The Perdicaris Incident

Introduction

Admiral Mahan

Few Americans stand out as much as Alfred Thayer Mahan as one of the foremost thinkers on naval warfare and maritime strategy.  Some even say that Mahan was THE leading thinker on sea power and the conduct of war at sea.  Admiral Mahan was respected as a scholar in his own time, served as President of the American Historical Association, and is remembered as the author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.  Mahan’s studies examine the role of navies in determining the outcome of wars fought by the great European powers during the period between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries and remain valuable for their insight into sea power and strategy.

Admiral Mahan was also a student of international relations and attempted to apply the study of history toward an understanding of foreign policy and strategic problems of his day.  For a quarter of a century, he was a visible scholar and was sought by news outlets and public figures for his insight and advice.  Theodore Roosevelt was his friend, Franklin Roosevelt was a student, and Woodrow Wilson sought to silence him.  In President Wilson’s opinion, no good could come from military or naval officers who could think for themselves.

Mahan was, himself, a student of Thucydides — placing a high value on understanding the strategies pursued by the ancient Greeks, but he was dubious about the ability of states to promote cooperation by employing international law or the organization and political activity of peace societies because arbitration agreements among states, or the establishment of norms for conduct in the international arena were likely to work only so long as the issues at stake were limited in importance.  Once a great power’s vital interests were threatened, Mahan believed that international agreements to promote cooperation would give way to armed forces searching for security.  Mahan had no faith in the ramblings of liberal globalists who thought that agreements between nations would ensure peaceful relations — and as it turned out, Mahan was right.  In Mahan’s view, the best way to prevent war was for a country to be so well-armed that potential adversaries would be deterred from risking a conflict.

Paying very close attention to Mahan was a young politician with so much personal energy that he made others nervous.  It is fair to say that Theodore Roosevelt was an admirer of Admiral Mahan, but it would be a mistake to argue that Roosevelt owed Mahan for all his brilliant pragmatism.  Theodore Roosevelt was no shrinking violet in the study of history — and one wonders how much influence Roosevelt may have had on Mahan.  In 1879, while still an undergraduate at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt began his study of the War of 1812, which became a prodigious effort.  In his research, what may have struck Roosevelt was that the American Navy had been unable to gain command of the sea despite its successes.  This revelation may have driven him toward a keen interest in what Mahan had to say about sea power.

A few years later, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt participated in the opening of the Minnesota State Fair in Minneapolis, where he was asked to deliver a speech.  He called it his “National Duties” speech.  Historians suspect that few people were paying much attention to Roosevelt when, toward the middle of his talk, he said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick — and you will go far.” Roosevelt borrowed this phrase from an African proverb. But in short order, Roosevelt began to address questions of international relations in the context of “big stick” foreign policy. Nine days later, Theodore Roosevelt would become President of the United States, and while assuring McKinley’s cabinet that he intended to continue their president’s policies, Roosevelt was an ardent imperialist who made the McKinley cabinet a nervous wreck.

Background

In 1826, a young man from Greece arrived in the United States for studies.  He was the son of an influential medical doctor and politician named Anthony Perdicaris. Anthony’s father, Licinius, was a physician to the Ottoman Sultan and later named a Count of the Republic of Venice for his services.  The Republic of Venice later beheaded Licinius for essentially the same reasons.

In 1822, during the Greek War of Independence, Ottoman forces attacked the city of Naousa and began killing all males and enslaving all Greek women and children.  Anthony gathered up his family and fled into the mountains.  Gregory was around twelve years old at the time.  Within a short time, Gregory had learned that his two brothers-in-law had been killed and that his mother and four sisters were taken captive and sold into slavery.  After his separation from his father, Gregory made his way to Jerusalem, where he met and befriended Pliny Fisk, an American missionary who helped arrange his passage to the United States.

Gregory was no slouch.  He learned English well enough to attend studies at Washington College (now Trinity) in Connecticut and graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s degree.  He later taught Greek and wrote several influential essays about the plight of the Greeks within the Ottoman domain.  In time, Gregory Perdicaris would become a naturalized American, and he would marry a young woman named Margaret Hanford, the granddaughter of William DeWitt, sister-in-law to Governor David Williams.  Hanford, although an orphan, came from a prominent South Carolina family.

Gregory returned to Greece in 1837 to serve as U.S. Ambassador.  When he returned to the United States in 1845, he resumed his life as an academic and a lecturer.  Politically associated with the Democratic Party, Gregory Perdicaris became an early investor in the Trenton Light Company and later served as one of its directors.  By 1852, he was also the Trenton Mutual Life Insurance Company president, with substantial investments in utility companies in Charleston, South Carolina.  In 1858, Gregory sent his son, Ion, to London, England, to study art.

