Regency Bicentennial:   Robert Adams — Found, then Lost

Two hundred years ago this month, an American man, who had been found that fall begging in the streets of London, boarded a ship bound for America, and promptly disappeared from history. Yet, he left behind him a most remarkable story of adventure, danger, courage and endurance, not to mention dashing the wild dreams of great riches for thousands of people. His tale also sparked a controversy that simmers to this day.

Before a man named Robert Adams slipped from Britain and the history books . . .

On 17 June 1810, the merchant ship Charles sailed out of New York harbor, bound for Gibraltar, with a crew of ten. One of the illiterate sailors who was serving on board was Benjamin Rose, the son of a white sail-maker and a mulatto mother. This same sailor is also known to have used the name Robert Adams, as well. Using multiple names was a common practice among sailors who might be evading debts, a demanding lover, an inconvenient family, or a criminal life. The voyage to Spain was uneventful, and at Gibraltar, Captain John Hooker took on additional cargo of wine and blue nankeens. The Charles then sailed on, heading for the Isle of May, where Captain Hooker intended to top off his cargo hold with a load of salt. But the sea had other plans for the Charles and her crew.

In early October of that same year, the Charles foundered on a reef off the northwestern coast of Africa, while trying to sail through a thick fog. All ten crew members were able to swim ashore, although, in the aftermath, it is not certain if all of them considered that a blessing. The following morning, while the weary crew were resting on the beach and trying to determine their location, they were attacked, robbed, stripped of their clothes and taken prisoner by a group of thirty or forty Moors. Within a few days, their Moorish captors sold off all of the crew members as slaves to various buyers. Robert Adams was sold to several slave traders in turn over the course of the next few months. Adams was aware that Christian slaves were often redeemed in the city of Mogador, in Morocco. He was eventually able to convince one of the traders to take him to that city. His owner agreed, but only on condition that Adams first find another slave to replace himself in the slave trader’s inventory. Unfortunately for Adams, shortly thereafter, the slave trader who owned him was captured, along with all his slaves, including Adams, by another group of Arab marauders.

Adams’ new captors took him and the others on a long trek south across the Sahara, deep into the interior of Africa. Eventually, they were taken to a city which they were told was Timbuktu. Adams and several other captives remained in the city for at least another six months. After many months, Adams was traded yet again, to a master who took him north, while requiring him to care for his flocks. Sometime later, Adams was sold to another master, who had two wives. The new owner made a gift of Adams to his younger wife, where it was his responsibility to care for her goats. Adams soon began a dalliance with his master’s younger wife, and when it was discovered, he was sold again, to yet another master. This new master took Adams even farther north, and along the way he met some of his former crew mates from the Charles in one of the villages there. By then, some of them had renounced their Christian faith in exchange for their freedom, while others were still slaves.

The British Consul to Morocco, Joseph Dupuis, did his best to ransom Christian slaves from the Arabs, whenever and wherever he could. Having disguised himself as a trader, Dupuis happened upon Adams and his party in the desert. After some negotiation, Dupuis was able to purchase Adams from his master. Adams was finally freed from captivity, after spending more than three years in northern Africa as a slave. Dupuis took him north, eventually to Mogador, where he spent several months recovering his health and strength. He then traveled to Tangier, to meet with the American Consul-General, James Simpson. Sometime after that, Simpson arranged for Adams to get a ship to the Spanish port of Cadiz, where he hoped to catch a ship bound for the United States. However, he arrived there two days after the US-bound ship had sailed. After spending some time in Cadiz, Adams made his way to Gibraltar, from where he was eventually able to get a ship sailing to the Isle of Anglesey, off the coast of Wales.

Once in Britain, Robert Adams was eventually able to travel to London, where he probably arrived in the fall of 1815. He had very little ready money, and soon, he was forced to beg on the streets just to survive. Fortunately for Adams, in November, a traveler who had met him in Cadiz recognized him in London and alerted Simon Cock, Secretary to the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa. In Cadiz, Adams had told his extraordinary tale to a number of people, including the traveler who alerted Cock. Aware that Adams said he had spent time in the legendary city of Timbuktu, Cock knew Adams’ tale would be of great interest to his employers. Cock sought out the American sailor and brought him to the Company’s offices. In return for food, clothing, shelter, significant financial consideration and assistance to travel safely home to New York, without fear of impressment, Adams agreed to tell the story of his experiences as a Barbary Coast captive and his time in the great desert city of Timbuktu.

Adams spent several days at the offices of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, where he answered a barrage of questions put to him by a large number of senior members of the Company. Simon Cock made copious notes during all these sessions, with an eye to publication of the tale. However, the Company officials were very disappointed by Adams’ account of his observations as the first Christian man for many generations to have spent time in Timbuktu. Since no Europeans had been able to travel to Timbuktu for centuries, legends had grown up about it as the incredibly wealthy, golden city at the major cross-roads of the Sahara. When Adams told his interrogators that when he had lived in Timbuktu it had been a small, drab, dusty desert town showing no signs of great wealth, they were extremely disappointed. Some of them even refused to believe him and were convinced he had not actually been to the great desert capital at all.

Word about the former Barbary Coast captive began to circulate in the higher circles of London. A number of government officials in Westminster asked Simon Cock to bring Robert Adams to their offices, where they also asked him a great many questions. Cock was even asked to bring Adams to the West End homes of a few powerful and influential members of the gentry and aristocracy, who were very interested in learning more about what the American sailor had seen during his travels as a captive in northern Africa. One of those with whom Adams met was Sir Joseph Banks, who was then President of the Royal Society. Banks was also a founding member of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, often called the African Association. Like some of the members of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, Banks also doubted the information Adams provided about Timbuktu, though he did believe most of the American sailor’s tale of his years of captivity.

