- Historic Sites
OR A Dey in the Life of an American Sailor
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
At last Donaldson acknowledged he could go, if absolutely necessary, to $650,000, which would have to include all expenses and would be the ultimate limit. Cathcart answered that he could guarantee a treaty and ransom for fifty or sixty thousand dollars less than that figure. Proposal number four was then made up, at $585,000, signed and sealed for Cathcart to deliver to the dey next morning.
Cathcart cautioned Donaldson, however, to go through with elaborate preparations to leave Algiers, not so much because the dey might very well insist on his order being carried out, but so that “the Dey might hear by a circuitous route which would not create suspicion, that Mr. D was going to embark, & to do away with the idea that he possess’d unlimited powers, or had a Carte Blanche , as the French Consul had induced him to believe.”
At 7 A.M. on Saturday, September 5, Cathcart presented this last proposal to the dey. “I inform’d him,” Cathcart wrote in his journal, “that the American Ambassador was ready to embark, and would be at sea before twelve oclock; that he had surpass’d his limits in his last offer, but to avoid as much as was in his power the negotiation from being broken off, he had added to the whole extent of his [personal] fortune to the last proposals.”
The dey dismissed the additional funds as not worth noticing. Cathcart pressed him; the ambassador would be on board and beyond reach very shortly.
“I have abated two-thirds of my first demand,” protested the dey, “and if he cannot comply with my last proposals, he may embark when he pleases.”
Cathcart would not be put down. “I am come here to speak the truth,” he continued. “I have been well treated by the Dey for a number of years, and no selfish consideration shall prevent me from endeavouring to prevent him from being imposed on by the French Consul, or any of our enemies who under the cloak of friendship are equally his —America will never sue for peace again, but will arm in her own defense. But his Excellency has promised to let the captives be redeem’d, which I now implore from his clemency, we have been here more than ten years, Effendi, let us go! for Godsake!”
The dey seemed lost in thought. He took a pinch of snuff, then ordered Cathcart to read again to him, line by line, the last American proposals. Cathcart did so, observing as he read that the dey and his family were liberally provided for, that $585,000 was a sizable sum, $279,500 more than the Dutch had paid.
“Yes,” answered the dey, “you know how to calculate very well, you know how to gabbar [cheat, deceive, persuade], should I now reject your terms, and send your Ambassador away, your enemies would rejoice, and you would become the laughing stock of all … Algiers.”
Then came the clincher: “Go tell your Ambassador that I accept his terms.” He was doing this, the dey said, “more to pique the British who are your inveterate enemies, and are on very bad terms with me than in consideration of the sum which I esteem no more than a pinch of snuff.”
After kissing the dey’s hand and paying profuse compliments Cathcart hurried to tell the news to Donaldson, whose terse reaction was: “Aye! damn him! he has agreed at last, has he!”
At 11 A.M. the Americans called on the dey, and the treaty terms were confirmed by both parties. Cathcart hurried to the harbor and hoisted a large American flag, the traditional signal that a treaty had been concluded with the nation whose ensign was flown. So ended a forty-two-hour marathon, from Donaldson’s arrival on September 3 to the signing of the treaty on September 5. As Cathcart described the transaction in his journal: “Peace was established between the Regency of Algiers and the United States of America to the astonishment of every person in Algiers, friends, as well as foes, by a lame old man who understood no language but his own, without funds or credit, and surrounded with enemies.”
The American captives uttered hosannas, but their expectations of immediate redemption were premature. Although Donaldson believed the cash was ready and waiting in Lisbon, this was not the case. The fact was that American credit was not the best; Europe was embroiled in its own troubles, and money in any form was difficult to obtain and export. The captives became restive and at least once marched on Donaldson’s residence.