James Leander Cathcart and Richard O'Brien were uniquely suited to their jobs, from one point of view: they had spent a lot of time in the region they were consuls to--as captives of the ruler during the previous decade.
Their struggles to do their jobs in the Barbary states was complicated by their inability to get along with each other, and in the end they couldn't accomplish the mission they'd been charged with: to make peace without payment with the Barbary states.
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Blum, Hester. “Pirated Tars, Piratical Texts: Barbary Captivity and American Sea Narratives.” Early American Studies 1, no. 2 (October 1, 2003): 133–58.
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Eicher, Peter D. “To the Shores of Tripoli: James Cathcart, William Eaton, and the First Barbary War.” In Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands, 34–71. University of Nebraska Press, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv6p4gt.6.
Goodin, Brett. From Captives to Consuls: Three Sailors in Barbary and Their Self-Making across the Early American Republic, 1770-1840. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.
Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.
Leiner, Frederick C. The End of Barbary Terror America’s 1815 War against the Pirates of North Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers. 6 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015008429121.
Panzac, Daniel. The Barbary Corsairs: The End of a Legend, 1800-1820. BRILL, 2005.
Peskin, Lawrence A. “The Lessons of Independence: How the Algerian Crisis Shaped Early American Identity.” Diplomatic History 28, no. 3 (2004): 297–319.
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Producer: Abby Mullen, and Kris Stinso
Editing: Liz Covart
Voice actors: Jeremiah Barba, Stephen Bean, and Michael Murphy
Music: Andrew Cote.
ABBY MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls.
MULLEN: Today, for the first time, we’ve got the story of two consuls who served at the same time, and they’re the consuls that sparked this entire podcast. We’ve talked a lot about consuls who have had surprising paths to the consulship, but these guys probably win that contest hands-down–they became consuls in the place they did because, before they were consuls, they were captives in the very same place. Their names are Richard O’Brien and James Leander Cathcart, and they were consuls to the Barbary states in the early days of the American republic.
MULLEN: Now if you’ve read my bio, you know that this is my jam. Consolation Prize exists because of these consuls–because I find their story so incredibly fascinating and complicated and worthy of telling. So I’m so happy to finally get to tell their story.
MULLEN: I like to tell stories in all kinds of different ways—like books, I’m working on writing one right now about the First Barbary War. And podcasts, like the story we’re about to explore together. But also games! I love historical board games, so I want to tell you about Fort Circle Games. Fort Circle has just released a game called “The Shores of Tripoli”—pretty topical for our episode today! It’s a two-player game, and you can choose whether to be the Americans or the Barbary states and see who might win the First Barbary War. I’ve played it several times, and it’s a really fun way to think about the choices that historical actors have to make. You can find it on fortcircle.com, amazon.com, or a number of other fine independent game stores. And stay tuned because Fort Circle has a bunch of other historical games under development as well! Thanks, Fort Circle, for sponsoring our show.
MULLEN: Now, back to our story. I’m really excited to tell you this story.
MULLEN: But I didn’t want to tell it alone, so we’re bringing back producer Kris Stinson to help us put all these pieces together.
KRIS STINSON: Hello! This story is so interesting to me because a) I didn’t know much about the Barbary States before preparing this episode and b) I am deeply compelled by stories of individuals who have been failed by systems they themselves fought to bring about, and yet never stop working for and within that system despite it all!
MULLEN: So I think where we need to start is at the beginning. Let’s hear from historian Brett Goodin about the early days of Richard O’Brien and James Leander Cathcart, where they decided to stake their claim as Americans.
BRETT GOODIN: Richard O’Brien, he was born in what’s today Maine, but it was then part of Massachusetts. He was born in 1758, and he spent his youth really criss crossing the Atlantic on merchant ships. And he says that his education, it was really sort of very, very limited formal education, he’s basically self taught. And during the Revolution, he might have been on a Pennsylvania State navy ship or maybe a Virginian State navy ship. Also, according to one letter that was written on his behalf while he was a captive in Algiers, Pennsylvania ship owners say that they also owned a Pennsylvania registered and based privateer during the Revolution, which O’Brien had served on. They say in that letter, which they addressed to President Washington, they said that O’Brien was a lieutenant on their privateer.