After this whirlwind round of interviews, Simon Cock began compiling all the notes he had gathered in an account of Robert Adams’ captivity in Africa. Because Adams was illiterate, Cock did all of the writing and editing, though Adams was expected to make himself available when needed for verification of the facts. The account was intended for publication, and Adams was promised a large percentage of the profit on what was expected to be a best-seller, so long as he remained in London and assisted Cock with the manuscript. It may be that this intense and ongoing focus on what was almost certainly the worst time of his life wore on Robert Adams. It may have also caused him to long for the security of his home. Whatever his reasons, Adams did not remain in London long enough for the account of his ordeal to be published so that he could reap his promised monetary reward. Early in December of 1815, unbeknownst to Simon Cock and the majority of his interrogators, Adams quietly took a ship bound for New York and sailed away from Britain forever. However, there is no record of anyone named Robert Adams, or Benjamin Rose, his other known alias, arriving in New York from Britain at the end of 1815. It may well be that Robert/Benjamin wanted to go home, forget about his ordeal and escape the public notoriety. More than likely, he took on a new alias when he landed in New York and lived out his life in peaceful anonymity. One wonders if he ever worked again as a sailor, or if he preferred to live out his life on land. What is certain is that Robert Adams, the Barbary Coast captive, was never heard from again, after he boarded that US-bound ship in Britain, in December 1815.

Despite Adams departure the previous December, in early 1816, Simon Cock completed his manuscript of Adams’ African adventures. Soon thereafter, the prestigious firm of John Murray agreed to publish it. Joseph Dupuis, who had ransomed Adams and spent time with him in Morocco, reviewed the manuscript and vouched for the veracity of those portions of the story with which he was familiar. The Narrative of Robert Adams: an American sailor who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and resided several months in the City of Tombuctoo was first published in London, in February of 1816. In the end, Adams did not loose much financially by his early departure to America. The book did not sell as well as Cock and Murray had hoped. Worse, the portion about Timbuktu was generally dismissed as fiction, if not an outright falsehood. There were very few in Britain, or even on the Continent, who were willing to relinquish their visions of the grand and golden desert city. And, since the first publication of Robert Adams’ tale, explorers, merchants and scholars have wrangled over how accurate the tale, what it reveals about North Africa in the early nineteenth century, and how it affected those who read it.

Though Robert Adams was invited to the offices of many government officials and the homes of several powerful society gentlemen, it was always simply to meet with them and answer their questions. There is no evidence that this illiterate, mixed race American sailor was ever invited to any upper-class social event during the time he spent in London. In fact, it is unlikely that anyone except Simon Cock and his many interrogators were even aware of his existence. By the time that the story of his African ordeal was published, he was back in America, living under yet another assumed name. Though The Narrative . . . was published in Boston in 1817, if he was aware of its publication, he never came forward as the subject of the story. [Author’s Note:   A copy of the Boston edition is available in digital format at the Internet Archive.]

Robert Adams’ experiences offer a wide array of options for Regency Authors. For those who want detailed descriptions of the life of a Barbary Coast captive, The Narrative of Robert Adams will provide a most hair-raising portrayal, from a man who lived through it. Mayhap the hero of a Regency romance is a figure like Joseph Dupuis, who does what he can to ransom, or "redeem" Barbary Coast captives? Then again, in London, in the autumn of 1815, the villain is trying to get the heroine of a Regency romance, a wealthy heiress, to invest in an expedition to the golden city of Timbuktu, intending to fleece her. However, the hero is one of those who has had the opportunity to interview Robert Adams and believes the former captive’s description of a much less opulent Timbuktu. Will he simply tell the heroine the truth? Or, though it would not be considered at all seemly, will she demand to meet with Adams herself, to make up her own mind about his story? Dear Regency Authors, how else might you embellish an upcoming story with tidbits from Robert Adams’ tale?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Robert Adams — Found, then Lost

  1. Goodness. While I’m reading all of this, I keep thinking what a movie it would make.

    If the heroine is a strong character — I’m thinking feisty, smart but intelligent enough to avoid unnecessary scandal — she would insist on meeting with Adams herself, despite the protests of her love interest and close companion/maid. Just my opinion.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      An interesting idea. I think it might make a good movie, so long as the film-makers are able to communicate to the audience the mores of the time. Otherwise, I suspect few people today would realize that a properly-brought-up young lady would not usually hold a meeting with what would have been considered a low-class, foreign sailor, regardless of his extraordinary experiences.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. helenajust says:

    Fascinating — thanks! Funny how people didn’t want to know the truth about Timbuktu, when it spoilt the fantasies which had grown up about it.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      That part of the story surprised me, too. But it just goes to show that visions of great riches can have a powerful hold on the mind. In fact, quite a lot of people held on to the view of the golden city of Timbuktu for another dozen years. It was not until 1828 that a French explorer, disguised as an Egyptian trader, finally made it to Timbuktu. He survived to return to Europe and tell the tale only because none of his traveling companions realized he was a Christian. If they had known the truth, he would have been killed. Sadly, his report of the city was very close to that of Robert Adams. Just imagine all those dashed hopes when his story was published!

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. what a story, truth stranger than fiction!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Really!!! But I also think stories like this make it clear that people thought differently then about a lot of things than we do today. So we cannot assume that our ancestors attitudes are the same as ours.

      =^..^=

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