- Historic Sites
OR A Dey in the Life of an American Sailor
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
In return for this largesse the dey’s chief clerk was automatically entitled to redemption by any nation whatever that either concluded a peace treaty or ransomed its citizens. Cathcart also received a tavern in the city, a share of the liquor duties, and frequent presents from visiting caliphs, sheiks, and foreign ambassadors.
Such presents to the dey’s Christian secretary were well placed. He had, of course, some administrative duties, but his chief duty was to carry on the dey’s correspondence with all Christian nations and to act as intermediary between the dey and Christian ambassadors. “As the Secretary, if a sensible man,” Cathcart wrote, “has great influence with the Dey & his ministers the Consuls in general treat him with respect & often obtain favors through his agency that they could not obtain by their own influence.”
Cathcart employed all the influence he had with the dey to try to pave the way for an American ambassador’s arrival. He explained to the dey that the United States was not like European nations. These, he said, were accustomed to paying tribute and did not consider it degrading, since it was usually paid by the chambers of commerce and not by the public treasury. Should the dey reject the next American overtures for peace, he could expect that America would not play at diplomatic intrigue as the European nations did, but would simply and directly arm to protect her trade. Cathcart also tried to impress the dey with the fact that any money offered for peace by the American ambassador would come from the public treasury and had been authorized by Congress, so that not even the President of the United States could offer one penny more. Thus he hoped to head off the dey’s usual capriciousness at the treaty table and persuade him to negotiate in a straight-forward manner.
But just getting him to the treaty table proved a difficult task. On August 13, i?95, a Spanish packet brought letters from Joseph Donaldson, Jr., waiting in Alicante to cross. “I waited on the Dey,” Cathcart wrote, “and inform’d him that an American gentleman at Alicant, requested to be permited to kiss his Excellency’s hand on terms of peace.”
Was this the same ambassador for whom the dey had been waiting so long? the dey asked suspiciously.
Cathcart replied that it was not. The ambassador, Humphreys, had gone to France, probably, he added—exciting the dey’s cupidity—to arrange financial matters in case a treaty should be made.
The dey said he did not understand why so many changes and delays had been made. Would Cathcart, he asked, be responsible that the person who wanted to come to Algiers actually had full power to negotiate in the name of the United States?
“My head for it, Effendi,” Cathcart assured him, “that he has … but at the same time it is incumbent on me to inform your Excellency, that those powers are limited to a specific sum, which he cannot surpass. Therefore if your Excellency does not intend to lower your first demands [the dey had indicated he would be content with something around two million dollars] & that very considerably too, your Exy had much better not give him permission to come at all.”
“Do you want a peace … for nothing?” the dey asked, irritated.
“No, Effendi,” Cathcart answered, “but we want peace on the same terms that the Dutch obtain’d peace. …”
“What good did you ever do us, to expect to obtain peace on the same terms as Holland who has been supplying us with stores for a century, when we were at war with Spain?” the dey demanded.
“Permit me to ask your Excellency what harm did we ever do you?” Cathcart argued. “Have you not taken Ninteen sail of our vessels and one hundred and thirty-one of our people, whom you have made slaves, and have I not been more than ten years in captivity which I would consider as time well spent, if I could be the medium of establishing peace and harmony between our nations.”
“So you may,” replied the dey, “but you must pay for it.” His mustaches began to curl, indicating a squall on the way.
“We wish to pay you Effendi, & to make you sensible how much we respect & esteem you,” Cathcart replied, “but not on the same scale as Spain, Portugal, and Naples, who have been at war with you since the commencement of the Hegira.” Cathcart further explained that Americans had never persecuted Moslems, as European nations did, and America had never been at war with Algiers.
The dey was somewhat mollified, and his mustaches relaxed. “Let him come,” he decreed. “I will hear what he has to say himself.”
Cathcart quickly wrote the necessary letters and took them down to a brig chartered to carry them with dispatch to Alicante before the dey could change his mind or the European consuls could hear of the affair and attempt to sabotage the plans.