Blake in the Mediterranean, 1654-4

While Lord-Protector Cromwell and the Council of State debated whether to form an alliance with France or with Spain, General-at-Sea Robert Blake was sent into the Mediterranean to bolster Cromwell's negotiating strength with a demonstration of English naval power.

Naples, 1654

Blake sailed from Plymouth on 8 October 1654 with a fleet of twenty-four ships. His flagship was the George (60 guns) with John Stoakes as his flag captain. Richard Badiley was vice-admiral in the Andrew (54) and Joseph Jordan was rear-admiral in the Unicorn (54). When Blake set sail in 1654, the English government was leaning towards an alliance with Spain against France. Blake's first objective was to thwart the plans of Cardinal Mazarin to invade the Spanish-held province of Naples, where Mazarin hoped to provoke an insurrection against Spanish rule. The Duke of Guise was preparing a naval and military force at Toulon where he was expecting to be joined by Admiral Nieuchèse with the French fleet from Brest. On 4 November, however, Blake stationed his ships in the Strait of Gibraltar, thus separating the Brest and Toulon divisions — the first use of a strategy that came to be used frequently during subsequent British naval operations against France. Nieuchèse was reluctant to risk a confrontation so sailed only as far as Lisbon and made no attempt to pass through the Strait to join forces with the Duke of Guise.

Blake sailed into the Mediterranean on 21 November and proceeded to Malaga, Alicante and Cagliari. On 8 December, he sailed for Naples on hearing that the Duke of Guise was attempting to land his forces there. When he arrived three days later, however, the Duke had gone, having made two unsuccessful attempts to storm the city. Blake sailed to Leghorn in pursuit but learned that the French had retreated to Toulon and were unlikely to venture out while the English fleet was active.

Blake in the Mediterranean

Porto Farina, 1655

Having gained command of the western Mediterranean, Blake sent four ships to the Balearic Islands to harass French trade while he prepared to lead his main force against the corsair states of the Barbary Coast. Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers were nominally provinces of the Ottoman Empire but had gained limited autonomy from the Turkish sultan under their governors, the deys. From strongly-fortified cities on the north African coast, corsairs sailed out to raid Western shipping and territories for plunder and slaves. Blake's orders were to demand compensation for losses to English commerce and to secure the release of all British slaves.

After several delays caused by bad weather, Blake arrived off Tunis on 8 February 1655. The Dey of Tunis rejected Blake's demands on the grounds that an English captain had agreed to transport a company of Tunisian troops to Smyrna, then sold them to the Knights of Malta as galley slaves. The Dey was prepared to negotiate a treaty for the future but was unwilling to make any recompense for past actions. Blake sailed to Porto Ferina (Ghar-al-Milh), a few miles north of Tunis, where he blockaded nine warships in the harbour. With his fleet running short of supplies, Blake left six ships under Captain Stayner of the Plymouth to maintain the blockade while he returned with his main force to Cagliari to reprovision.

At Cagliari, Blake rendezvoused with the four ships that had been sent to the Balearics, where they had taken several French prizes. He also received letters from England informing him of the latest developments in Cromwell's foreign policy. Blake returned to Tunis on 18 March. The Dey remained intractable. He had ordered the removal of the rigging from the ships in Porto Farina harbour, strengthened the harbour fortifications and reinforced the garrison. Tunisian troops were ordered to fire upon English boats when they tried to take on water. In consultation with his captains, Blake resolved to respond to these provocations by attacking and burning the ships in the harbour.

Initially, Blake withdrew his fleet to Trapani in order to replenish water supplies and to make the Dey think that the English had retreated. He returned to Porto Farina on the afternoon of 3 April 1655. The attack began at dawn the following morning. The ships in the harbour were covered by a castle mounting twenty guns with other defensive works along the shore of the bay. The English fleet was divided into two squadrons: Captain Cobham of the Newcastle (40 guns) led the smaller fourth- and fifth-rate ships against the Tunisian ships; Vice-Admiral Badiley in the Andrew (54) led the heavier ships against the castle, followed by Stayner in the Plymouth (50), Blake in the George (60) and the rest of the second- and third rates. Blake's squadron anchored within musket-shot of the castle and opened fire with their broadsides. The English were helped by the on-shore wind, which blew dense clouds of smoke from the battle back onto the Tunisian defences. Boats were launched from Cobham's squadron under covering fire to board the Tunisian ships. At their approach, the Tunisian crews jumped overboard and swam ashore. One by one, the ships were boarded and set on fire. Within a few hours, all the ships were ablaze and the guns of the castle and shore batteries were silenced under the sustained bombardment. When the Tunisian vessels were clearly beyond saving, the English fleet warped out of the harbour with losses of around twenty-five men killed and eighty wounded. Nearly all the casualties were sustained among the boat crews by musket fire from the shore.

The action at Porto Farina is celebrated in naval history as the first successful attack by warships on shore-based fortifications. Lacking military support, however, Blake was still unable to force the Dey of Tunis to accept his demands. He was more successful at Algiers, where, having learned of the attack on Porto Ferina, the Dey of Algiers agreed to release all British slaves upon payment of their value. Sailors of the English fleet also subscribed to secure the release of forty Dutch slaves.

From Algiers, Blake sailed to Formentera in the Balearic Islands. In mid-May 1655, he received despatches from England secretly informing him that Cromwell intended to go to war against Spain rather than against France. After putting in at Cartagena to recover the guns left by Prince Rupert's squadron in 1650, Blake sailed out of the Mediterranean and took station off Cadiz. Although war had not been declared, the Western Design expedition was in progress. Blake's orders were to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet from the West Indies if Penn missed it, and to prevent any reinforcements sailing from Spain to the Caribbean. Blake's fleet remained off the coast of Spain throughout the summer of 1655 but the treasure fleet did not arrive. A Spanish fleet left Cadiz in August and took station off Cape St Vincent. As war had still not been declared, the Spaniards avoided action and Blake had no authority to attack a fleet not bound for the West Indies. By the end of the summer, the English fleet needed repairs and supplies. Blake himself was exhausted and ill. After obtaining permission to return home, Blake's fleet anchored in the Downs on 6 October 1655.


John Barratt, Cromwell's Wars at Sea (Barnsley 2006)

Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, England in the Mediterranean 1603-1713 vol.i (London 1904)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. iv (London 1903)

Lt. T.M. Napier, Robert Blake, in The Naval Review vol.xiii, no.3 (The Naval Society 1925)