- Historic Sites
OR A Dey in the Life of an American Sailor
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
The outlook for a satisfactory agreement, however, was gloomy. The Barbary pirates had all Europe just where they wanted it and did not doubt they could add the newly independent—and relatively weak—United States to their necklace of subject nations. The most powerful of Europe’s navies—those of England, France, and Holland—could have put the Barbary pirates out of business. But, in one of the darker moments of the Age of Enlightenment, they chose not to. Rather, they looked the other way when reminded of the brutal treatment of captives—in fact European consuls in Algiers actually used these slaves as domestics in their residences—because they found it less trouble and expense to pay the tribute than to fight. And with a strange perversion of logic the European governments even encouraged the pirates to prey on their commercial rivals. In a letter to Robert R. Livingston, American Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “I have in London heard it is a maxim among the merchants, that if there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.” (A similar remark has been attributed to Louis xiv.) Sensitive to these intense rivalries among Europe’s trading nations, the Barbary lords could write and rewrite treaties, or demand and redemand tribute, with the capriciousness of the spring levanters that blew off the North African coast.
John Lamb arrived in Europe in September, 1785, bearing instructions from Congress to the American ministers there who would ultimately sign the treaty Lamb was to negotiate with Algiers. Because news of the capture of the Maria and Dauphin reached the United States after Lamb had left, he had no instructions for ransom of the twenty-one captives. These were hurriedly added. “We thought… we ought to endeavor to ransom our countrymen, without waiting for orders,” Thomas Jefferson, then minister to France, explained some years later, “but at the same time, that, acting without authority, we should keep within the lowest price which had been given by any other Nation. We therefore gave a supplementary instruction to Mr. Lamb to ransom our captives, if it could be done, for 200 dollars a man, as we knew that 300 French captives had been just ransomed … at a price very little above this sum.”
Thus prepared, Lamb left for Algiers, arriving on March 25, 1786, just eight months after the Maria had been captured. He bore letters of introduction to the Spanish ambassador, the French consul, and a British merchant, all “agents of the nations,” as Cathcart wrote in his journal, “whose interests were exactly opposite and probably did not combine in any one article except the preventing of the United States of America from obtaining a peace with the piratical states of Barbary.” Vying among themselves for the Mediterranean trade, on which France had a monopoly at the time, and disinclined to cut in another nation, these men steadily refused to use their influence to win for Lamb an audience with the dey.
Hiding behind diplomatic niceties, the dey dangled Lamb for a few days, then at last consented to interviews beginning on April 1. He refused to discuss treaty terms; he would talk only about ransom of the captives. Although at a rate of two hundred dollars a man for twenty-one men, Lamb was authorized to offer the dey only forty-two hundred dollars in ransom, he impetuously offered ten thousand dollars; the dey demanded no less than fifty thousand and stubbornly refused to lower his price. Rather, he turned the screws by reminding Lamb he was not anxious to dispose of the Americans. They were needed for work and were the best slaves the Algerines had; the prison, the dey added, had plenty of bread and olives to disburse. Lamb raised his offer to thirty thousand dollars; the dey again refused it. Finally, on April 7, Lamb agreed to meet the dey’s demands but said it would take about four months to raise the cash. The dey’s only answer was, in effect, that if the money were not forthcoming very shortly, the price would rise.
After urging Cathcart and his fellow prisoners to keep their spirits up and promising to return within four months with their ransom, Lamb left Algiers. The best of diplomats would no doubt have failed in his first encounter with the wily dey of Algiers. However, Lamb was not the best of diplomats. Cathcart said he was illiterate and vulgar. Richard O’Brien, captain of the Dauphin , complained to Jefferson in Paris about Lamb’s “ungentleman like behaviour” and charged him with “unguarded expressions, his hints, threats &c. despising the French and Spaniards, signifying their deceit & in fact every thing that he possibly could utter in the most vulgar language that it was with pain we see him so unworthy of his commission & the cloth he wore.”