Daily Archives: 1 December 2019

First Barbary Ambassador to U.S.

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. c. 8150ff:

When the American fleet was released from the patrol off Tripoli by Lear’s peace treaty, [Commodore] Rodgers showed his power to Bey Hamouda Pacha at Tunis.

He dispatched the Congress and the Vixen and followed with the Constitution, Constellation, Essex, John Adams, Siren, Nautilus, Franklin, Enterprise, Hornet, and part of the flotilla of gunboats which were now arriving from the United States; sixteen sail in all….

They made an imposing sight when they rounded Cape Bon and stood into Tunis Bay on August 1, 1805.

Then Rodgers wrote a letter asking the Bey if he wanted peace or war and giving him the generous time of thirty-six hours in which to reply….

The Bey now refused to receive Decatur, whom Rodgers sent ashore, and the Captain started back to the ship. The Bey told Davis that Rodgers’ letter amounted to a declaration of war. But Bey Hamouda Pacha had no appetite for the big guns of the frigates anchored off his city, and on quick reflection he sent a messenger to Rodgers in such hot haste that he reached the waterfront ahead of Decatur and got a conciliatory reply to the Commodore before Decatur could report how he had been snubbed.

Lear eventually went ashore to assist Davis in the negotiations, but he could not have put any indemnities or weasel clauses into this arrangement even had he desired because Rodgers was watching. To the Bey’s complaint that the entire American fleet had descended on him, Rodgers gave assurance it was not so, because a frigate, a brig, eight gunboats, and two mortar boats had not yet arrived.

Davis wrote to Rodgers suggesting a suspension of any hostilities until a communication could be had with the President of the United States.

That was not Rodgers’ way of doing business. He replied that unless Bey Hamouda gave a guarantee of the maintenance of peace and signed it in the presence of the British and French consuls, he would seal the port so tight that nothing could get in or out. Then Rodgers sent a copy of the wording he wanted in the guarantee. Lear and the Bey went into a round of letter-writing during which Rodgers’ patience was wearing thin. In a letter of August 15 he declared that the Bey must give a guarantee of peace and then he could send an ambassador to Washington to treat if he desired.

Then Rodgers let loose to Lear an opinion about this petty tyrant: “His prevaricating with you in particular, induces me to believe, that he is now more than ever the Scoundrel, I had thought him before, and I have only to repeat, that if he does not do all that is necessary, & proper, that even at the risk of my Conducts being disapproved by my Country, he shall feel the Vengeance of the Squadron now in his Bay.”

In the face of such force and persistency Bey Hamouda capitulated. He gave notice that the United States would be placed on a most-favored-nation basis and that he would send an ambassador to the United States to deal with any complaints. Rodgers answered cordially, said he had a frigate returning, and asked to have the ambassador make ready at once.

The ambassador was Sidi Suliman Mellimelli, who sailed with Decatur on the Congress, and was to become a startling figure, during the winter of 1805-1806, in the American capital where he lived luxuriously at the expense of the American government and pressed a claim for tribute and indemnity.

Decatur carried a letter from Rodgers to Secretary Smith, saying of the Bey of Tunis that if his late hostility should be overlooked, “I can with almost certainty say that he will never again attempt to behave in a similar manner.”

Mellimelli took four beautiful Arabian stud horses with him as a gift to President Jefferson, one having been a gift to the Bey from the Dey of Algiers. The scrupulous Jefferson would not accept them for himself but the Treasury sold them as part payment of Mellimelli’s expenses. But first they were kept in the President’s stables and the stud fees went to the collector of revenues.

The ambassador was accompanied by a suite of eleven, including an Italian band. He was short on women, for whom he had a ravenous appetite. The prim little Secretary of State Madison had to have concubines supplied at public expense, and wrote about it later, saying: “Appropriations to foreign intercourse are terms of great latitude and may be drawn on by very urgent and unforeseen occurrences.”

Madison never lacked the ability of choice expression. Mellimelli did not know the tightness of the American farmer-congressman. He was unable to exact a single coin from Congress or Secretary Gallatin, but the more freehanded Lear did make an adjustment with the Bey two years later by paying $10,000.

After much difficulty and some revolts among his followers, Mellimelli, whose main argument for tribute appeared to be that he would likely be killed if he returned without it, was packed off home in a ship from Boston. The United States continued its payments of tribute to Algiers through the years, but learned what other powers had long known, that it was best to be in arrears.

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