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The Algerian Flag in Exmouth Market
Middle East in London, April/May 2015


I have been caught in a 24 hour-long traffic jam in the centre of Algiers, as the capital city celebrated the national squad beating Egypt in a football match. It was before the Arab Spring and national rivalry had been built up to unnecessarily high levels of tension by the spin-masters of the Mubarak regime. So the Algerians were especially triumphant and in between the fireworks (released by the Admiral of Algiers) and the blare of 10,000 car horns, I got to see a fair acreage of the tricolor drapeau of the Algerian Republic being waved with mad passion from youths dancing on the roofs of stranded buses, and jubilant crowds roaring out “one, two, three, Viva Algerie”. The flag hung from every balcony and window, was used as a cape, a T-shirt and even painted on the faces of young girls.

So it was no surprise that I was able to recognize this flag when I saw it suspended across the breadth of my local street, Exmouth Market, in London. But this London street in which I work in has a very particular connection with Algiers that made the flying of the Algerian flag surprising. It brought back memories of one of my first trips to Algeria, when I was horrified to discover that it was the British under Lord Exmouth had destroyed the eight-hundred-year old Almoravid mosque that had been the heart, soul and university of the city. My host at the time, had argued that Algiers should sue the British for compensation, which could be paid in craftsman and oak. I took it as a joke at the time.

My home street of Exmouth Market is named after Lord Exmouth, one of our naval heroes whose most famous action was to bombard the fortified harbour of Algiers in 1816, destroy its navy and ‘abolish Christian slavery throughout North Africa’. To prove this point in graphic terms, look out for the pub (which stands opposite the church halfway along the street) which is called the Exmouth Arms. It has a sign-board that swings romantically in the wind, which bears the arms of Lord Exmouth which shows a battleship, a castle, the motto ‘Algiers” and a white slave breaking free of his chains. I am the son and grandson of fiercely proud Naval Officers, so I learned all about this Lord Exmouth in my cradle.

How the British Navy having first saved the world from the tyranny of Napoleon , then immediately turned its attention to suppressing piracy and establishing freedom on the seas all over the world. So just a year after Waterloo, the dashing Admiral Edward Pellew (Lord Exmouth) enforced peace by sailing our navy into all the pirate strongholds strung along the southern coast of the Mediterranean. The Deys, Beys, Pashas, Sheikhs and Sultans all hurried to agree terms, and promised not to attack British ships or hold a British citizen as a slave ever again. This was all achieved without so much a shot being fired, let alone a life being lost. But the Dey of Algiers broke his solemn word once the navy had left his harbour and cruelly massacred hundreds of his slave-prisoners. So Lord Exmouth, in all honour, was forced to return and show the power of his battleships, and so in one devastating afternoon he sunk an entire pirate fleet and smashed down the fortress walls of Algiers. But he was a merciful man and the very next day, instead of renewing the war and invading the country, he sent under the white flag of truce out the same peace terms as before, which were hurriedly agreed, so all was well. Britain, through its splendid Royal Navy had showed the world both its power and its magnaminity. To make this tale even better, Edward Pellew was not born as a belted Earl, but was a Cornish-boy who had ran away to sea aged but fourteen and worked his way up through the ranks. It was said that he could do any job that he asked of his seamen but better, and dramatically proved this one day, when as a 39-year old captain he stripped off and swam out through stormy seas to attach a line to a shipwreck and save some four hundred lives. This uplifting story from my childhood could be set to the stirring music of Rule Britannia, for Lord Exmouth’s campaign of 1816 was like some glorious fulfillment of that old song (first written down in 1740) that dreamed of a time when “Britons never will be slaves” and “Britannia will rule the waves.”

Of course later on, you discovered nuances, little historical details that will get in the way of this attractively simple narrative about good old ‘hearts of oak England’ defeating the wicked Barbary Pirates of the North African shore. For once you peer behind the arras of the national propaganda it seems that the Barbary Corsairs and the English privateers were actually sworn allies against a common enemy, the Spanish Empire, for the first hundred years of operations. And for the two hundred years subsequent to that the English secretly traded in arms with the corsair fleets, providing them with cannon, shot, gunpowder and naval supplies with which to pursue this war against their trade rivals. There were of course times of tension, especially when England occupied Tangier or when King James I allied himself with Spain (in the early 17th century) but then even during this period when the Barbary Corsairs attacked English interests, it appears that many of the most outrageously successful Barbary pirate captains were actually English privateers flying under a different flag, such as Henry Mainwaring and John Ward (who left for Tunis, the better to continue his operations the very year that King James made peace with the Spanish). What also seems clear that the last golden period of this ancient ‘understanding’ was during the Napoleonic Wars. The rulers of North Africa were then vital allies who supplied the Royal Navy and provisioned such vital British bases as Gibraltar. While the two fleets, the Barbary Corsairs as well as the Royal Navy happily preyed on the coasts and navies of ‘the continental system (all of Europe)’ but not on each other. Though the British liked to call their acts of piracy “prizes’ as anyone reading the adventures of Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin will well know.

