George Washington Papers

To George Washington from David Humphreys, 31 January 1794

From David Humphreys

(Secret & Confidential)

My Dear Sir.Lisbon Janry 31st 1794

Immediately after my return from Spain, I asked an audience of Mr Pinto the Secretary of State for foreign affairs for the purpose of learning decisively, whether the Truce between Portugal & Algiers was likely to be improved into a Peace, or not.1 Yesterday I waited upon him, and, with as much delicacy as I was master of endeavoured to give an opening for him to explain himself on the subject, which he did nearly to the following effect.

He began by saying, that, with the candour he had always professed to me, he had no difficulty in explaining the whole rise & progress of the transactions between Portugal and Algiers to this time. That, although Portugal is not engaged at all in the war with France, yet it is obliged by Treaty to furnish Contingents to England & Spain on the occasion of their being attacked2—this event having happened, Portugal found it convenient to be disembarrassed of her Enemy in the Mediterranean in order to withdraw her fleet from Gibralter & employ her ⟨m⟩arine force elsewhere, without augmenting the expences of Government; that therefore through the British Minister at this Court3 the British Consul at Algiers had been desired to sound the Regency on the subject of a Peace; that a consequent report having been made from Algiers that the Dey demanded four or five millions of Cruzadoes for a Peace (which being entirely contrary to the system of Portugal) the affair was given up; but that a short time afterwards, without any previous informations or instructions the said British Consul concluded a Truce on the part of Portugal for one year, even without the knowledge & contrary to the wishes of this Court; that, the affair being thus situated, different communications have been made, and that this Court has lately insisted upon a catagorical answer to the Alternative, either, that the Truce shall be annulled, or a Peace take Place upon perfectly equal terms, according to the original system of Portugal.

Mr Pinto mentioned, that the following in substance are a part of the conditions peremptorily insisted upon by Portugal, viz., no money whatever shall be paid to the Government of Algiers for a Peace by way of tribute or presents; and, in case of a Peace, three months shall be allowed for Portugal to give information of it to all commercial nations with which it is connected before the fleet of Algiers shall be permitted to come into the Atlantic. Besides this, no vessels coming to or going from Portugal, or others within a certain limited distance from its coasts, shall ever be captured by the Corsairs: or in case of capture, shall be restored; the Captors paying the damages of detention.

The Dey has also been informed, that until these terms shall be agreed upon, the Portuguese Government will use means to protect all vessels trading to that Kingdom.

No one can hesitate to conclude that these terms (which are entirely comformable to what the same minister had formerly declared to me) will be rejected by the Dey. In which case, the Minister of State observed, it will be necessary for Portugal to maintain even a larger force than usual at Gibralter: because the Algerines being piqued at the conduct of Portugal would undoubtedly endeavour to seek revenge by force or surprize and possibly to find their way into the Atlantic at all events. He added that this would occasion a heavy expence to be borne by Portugal alone, while other nations (particularly the U.S. of America) were likely to benefit equally by it: since it would not only be to protect their commerce to Portugal, but even to some parts of Spain. At the same time he intimated, it would apparently be but just, that those nations which were benefitted by the measure, should by subsidy or in some way or another bear a part of the burden, as the Hanse Towns seemed well disposed to do. I replied, that I could say nothing, from authority, but that perhaps the events which had recently happened might tend to accelerate the period at which something of a marine must be created by the U.S.,4 in which case the U.S. would doubtless be glad to co-operate with any Powers which might have the same enemy to combat, & the same objects in view; but that, in my judgment, the U.S. were rather in a natural state to be subsidized than to subsidy others, having more materials & men, than Money. He rejoined that, dropping the ideas of subsidy, it would undoubtedly be desirable for any Nations having a common enemy to act in concert. He expressed his opinion very unequivocally that the Truce would be broken off, though the Dey had hinted with much finesse, that the original demands would be greatly abated, and that he was seriously disposed to give a preference to Portugal over Holland & the U.S. of A.—both of which had at that moment proffered him immensely large sums of money for a Peace.5 Mr Pinto however finished by assuring me that Portugal would give no money at all (except for the redemption of its Subjects now Slaves in Algiers). He promised also that he would let me know the result as soon as the Messenger last dispatched to Algiers shall return.