Meanwhile, Margaret’s nephew, Henry McIver, began to demand that Ion be returned to South Carolina where he could participate in the Civil War.  Gregory had no intention of recalling his son from Europe.  On this basis, McIver sequestered the Perdicaris investments in South Carolina, which in 2020 value amounted to just over a million dollars.  In 1867, Gregory Perdicaris and several prominent Americans established a charitable fund for Greek refugees.  One of these investors was Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., father of the man who would become president.

Ion Hanford Perdicaris was born in Athens in 1840, grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, but fled to England at his father’s insistence to avoid participating in the American Civil War.  This prompted Henry McIver (a signer of the Ordinance of Succession) to confiscate the Perdicaris fortune, of which 1300 shares belonged to Ion.  To prevent the sequestration, Ion renounced his American citizenship (which was not permitted until 1868).  The issue of sequestration of the family’s wealth eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877.

Still a U.S. citizen, Ion traveled back and forth to London as a journalist for The Galaxy.  He was young, unattached, and somewhat of a playboy.  In 1870, he began attending supernatural rituals with Cromwell F. Varley (an electrical engineer) and his wife, Ellen.  Cromwell’s profession required a good bit of travel back and forth between the United States and the United Kingdom — and because he and Ellen had four children, it was not practical that his wife should accompany him on his trips.  During these business trips, Ion Perdicaris and Ellen Varley began having supernatural seances of their own.  When Cromwell discovered the infidelity, he promptly divorced Ellen.  Ion, striving either to do the right thing or avoid scandal, promptly married her (1873), and assumed responsibility for raising the children.

Ion H. Perdicaris

In the late 1870s, Ion Perdicaris purchased a substantial home and estate in Tangier, where he collected exotic animals, dabbled in the arts, and maintained ties to influential people in the United States.  Ion and Ellen moved (with her children — two boys and two girls) to Tangier in 1882.  Ellen Perdicaris (and her children) retained their British nationality.  In Tangier, Ion became active in the fight for the rights of the Moors, led several civic commissions, and, as a de facto spokesman for the foreign community, argued for recognition of Tangier as a free port city.  Ion retained business interests in England and the United States throughout this period with frequent visits to both countries.

In 1886, after Perdicaris strenuously objected to the treatment offered to a native Moroccan by the American Minister in Tangier, a man who Consul General Felix Matthews accused of rape, the Moroccan government arrested Perdicaris and fined him for interfering in a legal matter.  Subsequently, Perdicaris filed charges against Matthews, and the Consul was removed from his post and ordered back to the United States.

In May 1904, despite his reasonable efforts on behalf of the Moroccan people, Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (also, Raissoulli) kidnapped and held for ransom Ion Perdicaris and his step-son, Cromwell Varley, Jr.  A Hollywood film about the abduction was released in 1975 titled The Wind and the Lion starring Sean Connery, Brian Keith, Candace Bergen, and Steve Kanaly.  The film, while entertaining, completely misrepresents what transpired during the so-called Perdicaris Affair.

The Raissoulli

 Ahmed al-Raissoulli was the leader of three Moroccan tribes near Tangier.  In 1903, the Moroccan government arrested and jailed five of Raisuli’s men, no doubt charging them with brigandry — because that’s what they were.  That same year, Raisuli learned about the Stone Affair, where Bulgarian revolutionaries kidnapped an American Missionary and held her for ransom.  A quick study, Raisuli promptly kidnapped a newspaper correspondent named Walter Harris and held him for ransom.  This worked out so well for Raisuli that he then targeted Ion Perdicaris, assuming that the wealthier American would net a larger ransom.

The Incident

Ion, his wife, and stepson Cromwell Varley, Jr., relocated from their townhome in Tangier to their summer estate, Aidonia, on 16 May 1904.  Late in the afternoon of 18 May, Raisuli and a band of ruffians abducted Perdicaris and his stepson from Aidonia.  The number of ruffians is unknown, but estimates range from nine to 150.  Raisuli’s men cut telephone wires and assaulted several of Ion’s servants, leaving Ellen unmolested at the house.  She later contacted authorities, including the U.S. and British Consul and Moroccan officials.

American Consul Samuel Gummeré notified the U.S. State Department: 

Mr. Perdicaris, the most prominent American citizen here, and his stepson Mr. Varley, a British subject, were carried off last night from their country house, three miles from Tangier, by a numerous band of natives headed by Raisuly. . I earnestly request that a man-of-war be sent at once. . . the situation most serious.

Raisuli carried Perdicaris by horseback through the Rif Mountains.  Raisuli demanded $55,000 (later $70,000), the removal of all government troops from the region, a promise to end all harassment of the Riffian people, and the removal and arrest of the Pasha of Tangier (then part of the Ottoman infrastructure) and several other government officials.  He also demanded that the United States and Great Britain “guarantee” these demands would be met.

