The English are fond of scribbling on walls

A Visit to the Barbary Regencies in 1830 is an unusual book, unusual for me anyway. It is an excerpt from the diaries of Lord Grosvenor, originally published by him in this form, in which he details his visit to the Barbary regencies of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers in the year 1830 (as the title rather suggests). It is 100 pages long, but has generous spacing and margins, making it a very quick read.

The difficulty with writing about diaries, is that by their nature they are a bit bitty. That’s the case here too, Grosvenor writes about what happens to him, there isn’t an overall narrative or theme to draw out. Accordingly, my main goal here is simply to illustrate the nature of the diaries and what makes them interesting. As a result, I’ve tried to bring out the feel of the diaries below, but haven’t attempted too much by way of analysis.

Anyway, I said above that this is a quick read, it’s also rather a fun read. Lord Grosvenor is an entertaining diarist, his experiences are interesting, and it’s a window to a world that is much more alien than we often give it credit. Grosvenor travels the region on board the Isis, a 50 gun frigate commanded by Captain T. Staines (no sniggering!). To anyone with the remotest fondness for Patrick O’Brian (which really should be everyone), it’s a reminder too of quite how good O’Brian is and quite how much he gets right.

Grosvenor’s trip takes place at a time of some tension, each of the regencies is technically independent but none try that indepence too strongly with the Sublime Porte. France is blockading Algiers, and military action once started might spill over to Algiers’ neighbours so making them understandably nervous.

It’s in the above context then that Lord Grosvenor writes his impressions of the landscapes passed, of the rulers and other figures he encounters, and of the various European dignitaries and travellers also at large in the region. Here, he describes the ruler of Tripoli:

The Pacha’s appearance, if not prepossessing, had at least the merit of novelty; the quantity of kohol with which he had stained his eyelids, making it scarcely possible to distinguish his features and the large silk tassel of his Bournouse, which fell over a small white turban upon his forehead, gave him a singular, but not very pleasing expression of countenance. His age may be from sixty to seventy; his figure is of a proper Tripolitan corpulency, and of this advantage he is so sensible, that he sat upon the very edge of the throne to ensure it’s not being lost upon us. But, however vain his Highness may be of his figure, he is still prouder of his pink silk stockings – mais hélas! il faut souffrir pour être beau. The European stocking-weavers (for Tripoli has none to boast of) not being yet sufficiently accustomed to the Barbary market, it became a matter of no small difficulty to procure a pair sufficiently elastic for the royal dimensions; and those his Highness now wore must have painfully impeded a free circulation.

Although apparently a fairly merciful fellow by local standards, it should be noted that one of his wives is fond of revenging herself on any disrespect by having the culprits strangled with a bowstring.

Still, such are the hazards of courtly life in what Lord Grosvenor refers to as the Orient. It is fair to say that this is not the happiest period in the history of the Ottoman and post-Ottoman world, there is a palpable sense of decline, these cities are rich outposts now divorced from what was once one of the most powerful empires on Earth and their relationship with the European powers is now far from an equal one.

Just as life on shore has its diversions, so too does life on ship. The following passage could, once again, have come straight from the pages of an O’Brian novel:

Sir T. Staines had orders to take on board any extraordinary animals that Col. Warrington might wish to send to England, and was much dismayed upon finding no less than four ostriches, two antelopes, three Fezzan sheep, three blue cranes, besides several stuffed birds, waiting to be embarked. He was constrained to make immediate preparations for their accommodation; and they were all brought safely on board, except one ostrich, which, in its struggles up the ship’s side, injured itself so much, that it was thought better to leave it behind.

Later a possibly imaginary lioness must also be contended with. This is of course the great age of natural history. Amateur scientists and collectors travel the world to find rare creatures unknown to European experience, and then kill, stuff and mount them.

Generally, Lord Grosvenor is simply a passenger. On occasion, however, he himself is of some assistance in the voyage:

Upon the aide-de-camp’s return I was called in to act as interpreter, his knowledge of English and Sir T.’s of French, being just sufficient to create a serious misunderstanding.

The issue there at hand being that Captain Staines has orders to check in at Algiers, and the French have orders that nobody shall be allowed to make port there. A misunderstanding, in these circumstances, could have very serious repercussions indeed.

Later there are more reminders of the belligerence of the time, France is not the only nation to be engaged in these waters:

We passed the Austrian squadron, consisting of one double bank frigate, two corvettes and two brigs, lying off Algesiras. They are by way of blockading the port of Tangeir, and bombarding the Emperor of Morocco, with whom Austria is at issue; but their navy is of the most contemptible description, and the campaign will therefore end as is has begun, at Algesiras.

Although dismissive of the Austrians, the attitude to the French is very different and far more respectful. An Algerian plan to destroy a French force using 150,000 local tribesmen is expected to meet with little success, however legion the tribesmen may be it is expected they will be no match for French discipline and artillery.

Grosvenor speaks too of the difficulties of pre-steam travel (obviously not in those terms though). The Isis is at times carried perilously close to shore, or near to shallow waters. There are storms and seasickness, quarantine and as ever in the golden age of sail the wind is of utmost importance:

Had we remained but twelve more hours at Gibraltar, we should have missed the wind which only just carried us through, and perhaps have been prisoners for a month.

Prisoners there merely meaning delayed, not literal imprisonment.

The book comes with prints of the original engravings that accompanied it, not in the highest quality here of reproduction but interesting for all that, and with two appendices which formed part of the original work and which add some supplemental detail about Captain Staines and about some subsequent military events, respectively. Here Lord Grosvenor explains how Captain Staines lost his arm back in 1807:

Poor Sir T. Staines was dreadfully wounded in this engagement; and, his surgeon being killed, he was forced to apply the assistant to amputate his arm at the socket. Perceiving that the young man was very nervous at being called upon to perform so perilous an operation, Sir T., with the utmost presence of mind, raised himself from his bed, and told him in a confidential manner, that although he much lamented the surgeon’s death, he yet, upon this critical occasion, felt greatly relieved at not being necessarily under his care, having much greater reliance on the skill of his assistant. Thus encouraged, the young man proceeded and performed the operation with great success.

Later, Sir T. loses much of the use of his other arm in a duel, yet remains in good spirits. Extraordinary. No wonder they won an empire.

A visit to the Barbary Regencies in 1830



Filed under History, North Africa

2 responses to “The English are fond of scribbling on walls

  1. Fascinating. I suppose it is difficult for us to understand what it must have been like to have so much of the world relatively unexplored. It is not hard to imagine how a man of means would want to go abroad, particularly when this seemed to be advancing the cause you believed in – the British Empire.

  2. Quite. Have you read any of the O’Brian novels? Interesting as this was, I’d probably recommend the fictional version over the actual on this occasion?

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