Classic Essays

1795: Jews Profited from First US-Muslim Conflict

A Dey in the life of Coen Baccri

THE SEIZURE OF Western hostages by Muslims is a habit hallowed by age, yet it appears to be another contretemps with which our ruling Liberal-Minority Coalition is unable to contend. The British Empire’s solution to the problem was to launch an attack on the perpetrators and write off the first hostages. British diplomatic personnel had to accept this risk as an occupational hazard. The Mohammedans had to be taught that kidnapping Britons did not pay. When the lesson was driven home, the hostage policy was dropped as dangerously impractical. What most Americans do not know is that the United States had scarcely begun as an independent nation when its citizens were taken hostage by Muslims. From 1785 to 1797 our government paid tribute to a North African power to get them released.

In 1785 the new United States of America had an empty treasury, no Navy and few skilled diplomats, a sorry condition that except for the Navy exists again today. Over 100 American seamen were held as hostages in Algiers. Words indicating out-and-out ransom were avoided in the negotiations, but the objective in seizing U.S. citizens was simply a fast buck, not the return of an absconding Shah. The American hostages would only be released after payment of the highest possible price the Dey of Algiers could get for a “peace treaty.” The U.S. government, its capital then being Philadelphia, became increasingly the target of heightened howling from the nascent American produce-and-consume fraternity, the merchants and shipowners, whose property and employes were being “detained” by the Dey.

The situation was sticky. A decade before, in 1775, a Spanish general with the un-Castillian name of Alexander O’Reilly had met a major disaster in an attempted amphibious landing in North Africa to remove the Algerian nuisance. A savage gale, thoughtfully provided in the nick of time by Allah, had lashed most of O’Reilly’s landing craft onto reefs, and his surviving Spanish forces were overwhelmed on the shore. The knowledge of this catastrophe convinced the Philadelphia administration that money was the only means available for a responsible government to get its hostages released. The tradition of using cash to implement American foreign policy began early in American history. As it was, our government had no funds, but it had credit, and upon this its hopes for rescuing the hostages were based.

The regime of Dey Hassan Bashaw in Algiers, though functioning autonomically in the late 1700s, was technically an extension of the Turkish Empire. The Dey himself was of Turkish origin and so were his lesser officials and soldiers. The Algerian ethnic majority, however, was of Moorish derivation, darker in complexion, weaker militarily, and poorer economically than their Turkish co-religionists. Algiers could not be controlled from Constantinople, for it was much too hazardous for the Sultan to send a large amphibious force anywhere within striking distance of the Spaniards.

The Muslim majority in Algiers had a minority problem with which its military power was manifestly unable to compete. A very large Jewish community had long maintained an adventurous habitat in the general area. Almost any assault on Algiers made a special effort to single them out. When O’Reilly launched his ill-fated attack, the Jews dug trenches faster, deeper and longer than the Muslims, for they feared the Spanish Inquisition more than the religious fanaticism of the Turks. In normal times in Algiers there was no law to protect the Jewish citizenry from beatings. An inebriated Turk or Moor was commonly inflamed by the appearance of a Jew (who wore a distinctive dress) to the point of raining blows on him. If a Dey were assassinated, it was the accepted procedure to subject the Jewish neighborhoods to an extreme form of Turkish trick-or-treat in which the houses were pillaged en masse. For their own protection Jews chose to live in ghettos, where they are able to aid each other in warding off the attacks of the Moorish and Christian lumpenproletariat, who were addicted to robbing them.

