Dramatic Moments in American Diplomacy/Chapter Seven

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Dramatic Moments in American Diplomacy by Ralph W. Page
Chapter Seven: The Humiliation of Impotence. A Study in Piracy

The "Shadow of God" and "Emulator of Alexander" Writes a Dispatch to "The Amiable James Monroe, Emperor of America"—Courtly Frightfulness, vs. Truculent Pacifism—John Adams has a Pleasant Chat with a Pirate in London—An Algerian Price List of American Sailors—Boston Mariners Left in Turkish Slavery—The Diplomatic Triumph of a Courteous Murderer—Blackmail the Alternative of a Navy—The Portrait of George Washington—Stephen Decatur Demonstrates the Persuasive Value of Gunpowder in Diplomatic Discourse.


During the year 1816 the President of the United States received an amiable and condescending message from a subaltern of the greatest person that ever lived. That is, if we can believe his own modest description of himself, constituting the leading paragraph of the wonderful letter:

"With the aid and assistance of Divinity, and in the reign of our sovereign, the asylum of the world, powerful and great monarch, transactor of all good actions, the best of men, the shadow of God, director of the good order, King of Kings, supreme ruler of the world, Emperor of the Earth, emulator of Alexander the Great, possessor of great forces, sovereign of the two worlds and of the seas, King of Arabia and Persia, Emperor, son of an Emperor and Conqueror, Mohammed Khan (may God end his life with prosperity, and his reign be everlasting and glorious), his humble and obedient servant, actual sovereign governor and Chief of Algiers, submitted for ever to the orders of his Imperial Majesty's noble throne, Omar Pasha (may his government be happy and prosperous).

"To his Majesty, the Emperor of America, its adjacent dependent provinces and coasts, and wherever his government may extend, our noble friend, the support of the Kings of the Nation of Jesus, the pillar of all Christian sovereigns, the most glorious among the princes, elected amongst many lords and nobles, the happy, the great, the amiable James Madison, Emperor of America (may his reign be happy and glorious, and his life long and prosperous), wishing him long possession of the seal of his blessed throne, and long life and health. Amen. Hoping that your health is in good state, I inform you that mine is excellent, thanks to the Supreme Being, constantly addressing my humble prayers to the Almighty for your felicity."

Could anything be more polite and ingratiating than this?

He continued in the same pleasant and genial vein to say that he had been delighted to receive the American Ambassador (Stephen Decatur, who had arrived with the guns of three warships trained on the palace) and to make a treaty such as he suggested. But he regretted to say that for a slight objection this treaty was not entirely "practical" and, in consequence:

"I inform you, therefore, that a treaty of peace having been signed between America and us, during the reign of Hassan Pasha, twenty years past, I propose to renew said treaty on the same basis stipulated in it, and if you agree to it, our friendship will be solid and lasting.

"I intended to be on higher terms of amity with our friends the Americans than ever before, being the first nation with whom I made peace; * * * we hope that with the assistance of God you will answer this our letter, immediately after you shall have a perfect knowledge of its contents. * * *

"Requesting only that you will have the goodness to remove your consul as soon as possible, assuring you that it will be very agreeable to us. These are our last words to you, and we pray God to keep you in his holy guard.

"Written in the year of the Hegira 1231, the 20th day of the moon Dge Mazirl Covel, corresponding to 1815, April 24th. Signed in our well-beloved city of Algiers.

"Omar, Son of Mohammed,

Conquerer and Great."

We recommend this dispatch to our friend Francisco Villa, and other kindred spirits of the chaparral, as an improvement on their own method of communication. They need not be too proud to receive lessons in procedure from Omar, Son of Mohammed. As a practitioner of the Trade of Frightfulness and a successful follower of the business of freebooting, he still remains without a peer. Beside him the Mexican is a kindergarten teacher. It is true that Omar was a seafaring man. But all the more must have been his natural temptation to use dreadful and furious language. Being a master in the pastime of robbing and enslaving trustful and helpless Americans, he must have had some weighty diplomatic reason for the poetical and gentle nature of his dispatches.

