- Historic Sites
After the American sailor's ship was captured, he was held a slave in Algeria for 15 years
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Nor did Lamb keep his promise to return to Algiers in four months. Although John Adams, minister to England, and Jefferson begged him to report to Congress, he refused. He remained in Spain, resigned his commission, pleading ill health, and never even told the American government he had agreed in its name to pay the dey of Algiers almost fifty thousand dollars. The only accomplishment of his mission to Algiers seems to have been to raise false hopes in the prisoners. But when no word from him was received at the end of three months, these were abandoned, and Cathcart and his fellow captives once again resigned themselves to their sufferings. For years, as far as the captives knew, no more notice was taken of them.
The Algerine system, although it encouraged vices, was not so arbitrary as it might seem. As other states were monarchical or republican, Algiers was officially and frankly piratical. The chief pirate was the dey himself. Provincial nabobs bought his protection with regular tribute. Foreign nations heaped presents and money on him in exchange for immunity for their ships from attack. But even this powerful figure had protection problems, and a sizable share of every present he received was distributed to municipal officers as security against assassination or mutiny. On a smaller if broader scale the dey’s ministers and the entire government service practiced similar extortions among themselves.
A shrewd French diplomat once told Jefferson: “Money and fear are the two only agents at Algiers.” And Captain O’Brien wrote to Congress from captivity: “There is no doing any business of importance in this country without first palming the ministry; and by taking this proper channel, be assured … that there is no great difficulty to carry any point.” O’Brien only neglected to say that the less important business also was done through bribery and extortion, for while the dey drained the treasuries of Europe, his prison guards extorted payment from their slaves in return for immunity from the bastinado. One had only to learn the rules of the game to survive.
Slaves were even staked to a sporting chance at survival. Some, including the Americans, were given a small allowance by their governments while in captivity. Visitors to the dey’s apartments, on being served coffee, were expected to return their cups with coins, which were distributed twice a year to the slaves. Palace slaves were allowed to beg openly from caliphs and sheiks who passed through the marble halls. Clothes were traded or sold. Certain positions to which slaves were assigned even included small salaries. If he was a judicious spender, a slave whose captivity had begun in a foul-smelling dungeon could in time purchase a relatively comfortable life. Cathcart proved to be a champion at the game; before he was finally freed in 1796, he had acquired three profitable taverns and a spacious house with servants—a house fine enough, in fact, for him to place it at the disposal of the American consul who arrived in 1795 to frame a peace treaty.
Such a luxurious future was not evident, however, in 1786. In July, one year after his capture, Cathcart and seven other prisoners were transferred from the palace garden to the public works. Their new superior was a veteran of fourteen years’ imprisonment in Malta, and he had sworn to avenge the cruelty he had suffered there. The reception he gave the prisoners portended horrors to come; sitting under the gallows at the prison gate and flanked by armed guards, Ibram Rais thundered: “Well, gentleman, so you were not content with your situation in the pallace and have prefer’d my acquaintance. … You are all young & healthy & too well cloathed for slaves, you shall have something to divert you tomorrow … I will show you slaves how I was treated at Malta.“Signalling to a guard, he continued, “Put stout rings on these gentlemen’s legs and let them be awaken’d before daylight & brought to me at the marine gate. … They don’t know what slavery is yet. It is time they should learn. I have not forgot the treatment I receiv’d from Christians when I was a slave.”
Cathcart protested. He was an American, he said; Americans had never persecuted Moslems; neither he nor his countrymen were responsible for what happened to Rais at Malta.
“True,” Rais observed, curling his whiskers, “but you are Christians and if you have not injured Mussulmen it was not for want of will but for want of power. If you should chance to take any of our cruisers, how would you treat our people?”
“That will entirely depend upon how you treat those of my nation whom you have captured,” Cathcart replied, “& you may be assured Sir that my nation will retaliate upon those who treat their unfortunate Citizens with undeserved cruelty.”
“Slave!” Rais shouted. “I am not accustom’d to listen to the arguments of infidels; you are too loquacious for a young man, retire immediately & learn for the future to be silent and obey.”