- 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
Donaldson arrived September 3, 1795. Cathcart’s picture of his arrival was dismaying and did not augur well for the future of the delicate negotiations; the American agent, said Cathcart,
was a man upwards of fifty years old, of a forbiding countenance, and remarkably surly. This disposition was more sour’d by a fit of the gout and the roughness of the pavement, besides the length of the walk was sufficient to have tired the patience of a man in good health, follow’d as we were by a crowd of people to see what sort of an animal the American Ambassador was. … He was dress’d in decent plain Cloaths, a cocked hat… his right leg muffled in flannel, shod with a large velvet slipper, his right arm leaning on a crutch to support him. The weather was very warm; the agony which Donaldson was in occasion’d by the gout, & the mortification which he felt at being stared at, together with some children running across him, & sometimes jostling him, put him in a paroxism of rage which he endeavor’d to suppress, while the perspiration ran down both sides of his face and almost blinded him.
Donaldson’s physical problems were real enough. But no doubt much of his surliness and obstinacy was cultivated for the occasion, and his elusiveness was deliberate. European ambassadors visited the dey, kissed his hand, put money in their coffee cups with a flourish, and exchanged obsequies as part of the same game they all played together. Donaldson was not interested in international intrigue; he was interested only in obtaining a peace at the cheapest price possible. Using his gout for an excuse, he at first stayed away from the palace except for presenting his credentials. Cathcart actually was chief mediator, carrying Donaldson’s and the dey’s demands to each other, explaining one to the other. Donaldson’s formula worked, and in the end he won a treaty at a lower cost than he had been authorized to pay.
September 4 was a Friday, the Moslem sabbath, on which customarily no business was conducted. Nevertheless Cathcart persuaded the dey to receive Donaldson early in the morning. As Cathcart read and explained Donaldson’s credentials to the dey he remarked that all his promises had been fulfilled: the American ambassador had arrived and had power to negotiate a treaty.
“Yes,” said the dey, “but peace is not made yet.”
“That depends upon your Excellency entirely,” Cathcart observed. “But if you ask more than we have to give, no peace will be made, but if you ask within our limits peace may be concluded in four hours. …”
“It is the Sabbath,” said the dey, dismissing his visitors. “We will see about those affairs tomorrow.”
However, the dey recalled Cathcart shortly and ordered him to deliver his demand to Donaldson: $2,247,000 and two frigates for peace and ransom, an annual tribute of naval stores, and diplomatic presents amounting to what had been paid by Sweden, Denmark, and Holland.
Donaldson despaired, although his depression may not have been so deep as his words and expression indicated. The dey’s demand was, of course, impossible; but he figured that if his opening bid was low enough, perhaps—just perhaps—he and the dey might be able to bargain to a compromise figure within the authorized amount. Donaldson told no one, not even Cathcart, that he could spend eight hundred thousand dollars. Instead he raged and shouted that it had been a mistake to come to Algiers at all and that any offer he could make would seem like an insult to the dey.
Pierre Skjoldebrand, the Swedish consul, who had befriended the Americans in captivity, viewed the dey’s demands similarly. He realized the dey was only testing, that this was part of the formality of negotiation. He urged Donaldson to make some counteroffer, however small.
Cathcart and Captain O’Brien, now prisoners for ten years, agreed. Looking at the situation from the perspective of weary captives, they hoped Donaldson would not pack his bags and go home without at least an attempt at negotiation.
Donaldson finally consented, and Cathcart took the American’s offer to the dey: in contrast to the demand, a pitifully small $543,000 for both peace and ransom.
The dey’s reaction could probably have been heard in the harbor. First he leered contemptuously, then broke into a rage.
“What do you mean by bringing such proposals to me! Do you mean to make a game of me?” he thundered.
“No,” Cathcart replied, as truthfully as he knew the truth, “these are the American Ambassadors proposals, not mine, his powers are limited and he can offer no more, & this offer is more than you got from the Dutch.”
“You are a liar, and an infidel,” the dey roared. “Your ambassadors powers are not limited, for the French Consul has sent to inform me that he has Carte Blanche and can give what he pleases for peace.”