French History Lesson


For those taking a long view of French actions regarding Islamic states in North Africa and the Middle East, here's something I stumbled across this recently. It's a quote from The Captives, an 18th-century captivity narrative written by James Leander Cathcart, future U.S. Consul General to the Barbary states, about his enslavement in Algeria in the late 1780s and early '90s:

"Thus have I described the three [Algerian slave] prisons in which from two to three thousand miserable wretches have been confined, in consequence of the policy of those commercial nations which make a point not only to suffer [the Barbary states'] incorrigible insolence and arrogance, but likewise to feed their avarice and forge pretexts for them to commit depradations upon every nation which endeavors to share the commerce of the Mediterranean with them; when by stopping the dishonorabloe tributes paid by them to those Pirates, redeeming their slaves and stationing two Frigates each in that sea for four or five years, the Barbary States would become as contemptible as the little Republic of Lucca, and if we add to this the influence such a coalition would have at the Ottoman Porte their total annhilation would eventually take place. The dissensions which such a measure would produce among an idle soldiery would open a prospect of success, should the inhabitants of the city or Arabs of the country revolt, and could the Divan of the Sublime Porte be prevailed on to prohibit recruits from enlisting themselves under their banners, Algiers would be
the first to feel the effects and with her would fall Tunis and Tripoli, which would inevitably tend to a change of government, which in the event would produce a change of measures, and the nations of the world would be liberated from the excursions of those Pirates who have, from time immemorial, committed depredations on their property and enslaved their citizens and subjects.

But this union of sentiment is rather to be wished for than expected, for it is an incontrovertible fact that no war has been declared by those marauders for the last century that has not been instigated by some of the commercial powers in opposition to their rivals in trade, and the failure of all the Armadas sent against them by Spain may be just attributed to the advice and assistance they constantly receive from France, and especially through the medium of the Chamber of Commerce at Marseilles, which had in a great measure monopolized all the most valuable branches of commerce in all the Barbary States."

The Captives is included in the interesting collection White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives, edited by Paul Baepler and published in 1999 by the Univ. of Chicago Press.