- Historic Sites
OR A Dey in the Life of an American Sailor
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Food, even for these silken-clothed caretakers, was scarcely better than that served to the slaves -at hard labor and chained at night in rat-infested prisons: a plate of stew, one of burgoo, and a basin of sour milk twice a day. Should a slave dare to pluck an orange or pomegranate from the garden trees, he was severely beaten. Cathcart noted that he and his fellow prisoners occasionally caught a pigeon or two; but they did so at the risk of torture.
The Algerines had developed the art of torture to a high degree. Mainly it took the form of the bastinado, which Cathcart described this way:
The culprit is thrown down on his face & a pole of six or eight feet long with two loops of cord are put about his ancles, & his legs are held up by two men slaves so as to present the soles of his feet. His head, his hands being tied behind him, is secured by one of the Guardians who sits upon his shoulders. The Guardian Basha & his mirmidons are each furnish’d with hoop poles about five feet long and an inch or thereabouts in diameter & two of them commences in very regular time to give him from one to five hundred blows which are generally divided equally between the soles of the feet and the posterior. The culprit is then either put in chains, sent to his labour or to the hospital to be cured. …
Although he performed his garden duties obediently, keeping his anger and resentments to himself, even Cathcart did not escape this punishment. One evening, after he had been a prisoner for about four months, he heard a strange noise in another part of the garden. Following the sound, he came upon two chamberlains beating the soles of the feet of a Portuguese prisoner. Cathcart asked what crime the poor fellow had committed. For answer he himself was seized, thrown to the ground, and given twenty-eight similar blows, causing the loss of four toenails. Sometime later Cathcart discovered that the head gardener had ordered this punishment for all garden slaves. He had compiled a list of frivolous charges and, unable to detect the real offenders, ordered the bastinado for the whole contingent. Twice more while he worked in the palace Cathcart was beaten—once for writing a letter and once for speaking to some Americans who worked in the dey’s apartments.
Able to read French and Spanish, Cathcart tried to divert himself with a few books borrowed from other slaves. But even this amusement was denied him shortly. At first the chamberlains contented themselves with insults, calling him “false priest” and other less flattering names. Then for his daring to argue with them the chamberlains took away the books, and Cathcart was left with only the hope that redemption was forthcoming.
Had Cathcart known the particulars of American-European-Algerine diplomacy at the time, however, he would have been less sanguine in his expectation of redemption.
Although piracy and its by-products—ransom of captives, and tribute in exchange for immunity from attack—had been a way of life and chief source of income for the grandees of the Barbary States for centuries, the Maria and the Dauphin (captured five days later) were among the first important American quarry. Anticipating such a blow to the new American Mediterranean trade—following the Revolution it was no longer under British naval protection—the Continental Congress the previous year had commissioned its principal European representatives to negotiate treaties with Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli. Even while the captive crew of the Maria sailed for Algiers the American agent, John Lamb, was on his way there, via the American ministries in London and Paris, to discuss treaty terms.