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Cathcart’s Travels

May 2024
34min read

After the American sailor's ship was captured, he was held a slave in Algeria for 15 years

1. Cathcart sails for Spain. Some account of his puerile adventures in the Revolution. He is captured by pirates, hauled to Algiers, and set to work for the dey. Rich garments and poor food. He suffers humiliations and is thrice subjected to the bastinado.

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.”

Food, even for these silken-clothed caretakers, was scarcely better than that served to the slaves -at hard labor and chained at night in rat-infested prisons: a plate of stew, one of burgoo, and a basin of sour milk twice a day. Should a slave dare to pluck an orange or pomegranate from the garden trees, he was severely beaten. Cathcart noted that he and his fellow prisoners occasionally caught a pigeon or two; but they did so at the risk of torture.

The Algerines had developed the art of torture to a high degree. Mainly it took the form of the bastinado, which Cathcart described this way:

The culprit is thrown down on his face & a pole of six or eight feet long with two loops of cord are put about his ancles, & his legs are held up by two men slaves so as to present the soles of his feet. His head, his hands being tied behind him, is secured by one of the Guardians who sits upon his shoulders. The Guardian Basha & his mirmidons are each furnish’d with hoop poles about five feet long and an inch or thereabouts in diameter & two of them commences in very regular time to give him from one to five hundred blows which are generally divided equally between the soles of the feet and the posterior. The culprit is then either put in chains, sent to his labour or to the hospital to be cured. …

Although he performed his garden duties obediently, keeping his anger and resentments to himself, even Cathcart did not escape this punishment. One evening, after he had been a prisoner for about four months, he heard a strange noise in another part of the garden. Following the sound, he came upon two chamberlains beating the soles of the feet of a Portuguese prisoner. Cathcart asked what crime the poor fellow had committed. For answer he himself was seized, thrown to the ground, and given twenty-eight similar blows, causing the loss of four toenails. Sometime later Cathcart discovered that the head gardener had ordered this punishment for all garden slaves. He had compiled a list of frivolous charges and, unable to detect the real offenders, ordered the bastinado for the whole contingent. Twice more while he worked in the palace Cathcart was beaten—once for writing a letter and once for speaking to some Americans who worked in the dey’s apartments.

Able to read French and Spanish, Cathcart tried to divert himself with a few books borrowed from other slaves. But even this amusement was denied him shortly. At first the chamberlains contented themselves with insults, calling him “false priest” and other less flattering names. Then for his daring to argue with them the chamberlains took away the books, and Cathcart was left with only the hope that redemption was forthcoming.

Had Cathcart known the particulars of American-European-Algerine diplomacy at the time, however, he would have been less sanguine in his expectation of redemption.

2. Extraordinary power of the Algerines in this epoch. Mr. Lamb’s mission; his instructions from Jefferson. He arrives in Algiers and is kept dangling by the dey. Footling negotiations. He returns to Spain, leaving the captives to their fate.

Although piracy and its by-products—ransom of captives, and tribute in exchange for immunity from attack—had been a way of life and chief source of income for the grandees of the Barbary States for centuries, the Maria and the Dauphin (captured five days later) were among the first important American quarry. Anticipating such a blow to the new American Mediterranean trade—following the Revolution it was no longer under British naval protection—the Continental Congress the previous year had commissioned its principal European representatives to negotiate treaties with Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli. Even while the captive crew of the Maria sailed for Algiers the American agent, John Lamb, was on his way there, via the American ministries in London and Paris, to discuss treaty terms.

The outlook for a satisfactory agreement, however, was gloomy. The Barbary pirates had all Europe just where they wanted it and did not doubt they could add the newly independent—and relatively weak—United States to their necklace of subject nations. The most powerful of Europe’s navies—those of England, France, and Holland—could have put the Barbary pirates out of business. But, in one of the darker moments of the Age of Enlightenment, they chose not to. Rather, they looked the other way when reminded of the brutal treatment of captives—in fact European consuls in Algiers actually used these slaves as domestics in their residences—because they found it less trouble and expense to pay the tribute than to fight. And with a strange perversion of logic the European governments even encouraged the pirates to prey on their commercial rivals. In a letter to Robert R. Livingston, American Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “I have in London heard it is a maxim among the merchants, that if there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.” (A similar remark has been attributed to Louis XIV.) Sensitive to these intense rivalries among Europe’s trading nations, the Barbary lords could write and rewrite treaties, or demand and redemand tribute, with the capriciousness of the spring levanters that blew off the North African coast.

