- Historic Sites
OR A Dey in the Life of an American Sailor
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
“I shall obey Sir, but never be silent while there remains a superior tribunal to appeal to,” Cathcart retorted.
With this the prisoners were herded into the crowded and filthy dungeon called the Bagnio Beylique, worst of the Algerine prisons. Large iron shackles were bolted and riveted to their legs, although the guard surreptitiously informed them that for a small sum these heavy shackles could be exchanged for small wire rings.
Rather than bribe the guard to take off his shackles, Cathcart spent two of the eight dollars he had saved on bribing a corporal to let him out of the Bagnio Beylique and Ibram Rais’s jurisdiction. He moved to the Bagnio Gallera, physically little better than the Bagnio Beylique but somewhat more comfortable because the rest of the Americans were held there.
His fortunes improved immediately. He was apprenticed to a master carpenter, a gentle, hard-working Spaniard who had been captured at Oran, then sold to a provincial bey, and finally given to the dey of Algiers as part of the bey’s regular tribute. Because the Spaniard was the best carpenter in the regency he was in demand at all the best houses, and Cathcart accompanied him, free of the tyranny of the prison guards at least during working hours.
Had carpentering been his only duty, Cathcart confessed he could not have complained of hard usage. But this was not the case. When ballast or cargo had to be loaded or unloaded, fortifications repaired, or the harbor bottom dredged, the apprentices were sent to help the slaves regularly assigned to hard labor. It was not only carrying heavy loads under the hot sun, it was also the periodic beatings by guards from whom one must purchase his peace that made these expeditions unpleasant.
Cathcart drew a vivid picture of a day’s work building a magazine:
Figure to yourself above a thousand poor wretches many of them half naked without hat or shoes at work in the heat of the sun from a little after daylight in the morning until four & sometimes five or six o clock of a summers day carrying earth in a basket up a plank to the top of a high building exposed to the heat and often blisterd with the sun & chafed & scalded with the weight of their load & the perspiration that flow’d from them; add to this that they only receiv’d two small black loaves of seven ounces each in all the day and a very small portion of horse beans probably without any oil as their small allowance is given out the day before & is generally either stole or made away with by some means or other by the people to whose care it was entrusted & on their arrival in the prison at night they then receiv’d a loaf of the same sort of bread but weighing twelve ounces … [other days] there is a mess of burgul … boild in the Marine mixk’d with a quantity of butter worse than tallow and as it is taken out of Jars … without any caution … it frequently happens that they find rats & mice & other animals boild in the burgul … nevertheless I have seen many hundreds during my captivity sit down to some buckets of this stuff … & eat as voraciously as some of our epicures would of turtle soup … or Venison pasty …
In January, 1787, the plague struck Algiers. Sixteen Christian slaves died that month. Normal contagiousness combined with lack of sanitation to spread the disease; still the prisons remained filthy, the amount of labor was no less, and the slaves’ ranks thinned faster and faster.
Suddenly, in March, Naples and Spain ransomed their nationals in Algerine captivity—a total of about seven hundred—and some of the most desirable positions held by slaves became vacant. Cathcart rose rapidly through the slave ranks. He was transferred from the carpenter’s shop and ordered to report to the intendant of the marine. The minister assigned Cathcart to be one of his several personal attendants, a coveted job among the slaves, for the duties were relatively light, entailing only serving the minister at meals, taking care of the stores, carrying the prison keys, and serving the oil and bread to the slaves. It meant, too, that Cathcart was finally free of the despotism of the petty tyrants among the guards and responsible only to the minister himself. For the first time he was well fed, well clothed, and paid a small salary.
Shortly two better positions opened: that of “coffeegie,” whose function was to make coffee and hand it to the intendant of the marine and his visitors; and clerk of the marine. Cathcart got the first job and a Leghornese sailor the second. Then, in June, 1787, the Leghornese died of the plague, and Cathcart succeeded him as clerk of the marine.