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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
Despite such grisly tactics, Harris reported to Gummere and Nicolson, his late captor was a stimulating conversationalist who discoursed on philosophy in the accents of the Moorish aristocracy and denied interest in ransom for its own sake. “Men think I care about money,” he had told Harris, “but, I tell you, it is only useful in politics.” He had freed Harris in return for the release of his own partisans from government prisons, but since then more of these had been captured. This time Raisuli’s demands would be larger and the Sultan less inclined to concede them. Sir Arthur recalled that on the last occasion Mohammed Torres had “behaved like an old brute” and shrugged off Harris’ fate as being in the hands of the Lord, when in fact, as Nicolson had pointed out to him, Harris was “in the hands of a devil.” Sir Arthur had suffered acutely. “I boil,” he confessed, “to have to humiliate myself and negotiate with these miserable brigands within three hours of Gibraltar.” Gummere thought sadly of his poor friend Perdicaris. “I cannot conceal from myself and the Department,” he wrote that night, “that only by extremely delicate negotiations can we hope to escape from the most terrible consequences.”
Back in America, the Perdicaris case provided a welcome sensation to compete in the headlines with the faraway fortunes of the Russo-Japanese War. A rich old gentleman held for ransom by a cruel but romantic brigand, the American Navy steaming to the rescue—here was personal drama more immediate than the complicated rattle of unpronounceable generals battling over unintelligible terrain. The President’s instant and energetic action on behalf of a single citizen fallen among thieves in a foreign land made Perdicaris a symbol of America’s new role on the world stage.
The man himself was oddly cast for the part. Digging up all available information, the press discovered that he was the son of Gregory Perdicaris, a native of Greece who had become a naturalized American, taught Greek at Harvard, married a lady of property from South Carolina, made a fortune in illuminating gas, settled in Trenton, New Jersey, and served for a time as United States consul in his native land. The son entered Harvard with the class of 1860 but left in his sophomore year to study abroad. For a young man who was 21 at the opening of the Civil War, his history during the next few years was strangely obscure, a fact which the press ascribed to a conflict between his father, a Union sympathizer, and his mother, an ardent Confederate. Subsequently the son lived peripatetically in England, Morocco, and Trenton as a dilettante of literature and the arts, producing magazine articles, a verse play, and a painting called Tent Life. He had built the now famous Villa Aidonia (otherwise Place of Nightingales) in 1877, and settled permanently in Tangier in 1884. There he lavishly entertained English and American friends among Oriental rugs, damasks, rare porcelains, and Moorish attendants in scarlet knee-pants and gold-embroidered jackets. He was known as a benefactor of the Moors and as a supporter of a private philanthropy that endowed Tangier with a modern sanitation system. He rode a splendid Arab steed—followed by his wife on a white mule—produced an occasional literary exercise or allegorical painting, and enjoyed an Edwardian gentleman’s life amid elegant bric-a-brac.
A new telegram from the State Department desired Gummere to urge “energetic” efforts by the authorities to rescue Perdicaris and punish his captor—“if practicable,” it added, with a bow to realities. Gummere replied that this was the difficulty: Raisuli, among his native crags, was immune from reprisal. The Sultan, who had a tatterdemalion army of some 2,000, had been trying vainly to capture him for years. Gummere became quite agitated. United action by the powers was necessary to prevent further abductions of Christians; Morocco was “fast drifting into a state of complete anarchy,” the Sultan and his advisers were weak or worse, governors were corrupt, and very soon “neither life nor property will be safe.”
On May 22 the younger Wazan returned with Raisuli’s terms. They demanded everything: prompt withdrawal of government troops from the Rif; dismissal ol the Bashaw of Tangier; arrest and imprisonment of certain officials who had harmed Raisuli in the past; release of Raisuli’s partisans from prison; payment of an indemnity of $70,000 to be imposed personally upon the Bashaw, whose property must be sold to raise the amount; appointment of Raisuli as governor of two districts around Tangier that should be relieved of taxes and ceded to him absolutely; and, finally, safe-conduct for all Raisuli’s tribesmen to come and go freely in the towns and markets.
Gummere was horrified; Mohammed Torres declared his government would never consent. Meanwhile European residents, increasingly agitated, were flocking in from outlying estates, voicing indignant protests, petitioning for a police force, guards, and gunboats. The local Moors, stimulated by Raisuli’s audacity, were showing an aggressive mood. Gummere, scanning the horizon for Admiral Chadwick’s smokestacks, hourly expected an outbreak. Situation “not reassuring,” he wired; progress of talks “most unsatisfactory”; warship “anxiously awaited. Can it be hastened?”