Samuel Pepys

All of Pepys' opinions and writings in this article come from The Tangier Papers of Samuel Pepys Edwin Chappell Navy Records Society 1935 [1]

In the 1660s 400,000 almanacs a year printed in London shows a high literacy rate and pamphleteers, well aware of the persuasive power of the written word, were heavily engaged in propaganda. Additionally every journalist or diary-writer had a point of view. Even Primary sources cannot be taken at face value.

One of the most commonly quoted sources of negative information regarding English Tangier is Samuel Pepys' report for on his visit with Lord Dartmouth in late 1683.

Sent at short notice by the King, many years after his enforced retirement from his post as Treasurer to Tangier, Pepys does a hatchet job on all the arguments in favour of the English occupation of Tangier.

He claims the city's location is unsuitable for its purpose because the harbour cannot protect ships form Atlantic gales or Mediterranean winds, and the climate is inhospitable; it is anyway indefensible because the surrounding hills give the high ground to a besieging enemy.

For good measure Pepys attacks the occupants as dissolute, drunken wasters and whores.

But before taking his report at face value we should look at the reasons for Dartmouth's journey to Tangier.

By the time of this voyage, in 1682, Charles had sold himself to his cousin Louis XIV for payments of gold, and to some extent curbed his own profligacy to remove the financial hold Parliament had over him. He had replaced all the judiciary and local administrators of England with Royalists and used his standing army to defeat his political opponents in the City of London. In these more mature years he had no need to call parliament, had not called it for two years and had no intention of ever calling it again. He had in fact established the autonomous rule his father had believed was his God given right.

Tangier had always been expensive to maintain. Corruption amongst the administrators in Whitehall, identified by many people including Pepys, who was not averse to making his own fortune from the same processes, and governors and officials in Tangier had diverted much of the finance to enriching individuals rather than developing commerce or improving the efficiency of the army. The concerted siege of 1680 had seen the garrison increase to three thousand and the city showed no signs of ever paying for itself in straight financial terms. If Charles wanted to ensure his financial independence Tangier, the greatest drain on his purse, had to go.

Pepys himself tells us Dartmouth sailed with secret instructions to evacuate Tangier. Furthermore there is evidence Dartmouth was well aware his instructions were to justify the evacuation and destruction of the city, and he was given Pepys to help him in the task and to calculate compensation for those with houses there.

So we may feel inclined to discount Pepys' account altogether, but other accounts support the points Pepys had made. The openness of the harbour was the problem the mole, a need forseen by the Earl of Sandwich at the outset, was built to solve, and had apparently done to a large extent since the more robust design was adopted. The worst experiences of the ships of Dartmouth's fleet were endured after the voluntary destruction of the mole had begun, and in the absence of the heavy sea anchors and chains shown in diagrams in the National Archives.

The most telling of Pepys' opinions are not in his conclusions and report but in his noted on Tangier.

Here Pepys writes, regarding the unsuitability of Tangier as a port for naval ships: ‘Strange that the badness of the Road of Tangier should never be insisted upon before and not in any report'[1].

The Log of HMS Grafton[2] records more than forty days in a hundred and forty when the weather was so bad he had to take precautions and could not send men ashore. This seems excessive, but ships journals are full of reports of adverse weather, which is why journey times were so unpredictable in the age of sail. Accounts of the construction of the mole are also littered with tales of storms that damaged the edifice. But the fact that during twenty years of occupation no ships captains reported Tangier as an unacceptable harbour, and an experienced sailor as the Earl of Sandwich deemed it worth the investment seems to indicate it was no worse than other places, and probably better than some.

With reference to the location of Tangier as ‘Overeseen quite round the town. So no counter-mole can secure anything', it was clearly not ideal from the point of view of defending against a landward siege, but that was known from the outset. Outlying forts built by successive governors were designed to overcome this problem by keeping the enemy at a distance. The fact that the garrison was too small to secure those forts was the result of improper diversion of even the inadequate funding that was provided.

The most damning of Pepys' comments are reserved for the governor, Percy Kirke. Many witnesses describe to Pepys the way Kirke enriches himself at the expense of the soldiers, the merchants and the King. Pepys also revels in descriptions of Kirke's own debauchery and encouragement of similar excesses in others - it should be noted that some of Pepys' own opinions were solicited from a whore!

Pepys must have been aware of the irony of stating that ‘the King was pleased (to make provision for Tangier) ... by his early and constant care in the choice and appointment of persons ... best qualified ... to the government of the place'.  

The dissolute unruliness could almost certainly be applied to any garrison town with a corrupt and debauched governor. It was certainly not so under Palmes Fairborne and a change of governor could have solved the issue quickly. It seems equally certain that the advantage gained by the sacrifice of many brave lives was squandered by Kirke in the following years.

Pepys' task was to exaggerate the disadvantages sufficiently to justify withdrawal from Tangier despite the huge investment already made in money and lives, and no doubt to provide reasons to abandon part of the dowry his Queen, Catherine, had brought to their marriage and which she loyally supported.

Dartmouth and Pepys did their job for the King, but we do not have to swallow the propaganda they produced.

Fact Check

[1] The Tangier Papers of Samuel Pepys Edwin Chappell Navy Records Society 1935

[2]  The Tangier Papers of Samuel Pepys, Edwin Chappell Navy Records Society 1935 Appendix 1 Extracts from the Captain's Log of HMS Grafton


Main Source:

The Tangier Papers of Samuel Pepys Edwin Chappell Navy Records Society 1935