It is a strange thing that every generation has to learn its lessons by experience. Even a slight study of the career of the Dey of Algiers would have saved two classes of modern theorists a great deal of brain fag and needless expensive experiments. To the believer in the doctrines of the divine right of plunder and the joys of running amuck, the learned Moslem would have taught that the most efficient vocal accompaniment is by no means nasty language, bluff, bluster, and threats. On the contrary, these have a way of arousing and multiplying enemies beyond endurance. The proper way is to be polite—and to speak in tones so excessively soft and reasonable, not to say flattering, that only the basest sceptic can doubt their beneficence.

The other class of theorists would have ceased to exist upon such a study. These are the ever-increasing lovers of humanity who carry the principles of fair play and justice to the conclusion that, if let alone, "all men" will respond in kind, and who believe in consequence that any resort to force for the protection of the lives and property of citizens is foolish in policy, if not wicked in morals.

Before being disillusioned by the apparition of Napoleon and the assumption of responsibility, which is a great dispeller of illusions, Thomas Jefferson might fairly be catalogued among the latter class. His chief abomination was a navy, and the foundation of his faith that ultimate good-will was to be found in all men who were fairly treated. Those who believe the same to-day will be sorry to learn how this worked in Algiers.

The entertaining dispatch above quoted came along toward the end of the chapter, and is given more as an example of a diplomatic curiosity than as part of the story. But in this connection it is worth observing that this cheerful document was in exact fact an ultimatum from this jovial despot to the effect that he would immediately waylay and capture all American merchantmen venturing beyond Gibraltar and enslave the crews in lieu of a big ransom, unless the United States agreed to pay him a small matter of $21,000 a year tribute, as we had paid the late lamented Hassan Pasha (may the grace of God rest his beautiful soul). That an Algerian pirate on the sands of Africa should have had the nerve to address such a demand, even in poetic prose, to the President of the United States, involves a disgraceful story, which we certainly would not print, except for the benefit of the theorists and pacifists aforementioned. And to prove for our own satisfaction the impotence of language as the only national ordnance. At the same time the delicate attention paid our envoys and the courtly language of the pirate's communications make a picture so charming as almost to spoil the moral.

The Dey of Algiers, the Emperor of Morocco, the Bey of Tripoli, and Hamouda Pasha, a ruler of Tunis, under the firm name of the Barbary States, constituted in themselves the foremost and most celebrated institute of piracy ever seen on the globe. Operating from scenes famous since the dim ages of the Argonauts, from among the ruins of the most splendid kingdoms of antiquity, along those dreamy shores of the Mediterranean "where may be traced the track of the hero of more than one epic," the fleet corsairs of these mediaeval sultans made a romantic picture and added variety and interest to those fond of wild adventure and desperate escapes. To all others that passed through the Pillars of Hercules they were a curse and terror. The sight of their sails and the Turk's Head on the horizon was signal for utter despair. The barest record of their atrocities would not bear repetition.

In the year 1783 the jolly old Dey was astonished to observe a new flag serenely sailing down the coast. No armoured convoy was in sight. His treasurer recorded no goodty tribute giving license to Stars and Stripes to sail the seas. The impudence of the performance was astounding. Hardly conceiving that good fortune of such easy prey could continue, the Dey held communion with his partners. The immediate result was a conversation in London between John Adams and a suave and tawny gentleman from Tripoli "who addressed him with much condescension and patronage." Johnson goes on to say that "the Tripolitan conceded that America might be a great country, but he pointed out that its ships could not navigate the Mediterranean Sea without the permission of the Barbary States. He was willing to negotiate a treaty between the United States and Tripoli for $150,000, or with all four of the Barbary States for $600,000." When Adams tried to reduce the price, the Corsair in the most urbane manner suggested that he had actually forgotten the most important item of all, a small matter of 10% for himself.

The feelings of sturdy old John Adams must have been apoplectic in being compelled to conduct such a negotiation—and all the more at its failure. For while Congress would not fight, it could not pay any such sum as this. But if this blackmail was bad, worse was to come.

In the following July the long-suffering Dey sent forth eight sails through the Strait of Gibraltar on a merry hunt. These fell in with the schooner Maria, of Boston. Scimitar in hand the buccaneers swarmed over the rail and had Isaac Stephens, captain, Alex Forsythe, mate, and six Gloucester seamen tied hand and foot without time to struggle. The good ship Dauphin, of Philadelphia, fell foul of the outfit on the way home. The delighted Corsair captain confiscated the Yankee boats and the cargoes and packed the twenty-one sailors as slaves into the interior—and waited.

