“The greatest thoroughfare of commerce in the world” Huntingdonshire and English Tangiers: 1662-1684

Prospect of Tangiers from the East by Wenceslaus Holler c.1670

The colony of Tangiers – the only British colony on the North African or ‘barbary’ coast, from which Britain hoped to rule the mediterranean – may have been an ultimately doomed venture, but it has a fascinating Huntingdonshire link. This link is apparent at both the beginning, when the city was informally defended by Lord Sandwich, and officially passed to the Earl of Peterborough and at the end when Samuel Pepys documented the evacuation and destruction.

Read on to discover the sordid, violent and brief history of Tangiers, a town “of infinite benefit and security to the trade of England”.

The origins of European Tangiers

1655 Map of Portugese Tangiers by Leonardo da Ferrara

The story starts in 1471, when Portugal gained control of Tangiers after several attempts to capture the city. Their conquest was two-fold; their first motive was to give them a foothold on the North African coast in a commanding position on the the very mouth of the Mediterranean. Additionally, this removed a possible port that Islamic pirates, known as corsairs, could operate from, thus protecting merchant shipping. The Portuguese built up “a fortified enclave, looked seaward, and turned their backs to the Moroccan hinterland”, a decision which was to have serious repercussions. This outpost swiftly became subject to attack after attack by Moroccan forces, with the harbour offering the often beleaguered settlement its only lifeline.

Two centuries later, in 1661, the Portuguese were desperate for allies in their war against the Spanish. Looking for support, they decided on the recently restored Charles II of England, who was in want of a wife. Catherine of Braganza, Charles’ new wife, came with a very generous dowry, including £300,000 in gold (over £56 million today), free trade with Portuguese colonies in Brazil, and the Portuguese trading centre at Bombay. The most glittering of all his acquisitions was Tangiers, an outpost on “the greatest thoroughfare of commerce in the world”.

Meanwhile, the newly ennobled Earl of Sandwich, previously Edward Montagu of Hinchingbooke, was leaving England for the Barbary coast with a fleet of seventeen ships. Like every senior naval officer at this time, he had a following of men within the navy. Some of these would be officers being groomed as proteges, others seamen or sailors. With voyages possibly lasting years, these followers could include close family members, more distant relations, friends, and local tenants.

The Earl of Sandwich, aboard his Tangier’s flagship, had a Lieutenant Lambert, who would be a full captain within a few years. Also present in the fleet was Captain Titus, a friend of the Earl’s and a future commissioner of assessments for Huntingdonshire. Records are scant about specific seamen within the fleet, however it would be unlikely that none were Huntingdonshire natives. We do know that in 1665, press ganged men forcibly sent to bolster naval numbers were not satisfactory. In the Earl’s own words, they were “none of them seamen, so ragged that they were utterly refused, fearing they would taint the sound seamen.” Seven of these “poor lot”, came from Huntingdonshire.

Admiral Edward Montagu – First Earl of Sandwich by Peter Lely

The first objective for the Earl of Sandwich and his fleet was to negotiate with the Algerians to stop attacks on British shipping. This started well, but after talks broke down, Sandwich ended up bombarding Algiers and sailing away. His first mission attempted, he set off for his second objective; to keep an eye on Tangiers until the appointed governor arrived. Sandwich and his fleet moored at Tangiers in October 1661.

Four months later and with the governor, the Earl of Peterborough, still not arrived, the Portuguese mayor and 140 mounted Portuguese troops left the town on a raid. Less than 90 returned after a Moroccan ambush killed the mayor and pursued the surviving horsemen to the very gates of Tangiers. Sandwich offered to help bolster the defences and 400 sailors and marines were rushed to the walls to throw back attacking Moroccan troops.

As a result, when the Earl of Peterborough arrived in late January 1662, with 2,000 cavalrymen and 500 infantry, he found English troops “in the town and castles and [with] the command of all the strengths and magazines”. On January 30th, Peterborough formally took possession of the town from the Portuguese. He was presented with the keys to the gate, a pair of silver spurs and a rather difficult job…

Tangiers: The Rise

Views of Tangiers by Wenceslaus Holler, drawn in 1670. Note his guard of two musketeers in the foreground, an indicator of the danger when venturing outside the walls.

The first task facing the Earl of Peterborough was settling in the people he had brought with him. As well as the 2,500 men of the garrison and their families, there was another 100 quarrymen, engineers with their families, and around 600 merchants from all over Europe (there as a result of Charles declaring the town a “free port”). When the Portuguese had left, they had cleared the town completely — even to the extent of taking doors, windows and flooring. This necessitated a massive rebuilding program to make the town habitable; Portuguese street names were anglicised or renamed and a pavilion and bowling green built.

The newly restored town had shops, taverns and a hastily reconsecrated Catholic church, now dedicated to the king’s father, ‘Charles the Martyr’. All was overshadowed by the grand citadel which covered around one third of the space within the walls. This was extensively remodelled to provide storage space for supplies and homes for the governor and garrison officers. Most important of all were the town defences, strengthened and extended to include walls running all the way to the water’s edge, and thirteen outer forts with garrisons of between 10 and 150 men in each.

