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After the American sailor's ship was captured, he was held a slave in Algeria for 15 years
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
He held this post about ten months. No doubt he would have remained longer but for his discovery of dishonesty in a Turkish superior. Cathcart described him as a former fisherman, a common soldier, “ignorant, poor and proud” and unaccustomed to responsibility. One evening in April, 1788, Cathcart as usual made out an accounting of the money this Turk was supposed to deliver to the treasury. However, the sum was a good deal more than the Turk had. “First,” Cathcart said, “he tried to persuade me that I must have made some mistake and requested me to alter it without making any noise. This I positively refused to do and read to him all the items of the money he had received and what he had paid away. He then endeavored to through [ sic ] the blame on the Christian slaves, saying that they must have took the money out of his drawer, although he always kept the key himself. This produced altercation.” The Turk complained to the intendant of the marine himself, saying Cathcart had accused him of embezzlement; either he or Cathcart must leave the marine. The intendant tried to quiet him but failed, and, Cathcart explained, since “the policy of these people [is] never to take part with a Christian against one of themselves especially if he is a Turk and a soldier,” the minister fired Cathcart as clerk of the marine. Shortly afterward the Turk was also removed and, Cathcart recorded, “frequently I have met him with his cane basket coming from fishing. …”
The plague continued to decimate the ranks of the slaves. In one month three clerks of the Bagnio Gallera died, and Cathcart was appointed to one of these positions, a much coveted job since it carried the perquisite of purchasing a tavern in the prison.
The next five years, if they were not exactly happy, were at least busy and full, and when Cathcart could forget for a few moments the degradation of slavery, life at least on the surface was comfortable enough. His administrative duties as prison clerk were light enough so that when several of the lower clerks died, he took on their duties also. This, he said, perhaps remembering that by 1792 the plague had carried off seven of the twenty-one Americans in captivity, “kept me constantly employ & probably was conducive to my health and may be the means under divine providence of my being in existence at the present moment.”
He became an entrepreneur, purchasing the tavern in the Bagnio Gallera and two others besides. These he leased to fellow captives who paid him so much a pipe for wine and brandy, then retailed it themselves. Because the status and comforts of the prison clerk’s position and the profits from his taverns elevated Cathcart considerably above the other American captives, he began to think of himself as their protector: “they never wanted a good meal while I had it in my power to give it them,” he wrote, ”… they were attended in the hospital when sick & … those who died were buried in a decent coffin at my expense. Nay more never was any American buried without my attending them to the grave & reading prayers over them & remaining until they were decently cover’d up. …”
Except for a few tavern brawls, hushed up by greasing the right palms, the years from 1788 until 1793 were rather uneventful for Cathcart. His fears were growing, however, that he and the other Americans had been forgotten by their country. He had no way of knowing that his country’s attempts at peace and redemption had met only frustration.
Authorized by Congress, Jefferson had undertaken secret negotiations with the Mathurins, a French religious order founded expressly for redeeming Barbary prisoners; but the French Revolution, temporarily ruining French ecclesiastical orders, intervened before the deal could be closed. At least two unauthorized parties attempted to ransom the prisoners, but these too were unsuccessful.
While building a navy expressly to deal with the Barbary pirates, and while quietly attempting to frame plans for redeeming American captives, the American government adopted publically the policy of ignoring the Algerine prisoners and, Jefferson later explained, “by that semblance of neglect, to reduce the demands of the Algerines to such a price as might make it hereafter less their interest to pursue our Citizens than any others.”
Jefferson was speaking from hindsight. Closer to the truth may have been the words of John Jay, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, to Jefferson in December, 1786: “If Congress had money to purchase peace of Algiers, or to redeem the captives there, it certainly would … be well to lose no time in doing both; neither pains nor expense, if within any tolerable limits, should be spared to ransom our fellow citizens. But the truth is, that no money is to be expected at present from hence; nor do I think it would be right to make new loans until we have at least some prospect of paying the interest due on former ones.” In short, the United States was broke.