When the eccentric American emissary, Joseph Donaldson, arrived in Algiers in 1795 to negotiate the freeing of the U.S. hostages, he quickly noted, at the insistence of one of them, Captain Richard O’Brien, former master of the Dauphin, that the wealthiest and most influential people in Algiers were not Muslims, but Jews, and that the bulk of the city’s foreign trade was in the hands of Jewish merchants and bankers, who were in continuous touch with their colleagues all over Europe, Asia and the Levant. Their startling power, thought O’Brien, stemmed entirely from their intelligence service, superior to that of any government in the world, through which a copious flow of perfectly reliable information poured daily in and out of the ghetto. This was the basis of not only their immensely profitable banking and credit system but also of their national security. As international relations became ever more complex, it was vital for the heads of states to receive early, accurate, and punctual data on what was happening throughout the civilized world, and on such knowledge base their decisions. Algerian Jews thus constituted the only group who could supply these reports in North Africa in the 1790s. They were, in fact, the sole source capable of telling the Turkish rulers of Algiers just what the United States was unofficially prepared to pay for its captive seamen, and they made preliminary ransom arrangements at 2,000 Mexican dollars per head. The basis of this proposal rested on information coming from their contacts in Philadelphia.

Trade between Marseilles, Genoa, Alicante, and other Christian ports, some as far away as Plymouth or Stockholm, was conducted through this all-powerful Algerian minority, who handled the import of wheat and frequently took credit for saving the city from starvation. The poor Jew in Algiers was a rarity. The silver, gold and jewelry trade was completely in Jewish hands. The tailoring, dressmaking and embroidery industries were also under their control. They even owned the companies that supplied the janissaries with their military tents. As far as the lucrative Algerian liquor trade was concerned, the Jews made the stuff, the Moors peddled it, and the Turks drank it. The Algiers director of the mint, a Turk, was the official who supervised the production of all gold, silver and copper coins. He operated with an entirely minority staff and was the nominal supervisor of the guild of jewelers and goldsmiths, which was composed of a one hundred percent Jewish membership. He was also said to direct the sale of perfumes and fruit essences, a lucrative trade, which upon closer inspection was found to be another Jewish monopoly.

When the American emissary arrived in Algiers, the city had become a test case for proving the ultimate impossibility of conducting a viable society with contrasting ethnic elements. Since the Jews always dressed in black, with a turban of black silk around their three-cornered hats, they were quickly identifiable by their opponents, who not uncommonly caused a shower of saliva to land on them. No charge of anti-Semitism could be directed at the spitters, however, who were largely Semitic themselves. Although the Hebrew minority had managed to put Algiers figuratively into a politico-economic straitjacket as far as the material substance of power was concerned, they philosophically put up with a life style that superficially relegated them to an inferior social position. A Jew was not allowed to ride a horse, for example, but he was permitted to ride an ass outside the city’s walls. If he spotted a Muslim approaching, he was supposed by law to get off his ass and stand at attention until the Islamic individual marched past. Other petty annoyances were Turkish soldiers who stopped Jewish citizens on the street and made the Jews carry them back to the barracks. Minority vengeance on these aggravations was sometimes extreme. When the Bey of Constantine visited Algiers in 1795, during the period when the American plentipotentiary arrived, he decided to make a magnificent gift to the Dey’s wife. He asked a Jew to select a jewel of value and was offered a brooch decorated with diamonds — price, 60,000 Spanish dollars. The Bey bought the brooch and paid for it in wheat delivered in Constantine harbor at a price of four francs per sack of 100 pounds. The Jews promptly shipped this wheat to Marseilles where, because of a British blockade, they were able to sell it for 50 francs per 100 pounds. In this way, in only a minor deal, 3,750,000 francs in profit were realized from a single jewel brooch that an agent in Paris had bought for 30,000 francs. When Napoleon’s armies began to march through Europe, they had to have North African grain; in one year, 240,000 sacks went to France from Constantine alone. Algiers’ mostly Jewish merchants paid 6 francs a sack and sold it in France at brain-staggering profits.

