When Tom finds out that his kidnappers are taking him to Algiers, he fears the worst. For Christians of Tom’s day, Algiers had a terrible reputation connected to its role in the enslavement of Europeans (and others). But as Tom comes to discover, 17th century Algiers, as well as being a major base for Barbary Corsairs, was a thriving port and regional centre with civilisation to match many European towns and cities. This explains why some European slaves who had been captive in Algiers for a while chose to stay there rather than to return home.
Algiers has Roman and before that Phonecian origins. Its name comes from the Arabic al-Jazā’ir, which translates as ‘The Islands’, referring to a small group of islands (including the islet of Peñón) that previously lay just offshore but have over the centuries been incorporated within the mainland city. The town came under Islamic influence under various ruling dynasties.
As early as 1302 the islet of Peñón in front of Algiers harbour was occupied by Spaniards. Thereafter, a considerable amount of trade began to flow between Algiers and Spain. Algiers grew in importance after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, many of whom sought asylum in the city. In 1510, following their occupation of Oran and other towns on the coast of Africa, the Spaniards fortified the islet of Peñón and imposed a levy intended to suppress corsair activity.
In 1516 Selim, the ruler of Algiers, invited the notorious corsair brothers Aruj and Hayreddin Barbarossa to expel the Spaniards. The Barbarossas did come to Algiers, but in addition to expelling the Spaniards they ordered the assassination of Selim and seized the town for themselves. Hayreddin succeeded his brother Aruj after the latter was killed in battle against the Spaniards. Hayreddin lost Algiers in 1524 but regained it in 1529, after which he formally invited Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to accept sovereignty over Algiers within the Ottoman Empire.
From this time Algiers became the chief seat of the Barbary corsairs. In October 1541, the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sought to capture the city, but a storm destroyed a great number of his ships, and his army of some 30,000 was defeated by the Algerians under their ruler, the Pasha Hassan.
During the period of Ottoman rule, a significant number of renegades lived in Algiers: renegade Christians had converted to Islam, many fleeing the law or other problems at home, but some having been forced to convert following their capture by Barbary corsairs. Once converted to Islam, they were safe in Algiers. Many occupied positions of authority.
The city under Ottoman control was enclosed by a wall on all sides, including along the seafront. Tom describes the city as he approached it by sea appearing as a white triangle, rising up the steep hillside. This depiction is captured in the painting (early 19th century) above.
This is a link to an old map of Algiers from the 1570s. The map predates Tom’s stay but gives a good impression of the city he would have known. It is worth some scrutiny.
In 1556, a citadel was constructed at the highest point in the wall – this is the famous Casbah and is clearly shown on the map. A major road bisects the city from one side to the other – in Tom’s memoir this is the Great Market (‘Stratta Granda del Zocho’, number 4 in the Italian key to the map) – and divides the city into upper and lower districts. The upper city (al-Gabal, or ‘the mountain’) consisted of about fifty small quarters of Andalusian, Jewish, Moorish and Kabyle communities. The lower city (al-Wata, or ‘the plains’) was the administrative, military and commercial centre of the city, mostly inhabited by Turkish (Ottoman) dignitaries and other upper-class families. The following old postcard shows a street scene from the upper city that gives a flavour of what it might have been like for Tom (three centuries before).
The key to the map also shows the site of the Pasha’s palace (‘Palazzo maggiore del Re’), in the centre of the city, though its number (14) is barely visible on its roof. Adjacent to the palace (at 25) is the mint (‘Zecca’) which plays a prominent role in Tom’s memoir. Several of the infamous ‘bagnos’ where slaves were lodged are marked.
The ‘mole’ or breakwater, which cost the lives of many slaves to build, juts out in the foreground of the map towards the former Spanish fort of the Peñón. Whereas the fort’s guns used to point inwards to intimidate the local shipping, by Tom’s day, its guns pointed outwards, adding to the heavy fortifications of the city. A farmstead, similar to the one that features in the memoir is shown along the shore to the left of the city. The headquarters of Janissaries is shown at the top, just below the Casbah.
What is not shown in this map is the mosque constructed at great expense during Tom’s stay by Ali Bicnin (or ‘Betchin’ or ‘Picnin’, the native of Venice turned corsair captain and Grand Admiral of Algiers, who became Pasha briefly in 1645 in his eighties before being assassinated). His mosque exists to this day and has recently been subject to restoration, following a spell as a church under the French rule of Algiers – the end result should look like the following picture with impressive domes and an elegant minaret.
In August 1816, the Algerian corsair fleet was finally destroyed by a British squadron under Lord Exmouth assisted by Dutch men-of-war. (Exmouth was a descendant of Thomas Pellow, who had been taken in a corsair slave raid in 1715 and wrote an account of his experience). The combined attack on Algiers is depicted in the following painting by Thomas Luny, with the city illuminated by flame in the background. In the years proceeding this attack, even the fledgling USA had engaged in war with the Barbary Corsairs. In 1830, Algiers came under French rule. The modern country of Algeria finally gained its independence from France in 1962.