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Mellimelli: A Problem for President Jefferson in North African Diplomacy


ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

The recent political tribulations of the Department of State in dealing with North Africa must have stirred the ghosts of early Secretaries to ironic laughter. If Mr. Hull thought he had a headache in Algiers, Tunis, or Tripoli, he might have taken grim comfort in contemplating the greater trials of his predecessors; for the pirate states of the Barbary Coast were an unmitigated nuisance to the governments of the first four Presidents of the United States, and they drove more than one Secretary of State to profane and undiplomatic language. Compared with the irritations endured by Secretary James Madison, for example, Mr. Hull’s troubles were but as the buzzing of gnats; and President Roosevelt’s problems in North Africa may be complex and disturbing, but President Jefferson often found diplomacy with that area a downright personal annoyance.

As long as the American colonies were a part of the British Empire, merchant ships from Boston, New York, or Philadelphia enjoyed the protection of His Majesty’s royal navy. But after the Fourth of July, 1776, American merchantmen found themselves fugitives from countless perils on the high seas. The Barbary pirates were a particular menace to commerce in the Mediterranean. In 1799 President John Adams sent out consuls to Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli and began a long and costly sequence of diplomatic horse trades designed to buy off the pirates. Eventually, as all the world knows, the American navy resorted to arms and won at the point of its guns what the infant nation had been unable to purchase—immunity from piratical depredation.

But the African corsairs were slow to learn even the lessons of force. Although a war with Tripoli had brought that power to terms in the summer of 1805, its neighbor Tunis continued to bluster and threaten armed hostility unless the American government produced a satisfactory amount of tribute. The Bey of Tunis was in a fine fume, moreover, because the Americans had intercepted blockade-running Tunisians off Tripoli. He swore by the beard of Mahomet that his corsairs’ vessels must be restored or Tunis would go to war.

The answer he received from the Americans was not to his liking. On August 1, a formidable American squadron calmly dropped anchor in Tunis harbor and Commodore John Rodgers demanded that the Bey immediately state his intentions concerning war or peace. Faced with an unexpected dilemma, the Bey squirmed and played for time. Many unsettled difficulties between the United States and Tunis required discussion, he purred, and he proposed to send an ambassador to the great ruler in Washington. Meanwhile, would the squadron please go away?

The upshot was that Commodore Rodgers and the Consul General for Barbary, Tobias Lear, agreed to postpone operations against Tunis while an ambassador negotiated directly with President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison. The Bey appointed one Sidi Soliman Mellimelli (as his name was usually spelled) to proceed to the United States on a returning American warship.

The frigate Congress with the minister aboard arrived off Hampton Roads on November 4, 1805, but because of foul weather she did not make her way up the Potomac for three weeks. At last, on November 30, the minister and his retinue came ashore in Washington amid booming cannon and the cheers of an astonished crowd. His arrival inaugurated the most bizarre diplomatic season that the new capital had yet witnessed.

Among other exotic diplomats with whom the State Department was trying to do business at the moment was a delegation of Cherokee Indian chiefs wdio camped in Washington for the better part of the winter and developed a liking for the society—or the rum—of politicians. Presently Washington receptions were gaudy with Cherokee and Tunisian visitors in their native regalia.

The pomp and glitter of Sidi Soliman Mellimelli and his people left Washingtonians pop-eyed with astonishment. The severe republican simplicity of President Jefferson— who, on the very day of the Tunisian’s arrival, had dressed in his old clothes and “ragged slippers with his toes out” to receive senatorial visitors—provided small opportunity for colorful show. The oriental gorgeousness of the Tunisian mission naturally created more than a nine days’ wonder.

The ambassador’s retinue consisted of two officers and a secretary (who wrote semi-literate English), a cook, a barber, a steward, three huge black bodyguards, and one or two others of doubtful function. When the Tunisians appeared in public, Washington’s gray autumnal streets lighted with color. The black bodyguards were clothed in scarlet, Mellimelli himself, tall and black-bearded, was resplendent in scarlet and gold. Twenty yards of fine white muslin were coiled about his head. Long white silk hose encased his legs, and he wore Morocco shoes of bright yellow.

