- Historic Sites
OR A Dey in the Life of an American Sailor
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
On June 30, 1785, Algerine pirates sailed from their North African harbor to intercept a pair of richly laden Portuguese merchant ships bound for Lisbon from Brazil. The vessels, however, did not arrive as scheduled, and the brigands had to content themselves with consolation prizes—Portuguese fishermen, Genoese freighters, and, worse luck, American traders.
Had the Brazilians been sighted, the American ships would no doubt have sailed to their destinations unmolested; it was accepted in Algiers that the young United States trade was of little value and its ships hardly worth the expense and trouble of boarding. However, disappointed in their cruise of the Portuguese coast, the pirates welcomed the sight of the schooner Maria out of Boston bound for Cadiz. On July 25, as she passed three miles southeast of Cape St. Vincent, a fourteen-gun xebec came alongside. Its crew of twenty-one easily captured the American crew of six without a fight and savagely herded them to the quarter-deck while appropriating whatever articles of clothing caught the pirates’ fancy.
One of the Americans on the Maria was eighteen-year-old James Leander Cathcart, an articulate, intelligent, and ingratiating Irish-born seaman. He was a veteran of the American Revolution, having enlisted at the age of twelve and served on board the Continental frigate Confederacy until it was captured by the British. As a consequence he had also tasted prison life, having been held by the British in the scandalously operated prison ships Good Hope and Old Jersey . But nothing he had experienced in British prisons had prepared him for what he now faced: ten years of slavery in Algiers.
His journal, kept in minute detail during those ten years, records a career parallel in some respects to that of the biblical Joseph: how Cathcart, while never losing his integrity and never abandoning either his country or his religion, endured all the humiliations of slavery and finally won the favor of the all-powerful dey of Algiers; and while remaining a prisoner nevertheless was entrusted with positions of increasing responsibility, becoming at last chief Christian secretary to the dey and one of the participants in the framing of the 1795 peace treaty between the United States and Algiers.
The beginning of Cathcart’s career as an Algerine slave, however, belied its ultimate distinction. Conditions aboard the xebec during the ten-day voyage to the pirates’ home port were physically loathsome and mentally degrading. The prisoners were forced to endure tropical heat without the protection of hats or shoes, the brigands having stripped these from their captives. Food was coarse bread and black olives seasoned with rancid oil and vinegar. Water was so stagnant the captives were “literally obliged to strain [it] through our teeth while we drank.” Added to these discomforts was incarceration every night and whenever another ship was sighted. Counting the Portuguese and Genoese prisoners, a total of forty-two men were packed into a small, dark, and airless hold.
On reaching Algiers on August 4 the Americans found their situation steadily worsening. They were stripped of what clothes remained and were issued old, dirty shirts and brown trousers swarming with vermin. They were paraded as curiosities through Algiers’ dirty, narrow streets, where the populace had gathered to stare at the first Americans captured. On being brought to the home of the pirate ship’s owner the prisoners were left to spend the night on bare bricks after being served a meal of coarse camel’s meat.
Yet the Americans were relatively lucky. The dey, whose whim was law in Algiers, had first pick of each new slave shipment, and he chose five of the Maria ’s crew, including Cathcart, for palace work. Seaman Cathcart soon found himself fitted out in an elegant silk uniform trimmed with gold and was assigned to take care of the lions, tigers, and antelopes that lived in the palace garden. The grandeur of his regalia matched the grandeur of the palace garden, with its lush fruit trees. These rich garments, like the tortoiseshell spoons at his master’s table, the embroidered tablecloths, and the finely carved furniture, served to impress visiting potentates and foreign ambassadors with the wealth and power of the dey. But all the silk and gold in Algiers could not hide the degradation of the slave’s position. “The innumerable humiliations he undergoes daily,” Cathcart wrote, “makes a person of any sensibility even more miserable than he would be at hard labor as he has more time to reflect on the rigor of his fate.”