MULLEN: After the revolution, O’Brien got back into shipping, as the captain of the ship that’s variously called the Dolphin or the Dauphin –we’re going to call it the Dauphin. James Leander Cathcart likewise was a seaman from his early days, but he wasn’t quite as sure where his loyalties lay.
GOODIN: He’s a few years younger. He’s born in Ireland in about 1767. And he says that at the age of eight he was then sent to live with his uncle in America; his uncle was a merchant seafarer. Then, come the revolution, he’s 12 years old when he says he joined a Massachusetts State navy ship called the Tyrannicide. And says he joins that ship because it was, it was captained by his, his uncle.
GOODIN: a few months later, in sort of July and August of that same year, 1779, Cathcart then says he was involved when he was aboard the, still the Tyrannicide, involved in the Penobscot expedition in, in Maine. But unfortunately, about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, it was a sort of one strategic blunder after the next. And it turned into the biggest US– or American, I guess –naval disaster from that point up until Pearl Harbor. So the Tyrannicide was lost in, in that campaign. And it looks like Cathcart was probably captured as a result.
And he says he was then taken as a prisoner aboard the really notorious New York prison ships, the Jersey and Good Hope, and he says that he escaped from the Jersey and Good Hope and then returned to, to fight on behalf of the Americans. But I think what actually happened is that he exchanged his service in the Royal Navy for a pardon, which is a very common thing to do. And that’s because his name actually appears on the muster roll of a Royal Navy frigate. And I don’t think we should give him too hard a time for doing that, because it’s entirely possible that he would have died in, in these prison hulks before he turned 16 years old. The, the death rates and disease in these prison hulks was just extraordinary; so, for example, 12,000 people died just in these New York prison hulks, whereas only 8,000 died on all of the battlefields of the Revolution. So you had to be a pretty brave person to, given the choice, stay in those prison hulks rather than take any opportunity you had to get off.
STINSON: We do have to take Cathcart’s story with a small grain of salt both because it was published a hundred years after the event, and also because we know that Cathcart always had an eye to the main chance.
MULLEN: Right. As we’ll see, how Cathcart viewed the world, and how others viewed it, weren’t really all that similar sometimes. Nevertheless. O’Brien and Cathcart had more in common than just their seafaring experience. They also had the dubious distinction of being some of the very first Americans captured and enslaved by the Barbary states–specifically, by Algiers. Within just a few days of each other in 1785, O’Brien’s ship, the Dauphin, and the Maria, the ship that Cathcart was on board, were taken by Algerian cruisers in the Mediterranean.
MULLEN: These captures must have been a bit of a shock for a lot of people in the United States. In 1785, the American government wasn’t really prepared for being a part of the Mediterranean trading system. But let’s take a little step back and explain why Americans could be threatened by Algiers.
So, on the southern side of the Mediterranean, in the north of Africa, there are four states that are often called “the Barbary states.” Starting from the Atlantic and moving east, that’s Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Three of these four were dependencies of the Ottoman Empire; Morocco was its own independent country.
MULLEN: If you’ve heard any part of this story before, you’ve probably heard the ships from these states called “the Barbary pirates.” Now, as Jamie Goodall can probably tell us, one person’s pirate is another person’s legitimate businessman. But I don’t think there’s much reason to call these particular ships pirates. And here’s why.
MULLEN: By the time the Americans arrived in the Mediterranean, these Barbary states had been making money the same way for centuries: The Barbary states agreed to not attack European commercial vessels as long as the two countries in question–a Barbary state and a European country–had a treaty in place. These treaties often included significant yearly payments to the Barbary states, along with a bunch of other presents. These payments could be in money, or they could also be in naval stores that actually helped to keep the Barbary fleets in sailing condition. So it’s a sort of like “That’s a nice ship you have there, it would be a shame if anything happened to it,” situation. I think of it more like a protection racket, something like the Sopranos. I don’t think it’s piracy because first of all it’s state-sponsored, and second it’s not indiscriminate, they’re not just taking whoever they come across. Plus, there are actual rules that these corsairs have to follow, even if they’re not the rules that the Europeans or eventually the Americans acknowledge.
STINSON: Okay, so they’re not pirates. But all the European powers just went along with this?