John Lamb arrived in Europe in September, 1785, bearing instructions from Congress to the American ministers there who would ultimately sign the treaty Lamb was to negotiate with Algiers. Because news of the capture of the Maria and Dauphin reached the United States after Lamb had left, he had no instructions for ransom of the twenty-one captives. These were hurriedly added. “We thought… we ought to endeavor to ransom our countrymen, without waiting for orders,” Thomas Jefferson, then minister to France, explained some years later, “but at the same time, that, acting without authority, we should keep within the lowest price which had been given by any other Nation. We therefore gave a supplementary instruction to Mr. Lamb to ransom our captives, if it could be done, for 200 dollars a man, as we knew that 300 French captives had been just ransomed … at a price very little above this sum.”

Thus prepared, Lamb left for Algiers, arriving on March 25, 1786, just eight months after the Maria had been captured. He bore letters of introduction to the Spanish ambassador, the French consul, and a British merchant, all “agents of the nations,” as Cathcart wrote in his journal, “whose interests were exactly opposite and probably did not combine in any one article except the preventing of the United States of America from obtaining a peace with the piratical states of Barbary.” Vying among themselves for the Mediterranean trade, on which France had a monopoly at the time, and disinclined to cut in another nation, these men steadily refused to use their influence to win for Lamb an audience with the dey.

Hiding behind diplomatic niceties, the dey dangled Lamb for a few days, then at last consented to interviews beginning on April 1. He refused to discuss treaty terms; he would talk only about ransom of the captives. Although at a rate of two hundred dollars a man for twenty-one men, Lamb was authorized to offer the dey only forty-two hundred dollars in ransom, he impetuously offered ten thousand dollars; the dey demanded no less than fifty thousand and stubbornly refused to lower his price. Rather, he turned the screws by reminding Lamb he was not anxious to dispose of the Americans. They were needed for work and were the best slaves the Algerines had; the prison, the dey added, had plenty of bread and olives to disburse. Lamb raised his offer to thirty thousand dollars; the dey again refused it. Finally, on April 7, Lamb agreed to meet the dey’s demands but said it would take about four months to raise the cash. The dey’s only answer was, in effect, that if the money were not forthcoming very shortly, the price would rise.


After urging Cathcart and his fellow prisoners to keep their spirits up and promising to return within four months with their ransom, Lamb left Algiers. The best of diplomats would no doubt have failed in his first encounter with the wily dey of Algiers. However, Lamb was not the best of diplomats. Cathcart said he was illiterate and vulgar. Richard O’Brien, captain of the Dauphin , complained to Jefferson in Paris about Lamb’s “ungentleman like behaviour” and charged him with “unguarded expressions, his hints, threats &c. despising the French and Spaniards, signifying their deceit & in fact every thing that he possibly could utter in the most vulgar language that it was with pain we see him so unworthy of his commission & the cloth he wore.”

Nor did Lamb keep his promise to return to Algiers in four months. Although John Adams, minister to England, and Jefferson begged him to report to Congress, he refused. He remained in Spain, resigned his commission, pleading ill health, and never even told the American government he had agreed in its name to pay the dey of Algiers almost fifty thousand dollars. The only accomplishment of his mission to Algiers seems to have been to raise false hopes in the prisoners. But when no word from him was received at the end of three months, these were abandoned, and Cathcart and his fellow captives once again resigned themselves to their sufferings. For years, as far as the captives knew, no more notice was taken of them.

3. Systematized extortion the Algerine system of government. Cathcart learns the rules and profits thereby. Falls upon hard days but survives through bribery. Harrowing description of slave labor. His fortunes improve: he escapes the plague and becomes prison clerk. Grows rich and purchases three taverns.

The Algerine system, although it encouraged vices, was not so arbitrary as it might seem. As other states were monarchical or republican, Algiers was officially and frankly piratical. The chief pirate was the dey himself. Provincial nabobs bought his protection with regular tribute. Foreign nations heaped presents and money on him in exchange for immunity for their ships from attack. But even this powerful figure had protection problems, and a sizable share of every present he received was distributed to municipal officers as security against assassination or mutiny. On a smaller if broader scale the dey’s ministers and the entire government service practiced similar extortions among themselves.

