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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
In July, 1791, the old dey died and was succeeded by Hassan Bashaw, former intendant of the marine. He had a reputation as “a man of uncommon Abilities and a wise polititian”—able and wise enough at least to order a rival to the throne strangled—and he had shown a certain fairness in dealing with Cathcart when the American was clerk of the marine. But his appetite for tribute and ransom was no less voracious than his predecessor’s.
In June, 1792, Admiral John Paul Jones was appointed consul for Algiers and told, in detailed secret directions hand-written by Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, to sue for peace with Algiers. The Americans flattered themselves that they could dictate terms and cash amounts. Jefferson directed Jones to pay no ransom without a peace treaty and to agree to no large initial payments, only to small annual tribute: “We should be pleased with 10,000 dollars, contented with 15,000, think 20,000 a very hard bargain, yet go as far as 25,000 … but not a copper further,” which was the limit Congress had authorized. Jones could offer twenty-seven thousand dollars for ransom of the prisoners—a far cry from the two hundred dollars a man, or forty-two hundred dollars, authorized in 1786.
However, Admiral Jones never reached Algiers. He died in Paris six weeks afterward. Thomas Barclay, who had recently negotiated a treaty with Morocco, succeeded Jones, but he was suddenly taken sick in Lisbon and died on January 19,1793. Jefferson then assigned Colonel David Humphreys, American minister to Portugal, to the Algerine negotiations.
Humphreys’ task was complicated by a one-year truce between Portugal and Algiers, concluded in September, 1793. Portuguese warships for some years had kept the pirates confined to the Mediterranean; the truce opened the Atlantic to them again. If the purpose of this truce, which was urged by the British court and framed by the British consul at Algiers, was to strike a serious blow to American commerce, as was charged at the time, it succeeded. On September 29, 1793, eight sail of Algerine corsairs left for the Atlantic; they returned within a few weeks with eleven American ships and more than a hundred American captives.
This was indeed a serious blow to American trade, discouraging sailors from shipping out and merchants from sending freighters out, and raising insurance rates. Cathcart, however, thanked Providence for this development; the wholesale capture of American nationals rallied the people at home, prodded the diplomats, and, he wrote, “open’d a way to our redemption.”
Colonel Humphreys went to Alicante, jumping-off place for Algiers. But once again America was rewarded for its efforts by frustration. The dey refused to receive the ambassador. “If I were to make peace with everybody,” he is reported to have said, “what should I do with my corsairs? What should I do with my soldiers? They would take off my head for want of other prizes.”
In October, 1794, the dey finally granted permission to Humphreys to come to Algiers. But by that time Humphreys had left for the United States, a move interpreted by the dey, so Cathcart wrote, as “trifling with him as his predecessor had been trifled with by John Lamb in 1786, and others since.”
Humphreys returned to Lisbon in April, 1795, accompanied by Joseph Donaldson, Jr., assigned as Humphreys’ agent to negotiate with the dey of Algiers. Two factors pointed to the success of these negotiations: first, the diplomats were armed with new instructions from the Secretary of State (now Edmund Randolph), which, owing to the desperateness of the situation, represented a more realistic view of which nation at the moment held the reins. While previously ransom was not to be paid without a peace treaty, by this time the Secretary could instruct Humphreys that “ransom and peace are to go hand and hand if practicable; but if peace cannot be obtained, a ransom is to be effected without delay.” The Americans were now willing, if necessary, to spend as much as eight hundred thousand dollars on a peace-and-ransom package. If this seems a humiliation for a proud people, it is also true that the nation was young, inexperienced, and almost completely without power; the Revolutionary navy had been allowed to fall apart, and the money appropriated by Congress for a new navy to be built to deal with the Barbary pirates had so far produced nothing that would float.
The second factor in the Americans’ favor was that they now had a friend at court. Early in the morning of March 29, 1794, James Cathcart had been joyously hauled out of bed by a fellow American prisoner and dragged to the dey’s throne, where the former intendant of the marine told him that as he had “fill’d the diff subordinate offices of Clerk of the marine, prisons, sheep, hides, &c that I was the person best qualified & who of right ought to be prefer’d to the highest post a Christian can obtain; he therefore appointed me … Chief Clerk of the Dey & Regency of Algiers.”
Of course there were the usual fees to pay—no one, whatever his ability or past service, was appointed to any high post in Algiers without money being passed. Cathcart was obliged to donate to the treasury and to all the officers of the government—a sum so high he had to borrow a share of it from the Swedish consul and from the dey himself.