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“Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead”
John Hay’s ringing phrase helped nominate T. R., but it covered an embarrassing secret that remained concealed for thirty years
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
“Situation serious” telegraphed Gummere to the State Department on May 19. “Request man-of-war to enforce demands.” No request could have been more relished by President Theodore Roosevelt. Not yet 46, bursting with vigor, he delighted to make the Navy the vehicle of his exuberant view of national policy. At the moment of Perdicaris’ kidnapping he faced, within the next month, a nominating convention that could give him what he most coveted: a chance to be elected President “in my own right.” Although there was no possibility of the convention’s nominating anyone else, Roosevelt knew it would be dominated by professional politicians and standpatters who were unanimous in their distaste for “that damned cowboy,” as their late revered leader, Mark Hanna, had called him. The prospect did not intimidate Roosevelt. “The President,” said his great friend, Ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand of France, “is in his best mood. He is always in his best mood.” The President promptly ordered to Morocco not one warship, but four, the entire South Atlantic Squadron—due shortly to coal at Tenerife in the Canaries, where it could receive its orders to proceed at once to Tangier. Roosevelt knew it to be under the command of a man exactly suited to the circumstances, Admiral French Ensor Chadwick, a decorated veteran of the Battle of Santiago and, like Roosevelt, an ardent disciple of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s strenuous theories of naval instrumentality.
Roosevelt’s second in foreign policy was that melancholy and cultivated gentleman and wit, John Hay, who had been Lincoln’s private secretary, wanted only to be a poet, and was, often to his own disgust, Secretary of State. On the day of the kidnapping he was absent, delivering a speech at the St. Louis Fair. His subordinates, however, recognized Gummere, who was senior diplomatic officer in Tangier in the absence of any American minister and had six years’ experience at that post, as a man to be listened to. The victim, Perdicaris, was also a man of some repute, whose name was known in the State Department through a public crusade he had waged back in 1886–87 against certain diplomatic abuses practiced in Tangier. His associate in that battle had been Gummere himself, then a junior member of the foreign service and Perdicaris’ friend and fellow-townsman from Trenton, New Jersey.
“Warships will be sent to Tangier as soon as possible,” the department wired Gummere. “May be three or four days before one arrives.” Ships in the plural was gratifying, but the promised delay was not. Gummere feared the chances of rescuing Perdicaris and Varley were slim. Nicolson gloomily concurred. They agreed that the only hope was to insist upon the Sultan’s government giving in to whatever demands Raisuli might make as his price for release of his prisoners. Most inconveniently the government was split, its foreign minister, Mohammed Torres, being resident at Tangier where the foreign legations were located, while the Sultan, grand vizicr, and court were at Fez, which was three days’ journey by camel or mule into the interior. Gummere and Nicolson told Mohammed Torres they expected immediate acquiescence to Raisuli’s demands, whatever these might prove to be, and dispatched their vice-consuls to Fez to impress the same view urgently upon the Sultan.
The French minister, St. René Taillandier, did likewise, but, since the Anglo-French entente was still too new to have erased old jealousies, he acted throughout the affair more or less independently. France had her own reasons for wishing to see Perdicaris and Varley safely restored as quickly as possible. Their abduction had put the foreign colony in an uproar that would soon become panic if they were not rescued. The approach of the American (fleet would seem to require equal action by France as the paramount power in the area, but France was anxious to avoid a display of force. She was “very nervous,” Admiral Chadwick wrote later, at the prospect of taking over “the most fanatic and troublesome eight or ten millions in the world”; she had hoped to begin her penetration as unobtrusively as possible without stirring up Moroccan feelings any further against her. Hurriedly, St. René Taillandier sent off two noble mediators to Raisuli; they were the young brother sherifs of the Wazan family, who occupied a sort of religious primacy among sherifs and whom France found it worthwhile to subsidize as her protégés.
While awaiting word from the mediators, Gummere and Nicolson anxiously conferred with an old Moroccan hand, Walter B. Harris, correspondent of the London Times, who had himself been kidnapped by Raisuli the year before. Raisuli had used that occasion to force the Bashaw, or local governor, of Tangier to call off a punitive expedition sent against him. This Bashaw, who played Sheriff of Nottingham to Raisuli’s Robin Hood, was Raisuli’s foster brother and chief hate; the two had carried on a feud ever since the Bashaw had tricked Raisuli into prison eight years before. The Bashaw sent troops to harass and tax Raisuli’s tribes and burn his villages; at intervals he dispatched emissaries instructed to lure his enemy to parley. Raisuli ambushed and slaughtered the troops and returned the emissaries—or parts of them. The head of one was delivered in a basket of melons. Another came back in one piece, soaked in oil and set on fire. The eyes of another had been burned out with hot copper coins.