Even more important, however, were
humanitarian concerns. At the Congress of Vienna, Britain pressed the
other powers to bar the trade in slaves but achieved only a commitment
in principle to its eventual abolition. Those profiting from slavery
mocked the hypocrisy of British concern for African slaves while His
Majesty's own subjects languished in involuntary servitude along the
Barbary Coast. The taunts stung.
Then a British naval officer, Commander Walter Croker, visited Algiers. He wrote an incendiary letter
decrying the "cruelties practiced on Christians of every nation, and of
indiscriminate slaughter, involving our own countrymen." When sending the letter to a government minister failed to produce the desired effect, he
published it, touching off a media firestorm. Parliament demanded
action. William Wilberforce, an inveterate critic of slavery, condemned
"the evils...which had been so long tolerated," and called for "cannon
balls" instead of the payment of any ransom.
Exmouth, the British commander in the Mediterranean, was dispatched to
secure a solution. In Tripoli, he ransomed 468 slaves and secured a
commitment to end the practice. Tunis, too, capitulated, ransoming some
slaves, releasing others, and pledging at least to treat future captives
as prisoners. Algiers, however, proved more defiant, and Exmouth
retired to England in frustration.
The slaughter of some 200
fishermen from the Italian states provided a fresh impetus for action.
Exmouth returned at the head of a powerful fleet. In Gibraltar, he met
up with a squadron of Dutch frigates, and its commander pledged his
support. They sailed, together, for Algiers and delivered their
ultimatum. Receiving no response, they proceeded to bombard the
fortifications, leveling half the city in the process. Exmouth demanded
the Dey's surrender, distinguishing between the ruler and his populace by adding that as "England does not war for the
destruction of cities, I am unwilling to
visit your personal cruelties upon the unoffending inhabitants of the
country." (It was a fine sentiment, but perhaps one that the inhabitants of the rubble of Algiers,
slaves included, were poorly disposed to appreciate.) More than three thousand captives were released.
Back in Britain, Parliament congratulated
Exmouth on a victory "most favourable to the interests of humanity,"
and the Duke of Clarence declared that British action had been "actuated by a pure feeling of humanity towards
the rest of the world." Plays and pamphlets celebrated the triumph, and
Britain engaged in an extended bout of self-congratulation.
Over the longer term, though, the results of the expedition proved more equivocal. The
offending rulers were not deposed. Piracy and slavery declined, but
neither immediately disappeared. European intervention in North Africa
would only escalate in the decades that followed.