- Historic Sites
OR A Dey in the Life of an American Sailor
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
The dey’s impatience increased daily when the money was not forthcoming. Again he thought he had been trifled with; he threatened to send out his pirates against American ships again. “As he consider’d that I was the chief promoter of the peace with the United States,” Carthcart wrote, “not a day passed that I was not threaten’d, & reviled, & sometimes scandalously abused, for as Donaldson had never been at the Palace since the presents were deliver’d, I was regaled with the part of the abuse which would have fallen to his lot, had he made his appearance.”
In April, 1796, the dey ordered the American consuls—Donaldson had been joined by Joel Barlow—to be out of Algiers within eight days; then he was mollified by the promise of an extra frigate thrown in when the Americans finally paid up.
In May the dey sent Cathcart to Philadelphia with a message for President Washington:
Whereas Peace and Harmony has been settled between our two Nations, through the Medium of the two Agents of The United States, Joseph Donaldson, and Joel Barlow, and as eight Months has elaps’d without one article of their agreement being complied with we have thought it expedient to dispatch James Leander Cathcart … with a note of such articles as is required in this Regency …
At last, nearly a year after the agreement had been signed in the dey’s palace, Joel Barlow succeeded in borrowing enough cash; the Americans were ransomed and shipped out hastily before the dey could change his mind, ending for some more than a decade of captivity.
The return to one’s own country after even a brief sojourn abroad can be an emotional experience; for James Leander Cathcart it was overwhelming, so overwhelming that he could not, he said, express his feelings as he stood once more on American soil after so many years of “trial and degradation.”
Cathcart delivered the dey’s message, then remained in Philadelphia to select presents and naval stores for the Algerian tribute stipulated in the treaty. In 1798 he returned to North Africa as a foreign-service officer and spent the next five years in the Barbary States, where he was instrumental in framing peace treaties with Tripoli and Tunis. He later served as American consul in Leghorn, Madeira, and Cadiz; his wife, whom he married in Philadelphia two years after his return from imprisonment in Algiers, and his growing family, which eventually included twelve children, accompanied him to his diplomatic posts. The last twenty years of his life he spent in the United States Treasury in Washington. He died in 1843.
In a letter to Colonel Humphreys two days after the Algerine treaty had been concluded in 1795, Cathcart’s optimism had led him to say: “Affairs has been attended with success even beyond our most sanguine expectations. …” Over the following years, however, this “success” was much diluted by the continued capriciousness of the Barbary lords. None of the treaties except the one with Morocco was observed, and the pirates kept up their attacks on shipping. Small-scale sea and land attacks were launched against Algiers and Tripoli, but no effort was big enough to stop the pirates until 1815. Then two entire American naval squadrons, in a display of force, sailed to the Algerine coast and dictated a ransomless, tributeless peace to the dey of Algiers, ending three decades of Barbary domination of American Mediterranean trade.