Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Escapes of Captives—I

It was very rarely that a captive escaped from the clutches of the Corsairs. When we consider the vast numbers of people they seized, many of the prisoners being soldiers and seamen, some of them gentlemen-adventurers, the pick of the bold and daring spirits of a bold and daring age, it seems strange that the accounts of successful escapes from a town such as Algiers are very few and far between. The reason was very simple. The whole city was one huge prison. And it was not the city walls and the city gates which held the bondsmen captive; it was the open country which lay around. For this was filled with savage, native tribes through whom no fugitive could make his way. To make for the hills and the open country was to make for death, for the mountain Moors were thrice as savage and bloodthirsty as their fellows of the city. There remained the sea; but the watch along the shore was so strict, the guard upon vessels and oars so close, that very few ever got clear off by water. Some did, and of these we will read, but first we will speak of those who escaped after capture but while still upon the sea.

The Story of the Four Brave Boys

In 1621 the good ship Jacob  of Bristol sailed for the Mediterranean. All went well until she was entering the Straits of Gibraltar, when she was suddenly attacked by a Corsair ship out of Algiers. There was a desperate fight, but in the end the pirates won, and seized the vessel. The Corsair captain did not wish to return to Algiers, so he resolved to send the prize home. He took all the English crew out of the Jacob  except four boys, John Cooke, William Long, Robert Tuckey, and David Jones. He left these as prisoners in the hands of the thirteen men whom he sent aboard to carry the Jacob  to Algiers.

For some days they sailed towards Algiers, and the four boys were kept fast in the hands of the pirates. Then on the fifth day the wind began to freshen and the sea to rise. The Turks now wished to take in sail, but found they were short-handed. So they freed the boys and ordered them to help. But these brave lads, once free, helped themselves in British fashion. One seized the captain and pitched him overboard. The others snatched such weapons as came to hand and attacked the rest of the crew. They killed two, threw two more into the sea, and drove the other eight below. Next they clapped on the hatches and secured them, and the eight were prisoners.

Now the four boys were masters of the ship, and so well did they handle her, that they sailed her safely into the harbour of San Lucar in Spain. Here they landed in safety and sold their prisoners, the pirates, for a large sum of money as galley-slaves.

The Story of John Rawlins

In the same year (1621) one John Rawlins of Rochester sailed from Plymouth as the pilot of the Nicholas, which had in its company another ship of Plymouth. They had a fair voyage till they came within sight of Gibraltar; then they saw a fleet of five sail trying to come up with them. Those on board the Nicholas  suspected the newcomers were pirates, and so they proved to be, and after a long chase the pirates came up and seized the English ships. The crews were carried to Algiers and sold as slaves. John Rawlins was the last to be sold, for his hand was badly injured, and he fetched no more than seven pounds ten, reckoned in English money.

After a time he was sold again. There was a pirate vessel in the harbour about to set out on a cruise, and she wanted a pilot. Now she was commanded by an English Turk, a renegade, and he wished for an English slave for pilot, and he bought John Rawlins. When the ship left Algiers there were on board sixty-three Turks and Moors, nine English slaves, one French slave, four Dutchmen, who were free, and four gunners, among whom were one English and one Dutch renegade.

The English slaves were so badly treated by their cruel masters that one day John Rawlins broke out: "Oh, horrible slavery, to be thus subject to dogs! Oh, Heaven, strengthen my heart and hand, and something shall be done to deliver us!"

The other slaves bade him be silent, lest all should fare the worse for his rash talk.

"Worse!" cried Rawlins, "what can be worse? I will either regain my liberty at one time or another, or perish in the attempt; but if you would agree to join with me in the undertaking, I doubt not but we should find some way of winning glory with our freedom." His companions again begged him to be silent, but said that if he could hit on a plan they would follow him.

After this the Turks behaved worse than ever. They flogged and reviled the slaves with the greatest fury, even when the slaves were doing their utmost. John Rawlins became more and more resolved to seize the ship and secure liberty. So he made ready strong ropes with broad spikes of iron so that he and his friends might fasten up, at the proper moment, all scuttles, gratings, and cabins. In this way he could shut up the Turks in small parties, and then, if he could become master of the gun-room and the powder, he could blow the Turks into the air, or kill them one by one if any party should break out of its prison.

Little by little he gained over the Dutch gunners to his plot, and they agreed to join him. Now John Rawlins persuaded the captain to steer away northward, because Rawlins wished to draw the pirate ship away from other Turkish vessels which were in company with it. The captain consented, for he did not know a great deal about seamanship, and had heard that Rawlins was a very skilful pilot.

They had been about a month out from Algiers when they saw a sail, and at once the Turks pursued, came up, and forced the vessel to surrender. It was a ship from Dartmouth laden with silk. The Turks took the captain with five of his men, and a boy, on board, and sent ten men to man the prize. Among these men were three who were in the plot, and Rawlins bade them make common cause with the four Englishmen left on the captured ship, and steer for England that night while the Turks slept.

This was done, and the next morning there was no sign of the prize to be seen. The pirate captain was amazed and angry, and bade Rawlins search the seas for the missing ship, but they sailed all day without success. Then John Rawlins told the captain there was a great deal of water in the hold, and it must be pumped out before the ship could sail properly, so the pumps were set to work. And in order to make the water run to the pumps, the guns were moved and the pirate soldiery were gathered on the poop to weigh the ship down by the stern. All these movements furthered the plot. The ship had three decks. The plotters were gathered on the middle deck. The soldiers were now all on the upper deck, and must remain there if the scuttles and hatches were closed. And the slaves were strong enough to deal with those left on the lower deck. The conspirators now waited for the signal gun which John Rawlins was to fire, and upon the report of this gun they were to shout their watchword: "For God, and King James, and Saint George for England." At two o'clock Rawlins fired the gun, and the slaves, with loud cries, leapt to the attack.

"But when the Turks heard this, and the shouts of the conspirators, and saw that part of the ship was torn away, and felt it shake under them, and knew that all threatened their destruction—no bear robbed of her whelps was ever so mad as they, for they not only called us dogs, and cried in their tongue, 'The fortune of war! the fortune of war!' but they tried to tear up the planking, setting to work hammers, hatchets, knives, the oars of the boat, the boat-hook, and whatever else came to hand, besides the stones and bricks of the cook-room, still trying to break the hatches, and never ceasing their horrible cries and threats."

Then Rawlins, seeing them so violent, and understanding that the slaves had cleared the decks of all the Turks and Moors underneath, began to shoot at them through different holes, with their own muskets, and so lessened their number. At this they cried for the pilot, and so Rawlins, with some to guard him, went to them, and understood by their kneeling that they cried for mercy and begged to come down. This they were bidden to do, but coming down one by one, they were taken and slain by their own swords. And the rest perceiving this, some of them leapt into the water, still crying, "The fortune of war!" till the decks were well cleared, and the victory assured.

"When all was done, and the ship cleared of the dead bodies, John Rawlins assembled his men, and with one consent gave the praise to God, using the accustomed services on shipboard. Then did they sing a psalm, and, last of all, embraced one another for playing the men in such a deliverance, whereby their fear was turned into joy. That same night they steered for England, and arrived at Plymouth on the 13th of February, and were welcomed with all gladness."