The brilliant raiment of the retinue dazzled drab Congressional callers, and Mellimelli’s diamond snuffbox excited their envy. Even more fascinating and strange was his four-foot tobacco pipe. At once the Tunisian mission became the talk of the town, and curiosity led government officials and Congressmen to call upon the emissary of the corsair Bey with more zeal than they had ever shown an ambassador from the greatest state. Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire was so impressed that he wrote pages about Mellimelli in his diary and expressed pleasure that His Highness had ordered an Italian fife and drum band to play in an adjoining room in honor of the senatorial call.

Statesmen were not the only ones impressed. The populace of Washington who had seen nothing to match Melli-melli’s splendor stormed his gates. Negro servants slipped away from their masters to peep in at the windows of Stelle’s Hotel, which the State Department had rented for the Tunisians, and small boys swarmed about the place and even sneaked in at the doors. President Jefferson finally had to order a corporal’s guard to stand watch at every entrance.

Americans, who had never seen a Moslem, showed an unholy curiosity about the strangers’ religion. As it happened, Mellimelli arrived in the month of Ramadan and, as a faithful follower of the Prophet, he scrupulously observed the hours of fasting and prayer. When Robert Smith, Secretary of the Navy, made his first call on the diplomat, he found him on his hands and knees, praying toward Mecca. Smith waited out the prayers and invited Mellimelli to a formal dinner, but learned that during Ramadan a Moslem could not eat until after sunset. He would, however, come and take coffee in the evening with officials of the government.

Later in the same week President Jefferson invited him and his officers to dine—after sunset. John Quincy Adams, one of the guests, observed that the Tunisian’s manners were courteous, that his snuff was flavored with attar of roses, and that his secretaries surreptitiously took a drink of wine when their master wasn’t looking.

Mellimelli himself displayed considerable curiosity about the religion of the Cherokee Indians, who paid him an official visit. Through an interpreter he questioned them closely about their faith. Did they believe in Mohammed, Abraham, or Jesus? When he found that they worshipped only a Great Spirit, he pronounced them all vile heretics. “He soon after related it to Mr. Jefferson and inquired how he could prove Indians were the descendants of Adam,” Senator Plumer wrote in his journal. “The President replied it was difficult.”

When Ramadan was over, Mellimelli and his retinue began to circulate more freely in Washington—-and troubles for the government multiplied. His Highness had come without a harem and now he requested the State Department to make some temporary arrangement to supply this deficiency. That august agency of the government, trained never to be surprised at anything, must have been startled at this unusual demand, but we have the word of Senator Plumer that it rose to the occasion, and that “our government has, on his application, provided him with one or more women, with whom he spends a portion of the night.” In the records of the State Department in the National Archives there is a list of Mellimelli’s suite, including a certain “Georgia, a Greek, taken into service at Washington.” Possibly Georgia was the discovery of some harassed undersecretary charged with providing the Tunisian ambassador with all the comforts of home.

The relaxation of ascetic discipline wdiich Mellimelli allowed himself after Ramadan was not confined to the master alone. Members of his household, in flagrant violation of the Koran, took to strong drink, fought among themselves, and made trouble, then and later, for everybody concerned. Mellimelli, who had foreseen this possibility, wrote President Jefferson ten days before the end of Ramadan asking him not to pay to his steward, Hadgi Mahomet, the money which the government supplied for the expenses of the embassy. This money, the ambassador craftily suggested, might be put directly into his own hands and he would buy what was needed. But this piece of forethought did not keep the steward sober. He celebrated the end of the month of fasting with a roaring brawl and a fight with the hotei barber. After that, Mellimelli dismissed him and notified Secretary Madison that henceforth Hadgi Mahomet would be the Secretary’s responsibility, subject to the laws of the United States.

By the New Year the novelty of the visiting Tunisians was beginning to wear off. Even the small boys and Negroes who had at first swarmed about the hotel no longer considered the ambassador’s retinue worthy of their interest, and some members of the government were already convinced that the visitors were a pest. From this time onward, Mellimelli and his suite were an increasing nuisance, The thrifty Treasury was casting a fishy eye over their mounting expense accounts. A question had arisen over what to do with four horses which the Bey had sent as a gift to the president. Mr. Jefferson tactfully explained that he could not with propriety accept them as a personal gift, but he expressed the hope to Senator Plumer that the Congress could receive the horses and apply their sale price to the expenses of the mission. Meanwhile, the animals—which Plumer says were not remarkable—had displayed a remarkable appetite for government oats and had run up a monstrous bill for their keep.