When one contemplates the Algiers scene at the arrival of the U.S. ambassador, Donaldson, it can be wondered why he paid any attention to the Dey at all. The men to see in Algiers were Micaiah Coen Baccri and Nettali Busnach, who had close connections to their brethren in Leghorn, Italy. Baccri was the richest and most influential of all the bankers and brokers of Algiers and had relatives and contacts in every seaport of consequence on the Mediterranean shoreline. Since there were already Jewish brokers in the United States, Baccri, through his extensive world apparatus, knew the financial situation in America better than Donaldson. Baccri was also aware that the money for the Barbary “treaties” would have to be raised in Europe, which meant bills of exchange and credit, solid loans — all grist for the mills of an enterprising financial speculator. A captured American, James Cathcart, who had risen from the position of household serf to that of the Dey’s Christian secretary, accompanied Baccri to the brig that brought the U.S. delegation to Algiers. Cathcart, like O’Brien, had learned where the real power was.

Joel Barlow

 

After the lame, crusty, suspicious, and obdurate Donaldson, who finally became mentally sick and maniacal trying to get through the complexities of Algiers politics (and who became prone to anti-Semitic raging) departed from Algiers, he was replaced by Joel Barlow, a prototype of the contemporary but disappearing Ivy League diplomat. Barlow was soon on intimate terms with Baccri and a number of other rich Algerian brokers. Why, Barlow asked, would Jews not accept bills drawn on Baring and Co. and themselves supply the cash for the “treaty” payments? Why a lot of chasing around Europe for credit? The Jewish brokers answered they wanted a cut of 30% and refused to make any advance until they had evidence the U.S. could command some money in Europe.

Eventually, the Jews began to trust Barlow (finance has long been essentially a matter of confidence, this is why there are confidence men). On the other hand, James Cathcart, the Dey’s secretary, was loathed by the Jews. For some reason he entertained the idea that they were out to swindle the Dey, a man who got his cash through honest piracy, so he proceeded to set himself up as the Dey’s chief protector against their wile and intrigues. The Jews, in turn, regarded Cathcart as a dangerous anti-Semite. They would advance Barlow enough cash to free the captive American hostages, but only if he would control the secretary’s anti-Jewish plots. Barlow then contrived to send Cathcart, with the Dey’s approval, back to America, this after a period of nearly eleven years of forced retention in Algiers. Finally, Barlow was informed that Baring and Co. had established a $400,000 credit for the United States at Leghorn, Italy.

In June 1796, the gates of the Dey’s palace opened, and the American hostages were drawn up in two lines in the courtyard. Cash was duly hauled from the vaults of the Jewish bankers and, under Turkish guard, counted out in the presence of the Dey. The Dey, Hassan Bashaw, shook hands with Joel Barlow and the Americans marched off to the Fortune, a vessel owned by Micaiah Coen Baccri, which he chartered immediately to Barlow for a large sum, for return to America. Barlow later wrote to the Secretary of State that the Dey of Algiers was “as much under their [Jews’] control as any slave in Algiers is under the control of the Dey.” And further “there are two distinct powers, the House of Baccri and the Dey. No peace can be made or maintained, no commerce can be carried on, no officer can come into place, without the leave of that House.”

Thus we see in operation what might be termed an Illiberal-Minority Coalition in which activist members do not always coalesce in amity. As a matter of fact, one of Baccri’s sons had his head publicly chopped off not long after. Such is part of the real story behind the famed Barbary Pirates and the U.S. war with Tripoli, not normally presented in U.S. history classes. As for Joel Barlow, he appears to have wound up in a badly brainwashed condition after his note to the State Department. He recommended later to his government that the Baccris be encouraged to open up a branch of their business in Philadelphia.

The period which we are treating here predates the heroic action by the American naval officer, Stephen Decatur, who burned the captured Philadelphia and in 1815 defeated the Dey and forced Algiers and Tunis to pay damages for violating their “treaty” with the United States. Decatur’s military prowess convinced Muslims to abandon their hostage-taking business — at least in respect to Americans — for 164 years.

Most of the above article was based on The Prisoners of Algiers, an Account of the Forgotten American-Algerian War 1785-1796 by H.C. Barnby (Oxford University Press, 1966).

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Source: Instauration magazine, May 1980

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