Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Redemption of Captives

In 1645 the Parliament of England was moved to take the matter up, and sent out Edmond Casson as their agent with money and goods to redeem captives. For the poorer sort of captives he paid goods, such as cloth; for the better sort, money. Casson arrived in Algiers in September 1646. A list is preserved of two hundred and forty-two slaves ransomed by him, with the price paid for each. As a rule he paid for a man 500 double pesetas, a coin worth two francs, that is about 40 a head. But the Algerines were unwilling to sell women, children, and skilled labourers except at a great price, so he had to pay 1100 pieces of money for Alice Hayes of Edinburgh, 1000 for Mary Ripley and her two children, 1392 for Mary Bruster, an Irishwoman, and 1300 for Thomas Thomson of London.

After Casson's visit another very sad letter was received from Thomas Sweet. He relates how his cunning master, unwilling to lose him, transferred him to a Moor of Tunis, and thus removed him from Algiers and the chance of being redeemed by Casson. Sweet was so useful to his master that his abilities stood in his own light. As the unlucky man says: "I doe keepe his bookes of accompts and merchandise, and that keepes me here in misery when others that are illiterate goe off upon easy tearmes for cloath, so that my breeding is my undoing unlesse pitty be shewne."

But it is to be feared that poor Sweet and his friend Robinson never got free. There is no sign of their redemption, and no hint of their names in the lists of ransomed slaves.

A few years later a clean sweep was made of the British slaves in Algiers. It was the time of the Commonwealth, when England was feared and respected abroad as she had not been for many a year, nor was to be for many a year after. Under James I. and Charles I. some feeble, useless expeditions had been made. British men-of-war had appeared off the Barbary coast, parleyed and argued, and then had sailed away, having accomplished nothing.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


But in 1655 the mighty Admiral Blake attacked the Corsairs, and he proved a foe to be dreaded. The great seaman struck first at Tunis. He found the Corsair fleet of Tunis anchored close under the guns of the forts for safety. He ran right in, and, despite the heavy fire of the enemy's guns, he made short work of the pirate ships, burning every one of them. He went next to Algiers, and the Algerines were so full of terror that they agreed at once to all that he wished. For a small sum they gave up every British captive in the place. A number of Dutch captives swam out and reached the fleet. These were not included in the bargain, but the honest British tars could not think of seeing them taken back to slavery. So every man of the fleet contributed one dollar of his pay to redeem the fugitives from captivity.

Yet the Algerines were soon at their old tricks, and only four years later, in 1659, the Earl of Inchiquin, with his son Lord O'Brien, were seized in a vessel off the Tagus, and carried to Algiers. Nor did this great nobleman, a close friend and follower of Charles II., regain his liberty until he had paid down a ransom of 7500 crowns.

Some years before Lord Inchiquin was seized, and while he was ruling part of Ireland as Lord President of Munster, a clergyman, the Reverend Devereux Spratt, came to him to ask for a pass to cross over from Ireland to England. The pass was granted and Mr. Spratt set sail, only to fall straight into the hands of the Corsairs. He says in his Journal: "I embarked in one John Filmer's vessel, which sayled with about six score passengers, but before wee were out of sight of land wee were all taken by an Algire piratt, who put the men in chaines and stockes."

In Algiers this clergyman had the good fortune to be sold to a kindly master, who allowed him so much liberty that he was able to preach and minister to his fellow-captives, "amongst whom," as he says, "it pleased God to make me an instrument of much good. I had not stayed long there," he goes on, "but I was like to be freed by one Captain Wilde, a pious Christian, but on a sudden I was sold and delivered to a Mussleman (Mussalman, Moslem) dwelling with his family in Ye (the) towne, upon which change and sudden disappointment I was very sad; my patron asked me the reason, and withall uttered these comfortable words, 'God is great!' which took such impression as strengthened my faith in God, considering thus with myself, 'shall this Turkish Mahumitan (Mohametan) teach me, who am a Christian, my duty of faith and dependence upon God?'"

After a time Captain Wilde obtained Mr. Spratt's ransom, having collected money among the merchants at Leghorn in Italy. But the poor captives were aghast when they found they were to lose the good clergyman. "Upon this a petition was presented by the English captives for my staying among them; that he (Captain Wilde) showed me, and asked what I would do in ye case. I toald him he was an instrument under God of my liberty, and I would be at his disposing. He answered, 'Noe, I was a free man, and should be at my own disposing.' Then I replyed, 'I will stay,' considering that I might be more serviceable to my country by my continuing in enduring afflictions with the people of God than to enjoy liberty at home."

For two years this excellent man continued to live and work among the captives. Then an order was issued that all free men must leave Algiers, and he returned to London, and finally to Ireland. Among those to whom he ministered in Algiers were William Okeley and his friends, and Mr. Spratt knew all about the little canvas boat in which Okeley escaped. Indeed, he nearly got into trouble himself over it. He says: "I was much suspected to have a hand in contriving ye boate, but Providence ordered that I was never questioned, although a Moore who dwelt over against ye meeting house (the place where the boat was built) seeing me one day upon the Mole (harbour) viewing their ships, frowned and grinded his teeth at me."