Algiers the capital of Algeria in the time of Rais Hamidou
The U.S.-Tripoli conflict had come close to destabilizing the entire Barbary Coast. Algiers threatened war with America because the annual tribute of naval stores was late in coming. Tunis threatened war because American vessels blockading Tripoli harbor persisted in stopping Tunisians and confiscating Tunisian goods. Morocco actually opened hostilities and detained two American merchantmen before the sultan thought better of it.
Of the European powers with interests in the Mediterranean, the Danes and the Swedes did their best to mediate between the two sides, and France promised that its consul in Tripoli would try to free the crew of the Philadelphia. The British consul, on the other hand, worked hard to maintain Yusuf’s hostility toward America—or so the Americans believed. But war between Britain and France broke out in May 1803; and Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor of France the following year. Europe had more pressing matters to worry about than relations with North Africa. “God preserve Bonaparte!” exclaimed one corsair. “As long as other nations have him to contend with, they won’t worry us.”
That corsair was Hamidou Raïs. Hamidou belonged to a group of corsair captains whose careers flourished in a little renaissance of Algerian privateering around the turn of the nineteenth century. It included Ham-man, said by some sources to be Hamidou’s brother; Tchelbi, with whom he sailed in the late 1790s; Mustafa “the Maltese”; and Ali Tatar. Although the taifat al-raïs was no longer the maker and breaker of deys that it had been in the seventeenth century, individual captains still commanded a great deal of respect in Algerian society. They lived in fine mansions with large households. Their exploits were celebrated in songs and poems.
Hamidou was a native Algerian, the son of a tailor. He went to sea as a boy in the 1780s, and by 1797 he had his own ship, a small, fast three-masted xebec. That year, he and Tchelbi Raïs sailed into Tunis with four valuable prizes, a Genoese, a Venetian, and two Neapolitans; and when Algiers declared war on France in 1798 he captured the French factory at El Kala near the Tunisian border, and then sailed north to raid along the coast of Provence. Over the next two years his men took at least fourteen prizes worth half a million francs.
Algiers made peace with Napoleon at the end of 1801, by which time Hamidou had become one of his nation’s most profitable corsairs. As a reward, he was moved to the brand-new forty-four-gun Mashouda, one of two frigates which the dey commissioned specially from a Spanish naval architect, Maestro Antonio. (The other went to Ali Tatar.) The Mashouda remained his flagship for the rest of his life. In 1805 he took several Neapolitans, an American schooner with a crew of fifty-eight, and, after a fierce battle, a forty-four-gun Portuguese frigate, the Swan. The Swan’s 282 survivors were brought back to Algiers, and the poets sang of how Hamidou’s heart was full of joy at overcoming the infidels, and how he arrived at the dey’s palace trailing behind him enslaved Christians and Negroes.
Amid the stylized Algerian encomiums that celebrated Hamidou’s successes, there is the occasional more prosaic glimpse into the character of this charismatic man. He was of medium height, with blond hair and blue eyes (not as unusual as one might think among native-born Algerians), and clean-shaven except for long drooping mustaches. Elizabeth Blanckley, the young daughter of the British consul general in Algiers, was clearly smitten: years later she wrote that the raïs, who when he wasn’t hunting Christians lived next door to the consulate, “was one of the finest-looking men I ever saw, and was as bold as one of his native lions.” She also recalled that Hamidou was “not the most rigid observer of the Alcoran,” since he used to drop round for a glass or two of Madeira with her father. “His house and garden were kept up in the greatest order and beauty,” she said.
Hamidou’s domestic arrangements are unknown, although when Algiers was briefly at war with Tunis in 1810 and the Mashouda captured a Tunisian ship with four Negro women aboard, one was reserved for his use. Presumably the young Elizabeth was unaware of what went on behind the walls of Dar Hamidou.
The Tuscan poet Filippo Pananti, who was taken when the Mashouda captured the Sicilian merchant ship in which he was a passenger, left a vignette of Hamidou at work. His description of the capture is vivid: one of the Sicilian sailors, who had already been enslaved once, had to be restrained from stabbing himself to death. Another seized a firebrand and tried to blow up the ship’s powder magazine before the corsairs could board. When they did board, passengers and crew were petrified:
[The pirates] appear on deck in swarms, with haggard looks, and naked scimitars, prepared for boarding; this is preceded by a gun, the sound of which was like the harbinger of death to the trembling captives, all of whom expected to be instantly sunk; it was the signal for a good prize: a second gun announced the capture, and immediately after they sprang on board, in great numbers. Their first movements were confined to a menacing display of their bright sabres and attaghans [long knives]; with an order for us, to make no resistance, and surrender . . . and this ceremony being ended, our new visitors assumed a less austere tone, crying out in their lingua franca, No pauro! No pauro! Don’t be afraid.