When the State Department received Gummeré’s communiqué, the Secretary of State, John Hay, was out of town. When notified of the incident, President Theodore Roosevelt resolved that the United States would not pay the ransom.  The mantra that evolved was “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead.” Under-Secretary Francis Loomis dealt with the crisis by diverting seven of sixteen U.S. Navy ships from the Mediterranean to the port of Tangier. Admiral F. E. Chadwick was ordered to send a ship from the South Atlantic to Tangier.  Simultaneously, the British dispatched a Royal Navy vessel from Gibraltar.

Al-Raisuli

On 21 May, the Sultan’s representatives were sent to begin negotiations with the Raisuli.  Two days later, negotiations were in the tank.  On 29 May, Raisuli threatened to kill his prisoners if his demands were not met within the next two days.  Raisuli’s threats revealed internal tensions: the foreign minister of Morocco allied himself with Raisuli’s enemies.  The Sharif of Ouazzane was credited with progress in the negotiations.  The Sultan sent a messenger to Raisuli, but upon the messenger’s arrival, Raisuli had his throat cut.  (Pictured right, Ahmed al-Raissoulli).

The Navy Department ordered Admiral T. F. Jewell to send three additional ships on that same day.  The armored cruisers USS Brooklyn and USS Atlanta reached Tangier on 30 May, and Admiral Chadwick conferred with the Sultan’s representative.  Two additional gunboats arrived on the following day.  France assured the United States that they would do all they could to rescue the prisoners.  On 1 June, Raisuli increased his ransom demand to $70,000.00.

Admiral Jewell arrived with USS Olympia, USS Baltimore, and USS Cleveland a few hours later.  With ships at anchor, Jewell appointed Major John Twiggs Myers to overall command of the ship’s Marine Detachments.  Washington ordered Jewell to keep a leash on the Marines until he was specifically authorized to employ them against Raisuli.  Roosevelt did not want to risk the possibility of Raisuli executing his prisoners.  The only Marines sent ashore was a team of four (4) men carrying sidearms, ordered to protect the U.S. Consulate and Mrs. Perdicaris.  On 8 June, two additional Marines were dispatched to protect the Belgian legation.

The State Department intended that if Morocco did not meet the United States’ demands, American Marines would seize Morocco’s custom houses, which supplied much of the country’s revenue.  Secretary Hay wanted the Sultan to persuade Raisuli to release Perdicaris; if not, or if Perdicaris or his stepson was harmed, the Marines would enter the fray.

On 30 May, Secretary John Hay learned that there was a question about Perdicaris’ citizenship.  Hay was given to understand that Perdicaris was a Greek.  President Roosevelt’s resolve weakened, but he decided to stay the course and attempted to get Britain and France to join the U.S. in a combined military operation.  Neither country was interested because they worked with the Sultan behind the scenes, urging him to accept Raisuli’s terms.  Tensions rose substantially on 2 June when an Italian warship dropped anchor in Tangiers harbor.

The international aspects of the Perdicaris Affair increased on 6 June two when two Spanish warships dropped anchor in Tangier.  Spain’s concern was that the U.S. would attempt to force Tangier into giving the American Navy portage rights.  HMS Prince of Wales arrived two days later.

On 8 June, the Sultan granted Raisuli’s demands by appointing Herid el Barrada as the governor of Tangier.  The appointment angered tribesmen, who raided the home of an Englishman.  Negotiations dragged on as the Sultan removed his troops from Raisuli’s province on the following day.  Tribesmen were still not happy.  On 14 June, an attempt was made to kidnap the Italian Consul.  On 15 June, Raisuli increased his demands to control six (rather than two) Moroccan political districts.  Four days later, the Sultan accepted Raisuli’s demands, and 21 June was the date agreed for the release of Perdicaris and his stepson.

On 20 June, a hitch in negotiations occurred when a man named Zelai, governor of an inland tribe, refused to act as an intermediary.  The ransom money was deposited on 21 June.  On 22 June, Raisuli demanded that the Sultan place another district under his authority.  Although a settlement had already been reached, a cable from Samuel Gummeré accused the Sultan of holding up negotiations.  At the Republican National Convention, Secretary Hay stated, “We want Perdicaris alive, or Raisuli Dead.” There was no doubt that Roosevelt would get the Republican nomination, but Hay’s declaration electrified the convention.  Raisuli released Ion Perdicaris on 24 June.

Afterward, Perdicaris and his family moved to Turnbridge Wells, England  Raisuni used the money he gained from ransoming Perdicaris to build his palace, known as the “House of Tears.”

It was an interesting incident in history.  But the movie was better.

Film Clip: The Wind and the Lion

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Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

2 thoughts on “The Perdicaris Incident”

  1. “During these business trips, Ion Perdicaris and Ellen Varley began having supernatural seances of their own.” Elicited a chuckle this morning! And the scene from “The Wind and The Lion” is classic. Semper Fi.

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