November 5, 1891
”The Slave in Algeria”
Among old Delaware planters still linger many traditions of the adventures of ship-masters and their crews who sailed out of Delaware Bay in the last century. What with the war, English pirates and Algerine corsairs, they earned their bread through great tribulation.
One of the best authenticated of these stories is that of Captain Penrose, commanding the barkentine President, who sailed from the port of Philadelphia for Venice in the spring of 1785.
American vessels were then required to show a pass before they could enter the Mediterranean. Captain Penrose, by the advice of O’Brien, his first officer, sailed without one, taking the risk of “dodging the Algerines.”
Penrose was a young man with a wife and boy four years old, whom he left on the farm with his old father and mother, promising to be back by October at farthest.
“We will go nutting together, Bob,” it was remembered, were his last words as he bade them good-by.
O’Brien was his cousin and unmarried. He went off, laughing and joking as usual, promising unlimited silk gowns and Turkish stuffs to the old lady, Mistress Penrose.
The farm was on the bay, and the next morning the old people, Mary, the Captain’s wife and little Bob, watched under the great walnut-trees until they saw the barkentine pass, all sails set, down to the sea.
Weeks passed and months, but there came no letter such as usually reached them by returning ships. October passed. The nuts were left ungathered, “waiting for John.” Still, even when winter brought no tidings they hoped, thinking that the ship had extended her course and gone to Alexandria.
But in the spring word came that the blackened hull of a vessel had been seen floating off the Algerine coast. The name remained distinct. It was the President.
Then they gave up all hope. Mary Penrose, a broken, sad woman, gathered some of the planters’ children together and taught a little school, to earn money enough to keep the wolf from the door. The old people grew more gray and frail each day, tottering about the farm-house. Bob, with every year, developed into a stout, healthy lad, who felt that he must supply all the cheerfulness and vigor for the family.
“Something tells me that father is still in this world,” he used to say, even after years had gone by.
<p>In the meantime Captain Penrose with his crew had been taken prisoners by Algerian corsairs and brought to land. Under presence that he had not obeyed the legal requirements he and his men were held as slaves, chained together in couples and kennelled like dogs in the stables of the Dey. A week after their capture they were brought before him and in order to make them duly humble in posture were driven into his presence through a hole, which they could only pass through by crawling on their knees.
He ordered them to be sold in the market-place. Captain Penrose was bought by a sailmaker, and worked for him, under the lash, for three years. The master was a vicious, ill-tempered man, but his wife sometimes showed kindness to the wretched slave.
O’Brien, his cousin, fared more hardly. He was sold to an officer of the Dey and placed in charge of his favorite dog, a huge mastiff, which he fed, washed and curried daily.
His master gave orders that the dog should not be allowed to bark. Whenever he did so O’Brien was scourged by the negro slaves.
On one occasion some members of the life-guard of the Dey visited the officer, and the dog annoyed them by barking. O’Brien was set the next day to carrying great stones down a steep hill and throwing them into the sea. His strength gave way under this labor, and hemorrhages of blood from his lungs followed. When he fell under the weight of the stones he was beaten until he rose and began work again.
Captain Penrose and his mate were not the only Americans who suffered in Algeria: Along the coast many wretched prisoners were held as slaves on the plea that they had entered the Mediterranean without passports, and Congress at last received an account of their condition and passed an act demanding an investigation into the matter. The result was the the Dey was forced to set them at liberty.
When the news that they were once more free men reached Captain Penrose and O’Brien they were reduced by starvation to the very verge of death. When the Captain was carried on board the ship, for he could not walk, his clothes were dropping from him in filthy rags.
Rest and wholesome food, however, and more than all, the consciousness that they were actually on their way home, did much to restore them.
They reached Philadelphia in October, and at once started for the farm. Bob, driving home the cows, was the first to see two haggard, feeble men in sailors’ clothes making their way across the field. He thought at once of his father, and imagined these were sailors coming to bring tidings to him. But when they entered the barnyard he ran to the house. His mother was making ready the supper.
“There are two men,” he gasped, “and they know the trick of the barnyard gate. It might be—“
But before he could finish the sentence his father was in the doorway.
Captain Penrose lived in Delaware for many years. After a few months’ rest he sailed for Marseilles in command of a ship. When Bob was eleven he made a voyage with his father and afterwards became a seaman.
A love of the sea was born in them both, and no hardships or danger could compel them to remain on hand.
REBECCA HARDING DAVIS
1. A sailing ship with at least three masts. ↩
2. Alexandria, major port in Egypt. ↩
3. Title of the rulers of Algeria and Tripoli under the Ottoman Empire, from circa 1670-1830. ↩
University of Connecticut