- Barbary(an) InvasionsThe North African Figure in Republican Print Culture
WE, the subjects of the United States of America, having the misfortune to be taken by the Algerines and brought into this port, and made slaves of, being stripped of every one of our clothes, and left in a state of slavery and misery, the severities of which are beyond your imagination, [we hope] you will take our grievances into consideration. …
Americans, beware! Let nothing tempt you to come in the way of these people, for they are worse than you can imagine.Public letter from three captive American captains in Algiers to the American consul at Cadiz, 1785
two algerine gentlemen
“GLORIOUS NEWS!!” announces an issue of the Impartial Herald of Newburyport, Massachusetts, on August 30, 1794. Citing European newspapers just arrived from Rotterdam on the ship Mary, the Herald reports on French advances in Belgium, detailing months-old battles across northern Europe. Yet the Mary brought more to Newburyport than just belated news from a war on the far side of the Atlantic; near the bottom of this tightly packed column of newsprint appears a brief mention of two conspicuous visitors:
Two Algerine gentlemen came passengers in the Mary: As various reports are in circulation respecting their visiting this country, for the satisfaction of our readers, we have obtained the following accounts from a gentleman who has conversed with them. Eight years since one of them commanded a frigate in the service of the Dey and being taken by three Neapolitan frigates, it was dangerous for them to return to Algiers; they have since been traveling in different parts of Europe, and have recommendations [End Page 331] from very respectable characters there. They will in a few days proceed on to Philadelphia.(“GLORIOUS”)
The arrival of these two Algerian tourists at Newburyport had apparently caused quite a stir—an event that, in contrast to the wars raging in Europe, had both a geographic and temporal immediacy for readers of the Herald. The newspaper’s report of the two gentlemen circulates as a timely and authoritative intervention into the public conversation. Although the piece does not elaborate on the content of the “various reports,” they come within the context of long-standing tensions between America and Algiers; in 1794, the United States was effectively at war with the dey of Algiers, and had been for almost a decade.
The conflict with Algiers had already struck the Herald’s readership close to home. From September to November of the previous year, Algerian cruisers took advantage of a temporary treaty with Portugal to sail out of the Mediterranean and capture eleven American ships and imprison over a hundred sailors. That September, Newburyport native John Foss was captured and enslaved after his ship, the Polly, was taken off the coast of North Africa. Foss was one of only four crewmen from the Polly to survive in captivity until his release in 1796. After returning to Newburyport, he would publish an account of his enslavement, A Journal, of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss (1798), in which he condemned the “extreme cruelties … taught by the Religion of Mahomet … to persecute all its opposers” (73). However, at a time when Foss was still toiling in Algiers, the Herald offers a notably evenhanded account of the Algerian gentlemen in its own backyard. The gentlemen are, after all, recommended by many respectable persons in Europe.
It is unclear whether these two Algerian visitors ever arrived in Philadelphia, but reports of them certainly did. On August 30, the Gazette of the United States in Philadelphia reprinted the Impartial Herald’s report. On September 22, it announced that the Algerian gentlemen had reached Boston and met with Governor Samuel Adams. The report describes them simply as “men of a large size and dressed in Turkish habiliments” (“Natives”). Over a month later, the Gazette carried a report from Providence that names the two travelers: Sieur Ibrahim and Mahomed Ben Ali. It announced that “[t]hey are at present soliciting permission of the Dey to return home; it being dangerous for them to return after having been [End Page 332] taken, although by a superior...