A shrewd French diplomat once told Jefferson: “Money and fear are the two only agents at Algiers.” And Captain O’Brien wrote to Congress from captivity: “There is no doing any business of importance in this country without first palming the ministry; and by taking this proper channel, be assured … that there is no great difficulty to carry any point.” O’Brien only neglected to say that the less important business also was done through bribery and extortion, for while the dey drained the treasuries of Europe, his prison guards extorted payment from their slaves in return for immunity from the bastinado. One had only to learn the rules of the game to survive.

Slaves were even staked to a sporting chance at survival. Some, including the Americans, were given a small allowance by their governments while in captivity. Visitors to the dey’s apartments, on being served coffee, were expected to return their cups with coins, which were distributed twice a year to the slaves. Palace slaves were allowed to beg openly from caliphs and sheiks who passed through the marble halls. Clothes were traded or sold. Certain positions to which slaves were assigned even included small salaries. If he was a judicious spender, a slave whose captivity had begun in a foul-smelling dungeon could in time purchase a relatively comfortable life. Cathcart proved to be a champion at the game; before he was finally freed in 1796, he had acquired three profitable taverns and a spacious house with servants—a house fine enough, in fact, for him to place it at the disposal of the American consul who arrived in 1795 to frame a peace treaty.

Such a luxurious future was not evident, however, in 1786. In July, one year after his capture, Cathcart and seven other prisoners were transferred from the palace garden to the public works. Their new superior was a veteran of fourteen years’ imprisonment in Malta, and he had sworn to avenge the cruelty he had suffered there. The reception he gave the prisoners portended horrors to come; sitting under the gallows at the prison gate and flanked by armed guards, Ibram Rais thundered: “Well, gentleman, so you were not content with your situation in the pallace and have prefer’d my acquaintance. … You are all young & healthy & too well cloathed for slaves, you shall have something to divert you tomorrow … I will show you slaves how I was treated at Malta.“Signalling to a guard, he continued, “Put stout rings on these gentlemen’s legs and let them be awaken’d before daylight & brought to me at the marine gate. … They don’t know what slavery is yet. It is time they should learn. I have not forgot the treatment I receiv’d from Christians when I was a slave.”

Cathcart protested. He was an American, he said; Americans had never persecuted Moslems; neither he nor his countrymen were responsible for what happened to Rais at Malta.

“True,” Rais observed, curling his whiskers, “but you are Christians and if you have not injured Mussulmen it was not for want of will but for want of power. If you should chance to take any of our cruisers, how would you treat our people?”

“That will entirely depend upon how you treat those of my nation whom you have captured,” Cathcart replied, “& you may be assured Sir that my nation will retaliate upon those who treat their unfortunate Citizens with undeserved cruelty.”

“Slave!” Rais shouted. “I am not accustom’d to listen to the arguments of infidels; you are too loquacious for a young man, retire immediately & learn for the future to be silent and obey.”

“I shall obey Sir, but never be silent while there remains a superior tribunal to appeal to,” Cathcart retorted.

With this the prisoners were herded into the crowded and filthy dungeon called the Bagnio Beylique, worst of the Algerine prisons. Large iron shackles were bolted and riveted to their legs, although the guard surreptitiously informed them that for a small sum these heavy shackles could be exchanged for small wire rings.

Rather than bribe the guard to take off his shackles, Cathcart spent two of the eight dollars he had saved on bribing a corporal to let him out of the Bagnio Beylique and Ibram Rais’s jurisdiction. He moved to the Bagnio Gallera, physically little better than the Bagnio Beylique but somewhat more comfortable because the rest of the Americans were held there.

His fortunes improved immediately. He was apprenticed to a master carpenter, a gentle, hard-working Spaniard who had been captured at Oran, then sold to a provincial bey, and finally given to the dey of Algiers as part of the bey’s regular tribute. Because the Spaniard was the best carpenter in the regency he was in demand at all the best houses, and Cathcart accompanied him, free of the tyranny of the prison guards at least during working hours.

Had carpentering been his only duty, Cathcart confessed he could not have complained of hard usage. But this was not the case. When ballast or cargo had to be loaded or unloaded, fortifications repaired, or the harbor bottom dredged, the apprentices were sent to help the slaves regularly assigned to hard labor. It was not only carrying heavy loads under the hot sun, it was also the periodic beatings by guards from whom one must purchase his peace that made these expeditions unpleasant.

