When, after twenty-two years of almost continuous global conflict, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars finally ended in 1815, Great Britain found herself at last able to give her attention to a problem which had plagued the Christian maritime nations for centuries, namely the so-called Barbary Corsairs. Based in several citadels along the North African seaboard, the reign of terror - through piracy and the enslavement of prisoners - that these corsairs had inflicted upon all those seafaring countries trading in the Mediterranean had reached a level which could no longer be tolerated by the European nations. Accordingly, Lord Liverpool's government sent orders to Admiral Lord Exmouth, Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, to take a squadron to stand off the city states concerned and demand that their activities as pirates should cease forthwith. Proceeding first to Tunis and Tripoli, both of which immediately acceded to his demands, Exmouth then sailed on to Algiers only to find that the Dey was not only totally unreceptive but supremely confident that the apparently impregnable fortifications of the city would protect him from any British interference. Without the fire-power to enforce his demands, Exmouth had no alternative but to withdraw and make for England where he requested permission for a full-scale assault by a powerful naval force. Unusually, Exmouth was given carte blanche to select what ships he needed and the fleet he assembled, led by the 100-gun flagship Queen Charlotte, sailed from Plymouth Sound on 28 June 1816.
When he arrived at Gibraltar, Exmouth was met by a Dutch squadron of frigates under Vice-Admiral Van de Cappellen, and the combined Anglo-Dutch fleet hove-to off Algiers early on 27 August. For most of the morning there was a dead calm and Exmouth used this interval to send a party ashore, under a flag of truce, to demand the release of the British Consul, the permanent abolition of Christian slavery and the freeing of all European captives. Receiving no answer after the expiry of his two-hour deadline, Exmouth took advantage of the rising breeze and ordered the fleet into the bay. H.M.S. Queen Charlotte led the column and anchored just after 2.30pm; Implacable and Superb followed and, as each ship took up her station, Exmouth gave the order to open fire. Opposing him, the various batteries protecting the citadel were formidable and, it was later calculated, mounted over 1,000 guns. Thus, when the firing commenced from both sides, men everywhere were soon engulfed in clouds of dense acrid smoke which hid the hellish inferno of shattering cannon shot and exploding rockets. The furious bombardment lasted for eight hours during which time several of the larger ships suffered damage. By comparison however, by 10.00pm the city's fortifications lay in ruins and much of the city itself was ablaze. Seeing no more to be done that night, Exmouth ordered Queen Charlotte to cut her cables and stand out to sea, followed by the rest of the fleet.
On the next day, 28 August, Captain Brisbane, Exmouth's flag captain, met the Dey who conceded all of Exmouth's demands. Over 1,200 Christian slaves were released from their captivity, monetary compensation was paid to the British Consul and others, and Algiers agreed to take no more Christian prisoners in the future. Despite the significant casualties in both the English and Dutch squadrons, the operation was a singular success and Lord Exmouth returned to England in triumph.
This dynamic painting of the heart of the action was commissioned from Schetky by Admiral Charles Yorke, 4th Earl of Hardwicke in 1841 in memory of his service as a young midshipman on board Exmouth’s flag ship H.M.S. Queen Charlotte during the bombardment in 1816. The painting passed through the Yorke family until it came into the hands of Yorke’s grandson Sir Victor Mallet in the early 20th century. By remarkable coincidence Mallet’s paternal grandmother, Frances Mallet née Pellew (d. 1917), was the granddaughter of Lord Exmouth, thereby creating an interesting dual connection with the bombardment that ultimately made the names of both his forebears.