MULLEN: Yeah they did. Even the major powers like Britain and France found it easier to just pay off the Barbary states rather than fight them. In the grand scheme of things, they were just a nuisance, but sometimes they were a useful nuisance to these bigger powers. But for smaller states, like Sweden or Denmark or Naples, sometimes maintaining four different treaties with these states could be very complicated–and very expensive!
STINSON: What about the United States? Were they content to just pay off the Barbary states as well? Where do they fit into all this?
MULLEN: Well, up until the end of the Revolution, Americans were protected under the treaty the British had, because they were British. But independence from Britain also meant the loss of that protection. And Richard O’Brien and James Leander Cathcart were some of the first casualties of that loss.
MULLEN: This was a huge blow to the principles of free trade that the very young United States believed in. It seemed wrong to have to pay to play, so to speak. On the flip side, though, it also demonstrated how weak the American government really was. Will your ideals of republicanism protect you? Apparently, no. Does the US government have your back? It seems like, also no.
MULLEN: So fear of these Barbary captures was huge and widespread–not just in the United States, but really all throughout the Mediterranean community as well. Rumors about captures ran wild through American society, even though very few of them were actually true. There was even a rumor in 1786 that Benjamin Franklin himself had been taken into captivity. Again, not true. But in reality, fewer than 35 ships were taken by any of the Barbary states between 1785 and 1815.
MULLEN: But this fear and rumormongering did have a tangible effect: insurance rates went up a lot for ships bound to the Mediterranean, so even though there weren’t a lot of captures, there was an effect, just from these few that did happen.
STINSON: Why were Americans so afraid of them? Especially if they knew how few ships were actually being captured?
MULLEN: There are two factors. The first one is that capture meant enslavement. Now this is not the kind of enslavement that Americans would be familiar with–in a lot of ways, it was much better. But even within enslavement, different people had different experiences. For instance, for Richard O’Brien,
GOODIN: he was 27, which is actually kind of an old guy, for, for a merchant sailor, doesn’t sound like it but, but that really was on the higher end of the age spectrum for merchant sailors of the time. And very importantly, he was also the captain of the ship. In Algiers and throughout the Barbary states, all across all of North Africa, they all recognized rank of foreign countries. So if you were a captain, that was recognized by the Algerian government or by Bedouin tribesmen. It was very, very unlike, say, the American experiences of slavery where it doesn’t matter who you were in Africa, or wherever, as soon as you land in, in the Americas you’re, you’re sent off, irrespective of who you were before you were you were captured, and held as a slave. And so because O’Brien was a captain, he and the other captains that were captured at the time, they were sent off to live with foreign consuls. So in this case, they were initially sent live with the British consul. And they didn’t have to really very often do hard labor, they occasionally had to do hard labor, very rarely. And in the diary that O’Brien kept during his captivity, he does mention when he occasionally is sent to, to hard labor, he only ever mentions a few of the times.
GOODIN: And so he had a had a pretty, I guess, chill experience of slavery or captivity in Algiers, just living with the consuls. He had basically a type of parole status, the captains and — you could also buy that parole status as well if you weren’t a captain –and you could just sort of wander around the city and have a relatively non threatening life. And that also sort of made you a lot, a lot safer, more comfortable, because it kept you out of very cramped and diseased quarters of the slave prisons.
MULLEN: So we might say that O’Brien had the “best” experience, if one can have a good experience of captivity. Cathcart’s experience was a little bit more painful to begin with, but even he did not experience slavery like many of his fellow captives, and he certainly didn’t experience it in the same way that black people back in the United States were.
