BOOK REVIEW: The Lionkeeper of Algiers: How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland from War by Des Ekin (Essex, CT: Prometheus Books, 2023)
The war with the Barbary States is often referred to as the first war of the new United States, post-Revolution. President Thomas Jefferson has been given credit for steering the young nation through the difficult politics and hostile maneuvers of the Mediterranean pirates. The successful outcome is even mentioned in the Marine Corps’ famous anthem: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” Before Jefferson’s war, the inexperienced country was basically held hostage by the city-state of Algiers during the Washington administration. Secretary of State Jefferson was involved with trying to secure the release of American sailors who were captured and then enslaved by the Dey of Algiers. Jefferson credited the eventual release of many captives to one man, who he considered to be, “the honestest and ablest consul we have with the Barbary powers; a man of very sound judgement, and fearless.” (page 218)
The subject of Des Ekin’s excellent book, The Lionkeeper of Algiers: How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland from War, is James Leander Cathcart. Cathcart was an eighteen-year-old seaman when his ship, Maria, was captured off the coast of Portugal by an Algerine xebec in 1785. He and his crewmates were taken to “The Crazy Capital,” Algiers. They had to endure the indignity of being shackled and exhibited in front of the city’s inhabitants. The drudgery of long workdays was their fate, and some faced the painful punishment of having the soles of their feet beaten with a club (“bastinadoed”). But what made Cathcart stand out was his sense of justice, his ability to get along with many people, and his sharp intuition. In his eleven years of captivity, he worked as a zookeeper, gardener, carpenter, and coffee maker. His talents were seen early, and he attained the highest position a Christian could reach in Algiers: a functionary in the Ministry of the Marine and personal clerk to the powerful Dey of Algiers.
The narrative, which flows easily with a sense of excitement, focuses mainly on how Cathcart was able to do so well while some of his shipmates suffered from either the plague, torture, hunger, madness, or exhaustion. Cathcart seemed to always be the right person in the right place at the right time. He still suffered from beatings and had to put up with the unpredictable mood swings of the Dey, whose simple word could get someone beheaded quickly for the most trivial of reasons. Cathcart did so well in his position that he was able to save enough money to purchase and manage more than one tavern (Ekin compares Cathcart to the well-known character Rick from the movie Casablanca). Cathcart could have purchased his own freedom at any time, but he stayed in Algiers to make sure that other American captives were given proper care.
While Cathcart did what he could to make life for himself and other Americans bearable, the government of the United States showed itself to be powerless in this foreign crisis. The Barbary States took full advantage of the fact that the new nation had no navy, so American merchant vessels were easy pickings. The Americans who were now enslaved wrote home and begged government officials to pay the ransom the Dey demanded. President Washington did what he could, but the trans-Atlantic problems with communication brought the Algerines and the Americans to the brink of all-out war. The book plainly showed that the United States was not ready to be a player on the world stage. Chapter 23, “Get Out of My Sight, Thou Dog without a Soul,” is a tense chronicle of how the Dey and the American consul were trying to come to an agreement on the ransom demands. Cathcart was an instrumental player in the negotiations, a legacy that is unknown and unrecognized today.
Although Cathcart is the main character in Ekin’s book, other characters receive a great deal of attention, such as the unfortunate captain of the Maria, Isaac Stephens, and the formerly enslaved African American, James Scipio, who received the same treatment from the Algerines but then suffered discrimination at the hands of his own countrymen. Some of the other Americans who figured prominently in the book were Joel Barlow, David Humphreys, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The book’s final chapter, “Afterlives,” covers the lives of these personalities after the events of the book.
The Lionkeeper of Algiers: How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland from War is truly an amazing story, and the reader will surely wonder why there is no statue of James Leander Cathcart. Sadly, even during his later years he received no recognition for his efforts in Algiers on behalf of the United States, which ended up breaking him. Hopefully Ekin’s book will bring the young captive some belated recognition.