- Liberty Contained:Sarah Pogson's The Young Carolinians; or, Americans in Algiers
Sarah Pogson's play The Young Carolinians; or, Americans in Algiers (1818) dramatizes the very tense period in the new republic when American sailors were captured by Barbary pirates and enslaved in Algiers. Pogson uses this historical context to explore ideas of nationalism, the place of women in the new nation, and the meaning of liberty. Two other better-known works that treat slavery in Algiers, Royall Tyler's The Algerine Captive and Susanna Rowson's Slaves in Algiers, explore these same issues, but Pogson's play comes to quite different conclusions. Tyler uses a constructed and rather exotic space in his depiction of North Africa to critique the practice of slavery in America. Rowson uses the degrading position of Christian slaves in Moslem Algiers to discuss issues of gender inequity. Both proclaim the basic injustice of the slave system. Pogson, in contrast, suggests that societies, even the new republic with its inclinations toward democracy, need clear class structures. The play bypasses the religious and racial differences between America and Algiers to propose that the order needed by any society originates in a stable class system reinforced by the careful choice of marriage partners. While liberty is the trumpeted value in all three works, exactly what "liberty" means varies. The Young Carolinians sees liberty as a value in limited quantities only. Pogson's play can complicate our historical sense of early American theater, the role of women, and even the new republic.
The play was originally part of a collection of essays and plays entitled Essays, Religious,Moral,Dramatic and Poetical published in Charleston "by a lady." The collection was misattributed to Maria Pinckney, as Amelia Kritzer explains, by Shaw and Shoemaker, who cataloged a microfilm collection of early American works.1 Only a recent discovery of a copyright ledger from the district of South Carolina from 1794 to 1820 shows Sarah [End Page 109] Pogson as the author.2 Since the play does not appear on W. Stanley Hoole's comprehensive list of plays staged in Charleston theaters from 1800 to 1861, it is unlikely that it was ever performed, and only a few critical sources mention the play.3 Charles Watson and Walter Meserve briefly note the play as part of their histories of drama, while Paul Baepler references it in the introduction to his anthology of Barbary captivity narratives. Benilde Montgomery analyzes the play more thoroughly, arguing that it provides a contrast to other works on Barbary captives. To say, then, that Pogson is a little-known author is an overstatement; her fate follows that of many early American women writers who have all but vanished from literary history. She can, however, provide us a different view of the enslavement of Americans in Algiers, which is a historical event that itself has been, as H. G. Barnby reminds us in The Prisoners of Algiers, "forgotten."
The capture of American sailors by Algiers was one of the first tests of the infant nation now separated from the protection of England. As Barnby explains, the imprisonment began on July 25, 1785, when the ship Maria was taken three miles from the coast of Portugal. The pirates were so bold because Algiers had just formed a truce with Spain, and Spanish ships were no longer providing a blockade. The American ship was free game, too, because the British had withdrawn their protection and the papers the ship was carrying were void. For the next 12 years Barbary pirates captured American ships attempting to trade with southern Europe and held their passengers as slaves, using them for labor until they were individually ransomed or until the United States finally came up with the money to interest the ruler of Algiers, the Dey, in a treaty.4 The situation captivated the new republic as it became increasingly indignant at the perceived insult; Stephen Clissold notes that the popular slogan was "Millions for defense—not one cent for tribute" (155).5 For America, the situation questioned the new nation's ability to protect itself, to engage in trade, and to advance the much-vaunted cause of liberty.