It is disgusting to relate that instead of a broadside of round shot, after so long a time there turned up among the minarets two "ambassadors" sent by Adams from London, Messrs. Lamb and Randall. The old pirate received them with great ceremony and marked

hospitality. He was very attentive and agree- able. He opened the conversation by saying that he had followed with interest the exploits of their illustrious countryman, General Wash- ington, and felt a great admiration of his con- duct. That since he never expected to see him, if Congress would do him the favour to send him a full-length portrait of that celebrated person, he would hang it in a good light in his palace at Algiers.

In regard to the captives, the Dey was as cordial as any good merchant to a valuable customer. He allowed that captives were be- coming more and more expensive to get, but that he would make a special discount for the sake of new trade, and concluded with a magnanimous schedule of prices, as fol- lows:

8 Captains, $6,000 each , $18,000

2 Mates, $4,000 each ,. . 8,000

2 Passengers, $4,000 each ., 8,000

14 Seamen, $1,400 each (a bargain). 19,600

$53,600

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Expense of Catching and Keeping

Aforesaid 5,896

��Total BiU $59,496

The Americans had been authorized to pay $200 apiece. Failing to purchase back their countrymen, they tried to beg them back.

The American sailors were left in slavery.

Whether this inconceivable action was the result of a "peace policy" or of the theory then prevailing against the building of a fleet, it is equally disgraceful. The diplomats of the pe- riod had their fill of endeavours to treat with brigands without any recourse to force. Their next move was more humiliating still. Failing themselves, they turned to a European "So- ciety for the Redemption of Captives," a holy order that made a business of alleviating as far as possible the horrors of this bondage in Tur- key. This order informed the Continental Congress that it would be of no use to try to get the prisoners for a reasonable sum if money and letters were continually sent to better their

��� lot, because this gave the pirates an idea that they were "valuable." So the next step taken by this peace party was actually to refuse the modest drafts of a Spanish gentleman helping to keep life endurable for the slaves, and the issuance of strict instructions that the poor creatures should be made to suppose they had been left to their fate, the more to make the Dey anxious for his bargain.

This didn't work either.

Finally, on the 4th of March, 1789, George Washington was elected President of the United States. His inchnation on the subject was definite enough. But he is not the only conmiander-in-chief of the forces of the United States who has had to face a bad situation without any forces. Congress had recently taken the precaution to sell the only warship they owned, and had again commissioned the holy order to go and reason with the Moslems. Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, now felt that these poor sailors had suffered enough. He commissioned John Paul Jones, of all

pie, to go on a mule to try once again to buy them back. How this suited the Captain of the Bonhomme Richard is not recorded — except that he died immediately, before he started.

Meantime, half the wretched victims also had died, and the rest sent a plea to their coun- try that would have melted a stone Moloch. In 1793, the Dey had a banner year. He gath- ered in a hundred and five more American citi- zens.

The utter futility of diplomatic action with these gentry had one obvious and beneficial re- sult. Public opinion in the country would no longer stand such a pitiful attitude. And when the patriarch of these enslaved mariners from Boston wrote, "Your Excellency will perceive, that the United States has at pres- ent no alternative, than to fit out with the greatest expedition thirty frigates and corsairs in order to stop those sea robbers in capturing American vessels," the navy of the United States was born. In 1794 Congress author-

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ized the President to build six frigates. Three of them were actually completed before that vahant body retracted — three that were des- tined to put the fear of God into more different kinds of scalawags than all the resolutions of Congress put together from that day to this — the Constitution, the United States and the Constellation,

They were not done in time, however, to keep us from paying the cordial old Dey $642,500 cash, commissions, presents, etc., for the release of American citizens, and for sign- ing what he called a treaty. By this document he agreed to let American ships sail in peace — and we agreed to give him a matter of $21,000 worth of naval stores and other friendly little gratuities every year.

The amazing attitude of "forbearance" and supine pacifism taken by our government was not ended even then. The following incident, related by Lyman, seems almost incredible — in- credible that the government would tolerate it.