A musketeer and grenadier from the “Tangiers Regiment”. Over many amalgamations over the years the regiment is now part of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, which the 31st Huntingdonshire Foot ended up as another component of.

These defences were an absolute necessity. Tangiers was regularly attacked on its landward side by Moroccan raiding parties; “about 5,000 horse, able, dexterous, sober, valiant, incomparably well armed and clothed”. Skirmishes, raids and counter raids were a frequent occurrence, with the Moroccan forces of the interior determined to stop the English in Tangiers expanding beyond the limits originally set upon the Portuguese.

Early in his tenure, the Earl of Peterborough negotiated a peace with the Moroccan leader Al-Ghailan. This peace was promptly broken by Peterborough who led his forces out in a disastrous sortie which saw them roundly beaten with severe casualties. As a result, Peterborough was recalled to England, amongst allegations of incompetence and corruption. He unfortunately took with him the only plan of wells and fresh water springs in Tangiers, which he then lost.

It is possible that all this explains the slow start on the work of making the harbour practicable. This was indispensable for the survival of the town, the harbour being the only way for supplies to be brought in. The natural harbour was not sufficient for larger ships and a decision was made to improve it. The initial plans for a “great mole” were drawn up by Jonas Moore, who had been integral in the drainage of the fens in Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire in the 1650’s. His plans drawn up by 1663 were then put in place by Hugh Cholmley; a Yorkshire engineer who was married at Hamerton in Huntingdonshire in 1655. He was fresh from building the pier at Whitby so had some relevant experience to be taking on this herculean task.

As the fledgling harbour grew, it was frequented by naval vessels patrolling the North African coast to suppress corsair activities. The Mediterranean naval officers, known as ‘tangerines’, were some of the best and most experienced in the navy; many would go on to become the admirals of the early 18th century. These ‘tangerines’ often rented or brought houses in Tangiers, competing with each other to host the most extravagant social gatherings, meeting to play bowls, and attending parties held by a succession of governors.

Map of Tangiers, note the size of the citadel (Marked B in the lower portion of the town), the outlying defences and the growing Harbour

The governorship of the colony of Tangiers, although a desirable appointment, seems to have been a poisoned chalice. Across just 22 years the port had twelve appointed or acting governors. The disgraced Earl of Peterborough’s successor was the Earl of Teviot, an experienced military leader, killed in action after just a year. His deputy governor took over, but was dismissed for duelling with his officers. The appointed replacement, Baron Belasyse, never took up office – as a practising Catholic he would not take the Oath of Conformity required of him.

In 1674, the Earl of Middleton, having been appointed and successfully made it to Tangiers, fell down stairs in the dark, and died of the injury. His replacement, the Earl of Inchiquin, was recalled after the outer defences fell to the besiegers. Luckily for him, he managed to placate Charles II by bringing him a pair of ostriches as a gift. The next governor, the Earl of Ossory, died of a fever before he even left for Tangiers. His replacement, the Earl of Plymouth, managed to make it to Tangiers with substantial military reinforcements in July 1680, before he died of dysentery after just three months. Similarly unlucky were the lieutenant-governors, with incumbents dying of disease, in accidents and in action. This lack of consistent leadership did not help with the colony’s development and by the 1680’s it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, in decline.

Tangiers: The Fall

Moroccan soldiers by Delacroix, 1832, the ambush tactics of these men using sharpshooters and lightening cavalry raids proved very troublesome for the garrison. Although this painting is from a century and a half later in appearance and tactics such soldiers had changed very little.

The decline of Tangiers was caused by more than just high turnover of governors and local hostility. The fledgling colony required significant investment and support if it was to survive, let alone flourish, and this money came directly from the monarch’s personal income. By 1680, with an annual bill of £70,000, Charles II was unable to fund the colony and approached Parliament for funding.

They did not see the need to fund the survival of the colony – in the words of one member; “I should be glad either that we never had it, or if it was by an earthquake blown up”. Parliament tried to use funding for Tangiers as leverage to extract from the king what they wanted most; namely the exclusion of his Catholic brother and heir, James, from the succession. Charles refused. The ‘Exclusion Crisis’ would dominate the relationship between crown and parliament during the final years of Charles’ reign as the deadlock stretched on.

Despite this, Tangiers clung on, insufficiently funded, with increasing numbers of Moroccan troops outside the walls, and decreasing morale inside the walls. Finally, in 1683, Charles came to a decision, first writing to Lord Dartmouth, and then to Samuel Pepys.

In August 1683, Pepys was in Huntingdonshire, sorting out the affects and affairs of his late father and his late brother-in-law. Here, he received the personal order from King Charles II to attend Lord Dartmouth in Plymouth aboard HMS Grafton. When Pepys arrived, the ship left for an unknown destination.