GOODIN: He comes to Algiers and then is immediately thrown into one of the city’s various slave prisons. He was thrown in the slave prison that also was basically the zoo of the Dey of Algiers, and had sort of lions and tigers and, and all this sort of stuff. So it, it really stank, and apparently the rats were enormous. So not a, not a great place to be; occasionally the lion would get loose and eat someone and you wouldn’t dare fight back. Because if you accidentally hurt the lion at the end, the dey would get pissed off and you’re in trouble. So Cathcart didn’t have a great beginning. Although the one lucky break that he got was that he was sent to work immediately in the palace and gardens. And that was a good break, because it came with cash tips. And so he could use those cash tips to bribe his way into a different prison. It was the prison that housed the best-connected of the prisoners. So based on that, he then started this sort of long journey of climbing the greasy pole of Algiers bureaucracy, all the way up until he occupied the highest possible position that a Christian slave could, could occupy, which is called the chief Christian clerk to the dey. And this is a salaried position, and it’s basically the key advisor to the ruler of Algiers on all matters relating to sort of the Christian nations. And at the same time, he also managed to profit from managing three different taverns. So according to his own account, by the end of his captivity he had accumulated a personal net worth of at that time $10,000. But based on, sort of, my inflation-adjusted figures, that would equate to about $7 million today, which is, is not bad, considering this whole time, he was technically a slave. So he did pretty well, although he complains a lot.
MULLEN: Cathcart and O’Brien were on the lucky end of this captivity/enslavement. Many of their comrades worked at backbreaking labor, breaking rocks and building fortifications. Sometimes they even worked on the very same ships that would go out into the Mediterranean to capture more people just like them. And in the prisons where they lived, disease was extremely common. On several occasions, infectious disease swept through their compound. So when Cathcart and O’Brien finally got out, only about half of the original captives were still alive.
MULLEN: So enslavement was pretty fear-inducing. But the second factor in addition to enslavement that made Americans so afraid, was race and religion. I want to emphasize that even though religion plays a role in this story, it’s a gross mischaracterization to paint the conflicts between the United States and the Barbary states as a religious war. Nevertheless, there was a general sense that these Barbary corsairs were to be feared above Europeans because they didn’t play by the same rules–they didn’t sign on to the Law of Nations, for instance, and their Islamic faith was seen as violent and capricious, so there was a lot of fear.
STINSON: So, obviously, we know that Cathcart and O’Brien must have gotten out since they became consuls. But how did that happen since the United States had so little influence and power in the Mediterranean system?
MULLEN: It took a long time! The United States had to find a way to work within this Barbary system despite the fact that they didn’t have a lot of money just lying around to ransom these captives. But ransoming them was necessary if they wanted to claim that their form of government was superior.
MULLEN: So there’s a whole series of negotiations that go on for over ten years. Some of the negotiators died before they got there, like John Paul Jones. Some of them were just utter incompetents. But in the end, the United States had to sign a treaty with Algiers in order to get the captives ransomed. And that treaty did include a significant annual payment. This is a really big chunk of money: just the payment to Algiers made up about one-sixth of the federal budget.
MULLEN: Now, Morocco has actually had a treaty with the United States for some time –since 1786. So in the 1790s it’s just Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli that need to be negotiated with. As I mentioned, though, the treaty with Algiers requires a LOT of money. So the United States looked to the banking houses of Europe to extend enough credit for them to pay the bill. Richard O’Brien was considered the leader of the captives, so he was allowed to leave captivity and go try to drum up the money. The treaty with Algiers was signed in September of 1795, but it wasn’t considered a completely done deal until that money was in hand. So the other captives had to stay in captivity until the money was actually there.
MULLEN: O’Brien didn’t return to the United States until the spring of 1797. Meanwhile, Cathcart was left stewing in Algiers for several months after O’Brien left. He was already beginning to resent O’Brien. He had been the chief Christian clerk to the dey,we know, so Cathcart thought that he should have been the one who got to go to Europe, but other people had pressured him to let O’Brien do it. And he was pretty angry about that. So this was kind of strike 1 in the deterioration of the relationship between Cathcart and O’Brien.
MULLEN: The other two Barbary states got treaties pretty quickly after Algiers. So now, after everything is kind of settled (ish), it was time to fill some of the very key posts in the consular corps.
MULLEN: Consular communication is really, really important because there are a lot of moving parts in the Mediterranean system; not only do you have to keep your own local ruler happy, but you also have to deal with the changing fortunes of all the other nations who are traveling in the Mediterranean, as a change in their fortunes could signal a coming change in your own fortune. For instance, Britain and France are at war intermittently throughout this whole period, and as the power dynamic shifts between them, it shifts in the entire region. The United States is not a major power; it’s barely even a minor power; it’s along the same lines as Sweden and Denmark. So it’s not an influencer at all; the United States has to adapt to the changes as they happen.
