We are very used to hearing about the Cornish taking advantage of bounty brought to its shores by the ferocious sea. Tales of crowds of the opportunistic, greedy, and probably at times desperate, inhabitants swarming over a beached vessel and plundering all they can. Stripping a ship, and sometimes its crew bare, before the arrival of the authorities. There is doubtless plenty of truth in these sometimes unpalatable stories.
The Cavalla Bianca
On the morning of the 29th September 1760 a crowd of people from Penzance rushed towards a ship wrecked on a nearby beach. But this time they got a good deal more than the spoils they had anticipated.
Cavalla Bianca roughly translates from Italian as ‘White Mare’. The ship, according to some reports, had been wrecked on Chimney Rocks, on the western edge of the Battery Rocks (near Jubilee Pool today).
It was an Ottoman ship, known as a xebec or xebecca. These three sailed ships were used mostly in the Mediterranean for trade. But were also popular with the Algerian corsairs (Barbary Pirates) who raided vulnerable shipping throughout the region.
It was this strange vessel and its still stranger crew that confronted the crowd that had rushed to the scene. Bristling with 24 guns and the intimidating, alien-looking sailors, according to the writer Baring-Gould, the people ‘scuttled off as hard as their legs would take them’.
A Strange Sight
Davies Gilbert, a gentleman and local historian, gave an similar account of the events that day:
“In the night the town was roused by the firing of guns and soon after by the intelligence of a large ship of a strange appearance having run on sure on the beach towards Newlyn. Great numbers of people crowded to the spot, where they were still more astonished and shocked by the sight of men still stranger than their vessel.”
As th crowd beat a hasty retreat, the newly formed Penzance Volunteers had an opportunity to show their mettle.
The Independent Company of Volunteers had been raised by George Borlase from local tradesmen in 1745. The company under his command consisted of two lieutenants, two ensigns and 115 privates and non-commissioned officers. This rag-tag force was actually incredibly well armed. Their muskets and other weapons had been conveniently seized from a recent wreck, a privateer called the Charming Molly.
The Sherborne Mercury reported in 1746:
‘They are a company of stout men . . . The fine appearance which they make, and the dexterity with which they perform the exercise, have been justly admired by all of you have seen them. They show great ardour and cheerfulness on every occasion that requires them, and are determined to venture their lives in defence of their King and Country.’
The volunteers hurried to the wreck ‘to roll of drum’ and with very little effort or resistance conveyed the 172 crew to Western Green (near Penlee Bowling Club today I believe) and a building there known as Folly House.
The crew of the Cavalla Bianca became objects of great excitement and interest. Especially their unusual appearance. At the time of their ‘rescue’ each was armed with a curved simitar and a pistol. Baring-Gould reported that they were swarthy looking and wearing turbans.
Davies Gilbert described them this:
The Asiatic dress, long beards and moustachios, with turbans, the absence of all covering from their legs and feet, the dark complexion and the harsh features of a piratical band made them objects of terror and of surprise.
The crew, despite their so called ferocious appearance seem to have been as confused as the inhabitants. It transpired that a few of them spoke a little French and their story soon unfolded.
The captain had steered his vessel into Mount’s Bay, and run it against the shore, under the a full conviction that he was safe in the Atlantic ocean, at about the latitude of Cadiz. Thus committing an error of thirteen degrees in latitude.
It became clear that the sailors had ended by beached at Penzance by accident, not design. There was no planned raid and they meant no harm to the inhabitants. However, it was established that they were from Algeria. And this presented it’s own problems. A new fear seized the town. The plague.
Europe had been free of the plague since about 1722 but North Africa certainly was not.
‘The volunteers kept watch and ward to prevent all intercourse. Intelligence was conveyed to the government and orders were said to have been issued for troops to march from Plymouth and for surrounding the whole district.’
Fortunately the foreign crew were quickly given a clean bill of health and feeling safe now to come and gawp the locals flocked to see these strange visitors at Folly House in Penzance.
The photo above was taken of Folly House in about 1930. At the time this building was described as the oldest in Penzance. It was thought to have survived the Spanish attack of 1595. Very sadly it was demolished some time in the early 1950s.
Housed at Folly House the sailors were said to have been looked after and general kindly treated. They stayed in Penzance for several days, it’s unclear exactly how long. Eventually a ship was able to return them to Algiers. So ended this interesting episode in Penzance’s history.