Cathcart drew a vivid picture of a day’s work building a magazine:

Figure to yourself above a thousand poor wretches many of them half naked without hat or shoes at work in the heat of the sun from a little after daylight in the morning until four & sometimes five or six o clock of a summers day carrying earth in a basket up a plank to the top of a high building exposed to the heat and often blisterd with the sun & chafed & scalded with the weight of their load & the perspiration that flow’d from them; add to this that they only receiv’d two small black loaves of seven ounces each in all the day and a very small portion of horse beans probably without any oil as their small allowance is given out the day before & is generally either stole or made away with by some means or other by the people to whose care it was entrusted & on their arrival in the prison at night they then receiv’d a loaf of the same sort of bread but weighing twelve ounces … [other days] there is a mess of burgul … boild in the Marine mixk’d with a quantity of butter worse than tallow and as it is taken out of Jars … without any caution … it frequently happens that they find rats & mice & other animals boild in the burgul … nevertheless I have seen many hundreds during my captivity sit down to some buckets of this stuff … & eat as voraciously as some of our epicures would of turtle soup … or Venison pasty …

In January, 1787, the plague struck Algiers. Sixteen Christian slaves died that month. Normal contagiousness combined with lack of sanitation to spread the disease; still the prisons remained filthy, the amount of labor was no less, and the slaves’ ranks thinned faster and faster.

Suddenly, in March, Naples and Spain ransomed their nationals in Algerine captivity—a total of about seven hundred—and some of the most desirable positions held by slaves became vacant. Cathcart rose rapidly through the slave ranks. He was transferred from the carpenter’s shop and ordered to report to the intendant of the marine. The minister assigned Cathcart to be one of his several personal attendants, a coveted job among the slaves, for the duties were relatively light, entailing only serving the minister at meals, taking care of the stores, carrying the prison keys, and serving the oil and bread to the slaves. It meant, too, that Cathcart was finally free of the despotism of the petty tyrants among the guards and responsible only to the minister himself. For the first time he was well fed, well clothed, and paid a small salary.

Shortly two better positions opened: that of “coffeegie,” whose function was to make coffee and hand it to the intendant of the marine and his visitors; and clerk of the marine. Cathcart got the first job and a Leghornese sailor the second. Then, in June, 1787, the Leghornese died of the plague, and Cathcart succeeded him as clerk of the marine.

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. …”

4. Difficulties of the American government in negotiating release of the prisoners. Cathcart elevated: chief clerk to the dey. His influence. Donaldson’s arrival; his sour disposition. The dey’s jury at paltry American offer. Haggling.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Cathcart protested: “If your Excellency had told the French consul that he was a liar and an ignorant fellow, he would have richly deserved it, for the President of the United States has not the power that he has inform’d you our Ambassador has … if the Ambassador has offer’d all he is authorized to give, & it is not accepted, he has no alternative but to wait for fresh instructions which he will not receive in less than a year.”

An argument ensued in which Cathcart and the dey debated the Frenchman’s motives for his duplicity. Then the dey said: “Read your proposal again.”

Cathcart complied.

“One hundred thousand dollars for me, and fifty thousand for my family,” the dey mused. “Sequins I suppose you mean?” he asked, referring to the Italian gold coins.

“No Sir,” said Cathcart, “dollars.”

“Go out of my sight immediately thou dog without a soul,” the dey concluded in a passion, “and never presume to bring such trifling terms into me again, under pain of my displeasure.”

Cathcart reported the conversation to Donaldson. Donaldson announced the business was at an end, that he had gone as far as he had been authorized. Skjoldebrand advised him to offer some little thing more, even a trifle. The dey was capricious, he explained, the dey was emotional; and should he be offended, there would not be so propitious an opportunity to establish peace again. The Swede did not believe the negotiations ought to be broken off for a few thousand dollars.

Donaldson insisted he could not give a dollar more, whatever the consequences.

“Then,” Cathcart said, ”… the sooner you pack up your clothes the better, for I do assure you peace is not obtainable on your terms although it probably may be for forty or fifty thousand dollars more.”

That afternoon the dey summoned Cathcart, again scolded him for having brought such insulting terms to His Highness, and accused him and the American ambassador of conspiring to humiliate him. Cathcart explained that the dey had put his humble servant in a very delicate and disagreeable situation. The dey accused him of taking Donaldson’s side, while Donaldson accused him of taking the dey’s side. The fact was, Cathcart said, that he was on neither side but wanted only to help find some basis on which a peace treaty for his country might be framed.