STINSON: Now, if you’ve listened to our bonus episode, you’ll remember that the consuls to the Barbary states were special. For one thing, they got a salary, which no other consuls did at the time. But they had to earn that salary–they were going to the Barbary states not just to keep an eye on trade, but to act almost like diplomats. In order to keep trade flowing, they had to keep the peace with the Barbary rulers.
MULLEN: The trouble is, though, that not many people in the United States had much experience with the Barbary courts. The only ones who did had just returned from captivity there. So in 1797, Richard O’Brien and James Leander Cathcart were appointed to new posts as consuls to the Barbary states. They went there along with one other American, William Eaton, whose main claim to fame was his fighting against Natives during the American Revolution. The consul to Tangier in Morocco was already there. James Simpson had been the American consul to Gibraltar, and he just moved across the straits.
STINSON: Wait, so let me get this straight. Cathcart and O’Brien go back to the Barbary states after they had just been released from a decade of captivity? Why?
MULLEN: To be honest, it’s really hard to know. I think O’Brien was motivated by a genuine desire to see the United States succeed, but there’s no question that he absolutely hated it in Algiers. He tells people all the time how much he hates it. For Cathcart, it’s a little less clear. I’m not sure if “vengeance” is the right term, but he absolutely despised everything about the Barbary states, so I sometimes think he went back because he wanted to exact his revenge on the Barbary states somehow.
MULLEN: Now, O’Brien received the post of consul general at Algiers. Algiers was widely regarded as the most powerful of the four states, so it’s logical that that’s where the consul general would reside. Eaton went to Tunis, and Cathcart went to Tripoli.
MULLEN: It might seem logical to us that O’Brien would receive the most prestigious post of consul general. He had been the de facto leader of the captives; he had helped to negotiate the treaties with Tunis and Tripoli after leaving Algiers; and he seemed like a man with some common sense. Cathcart did not see it that way. He was furious that this uneducated, uncouth man would get the post of consul general, when Cathcart clearly knew more of the customs and the languages than O’Brien did.
GOODIN: He would have been, like, on paper, as we talked about, he would have been an on-paper rational pick for that job: he was the highest ranked American; he knew the, the ruler incredibly well. He also served that sort of central role in the eventually successful US-Algiers treaty, because he was really the intermediary, like, as part of the job of being the chief Christian clerk to the dey was that you’re the intermediary between the dey and and these Christian nations. So anyway, he was obviously livid, absolutely livid that he did not get that job. One of the reasons he didn’t the job was that when Joel Barlow, who is probably my favorite of all of the negotiators that the US sent to Algiers, when Barlow learned that Cathcart was sort of sniffing around for the job of consul general to Algiers, Barlow just took it upon himself to get in touch with the Secretary of State and tell the Secretary of State that Cathcart, quote, “has needed the talents or the dignity of character necessary for that purpose,” which is kind of an astonishing thing to just reach out, like a cold call to the Secretary of State, and just block Cathcart from getting this job. So I think extremely, extremely cold of Barlow to take it upon himself to do that, but extremely accurate. And the United States was totally better off for Barlow doing that.
MULLEN: But Cathcart saw it as O’Brien purposely obstructing him. This perceived slight was strike 2 against O’Brien, as far as Cathcart was concerned.
MULLEN: Now, it’s going to become clear that Cathcart is a pretty vindictive man. But in some ways he has every right to be. As a teenager, he fought for the Americans in the Revolution and got captured and imprisoned for his trouble. As an 18-year-old, he went sailing on an American ship and got captured and imprisoned for his trouble–and spent his entire young adult life in an Algerian prison. He and O’Brien both called themselves “victims of independence,” and they really were. They had fought to make the United States free, and yet they had never gotten to enjoy those freedoms for themselves.
MULLEN: So now they were both headed off to a volatile and complex diplomatic mission that neither of them really had any training for. And their government had very little money and very little ability to actually fulfill the terms of the treaties they had entered into. So, from many angles, this must have seemed like an impossible assignment.
STINSON: This seems like a situation where it’s good to keep your friends really close, since none of them actually know what they’re in for.
