The Lionkeeper of Algiers
How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland from War
by Des Ekin
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Pub Date 15 Mar 2023 | Archive Date 15 Mar 2023
Rowman & Littlefield, Prometheus
In 1785, just a few years after U.S. Independence, a young American named James Leander Cathcart is kidnapped at sea and carried as prisoner to the maverick North African statelet of Algiers, where he is held as a political hostage along with hundreds of other seamen captured on the open seas. The piratical corsairs of Algiers have decided, without any warning, to exploit the vulnerability of the newborn United States by seizing its mariners and holding them for ransom while ruthlessly exploiting their free labor. Today, the name of James Leander Cathcart has been all but forgotten by history. And yet he was one of the most remarkable figures in the early story of the fledgling United States.
The Lionkeeper of Algiers reveals the extraordinary and unlikely story of Cathcart, who, thanks to his flair for languages and his formidable human intuition, rose steadily up the ranks from lionkeeper at the Dey’s private zoo to become Chief Clerk at the Palace, along the way amassing a chain of taverns in Algiers that functioned as safe houses and food banks for American prisoners.
Eleven years later, just one among more than one hundred US hostages in Algiers, Cathcart was paroled back to America and charged with delivering a vital letter to President George Washington, saving a tenuous peace deal and bringing the other captives home. Remarkably, his sense of honor compelled him to go back to Algiers – where he had never formally been made free – to see the peace project through. Cathcart would go on to become a U.S. diplomat in the lands where he was held captive for more than a decade.
Featuring some of the most prominent Americans of the era like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as well as ordinary citizens like Hannah Stephens, the wife of a sea captain who tirelessly lobbied Congress until she was finally reunited with her husband after more than a decade, author Des Ekin’s captivating storytelling brings this adventure to life. This page-turning narrative follows the twists and turns of Cathcart’s own life upon the international stage of diplomacy, trade, and maritime statecraft at a time when America’s place in the world was hanging in the balance.
Des Ekin is an historian and journalist. Former Deputy Editor of the Belfast Sunday News, he worked as a journalist, columnist, and finally Political Correspondent for The Sunday World (Ireland’s second biggest newspaper) until 2012. Twice shortlisted for the Irish Nonfiction Book of the Year (The Stolen Village, 2006; The Last Armada, 2014), he is the author of five books. Stateside, his writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, and the Dallas Morning News, among others. This is his first project of wholly American history.
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