why.  It was just not his success in the battle: his careful preparations before-hand well justify him holding a position of repute in the naval hagiology. Before sailing from Gibraltar, in HMS Queen Charlotte, Exmouth supervised the conversion of several flat bottom boats to gun and rocket ships.  He also spent many hours with his commanding officers studying the charts and working out the best way to deliver the bombardment and the positioning of individual ships in the fleet.  At the same time the crews were kept busy off-loading all wooden and flammable material and in making canvas water buckets in lieu of the wooden ones. Then, on arrival off Algiers, he made sure that the Dey was given every opportunity to accede to Exmouth’s demands before the first gun was fired, this time of waiting occupied onboard by a final hot meal for the crews before the gally fires were all extinguished. When the guns finally opened fire at 1500 they did so with devastating effect, one account relating that Queen Charlotte’s gun crews killed more than 500 Algerine defenders in the opening exchange. On and on it went until 2300 when Exmouth, “observing the destruction of the whole of the Algerine navy and the strongest parts of their batteries” ordered a withdrawal. Next day the Dey accepted the terms for a cease fire. Then, in 1829 the French invaded Algeria and the pirates moved down the coast to Morocco and the rooting out had to begin again.

Is it possible to read lightly about killing pirates and slavery?  Let your reviewer reject his earlier ‘woke’ credentials by giving an emphatic ‘yes’ and stating that this book is an excellent opportunity so to do.