- Historic Sites
OR A Dey in the Life of an American Sailor
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Cathcart protested: “If your Excellency had told the French consul that he was a liar and an ignorant fellow, he would have richly deserved it, for the President of the United States has not the power that he has inform’d you our Ambassador has … if the Ambassador has offer’d all he is authorized to give, & it is not accepted, he has no alternative but to wait for fresh instructions which he will not receive in less than a year.”
An argument ensued in which Cathcart and the dey debated the Frenchman’s motives for his duplicity. Then the dey said: “Read your proposal again.”
“One hundred thousand dollars for me, and fifty thousand for my family,” the dey mused. “Sequins I suppose you mean?” he asked, referring to the Italian gold coins.
“No Sir,” said Cathcart, “dollars.”
“Go out of my sight immediately thou dog without a soul,” the dey concluded in a passion, “and never presume to bring such trifling terms into me again, under pain of my displeasure.”
Cathcart reported the conversation to Donaldson. Donaldson announced the business was at an end, that he had gone as far as he had been authorized. Skjoldebrand advised him to offer some little thing more, even a trifle. The dey was capricious, he explained, the dey was emotional; and should he be offended, there would not be so propitious an opportunity to establish peace again. The Swede did not believe the negotiations ought to be broken off for a few thousand dollars.
Donaldson insisted he could not give a dollar more, whatever the consequences.
“Then,” Cathcart said, ”… the sooner you pack up your clothes the better, for I do assure you peace is not obtainable on your terms although it probably may be for forty or fifty thousand dollars more.”
That afternoon the dey summoned Cathcart, again scolded him for having brought such insulting terms to His Highness, and accused him and the American ambassador of conspiring to humiliate him. Cathcart explained that the dey had put his humble servant in a very delicate and disagreeable situation. The dey accused him of taking Donaldson’s side, while Donaldson accused him of taking the dey’s side. The fact was, Cathcart said, that he was on neither side but wanted only to help find some basis on which a peace treaty for his country might be framed.
Once again Cathcart admonished the dey for his unreasonable proposal to the Americans and his mistaken ideas about the ambassador’s powers. Donaldson, Cathcart reiterated, had offered at once all he had authority to offer; he was not a huckster, he could not bargain away the public treasury as if he were buying a basket of fruit in the marketplace. He might, Cathcart hinted, be good for forty or fifty thousand dollars of his own money—he just might.
The dey answered by lowering his price to $982,000.
Cathcart delivered this to Donaldson, who promptly rejected it. Again Skjoldebrand and Captain O’Brien argued that he ought to add something to his first proposal. Donaldson refused and told Cathcart to inform the dey he would not give a dollar more.
Cathcart answered that the result of such a message would be the dey’s flying into a rage, chasing Donaldson out of the country, and ordering the bastinado for Cathcart. Donaldson’s reply was that if he were ordered out of the country, he had no recourse but to go; as for a beating for Cathcart, the captive would have the consolation of having received it in the service of his country.
Cathcart took Donaldson’s answer to the dey, who “seem’d exasperated to a high degree, & threatened to give me five hundred bastinadoes, if ever I came to speak to him on the subject again.” He told Cathcart to see that Donaldson was on board the vessel he came in by daylight the next morning. His Excellency would permit no one to trifle with him as the insolent American ambassador had done.
Cathcart returned, dejected, to Donaldson and transmitted the dey’s orders. Once again the Swedish consul, who knew the final steps of the formal diplomatic dance were not yet completed, tried to persuade Donaldson to offer something more. The United States, Skjoldebrand argued, would soon be reimbursed for the amount of the peace by the rich trade of the Mediterranean. However, he added, should the Portuguese-Algerine truce be extended beyond its one-year term, many more American vessels would surely be captured, and these crews would one day have to be ransomed, undoubtedly at an exorbitant price. On the other hand, for just a few paltry thousand dollars more now there could be a treaty; denying those few thousands could conceivably cost many times that amount.