As per Charles’ orders, only once the ship had sailed did Admiral Lord Dartmouth open his secret instructions from the king. Dartmouth discovered he had been appointed commander-in-chief of Tangiers, with a remit to “demolish and utterly destroy the said city and mole erected in the port”. Pepys was to go along as an advisor to Lord Dartmouth and to assess the claims for compensation of the residents being evacuated.

At this point, the city was under a tight landward blockade, despite an official truce having been declared. Escalating skirmishes with the raiding parties outside the walls had become an all out state of siege, punctuated with brief truces. By the time Dartmouth arrived in 1683, the English had lost control of most of the thirteen forts outside the walls, as well as the quarries where stone for work on the harbour was being excavated. This effectively halted work on the “great mole” which had already consumed 170,000 tonnes of stone and cost over £340,000.

Portrait of Percy Kirke, the tower with the flag in the background is possibly “Peterborough Tower”, part of the citadel at Tangiers of which he was acting-governor.

The acting-governor, Colonel Kirke, very cheerfully passed over the command of the city to Dartmouth; by all accounts, it was not a happy place. By Kirke’s own judgement, barely ten of his thirty three gunners “knew the gun from the carriage” and the garrison were often drunk (“more men died of Brandy than by the moors”). Things were little better outside their ranks; the merchant community were in debt and people feared the city falling to the Moroccan forces outside it. Morale was low and so were morals, Pepys noting that there was “nothing but vice in the whole place”.

It is therefore quite understandable that when Dartmouth announced the plan to evacuate to a thronged town hall, bells were rung, bonfires lit and a letter sent to the king from the residents expressing “all the joy that our hearts are capable of”. Now the evacuation plans had to be put into action; no easy feat with thousands of hostile troops outside the walls, thousands of people within, and a lot of demolition work to be done.

The evacuation began with an inventorying of all assets which would be lost. The final tally of some £11,300 was divided between 180 land owners including military personnel, civilians and the King of Portugal. Vessels then began to leave for England in early October and continued until the final days of the town in early 1684. Around 4,000 military personnel and 1,000 civilians had to be removed from Tangiers, with many of the soldiers, gunners and labourers needed to aid with the destruction of the city until the very end.

The first attempts to dismantle the mole via controlled explosions were made in late October, but proved unsatisfactory, and instead the gunners set mines across the towns in key buildings and defensive works. Meanwhile, 2,000 soldiers, sailors and labourers set to work dismantling the mole, throwing the stones into the harbour to render it unusable, pulling down buildings and removing anything of value, including the marble floor in the church, which was taken to Portsmouth.

At 9am on February 6th 1684, mines began to be detonated across Tangiers, blowing up forts, civic buildings, store houses and parts of the citadel – Lord Dartmouth blew the final mine himself. Whatever was not blown up was set on fire. With Moroccan forces storming the ruined town, the fleet with remaining populace was ready to make sail, however their return to England was delayed for several days whilst Dartmouth negotiated for the return of Lieutenant Wilson, a Moroccan prisoner for four years. The “dejected” lieutenant safely aboard, the fleet sailed, closing the door on the twenty two years of British Tangiers.

So here ends the first British foray into establishing a serious trading colony, a port for gunboat diplomacy and control over the commercial seaways of the world. This would prove to be a blueprint for future colonies, defining the British Empire of the ensuing centuries, and integrally linked to this venture is Huntingdonshire; both at the hopeful beginning and the inevitable end.

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.


Charnock, J. “Biographia navalis; or, Impartial memoirs of the lives and characters of officers of the navy of Great Britain from the year 1660 to the Present Time: Volume 1”, R. Faulder, London, 1794, 1st Edition

Davies, J.D. “Pepys’ Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-89”, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2008, 1st Edition

Harris, F.R. “The Life of Edward Mountagu, K.G. First Earl of Sandwich (1625-1672) In Two Volumes: Vol II”, John Murray, London, 1912, 1st Edition

Glickman, G. “Empire, ‘Popery’ and the Fall of English Tangier 1662 – 1684”, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 87, No. 2 (June 2015), Pages 247-280

Majid, A. “A Brief History of British Tangier”, Tingis Magazine, 2014, Via: https://www.tingismagazine.com/editorials/a-brief-history-of-british-tangier/, Accessed On: 23rd April 2020

Rodger, N.A.B. “The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815”, Penguin Publishing, London, 2004, 1st Edition

Tinniswood, A. “Pirates of Barbary: Corsair, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean”, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010, 1st Edition

Wilson, B. “The Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy”, Phoenix Paperback, London, 2014, 2nd Edition

2 thoughts on ““The greatest thoroughfare of commerce in the world” Huntingdonshire and English Tangiers: 1662-1684”

  1. Enjoyed the story of Tangier, lots of information, read it in the email, wasn’t till I came to the webpage I noticed, see below
    My only comment, & not about the article, just it’s layout, a couple of pictures need moving or reformatting, as the words wrap around, the first picture & the portrait of Percy Kirkwood.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s