MULLEN: True. But for someone like Cathcart, it’s pretty hard to separate his anger into its different parts. But the person he really takes out his anger on the most is Richard O’Brien. These piled-up grievances really start to get to Cathcart; he is a republican (a little “r” republican) but he also wants to be at the top of the pile, not surprising since his whole life has been about being in a hierarchy where the lower people might not survive.
MULLEN: It’s 1798 by the time Cathcart began his journey to Tripoli, and he has to go to Algiers first and stop to pay his respects to Richard O’Brien, who was already there. On the ship to the Mediterranean, there’s William Eaton, the new consul to Tunis; there’s Cathcart; there’s Cathcart’s wife, who was only 14 years old when they were married in 1798; and his wife’s maid, Betsy Robeson. On the journey, Cathcart took liberties with Miss Robeson–exactly what kind of liberties, we’re not told, but we know enough to know that he was way, way out of line. The situation became so bad that when the group reached Algiers in late 1798, Miss Robeson took refuge in the American consulate with Richard O’Brien and she refused to go any further with the Cathcarts.
MULLEN: Initially, Cathcart gave up Miss Robeson as just a wastrel, and continued on to Tripoli. He arrived there in 1799. But then he received some shocking news.
I am informd that on the 25th of March consul general OBrien was married by the Sweedish Consul Skjoldebrand to Betsy Robeson the servant girl I brought out with me to attend on Mrs Cathcart … OBrien desired to take her to his table, I observ’d that he was master of his own house but he might depend that Mrs Cathcart would not accompany her as she had no idea of making a companion of her Domestic? Madam was piqued and desired her discharge three days afterwards which I did not refuse I having seen enough on the passage to determine me to form no very favorable opinion of her & to know that she was a very unfit person to be an inmate with Mrs Cathcart especially in a place where there is no other formal society.
MULLEN: It was bad enough that O’Brien had taken the girl in and treated her as an equal with Cathcart’s own wife. But according to Cathcart’s own hierarchical logic, when O’Brien married her, she became Cathcart’s social superior–and that was not ok. This was strike 3 against O’Brien, who clearly could not be relied upon to do the right and proper thing.
MULLEN: This rift between Cathcart and O’Brien is pretty important. Cathcart stopped sending a lot of dispatches to O’Brien, and O’Brien stopped reading the ones he did send. But the success of their mission depended on them working together. The consuls can only do their job if they talk to each other and keep the lines of communication open; for instance, President John Adams gave them explicit orders to work together to renegotiate some of the terms of the treaty with Tunis.
STINSON: So what ended up happening?
MULLEN: Things got off to a bad start in Tripoli because of the lack of communication between O’Brien and Cathcart. In 1799, when Cathcart finally arrived to take up his post, the bashaw (that’s the ruler) told Cathcart that O’Brien had promised to give Tripoli a ship as part of the treaty payment. Cathcart was like “no, you didn’t,” or at least “I don’t know anything about that.” And it was probably true that he didn’t know anything about it, whether O’Brien had said it, because Cathcart and O’Brien didn’t communicate with each other very often. Cathcart ended up paying the bashaw several thousand dollars to compensate for the missing ship–and it turns out the ship had never actually been promised in the first place.
MULLEN: Cathcart made a number of other errors, kind of along the same lines, and all of them put the United States on even shakier footing with Tripoli. Many of these errors could have been avoided if he had just consulted the other consuls, especially O’Brien. He also tried to kind of have his cake and eat it too–he tried to do some trading of his own on the side, along with Eaton. And that got him into some hot water when he had to disentangle official affairs from his own moneymaking schemes.
STINSON: Wait, but based on all of the consuls we have covered so far in the podcast, I thought it was normal for them to trade on the side?
MULLEN: Typically it is normal. But, as we talked about earlier, the United States was providing a salary for these Barbary consuls. This was as a recognition that their work would be more diplomatic in nature, and thus more delicate and more time-consuming. In this case, it became pretty clear that neither Cathcart, nor Eaton, his sometime trading partner, were actually very good at trade anyway.
MULLEN: The one thing that Cathcart and O’Brien and Eaton are all in agreement about is that this constant negotiation and renegotiation, and presents-giving and accommodations being made, this system is not sustainable for the United States. And they felt that the independence of the nation was at stake. They’d all been burned so many times by the United States, from their experiences in the Revolution, to their captivity, to now being sent to the Barbary states with little capital and no diplomatic experience, and now they’re expected to solve this problem. Cathcart and O’Brien took very different approaches to this issue, and that caused significant conflict between them. But it’s kind of hard to judge them too harshly for their ineptitude.