Once again Cathcart admonished the dey for his unreasonable proposal to the Americans and his mistaken ideas about the ambassador’s powers. Donaldson, Cathcart reiterated, had offered at once all he had authority to offer; he was not a huckster, he could not bargain away the public treasury as if he were buying a basket of fruit in the marketplace. He might, Cathcart hinted, be good for forty or fifty thousand dollars of his own money—he just might.

The dey answered by lowering his price to $982,000.

Cathcart delivered this to Donaldson, who promptly rejected it. Again Skjoldebrand and Captain O’Brien argued that he ought to add something to his first proposal. Donaldson refused and told Cathcart to inform the dey he would not give a dollar more.

Cathcart answered that the result of such a message would be the dey’s flying into a rage, chasing Donaldson out of the country, and ordering the bastinado for Cathcart. Donaldson’s reply was that if he were ordered out of the country, he had no recourse but to go; as for a beating for Cathcart, the captive would have the consolation of having received it in the service of his country.


Cathcart took Donaldson’s answer to the dey, who “seem’d exasperated to a high degree, & threatened to give me five hundred bastinadoes, if ever I came to speak to him on the subject again.” He told Cathcart to see that Donaldson was on board the vessel he came in by daylight the next morning. His Excellency would permit no one to trifle with him as the insolent American ambassador had done.

Cathcart returned, dejected, to Donaldson and transmitted the dey’s orders. Once again the Swedish consul, who knew the final steps of the formal diplomatic dance were not yet completed, tried to persuade Donaldson to offer something more. The United States, Skjoldebrand argued, would soon be reimbursed for the amount of the peace by the rich trade of the Mediterranean. However, he added, should the Portuguese-Algerine truce be extended beyond its one-year term, many more American vessels would surely be captured, and these crews would one day have to be ransomed, undoubtedly at an exorbitant price. On the other hand, for just a few paltry thousand dollars more now there could be a treaty; denying those few thousands could conceivably cost many times that amount.

At last Donaldson acknowledged he could go, if absolutely necessary, to $650,000, which would have to include all expenses and would be the ultimate limit. Cathcart answered that he could guarantee a treaty and ransom for fifty or sixty thousand dollars less than that figure. Proposal number four was then made up, at $585,000, signed and sealed for Cathcart to deliver to the dey next morning.

Cathcart cautioned Donaldson, however, to go through with elaborate preparations to leave Algiers, not so much because the dey might very well insist on his order being carried out, but so that “the Dey might hear by a circuitous route which would not create suspicion, that Mr. D was going to embark, & to do away with the idea that he possess’d unlimited powers, or had a Carte Blanche , as the French Consul had induced him to believe.”

At 7 A.M. on Saturday, September 5, Cathcart presented this last proposal to the dey. “I inform’d him,” Cathcart wrote in his journal, “that the American Ambassador was ready to embark, and would be at sea before twelve oclock; that he had surpass’d his limits in his last offer, but to avoid as much as was in his power the negotiation from being broken off, he had added to the whole extent of his [personal] fortune to the last proposals.”

The dey dismissed the additional funds as not worth noticing. Cathcart pressed him; the ambassador would be on board and beyond reach very shortly.

“I have abated two-thirds of my first demand,” protested the dey, “and if he cannot comply with my last proposals, he may embark when he pleases.”

Cathcart would not be put down. “I am come here to speak the truth,” he continued. “I have been well treated by the Dey for a number of years, and no selfish consideration shall prevent me from endeavouring to prevent him from being imposed on by the French Consul, or any of our enemies who under the cloak of friendship are equally his —America will never sue for peace again, but will arm in her own defense. But his Excellency has promised to let the captives be redeem’d, which I now implore from his clemency, we have been here more than ten years, Effendi, let us go! for Godsake!”

The dey seemed lost in thought. He took a pinch of snuff, then ordered Cathcart to read again to him, line by line, the last American proposals. Cathcart did so, observing as he read that the dey and his family were liberally provided for, that $585,000 was a sizable sum, $279,500 more than the Dutch had paid.

“Yes,” answered the dey, “you know how to calculate very well, you know how to gabbar [cheat, deceive, persuade], should I now reject your terms, and send your Ambassador away, your enemies would rejoice, and you would become the laughing stock of all … Algiers.”