To Pananti’s surprise, Hamidou’s men were kind and deferential toward the women captives, and enchanted with their children. “It was only necessary to send Luigina [one of the little girls] round amongst the Turks, and she was sure to return with her little apron full of dried figs and other fruits.” Hamidou himself comes across as ingenious, arrogant—and amiable. He would sit cross-legged on deck for three or four hours each day, giving orders to his men, smoking and smoothing his long mustache. But he also invited the Italians into his cabin, “where an Arab tale was recited, and what was still better, a cup of good Yemen coffee was handed round, followed by a small glass of rum.”
By 1815, Algiers was at war with Portugal, Spain, several Italian states, Holland, Prussia, Denmark, and Russia. The dey’s prize registries for the thirty months from July 1812 to January 1815 show that Hamidou and the Mashouda brought home twenty-two prizes with cargoes worth nearly two million francs. There was brandy, cocoa, coffee and sugar, wine and cloth and timber. The corsairs were generally careful to avoid direct attacks on shipping belonging to France and Great Britain, both of whom had navies powerful enough to deter any acts of aggression. But the smaller, weaker nations were fair game, and Hamidou’s victims included Danes, Swedes, Greeks—and Americans. The dey of Algiers took the occasion of the War of 1812 to renege on his treaty obligations with the United States; and although corsairs had a hard time finding American ships that hadn’t already been captured by the British navy, one U.S. brig, the Edwin, was taken off the southern coast of Spain in the summer of 1812, while on her way home from Malta, and brought into Algiers, where her ten-man crew was imprisoned. Her captor was a frigate armed with two rows of cannon on each side—she may well have been the Mashouda.
Britain and the United States signed a peace treaty on Christmas Eve 1814. The following spring, outrage at the continuing detention of the Edwin and her crew led the administration in Washington to decide it had had enough of the corsairs. President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe co-signed an uncompromising letter to the dey, Hadji Ali:
Your Highness having declared war against the United States of America, and made captives of some of their citizens, and done them other injuries without cause, the Congress of the United States at its last session authorised by a deliberate and solemn act, hostilities against your government and people. A squadron of our ships of war is sent into the Mediterranean sea, to give effect to this declaration. It will carry with it the alternative of peace or war. It rests with your government to choose between them.
Madison made good his threat, dispatching two squadrons of warships to deliver his letter. One of these squadrons, commanded by Commodore Stephen Decatur in the Guerriere and carrying the American consul general for the Barbary states, William Shaler, encountered Hamidou Raïs and the Mashouda at Cabo de Gata on Saturday, June 17, 1815.
Hamidou had been cruising off the Spanish coast that week, in company with a twenty-two-gun brig, the Estedio, which had been taken from the Portuguese some years before. He had just sent the Estedio to reconnoiter farther along the coast (she was run aground near Valencia by the Americans and captured the next afternoon), leaving the Mashouda alone to watch the merchant shipping passing on its way to and from the Straits.
Hamidou initially thought the American warships were British (and hence friendly), even though they were obviously changing course to close the distance between the Mashouda and them. Only when Captain Gordon of the Constellation raised the Stars and Stripes so rashly did the corsair realize what was happening. Immediately he ordered his men to crowd on sail and take evasive action. If the Mashouda could once get clear of the American guns she could give them a run for their money. There was a westerly wind, and Algiers lay 300 miles due east. He could reach home in two days.
The Americans, though eager, were inexperienced. Even before Gordon’s gaffe with the colors, the captain of the squadron’s flagship, the Guerriere, who had never commanded a ship in battle before, broke out the wrong signal, ordering the other ships to “tack and form into line of battle.” If they had obeyed the signal, the Mashouda would have gotten away while they slowly maneuvered into line. They didn’t. On the deck of the Mashouda, Hamidou told his lieutenant that if he died, “you will have me thrown into the sea. I don’t want infidels to have my corpse.”
Hamidou managed to leave the Constellation behind him, but the Guerriere gained fast, forcing him to change course and double back on himself. In doing so he brought the Mashouda within range of the Constellation’s guns and Gordon opened fire, hitting the Algerian’s upper deck. One of the flying splinters of wood struck Hamidou, hurting him badly, but he refused requests to go below and instead ordered a chair to be placed for him on the upper deck. There he sat, in pain and in plain view, urging his men on.
The Mashouda changed course again and an American sloop, the U.S.S. Ontario, passed her on the port beam and fired a broadside before sailing straight past her, the captain having misjudged his own ship’s momentum. Minutes later the Guerriere maneuvered alongside and fired a broadside from a distance of barely thirty yards. It tore into the Algerian’s upper deck, and Hamidou, who was still shouting orders and encouragement to his men, was killed outright.
Even in the heat of battle, his men obeyed his wishes before surrendering. The last corsair’s broken body was thrown into the sea to save it from being defiled by the infidels.