Friday, 11 October 2013

Tangier: a forgotten episode of the British Empire

As an ex-world power, Britain sometimes seems to be wishing it had its empire back. When cuts in the defence budget were introduced in 2012 even the BBC seemed to be lamenting the fact that the army is now smaller than it was in 1900, and that Britain could now no longer fight more than one war at the same time. While few people today still believe in white superiority or Britain's duty to "civilise", many myths surrounding the British Empire remain intact. Linda Colley's 2002 book Captives challenges the conventional narrative by focusing on a largely neglected aspect of the Empire: British slaves.

Events such as the recent stand-off with Spain over Gibraltar illustrate the impact that the British Empire still exerts over the world map today. But as Colley points out, Gibraltar was only acquired after a disastrous and perhaps deliberately forgotten chapter of the British Empire. After the English civil war and Oliver Cromwell's republic, King Charles II took the throne and married Catherine of Braganza, whose dowry included the city of Tangier. Located on what is today the Moroccan coast, Tangier seemed an ideal strategic outpost with its position at the gateway to the Mediterranean.

Colley argues that the British Empire at this stage was far more fragile than is often thought. As from 1662 the English monarchy poured resources into the Tangier project, an average of £75 000 per year - more than was spent on all home garrisons put together. In theory, Tangier was to be defended by 4000 soldiers, but in practice there were often no more than 1500. But this is perhaps not surprising given that the population of England at the time was approximately 3 million. The empire was overstretched in terms of both finance and manpower.

Nor was the force in Tangier homogenous or unified. The soldiers were a mix of English, Scots, Welsh and Irishmen although this was before the Act of Union in 1707. Despite the threat of harsh punishment, defection was common. Many soldiers had fought on Cromwell's side in the civil war and felt no loyalty towards the king. Compared to Cromwell's New Model Army, pay was low and irregular. On one occasion, Irish soldiers were defending Tangier against English defectors, and communicated in Gaelic so as not to be understood. 

At this time piracy in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic was rife. The so-called Barbary Pirates, who operated from ports on the North African coast, captured hundreds of ships and took those on board as slaves. Colley estimates that at least 20 000 English men and women were enslaved in this period. In addition to this, one of the punishments for defection from the English army was slavery. Despite the grand words of Rule Britannia, the English were enslaving their own kind.

But the greatest threat to Tangier was in fact the sea. Hugely expensive efforts to build a harbour wall to protect the port were thwarted time and again by the strong Atlantic currents and waves. In 1684, the Tangier project was finally abandoned and the port was demolished. The story of Tangier is an embarrassing defeat for the British Empire and has therefore been quietly forgotten. By reviving it, Linda Colley shows the British Empire in a different light.


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