I thought it my duty to acquaint you with the substance of the conversation on the part of Mr Pinto, as nearly as I could comprehend & recollect it. You will perceive thereby that my original conjectures were not ill founded.

I had already (while in Madrid) endeavored to sound some of the Ministers of the neutral Powers, which have been menaced by a rupture with Algiers; but I found them not ripe for any thing. I took likewise the Liberty (as private person merely) of submitting the enclosed three Quæries to the Minister of Genoa in Madrid. To the first & second he did not hesitate to answer in the affirmative. To the third he found himself incompetent to give any opinion, but said that he would take measures for gaining information.6

Having no time to lose before the sailing of the vessel which is to carry this letter,7 I hasten to subscribe myself, with offering my affectionate remembrances to all around you, My dear most respected Sir, Your most affectionate & most devoted Servant

D. Humphreys.


1On the purpose of Humphreys’ recent visit to Spain, see his letter to GW of 23 Nov. 1793. Humphreys met with Luís Pinto de Sousa Coutinho, viscount of Balsemão. Because the British government was eager to solicit the assistance of the Portuguese navy in its war with France, it attempted to procure a truce between Portugal and Algiers. To this end, the British consul at Algiers, Charles Logie, informed the dey of Algiers that Portugal was willing to pay a large tribute, and on 12 Sept. 1793, the dey consented to a twelve-month truce. This truce, however, was contrary to American interests because Portugal’s previous naval blockade of the Straits of Gibraltar, which was designed to protect Portugal’s commerce with its colony of Brazil, also protected America’s merchant ships from Algerine attacks. Portugal later concluded that the cost was excessive, and it repudiated the truce and reestablished the blockade (Parker, Uncle Sam in Barbary description begins Richard B. Parker. Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. Gainesville, Fla., 2004. description ends , 75–79, 227–29).

2France declared war against Great Britain on 1 Feb. 1793 and against Spain on 7 March 1793. Portugal signed a Provisional Convention with Spain on 15 July and a Treaty of Alliance and Reciprocal Assistance with Great Britain on 26 Sept. 1793 (Parry, Consolidated Treaty Series description begins Clive Parry, ed. The Consolidated Treaty Series. 231 vols. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., 1969-81. description ends , 52:97–106, 147–56).

3Robert Walpole (1736–1810) served as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Portugal from 1772 to 1800.

4For the creation of an American navy, starting with four ships of forty-four guns and two ships of thirty-six guns, see “An Act to provide a Naval Armament,” 27 March 1794 (Stat description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends . 1:350).

5On the willingness of the United States to pay $40,000 for the release of the American captives held in Algiers and a $25,000 annuity to Algiers if a peace treaty was accepted by that nation, see GW to U.S. Senate, 8 May 1792 (third letter), and n.2 to that document. See also the detailed diplomatic instructions given by Thomas Jefferson to John Paul Jones in a letter of 1 June 1792 (Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends , 24:3–10). For Senate approval of this proposed expenditure, see ASP, Foreign Relations description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends , 1:290. In the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Commerce with Algiers of 5 Sept. 1795, the United States agreed to pay the value of $21,600 in “Maritime Stores” to the dey of Algiers (Parry, Consolidated Treaty Series description begins Clive Parry, ed. The Consolidated Treaty Series. 231 vols. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., 1969-81. description ends , 52:461–68).

6Pietro Paolo Celesia (1731–1806) served as Genoa’s minister plenipotentiary to Spain from 1784 until 1797. The enclosed list of questions, labeled “secret & Confidential,” reads: “1st In case the U.S. should send an armed force to the Mediterranean, may they rely upon its being received with friendship & hospitality at Genoa? 2nd Will Genoa combine any naval force, & what, with any Powers that might be disposed to act in concert, in repelling the hostile attacks of Algiers? 3d Whether, in case Genoa shall find it difficult or inconvenient to encrease its Marine, of sudden sufficiently to protect its Trade completely against the Algerines, it would take into its pay Ships of the U.S. or give a subsidy for enabling them to block the Corsairs in their harbours, & to what amount?” (DLC:GW).

7Contrary to Humphreys’ expectation, the ship did not sail on this date. For its departure and GW’s receipt of this letter in early April, see Humphreys to GW, 3 February, and n.1 to that document.

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