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Pirates at Penzance The people of Penzance in Cornwall did not think an Algerian corsair much better than a French warship. 1760 King George II 1727-1760 Music: Jean-Baptiste Lully

© Mari Buckley, Geograph. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0. Source

About this picture …

Mount’s Bay near Penzance in Cornwall, where an Algerian pirate-captain and his crew stood shivering early one September morning in 1760, thinking it was the Spanish coast. As it happens, this picture was taken at 5am on a September morning too, in 2006.

Pirates at Penzance
It may seem quaint that Cornish villagers ran home to lock up their daughters when they heard of shipwrecked sailors on the beach. But this was 1760, when everyone was braced for a French invasion in the Seven Years’ War, and when Algiers was the centre of a miserable human-trafficking industry which specialised in ‘goods’ from Christian Europe.

IN the small hours of 30th September, 1760, Penzance was woken by the firing of guns, and news spread that a large and unusual ship had run aground near Newlyn. A crowd gathered in the grey dawn, fearing to see a French fleet massing in the Channel.

What they saw on the beach was a band of fearsome-looking men in baggy trousers, each with a red fez on his head, a brace of pistols in his belt, and a cruelly-curved sword at his side. The townsfolk took one look and changed their cry: the Turks were come to make slaves of them, and take their daughters for a sultan’s harem.

The army was called out, and magistrates were woken up. Fortunately, the men proved to be the crew of only a single Algerian pirate-ship, which had missed its way when bound for Cadiz. Curious but still distrustful, the townsfolk were glad to see their exotic guests loaded aboard a man-of-war, and returned to Algiers.*

For more about the human-trafficking industry in the 16th-18th centuries, see The Bombardment of Algiers


England’s south coast was on high alert in 1760 against a French invasion and Algerian people-traffickers. So when news came of a shipwrecked vessel at Penzance, finding Algerian pirates was not much better than finding French soldiers. However, the ship was alone, and had simply run far off course, and the crew was packed off back to Algiers. (57 / 60 words)


Based on Cornish Characters by Sabine Baring-Gould.

Suggested Music

Marche pour la cérémonie des Turcs

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

Performed by the French orchestra ‘Les Siècles’ under François-Xavier Roth.

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