So far from sailing into dangerous foreign waters in 1816, Lord Exmouth could alternatively be seen as just one half of a partnership advising the other that the game was now ‘up’. Peace had been signed with all the European powers. Indeed it was only direct orders from London that sent Lord Exmouth back to Algiers in the summer after his highly successful spring cruise, for the massacre that needed avenging, was no more than a whipped up propaganda media campaign. It involved not a single Briton, nor a captive of any nationality in the city of Algiers, but a complicated dispute with a group of Corsican and Sardinian sailors in a distant port, Bona, then on the eastern edge of the Dey’s zone of authority. But to give Admiral Pellew his due, he was aware of the flimsy nature of this ‘cassus belli’ and was personally determined not to be the one to fire the first shot. This did not make the bombardment of Algiers any less dramatic or fiercely fought a battle when it did erupt. Wound for wound it was actually more costly to the British than the battle of Trafalgar, which had a 9% casualty rate to Algiers’s 16%. Whilst if the Dey of Algiers had been as wickedly cruel as he is sometimes cast to be, he would not have been able to hand over the resident British Consul and his wife, unharmed the next day, along with a dashing captain Dashwood who had failed to rescue them. Indeed if he had been even half way Machiavellian he could have ordered a surprise attack on the line of British ships anchored in his bay, from the fifty small craft in his harbour – which would have had every chance of side-stepping the enemies advantage in cannonry.

So when I first saw the flag of Algieria flying in Exmouth Market, I looked around, half expecting that some friend (knowing my enthusiasm for North African history) was playing some elaborate hoax on me. For the flag was also on closer inspection, rather fine, silk hung with gold tassels. Eventually I asked Jimmy, a tall East-Ender who runs a kiosk in the middle of street, and who seems to know everything that has happened, or will happen in Exmouth Market, who had put this flag up. Jimmy is very British, outspokenly patriotic and proud of his parish but not at all keen on Europe. So it was very odd to discover that Jimmy had put the Algerian flag up. Not as my fancy had it, on behalf of the Algiers of 1816, but in honour of two young neighbours, who worked in a local café. England had just been knocked out of the world cup, and Jimmy thought the decent thing to do was to now support Algeria on behalf of his two hard-working neighbours, Sofiane and Aghiles. I, with some thirty-five years of travelling throughout North Africa, the Sahara and Algeria and writing about this, had been buying cakes and coffee off them for years without realizing anything about my neighbours. It felt good to be put in my place by Jimmy who had never set foot in their country.

It was also fascinating to start hearing their stories, bit by bit, coffee by coffee, as a slice of erratic living Algerian history to counterbalance all by book-knowledge. For historians live in their own created worlds, dominated by wars, bombardments, revolutions, elections, states of emergency, policy options and changing isms. While individuals live by a totally different currency, measured by such really memorable occasions as weddings, births and funerals not election dates or regime changes. Nor had they left their homeland to find political or spiritual freedoms in the west. They both came from prosperous, hard-working families that were used to running their own affairs. The decision to come to London was not in pursuit of a romantic dream, but a gradual process of working abroad that was correctable at any time by simply returning home. It was part of the tradition of life, extending many generations back, that men had left their mountains to work elsewhere, and as children they had witnessed these workers come home every summer or for the great annual family gathering of Aid el Kebir. The desire to do something different, to learn on the job, to be in a diverse, tolerant culture were strong motives for working in London. Their second choice was Belgium, but they were both keen to be out of France, where there was too much history and too many relations. The first taste of living in London came from a fortnight-long holiday, a reward for having passed their university exams in business and law. Then a year later, a more methodical return to London, based around a three-month language course, supported by working in a chain-store, such as the Café Rouge. Then using natural contacts, distant cousins, or the friends of neighbours, the move to a better job in a family-owned café. In their case a French pastry chef married to a cousin, who had left her job to become a mother, had been the door opener. They were proud of being Berber and of belonging to the Kabylie mountains, which when you went abroad gave you the warm glow of being part of an extended family. A greater family you knew not from the geography of where people came from but by the shared use of language. They agreed that this feeling of kinship did not extend to the Shawi Berbers (of south-eastern Algeria) or the western Algerians of Oran and Tlemcen, but apart from their support of JSK (Jeunesse Sportif Kabyle) they were not militant in their attitude, just pragmatic about being from the Kabyle, and had no problem in using Arabic or French if it allowed you to communicate, especially in the small knot of Algerian cafes and a mosque along the Old Kent road. Like my own two brothers, who both work abroad, they agreed that leaving home allowed them to be much more effectively concentrated on work, and though they had already risen to become assistant-managers, this was clearly but a stage towards setting up in their own business. They have so far been far too polite with me to say anything critical about the English, but openly admired the lack of corruption and the good organization of our society. They felt welcome in pubs even though they did not themselves drink, and found the English funny and relaxed in these places even whilst admitting that they drunk far too much. Yet they found that the Italian and Spanish speakers they had met at work or at the language college, instinctively understood their attitudes to work and family.

There was only one issue in which they were quite emphatic. This had nothing to do with Politics or Religion or any Ism, but about parents. They felt free to work in London, because they both had enough brothers and sisters to keep an eye on their parents back home. If this changed, they would leave everything they had achieved in London, and if necessary tomorrow. They are always the last to leave their place of work, but once home, and after they have tidied themselves up it is their habit to speak every evening, around 8pm, to either their mother or father, using Skype. I tried not to look shocked, for in my family it had been a matter of honour to show your complete independence as early as possible. Two or three airmail letters a year were considered to be perfectly adequate demonstration of affection if abroad. I can remember my father and grandfather, heartily approving of Edward Pellew running away from home in order to go to sea aged fourteen. Indeed having both been packed off to the Navy aged ten, they might have thought it rather late…but once again the really key difference between the Middle East and London is about family. Our institutions may work much better, but their families seem to be held together by love.

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