Historical Sources in An Affair in Algiers

In An Affair of Honor, Chief Commissioner Muhammad is ordered by the Dey of Algiers to perform several distasteful tasks. In addition, Muhammad undertakes on his own to perform a task he knows is likely to bring the wrath of the Dey on himself. Over a period of about 36 hours, Muhammad finds himself in serious jeopardy.

While the story of the runaway children in the novel is a complete fiction, the events surrounding it are based on events which have been chronicled in historical documents, chief among them The Scourge of Christendom: Annals of British Relations with Algiers Prior to the French Conquest, Robert Lambert Playfair, (London, 1884)pp. 221-223.

The British Consul-General, Reverend Charles Mace is the subject of an earlier entry in this blog and plays a part in the first few books in the series of Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries. Mace and his wife were neighbors to Caid Jafar, Muhammad’s patron, in the hilly outskirts of Algiers known as Kouba ( القبة)  a strange Latinate adaptation of the Arabic word for dome. Curiously, though he was the British Consul, Mace went only once to the palace, but was never invited back, as the Dey never forgave him for refusing to enter the city on his arrival during the plague to offer his diplomatic credentials.

“…when the British Reverend Charles Mace, ordained clergyman in the Church of England and diplomat, presented himself at the Dey’s palace, the infuriated Dey banned Mace from ever returning to his court, or his palace, exclaiming, “Mace is better suited to looking after goats than to be consul of the English in Algiers.”

Unable to forget or forgive the affront, the Dey thereafter discredited Mace in every possible way, short of expulsion. However, in 1794, the year An Affair of Honor takes place, the Dey did just that, ordering Mace, his wife, and the widow and daughter of the former British Consul escorted to the harbor before nightfall. In An Affair of Honor, Muhammad becomes the official charged with seeing the British subjects to the harbor. Playfair writes:

“…he [the Dey] ordered Mrs. Woulfe and her daughter to depart without any reason, except that such was his will. Mr. Woulfe was a Jewish convert to Christianity, and had done good service to His Majesty as acting consul-general, in consideration of which the British Government had paid all his debts after his death in 1788.

Before the expulsion, however, the British Consul was subjected to several miserable humiliations by the Dey. While some of these were attributable to personal animus on the part of the Dey, others came about as the result of deteriorating relations between Britain and the Dey. In short, when British ships blockaded French ports on the Mediterranean, they effectively prevented Algerian traders from transporting wheat and other commodities and selling these in France. Owing to the shortages and widespread starvation in France caused by the French Revolution, the demand for wheat and other foodstuffs provided Algerian merchants with a huge and profitable market.  The British blockade put a sudden end to the trade, and the Dey was not pleased.

When Admiral Hood took Corsica from the French that year, 1794, the Corsicans mining coral along the coast of the Algerian city of Bona lost the protection afforded them by France. Seeing an opportunity to strike back at the British, the Dey ordered the Corsicans seized and brought in chains to Algiers where they were sold as slaves. In An Affair of Honor, Muhammad notes:

 It was common knowledge in Algiers that the Corsicans fished for coral along the coast, especially near Bona. They have done so, under an arrangement with the French, for decades if not centuries. But the British fleet under Lord Hood took Corsica some months before. This explained Haddad’s statement that the fisherman no longer enjoyed the protection afforded them by French passes.

Well, I thought to myself, if these Corsican fishermen are now British subjects, then I wonder what the British Consul will choose to do.

Of this incident, Playfair writes:

…the captains and crews of a number of coral boats, manned by Corsican subjects of His Majesty, arrived under a guard from Bona and were ordered to be carried as slaves to the Marine. It appears that after the English feet under Lord Hood had taken Corsica, the Admiral was in the habit of giving English passes to boats belonging to that island, to enable them to fish for coral on the African coast; a privilege which the French had purchased.

Soon enough, Muhammad learns that further humiliations are on the way for the British Consul-General.

Against the backdrop of the gleaming Mediterranean that morning, the magnificent coach was hauled along the long mole by men who had been harnessed in the place of horses. These were immediately recognizable as slaves by their red caps, the sleeveless blue waistcoats they wore and the iron rings on their ankles. As they drew closer, and we saw their blond hair and blue eyes, we realized that the slaves were the crew of the Tiger, the English privateer recently captured and brought to port by Rafi Hasoob’s corsairs.

Adding injury to insult, the Dey knew Charles Mace had employed a Corsican chef for his consulate and ordered Muhammad to put the man in chains and transport him to the harbor for deportation.

The man, a portly Maltese with pale and silky skin and a perpetual smile on his face, went by the name of Alfredo. He was known to me from my several visits to the home of Reverend Mace and I recognized him as a fellow of pleasant disposition whose only concern appeared to be the appetites of the Mace family and their guests. My position, I knew, would not allow for hesitation or reluctance, and yet I felt both in regard to poor Alfredo and the order to detain him.

Of this incident, Playfair writes:

The Dey had several times ordered Mr. Mace to send away his cook, because he was a Maltese, and as he refused to do so the Dey sent the guardian bashi, or commander of the slaves, into his house, took the cook by force, and sent him, heavily chained, to the Marine; he was subsequently sent away on board the first ship that sailed. The man had not been guilty of any offence, as he had been only a very short time in Algiers, and had hardly ever left the house. When the consul sent to ask the meaning of this proceeding he was told that the country and every thing in it was the Dey’s, and if he had any objections he might send the book of treaties and leave the place.

Finally, after Mace’s departure, Playfair writes:

England having now no representative to look after her interests, the Dey requested that all communication with him should take place through the Swedish consul, to whom he said: “Mace is better suited for looking after goats in Corsica than to be consul of the English in Algiers. You had better not trust him more than he can reckon on his fingers. and toes, or he will lose the count of them.”

Ultimately, the situation devolved into a declaration of war between Britain and Algiers.

The Dey caused a red flag to be hoisted at the Marine and three guns to be fired, as a declaration of war on England, and he ordered the consul to embark, leaving behind him not only his furniture, but even his clothes and linen. He also ordered the frigate out of the harbour, stating that in forty days his cruisers should take every English vessel they found on the seas.

The British quickly sent an envoy to the Dey and war was averted. But that forms the background to the book that follows, An Abduction in Algiers.

Readers interested in the historical sources for the series may download the free Readers’ Companion in which they will find an exhaustive bibliography of works consulted in the English, Arabic, and Italian languages for information about Algerian history and culture during the three centuries of the so-called Ottoman Regency ( إيالة الجزائر في الغرب).


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