Senators who at first had been vastly entertained by the foreign visitors began to be bored and irritable. When the Tunisian ambassador announced bis intention of paying an official visit to the Senate at noon on January 2, several senators objected to a resolution giving him the privilege of the floor. John Quincy Adams observed sourly to his colleagues that ambassadors from the greatest nations had never received such marks of distinction, and Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill complained because the American government had “given this half-savage the dignified title of ambassa- dor.” That an emissary from a nest of rogues and pirates should be honored by the Senate galled James Hillhouse of Connecticut: “I consider this Tunisian in the same character as I do the Indian chiefs,” he declared, “and I would treat him accordingly.”

To solve the problem, the Senate voted to adjourn for the day, and left a committee to receive Mellimelli in the Chamber. He sat for about twenty minutes and listened to a little speech in Italian on the greatness of America delivered by Senator Buckner Thruston of Kentucky. Mellimelli had just been in the House of Representatives where he had heard the debates and had come away immensely puzzled. “If each Representative has a right to debate on each question,” he remarked to Senator Thruston, “it will require a year to come to a result.”

The slowness of results was beginning to trouble Mellimelli. It was about time, he decided, for his visit to produce something more tangible than speeches in bad Italian, and he pressed Secretary Madison for the restoration of captured Tunisian vessels, for the presentation of an armed frigate to his master the Bey, and for the promise of periodic gifts of certain military stores to Tunis. If the government did not accede to these requests, his master might unleash his cruisers against American shipping.

In reply, Mr. Madison pointed out that the United States had a strong squadron in the Mediterranean and he trusted that the Bey would not be so rash as to risk a disastrous war.

Throughout the winter and spring, Mellimelli and Madison kept up a desultory correspondence on this theme. The State Department had decided to hold the ambassador in the country until good weather would permit a grand tour of the principal cities so that he might carry home a proper impression of the extent and strength of the American nation.

By the end of May, plans for Mellimelli’s grand tour were complete and all Washington anticipated his departure with pleasure Mr. Madison appointed James Lean-der Catheart, former consul at Tripoli, as guide and keeper of the Tunisians and instructed him to make certain that they saw the right sights and took ship from Boston at the earliest possible moment. A certain Carlo went along as interpreter.

Catheart, a bustling and immensely conceited busybody, started briskly on his journey northward, pleased to have an opportunity of being in the public eye, but before he and his charges had cleared Baltimore he was sick of his task. Baltimore innkeepers showed a reluctance to receive the dusky ambassador and his strange entourage, but finally the Columbian Inn grudgingly found them quarters. Mell-imelli’s cupidity having been aroused by the commercial activity of Baltimore, Catheart soon found himself serving as the ambassador’s agent in the purchase of huge quantities of loaf sugar, coffee, and other commodities highly prized in Tunis. If the government presented the Bey of Tunis with a brig, as the State Department had finally promised, Mellimelli intended to take advantage of his diplomatic immunity to ship out a handsome cargo of dutiable goods. Throughout the first week of a hot June, therefore, Catheart sweated from one Baltimore shop to another trying to find the right purchases for his bargain-driving charge.

Wearily he concluded his duties in Baltimore and set out for Philadelphia on June 7. A week in that city was enough to give the ambassador a sufficient view of the largest city in America, but Catheart reported to Madison on June 15 that he was obliged to spend an extra day lest a solar eclipse on the scheduled day of departure alarm Mellimelli, for “then there would be no knowing to what extravagance his superstition might lead him.”

Troubles increased after their arrival in New York. There three members of the party—Mahomet Choux, an officer, Soliman the barber, and Mustapha the cook—deserted and refused to go any farther. Moreover, they announced their intention of remaining in the United States where the drinks were good and the government paid for their keep. Merrily they charged their expenses to the account of the United States, and New York tavern keepers duly presented the bills to Catheart, official caretaker of the diplomatic party. That worthy argued and pleaded with the recalcitrants to no avail, and Mellimelli’s own threats fell on deaf ears.

Abandoning the three riotous Tunisians, the rest of the party proceeded to Boston, where they arrived on July 15. Cathcart’s most fervent hope was that the ambassador’s ship would be ready and that he could soon be rid of his charges. As it turned out, he had to endure Mellimelli for more than two months longer.