"In October, 1800, the Dey signified to the

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(American) Consul his intention of sending an ambassador to the Porte, with the custom- ary presents, in the Washington, a small American frigate, at that time lying in the har- bour of Algiers. It may well be imagined that the proposal was an awkward and offensive one. The United States had neither consul nor minister at Constantinople, nor any sort of treaty with any of the Itahan states, with some of whom Algiers was then at war. * * * To the representations, both judicious and rea- sonable, made on this occasion, the Dey threat- ened war, plunder, and captivity, and declared he had selected the Washington to transport the embassy as a special compliment. * * * The proclamation of his Highness's pleasure was further accompanied with another pro- posal, also of an embarrassing nature, to hoist the piratical flag of the Algerines at the main top gallant mast head of the frigate. It was in vain the barbarian was informed that the act would throw the frigate out of commission ; neither the Dey nor his Minister of Marine

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would curtail a tithe of the demand, and this Corsair flag, bearing the turbanned head of Hali, was run up to the main with a salute of seven guns — a compliment that cost the United States 40,000 dollars."

There is one way, and only one, to treat with a certain class of persons. And they are met with periodically by all nations — as well as all men. Our old friend, Omar, Son of Moham- med, was one of these. And the proof of it is that when he finally got his treatment he ceased to be a leading figure in either buccaneer or diplomatic circles.

It came about this way. Concluding that the $378,363 received by him and his illustrious predecessor Pasha was after all a paltry pit- tance to get out of such a healthy coward as the U. S. A., he concluded he would like to have $27,000 more. His annual gift also caused him some slight disappointment. So in the most polished manner he invited Mr. Lear, our consul, to depart at once, and sent forth his trusty admiral, Ruis Hammida, Son

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of the Desert, with the whole Algerine Squad- ron to kidnap some more Yankees.

But he selected an unfortunate moment. This was in 1812, and American merchantmen were not venturing abroad. He got a bag of only eleven prisoners. But as soon as the war was over he learned his lesson, as mentioned above. While his pirate fleet was all at sea, one fine afternoon there appeared at the very gates of his palace the American Squadron, veterans of battles famous in history, com- manded by Commodore Bainbridge. And on board was a novel and unwelcome kind of dip- lomat, named Stephen Decatur. He was very brusque and rude to the "Asylum of the World." He said he had come to make a treaty, the principal article of which was that "no stipulation for paying any tribute to Al- giers under any form whatever will be agreed to." The outraged Son of Mohammed wanted time to consider it. "Not a minute," said De- catur. It being manifest that this rude am- bassador was looking forward with ill-con-

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cealed pleasure to operating his guns, by lunch time the outraged monarch signed the treaty.

After the squadron left, the shrewd old sin- ner of course concluded that he had made a grave mistake in ever leaving his former graft. So he cooked up an excuse, drew his flotilla around him, and forthwith dispatched the dip- lomatic paper given at the beginning of this chapter.

Further diplomatic discourse was inter- rupted by the arrival of Lord Exmouth with a British fleet of twenty sail. The Dey had come to believe his own description of his pow- ers, and had put the British Consul in jail. And without any preliminaries the Admiral opened twenty broadsides on the towers of Alg- iers, and knocked the place into a rubbish heap.

After the receipt of fifty-one thousand round shot the Dey came out and swept the ground with his beard, opened up his jails, and turned cynic. One immediate conse- quence was his signature to a paper tendered him by Commodore Chaunccy, U. S. N., read- ing as follows :

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"The President of the United States and the Dey of Algiers, being desirous to restore and maintain, upon a stable and permanent footing, the relations of peace and good un- derstanding between the two powers, and for this purpose to renew the treatj^ of peace and amity which was concluded between the two states by William Shaler and Commodore Stephen Decatur * * * and his Highness Omar Pasha, Dey of Algiers * * * etc."

It is hardly possible that this sort of game could be played on us again by so small a band of freebooters. But there is abundant evidence available that the process of evolution has not yet advanced the human race to the point where the same tactics are impossible in the hands of more powerful, if less courteous, marauders. And it is just as well to remem- ber that there is only one kind of diplomacy effective with such gentry. And one kind of diplomat, best exemplified in the person of Stephen Decatur.

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