The Bombardment of Algiers, 27th August 1816 signed 'Tho. Whitcombe' and dated 1817 (lower left) oil on canvas 76.2 x 117cm (30 x 46in).
In June 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo, the various phases of the French Wars which had totally preoccupied Europe and the wider world for twenty-two years finally came to an end. Along with the benefits of peace came the opportunity for Great Britain to tackle a persistent menace which had bedevilled Christendom for centuries, namely the infamous Barbary Corsairs. Operating out of fortified citadels along the North African coast, their reign of terror, specifically the enslavement of Christian prisoners, had flourished unchecked whilst the European nations had fought each other but once Napoleonic France had been defeated, the British government was able to give its attention to the problem. Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, was ordered to take a squadron to stand off the city states of North Africa and demand that their activities as pirates should cease forthwith; Tunis and Tripoli acceded immediately but the powerful Dey of Algiers refused to countenance Pellew's demands in the belief that his heavily defended city was invulnerable to British threats. Lacking sufficient ships to enforce his demands, Pellew withdrew and returned to England to request permission to mount a full-scale assault. With the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool's enthusiastic support, Pellew assembled a battle fleet and, led by the 100-gun flagship Queen Charlotte, sailed from Plymouth on 28th June 1816.
Upon arriving at Gibraltar, Pellew was delighted to find a Dutch squadron of frigates under Vice-Admiral van de Cappellen anxious to join his expedition and the newly-combined Anglo-Dutch fleet comprising about thirty ships, amongst then bomb-vessels and rocket-boats, arrived off Algiers in a flat calm early on 27th August. Still hoping to avoid bloodshed, Pellew sent a party ashore under a flag of truce but the Dey refused to parley and, receiving no answer once his two-hour deadline had expired, Pellew took advantage of a rising breeze and led the fleet into the bay. H.M.S. Queen Charlotte anchored just after 2.30pm., closely followed by Implacable and Superb, and as each ship took up station, Pellew gave orders to open fire. The city's batteries mounted over 1,000 guns between them and, before long, the men on both sides were engulfed in dense clouds of acrid smoke which cloaked the hellish inferno of shattering cannon shot and exploding rockets. The furious bombardment continued for eight hours, at the end of which the port's fortifications lay in ruins with much of the city, including the arsenal and dockside warehouses, ablaze. At 10.00pm. Pellew ordered a cease-fire and the fleet stood out to sea to anchor for the night. Next morning, the Dey grudgingly capitulated to all Pellew's demands; over 1,200 Christian slaves were liberated and Algiers agreed to take no more Christian captives in the future. Despite heavy allied casualties, the operation was an unqualified success and Pellew returned home in triumph and was created Viscount Exmouth in recognition of his achievement.
This work is one of the splendid series of maritime illustrations commissioned for and then engraved and reproduced in J. Ralfe's sumptuous three-volume naval history published in 1820 and entitled 'The Naval Chronology of Great Britain.......from the Commencement of the War in 1803, to the end of the Year 1816.' Ralfe actively sought-out officers who had been present at actions described in his book in order that his text and illustrations should be as accurate as possible. It is probable that these descriptions were passed on to Whitcombe for this important contemporary depiction of what was arguably the most notable and successful naval bombardment in British history.