If you’ve ever had lunch in one of the excellent restaurants or the interesting street food stalls in Exmouth Market, you might wonder how the street got its name. After all, the Islington street is a lot nearer Sadler’s Wells Theatre than it is the little Devon seaside town of Exmouth. The answer involves a daring raid to rescue 3,000 people from slavery in 1816.
Viscount Exmouth was born as Edward Pellew in 1757 and he joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13. Due to his bravery fighting in the American War of Independence he was already a ship’s captain at the age of 19 before being captured at the Battle of Saratoga. After release from an American prison he re-joined the Navy, following a brief attempt at being a farmer. During the wars with France he captured enemy ships, rescued a ship from rocks by swimming over to it to carry a tow-rope, and when appointed commander of the Far East Fleet, captured a base belonging to the Danes, who had joined in the war against Britain. All this derring-do meant that he was awarded the title Baron, then Lord Exmouth.
Since the 16th century, the ports of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli on the coast of North Africa had become home to the feared Barbary pirates. The pirates raided shipping lanes in the Mediterranean, stealing the cargo of ships bound for Western Europe, and capturing the crews to work as slaves. Increasingly, the pirates started to raid the coastal towns of Europe, capturing whole villages and forcing them into slavery. This happened to towns in Ireland and even Cornwall. Samuel Pepys talks about the loss of the whole population of the Irish town of Baltimore after they were captured by pirates and taken to Algiers.
Sometimes the British would take action against the pirates, sometimes they would be ignored if the North African ports could be of use to British ships fighting the French and Spanish. However, when in 1807 the slave trade was abolished on British ships, the Royal Navy began to be used to put pressure on the Barbary pirates who traded in captured people. In 1816 Pellew was sent on one such mission. He negotiated a treaty with the dey of Algiers, ruler of the city, which meant that the Barbary ports were to end the taking of slaves, the treaty being sealed by Pellew being given an ostrich, and the dey a telescope. No sooner had Pellew returned home, the news arrived that the British consul in Algiers had been taken hostage, and hundreds of enslaved people had been executed. The press were angry at what was seen as British humiliation, and the prince regent ordered Pellet to return to Algiers.
Pellew’s fleet moved into position close to the defences of the city, then began a bombardment, to which the Algerians replied. Casualties on the British side were heavy, but by the end of the day the Barbary fleet had been destroyed and the dey’s defences flattened. The dey agreed to free all slaves in the city and the British hostages, and hand over a chest full of gold doubloons as compensation to the British.
On his return Pellet was treated as a hero, made Viscount Exmouth by the prince regent, given the freedom of many cities, awarded silver plates and trophies, and given honours from countries like Sardinia and Sicily which had been victims of the Barbary pirate raids. When he visited the theatre, the whole audience stood and sang “Rule Britannia”. And in 1816 a new street in Islington – Exmouth Street was named in his honour, which became a street market in the 1890s. You can see a statue of Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
The mission to free European slaves held by the Barbary pirates is in stark contrast to the active involvement of the British in the enslavement of African people which was going on just 20 years before the raid on Algiers. Nonetheless Viscount Exmouth is perhaps someone worth raising a glass to next time you are eating in Exmouth Market.