Meanwhile, President Jefferson, Mr. Madison, and De-Witt Clinton, mayor of New York, busied themselves in an effort to persuade the three errant Tunisians in New York to abandon their rakes’ progress and rejoin the diplomatic party in Boston. Even this formidable battery of persuasion failed. Apparently, some unexplained concern for diplomatic precedent prevented Mayor Clinton from ordering their summary arrest. At the end of September the mayor paid their debts on the promise that they would take ship for England or France whenever the government would pay for their passage.

Whatever may have been Cathcart’s impatience, Mellimelli himself was in no hurry to leave the United States. His harassed guide and director had with enormous difficulty succeeded in loading the brig Franklin with the ambassador’s freight and the gifts intended for the Bey and his officers. The government had decided to present the Franklin to the Bey. When that vessel docked in Boston on July 25, all ready to depart except for its passengers, Mellimelli went into a rage. He would not accept the ship as a gift, and he would not return in it. Was it not an old prize long1 since captured by Tunis and sold off by his master? Some better vessel must be found.

Swearing sorrowfully and taking a pull at a bottle for comfort, Catheart set out to find a more acceptable craft After some difficulty, he procured the Two Brothers of Salem, and after still further trouble, he transferred the Franklin’s cargo to the substitute. At last Catheart found a place for tons of loaf sugar, innumerable bags of coffee and rice, two barrels of rum, two cases of china, a parcel of logwood, ten sacks of ginger, and a variety of objects which had taken Mellimelli’s fancy, not to mention live stock consisting of chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, goats, and sheep, as well as miscellaneous supplies including six boxes of ’ “kite foot segars.” Worn out with his labors and sick of his job, Catheart then sat down and wrote to the Secretary of the Navy that he hoped soon “to deliver the United j States from this political pest of society,” and to Mr. Madison he sighed that he would sooner “make an India voyage than undertake such a journey again.”

But Mellimelli was still not satisfied. Certain export j duties incurred he now refused to pay and threatened re- prisals on American shippers in Tunis. Catheart reeom- mended that the government remit the duties in order to get rid of the ambassador sooner. Mellimelli quibbled over every transaction. To Mr. Madison he wrote that Cath-cart had cheated the government in buying the ship’s supplies and the presents for the Bey. Furthermore, the American agent had often been drunk and bad had “the audacity to be disrespectful to me.” “If I bad known that he was capable of such conduct I would never have placed myself in his charge on my journey,” Mellimelli complained.

At long last the Two Brothers was laden, the diplomatic mission (except the three strays in New York) was on hoard, and Catheart and Mellimelli parted company, hating each other thoroughly and vigorously calling names, During the last days of September the vessel eased out of Boston harbor and disappeared in the mists. Our diplomat from North Africa was on his way home, to the great joy of President Jefferson, Secretary Madison, and James Leander Catheart. The visit had accomplished precisely nothing, and the government was out of pocket many thousands of dollars.

Perhaps Mellimelli’s report of the strength of the United States influenced his master to be more careful about threatening our commerce. At any rate, in 1807 the Bey compromised his demands by accepting $10,000 in cash. But the end of our troubles with the Barbary pirates was in sight. By 1815 we were strong enough to dispense with the appeasement of North African rogues and leave the settlement of our difficulties to the navy. After that, our shipping in the Mediterranean was safe.

2 Comments

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James Gabler bacchuspr@aol'com's picture
James Gabler ba... · 6 years ago

Despite the turmoil and divisiveness that Mellimelli's seven month visit caused, it worked for both countries. President Jefferson received a letter from Hamuda Bashaw Bey of Tunis dated February 27, 1807 said ' OUR PREVIOUS TREATY SHALL SERVE AS A LAW TO BE FULFILLED  . . ." and thanked Jefferson for the kindness and reception afforded Mellimelli and "the gracious Marks of Friendship which you sent with him to me which I shall esteem and honor." And for the most part relations between the two countries did indeed improve.

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bob's picture
bob · 5 years ago

As a historian i can testify that Mellimelli was not Muslim. In Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa diplomats were most Jewish. Mellimelli is an ancient Jewish family that settled in both Italy and Tunisia. The remarks he makes on religion of the indiginous population are also indications to this. Drinking alcohol was also part of a Jewish tradition in Tunisia... So, the first Muslim to come to the US was Jewish.

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