MULLEN: All the consuls knew that the United States authorized the creation of a navy to deal with the Barbary states, but in 1798 the navy was instead headed to the Caribbean to fight against France; they were not coming to the Mediterranean. So the consuls begged the Secretary of State and whoever else would listen to send the navy to the Mediterranean, as they’re watching the diplomatic situation with all of the Barbary states deteriorate. In fact, O’Brien was asking for a very large navy before he even left to take up his consular post in Algiers.)
MULLEN: So as the consuls’ relationship with each other deteriorates, so does their relationship with the governments that they’re working with. In 1800 a conflict between Cathcart and the bashaw of Tripoli highlights one of the key weaknesses of the treaties they were working under: the fact that Algiers was written into the treaty as a mediator. The bashaw of Tripoli had agreed to this term initially, but now he didn’t want to go through Algiers because he felt that it gave Algiers too much power — and to be fair, the dey that he had felt pressure from had died, so it was kind of a new situation. But the consuls really had to make this work. And again, this was much more difficult because Cathcart and O’Brien were not really talking to each other.
MULLEN: But there’s something else going on as well. It’s not just Tripoli that’s the problem. O’Brien was having problems of his own in Algiers. The first American naval ship arrived in the Mediterranean in October of 1800, so you might think “Oh! things are looking up,” but really the navy’s appearance kind of made things worse.
STINSON: Why? Hadn’t O’Brien been waiting for a stronger American presence in the area?
MULLEN: Yeah, he had been, and maybe he felt a little hope when he saw the ship arrive. The ship was the USS George Washington, it was commanded by a man named William Bainbridge. It was bringing the annual payment of naval stores to Algiers. So far, so good. But when the ship arrived, the dey of Algiers insisted that this US naval vessel had to serve another purpose. He wanted Bainbridge to be the courier to take the dey’s own tribute to the Ottoman Porte in Constantinople. Richard O’Brien explained the situation to the Secretary of State:
The dey on the 9th Instant declared that if the George Washington did not proceed to Constantionople with his Ambasador and presents. that he no longer held to his friendship with the U S & in my Opinion, would detain the U. S. Ship [George] Washington and crew & send out his corsairs & take all the Americans the[y] Could meet with. Viewing the dificulties & Judgeing of the Calamities there was no alternative but to acquise to the dey’s forced demand. and on the 19th Instant the U S ship under the Command of Capt Bainbridge sailed for Constantionople.Richard O’Brien to William Eaton, October 19, 1800. Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939), 1:384-85.
MULLEN: The cargo the George Washington had brought was things like rope, planks, a few cannon. What they were going to carry to Constantinople was quite different. Do you want to see the list?
STINSON: Sure. They took:
The Tripolitan Ambassador and his entourage, a total of 100 people
Enslaved black people, men and women, another 100 people
25 horned cattle
4 antelopes, and
Nearly a million dollars.
MULLEN: Needless to say, with this list of cargo, this voyage did not exactly strike fear into anyone’s hearts, or establish the reputation of the United States as a nation that couldn’t be pushed over. In fact, William Eaton had pretty strong words about the hit that the reputation of the United States was going to take.
William Eaton: Genius of My Country! How art thou prostrate! Hast thou not yet one son whose soul revolts, whose nerves convulse, blood vessels burst, and heart indignant swells at thoughts of such debasement!
Shade of Washington! Behold thy orphan’d sword hang on a slave – A voluntary slave, and serve a pirate!William Eaton to the Secretary of State, November 11, 1800. Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939), 1:398.
MULLEN: O’Brien was also mortified at these events, but he and Bainbridge had both agreed that there wasn’t much other recourse. The George Washington couldn’t take on the entire fortified city of Algiers and its navy, and the United States was trying desperately to avoid a war. But O’Brien begged the Secretary of State after this to let him come home. He wasn’t cut out for this kind of work, he didn’t like it, and he probably hated being constantly reminded of the worst ten years of his life.
