Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Escapes of Captives—II

The Story of William Okeley

William okeley was taken in the Mary  in 1639. The Mary  with two other ships set sail for the West Indies, but on the sixth day out they were attacked by three Algerine vessels. All three English ships were taken, after a brisk action in which the Mary  lost six killed and three wounded. The crews were carried to Algiers and sold in the slave-market, William Okeley being bought by a Tagareen, that is, a descendant of a Moor from Spain. The Tagareen bade William Okeley find some business by which he could earn his living and pay his master two dollars per month. Okeley opened a wine-shop, and to this shop came several of his fellow-captives to see him when they had opportunity. Among the latter was John Rendall, who, with his wife and child, had been captured at the same time as Okeley.

In a short time it happened that Okeley and Rendall were accused of trying to escape. The charge was not true, but they were both punished, Rendall receiving three hundred strokes of the bastinado. Okeley now made up his mind to escape if possible. He and six other English captives resolved to build a boat. Secretly, and by night, the slaves collected odd pieces of wood and carried them to a cellar under Okeley's shop. Here, by dint of great care and labour, they built a small boat, which they covered with canvas and daubed with pitch and tallow to keep out the water. The oars they fashioned out of the staves of empty wine pipes. Next they got together what food they could find, and filled some goat-skins with water. With the utmost difficulty they managed to smuggle their crazy little skiff down to the shore, and here a great difficulty arose. She would only carry five out of the seven, and two had to turn sadly back to slavery. Okeley and the other four went aboard, and after a terrible voyage of five days they landed, all spent with, hunger, thirst, and the toil of rowing, on the island of Majorca. Thence they made their way safely to England, leaving their frail little boat hanging in a church as a witness of their marvellous voyage.

The Seizing of the Brigantine

Another famous escape was that of a whole band of slaves at once. A brigantine had been prepared for a cruise, and lay in the harbour with only part of her crew to guard her: the rest were to go on board the next day. A number of slaves got wind of this and passed the word among their fellows in that part of the city, and a plot was set on foot to seize the brigantine and attempt to escape. At dead of night the slaves, men of all nations, crept silently to the place of meeting. There were about seventy of them.

They did not dare to go straight down to the quay, for the watchmen would have discovered them and raised the alarm. So they crept, one by one, down through a sewer into the port. Here they were discovered by the dogs, which haunts such a place in large numbers feeding on the city refuse, and the dogs flew at them, barking and howling. But the slaves killed many of the dogs, beating them down with clubs and great stones, avid pushed forward, though the barking of the dogs had already aroused the port.

There was no time to be lost. The guards, both ashore and in the ships, were shouting, "Christians! Christians!" and a strong band of armed watchmen gathered and ran towards the noise. But the desperate slaves were not to be turned back. They dashed upon the brigantine and forty boarded her, and closed in fierce struggle with the guard. In a trice every man aboard had been hurled into the water and the brigantine was theirs.

But to row it through the crowded harbour was impossible, such was the tangle of cables by which numbers of ships were riding at anchor. So the slaves leaped back into the shallow water, put their shoulders under the little ship and literally hoisted it forward, wading with it till they were clear of the cables. Then all on board again, and out with the oars. How they rowed! Never had they toiled under the boatswain's whip as they pulled now for liberty. They won. They gained the open sea, and then pursuit was vain. No slaves could catch these who had been captives and now were free. They gained Majorca and landed in safety. It was a most daring and skilful piece of work, and astonished the Moors beyond measure. When the Dey heard of it, he cried out: "I believe those dogs of Christians will come one day or other and take us out of our houses!"

Another striking escape was that of a Portuguese slave who, while working in his master's garden on an estate outside the town, saw the boat of a British man-of-war lying off the shore. This was in 1669, when an English expedition sailed against Algiers. Fired with the hope of liberty, the slave made a dash for it, cut his way, pruning-knife in hand, through a crowd of enemies and swam out to the boat. One of the English sailors wrote a poem in rude verse describing the events of this expedition, and here are the lines dealing with the escape of the Portuguese:—

"Whilst we lay here, even at noonday,

A Portugall escapt away.

In Garden of his Pateroone (master)

He was a-working about noone;

Our boat he seeing near the shoar,

He straightway did his work give o'er,

And was resolved for to dye

Or game desired liberty.

Through press of Turkes and Moores he then

Did run with pruning-knife in hand,

Most like a valiant man and stout,

And every way did lay about.

By means whereof he free did make

His passage, and we in him take.

Some fifty years of age was he

When thus he gained his liberty,

And was eleven years a slave

Unto a Tagareene base knave."

The writer of this poem, John Balthorpe, had himself been a slave in the hands of the Corsairs, but had been ransomed by his friends, so that he could feel for the poor, brave Portuguese.