Then came the clincher: “Go tell your Ambassador that I accept his terms.” He was doing this, the dey said, “more to pique the British who are your inveterate enemies, and are on very bad terms with me than in consideration of the sum which I esteem no more than a pinch of snuff.”

After kissing the dey’s hand and paying profuse compliments Cathcart hurried to tell the news to Donaldson, whose terse reaction was: “Aye! damn him! he has agreed at last, has he!”

At 11 A.M. the Americans called on the dey, and the treaty terms were confirmed by both parties. Cathcart hurried to the harbor and hoisted a large American flag, the traditional signal that a treaty had been concluded with the nation whose ensign was flown. So ended a forty-two-hour marathon, from Donaldson’s arrival on September 3 to the signing of the treaty on September 5. As Cathcart described the transaction in his journal: “Peace was established between the Regency of Algiers and the United States of America to the astonishment of every person in Algiers, friends, as well as foes, by a lame old man who understood no language but his own, without funds or credit, and surrounded with enemies.”

5. Cathcart dispatched to Philadelphia to expedite peace treaty. His joy upon regaining his own country after ten years of exile. Further estimable actions in the service of his government. His happy marriage and numerous offspring; his demise.

The American captives uttered hosannas, but their expectations of immediate redemption were premature. Although Donaldson believed the cash was ready and waiting in Lisbon, this was not the case. The fact was that American credit was not the best; Europe was embroiled in its own troubles, and money in any form was difficult to obtain and export. The captives became restive and at least once marched on Donaldson’s residence.

The dey’s impatience increased daily when the money was not forthcoming. Again he thought he had been trifled with; he threatened to send out his pirates against American ships again. “As he consider’d that I was the chief promoter of the peace with the United States,” Carthcart wrote, “not a day passed that I was not threaten’d, & reviled, & sometimes scandalously abused, for as Donaldson had never been at the Palace since the presents were deliver’d, I was regaled with the part of the abuse which would have fallen to his lot, had he made his appearance.”

In April, 1796, the dey ordered the American consuls—Donaldson had been joined by Joel Barlow—to be out of Algiers within eight days; then he was mollified by the promise of an extra frigate thrown in when the Americans finally paid up.

In May the dey sent Cathcart to Philadelphia with a message for President Washington:

Whereas Peace and Harmony has been settled between our two Nations, through the Medium of the two Agents of The United States, Joseph Donaldson, and Joel Barlow, and as eight Months has elaps’d without one article of their agreement being complied with we have thought it expedient to dispatch James Leander Cathcart … with a note of such articles as is required in this Regency …

At last, nearly a year after the agreement had been signed in the dey’s palace, Joel Barlow succeeded in borrowing enough cash; the Americans were ransomed and shipped out hastily before the dey could change his mind, ending for some more than a decade of captivity.

The return to one’s own country after even a brief sojourn abroad can be an emotional experience; for James Leander Cathcart it was overwhelming, so overwhelming that he could not, he said, express his feelings as he stood once more on American soil after so many years of “trial and degradation.”

Cathcart delivered the dey’s message, then remained in Philadelphia to select presents and naval stores for the Algerian tribute stipulated in the treaty. In 1798 he returned to North Africa as a foreign-service officer and spent the next five years in the Barbary States, where he was instrumental in framing peace treaties with Tripoli and Tunis. He later served as American consul in Leghorn, Madeira, and Cadiz; his wife, whom he married in Philadelphia two years after his return from imprisonment in Algiers, and his growing family, which eventually included twelve children, accompanied him to his diplomatic posts. The last twenty years of his life he spent in the United States Treasury in Washington. He died in 1843.

In a letter to Colonel Humphreys two days after the Algerine treaty had been concluded in 1795, Cathcart’s optimism had led him to say: “Affairs has been attended with success even beyond our most sanguine expectations. …” Over the following years, however, this “success” was much diluted by the continued capriciousness of the Barbary lords. None of the treaties except the one with Morocco was observed, and the pirates kept up their attacks on shipping. Small-scale sea and land attacks were launched against Algiers and Tripoli, but no effort was big enough to stop the pirates until 1815. Then two entire American naval squadrons, in a display of force, sailed to the Algerine coast and dictated a ransomless, tributeless peace to the dey of Algiers, ending three decades of Barbary domination of American Mediterranean trade.

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