MULLEN: Now, by contrast, in Tripoli, despite the fact that things are not going great, Cathcart was certain that he was the right man for the job. The bashaw of Tripoli kept making demands. Cathcart kept putting him off. And then something changed. In January 1801, Sweden signed a peace treaty with Tripoli, and Cathcart knew that now the bashaw would be on the hunt for his next target. So he wrote to all his fellow consuls across the Mediterranean,
I have every reason to suppose the same terms will be demanded from the United States of America and that our fellow citizens will be captured in order to ensure our compliance with the said degrading, humiliating and dishonorable terms; I find it my duty to request you to take such measures as will most effectually prevent any of our Vessels from trading on this Sea untill you are advised officially by me or either of our consuls at Algiers or Tunis that this disagreable affair is terminated. … I therefore request the above mentioned Agents and Consuls of the United States of America and all others whom it doth or may concern to communicate the contents of this circular Letter to all Merchants and Masters of Vessels belonging to the United States, in order that they may withdraw their property immediately from these Seas and that our Mariners may fly the impending danger.Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939), 1:404-405.
MULLEN: Cathcart wasn’t wrong. The bashaw did increase his demands, and Cathcart refused to pay them.
On May 14, 1801, Cathcart watched as
at a quarter past two they effected the grand achievement and our Flagstaff was chop’d down six feet from the ground & left reclining on the Terrace, “thus ends the first act of this Tragedy.”James Leander Cathcart to the Secretary of State, May 16, 1801. Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939), 1:459.
MULLEN: Chopping down the flagstaff was a declaration of war. In his mission to keep the peace with Tripoli, Cathcart had failed. He had lost yet another job to the Barbary states–after all, you can’t be a consul to a country you’re at war with.
STINSON: So what happened to the rest of the Americans in the Mediterranean?
MULLEN: At the very moment that the flagstaff was being chopped down, the first of four American naval squadrons was sailing across the Atlantic–so the consuls were finally getting their naval presence. But for Cathcart, it was too little, too late. O’Brien was more successful at Algiers–at least, Algiers didn’t go to war with the United States at this time. But O’Brien just really wanted to go home.
MULLEN: Eventually, he did get to go home–but only several months after his own term as consul had ended. Both Cathcart and O’Brien stayed in the Mediterranean to assist with negotiations.
STINSON: The navy did succeed eventually in 1805, but the conditions in the Mediterranean and the positions of the consuls was very different by then. By that time, the navy was sending more ships to bolster the American presence in the Mediterranean. So the consuls are not negotiating from a position of power, to be sure. But they’re also not negotiating from a position of nothing.
MULLEN: There was never really a chance that Cathcart and O’Brien as consuls would be able to take the vengeance they wanted–or establish the United States as a major power in the Mediterranean. They just didn’t have the resources, or the experience, or the backing to make it happen. Now, as we’ve seen, it is true that Cathcart had some self-destructive tendencies, but he wasn’t given a lot to work with. And the George Washington incident had proved to Richard O’Brien that the solutions he was hoping for weren’t going to be enough. Once again, the system that Cathcart and O’Brien had believed in and worked for had failed them.
Brett Goodin is a Global Perspectives on Society Postdoctoral Fellow at NYU Shanghai. He researches the United States in the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His first book, From Captives to Consuls (Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2020) is a collective biography that explores the meandering life courses of three American sailors who were held as white slaves in the North African “Barbary States.” The book is a study of the predominant type of self-made men in the early American republic, who typically moved sideways rather than upward, and influenced and reflected American nation-building and evolving concepts of liberty, masculinity and nationhood in the early republic through the Jacksonian era. He is now working on a new book project, Conflict, Commerce and Self-discovery: American sailors and the Asia-Pacific, 1784-1914, about the role of American sailors in the Asia-Pacific (including China) and how they leveraged their experiences to shape domestic developments in science, culture and politics within the U.S.
Prior to joining NYU Shanghai, Dr. Goodin taught at the Australian National University and held postdoctoral fellowships at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, in addition to the Library Company of Philadelphia and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. His research has also been supported by fellowships from the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, the American Philosophical Society, the International Center of Jefferson Studies at Monticello, the Huntington Library, the David Library of the American Revolution, and the Library Company of Philadelphia and Historical Society of Pennsylvania.