There are hidden gems among the treasures of history, and when historians and writers stumble across them, it is a true gift when they share them with the rest of us. Des Ekin, historian and journalist, has found such a gem in James Leander Cathcart among the treasures of American history. In his new book, “The Lionkeeper of Algiers: How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland From War,” he has shared it with the rest of us, and we can only be so grateful.
I rarely start a review in such an immediately complimentary capacity, but I found myself so absorbed in this book that I find it difficult to start any other way.
A Story on Hold
Ekin discloses early on that he came across Cathcart’s story years ago but had other projects to produce. The slowdown that resulted from the pandemic resulted in this new work of early American nonfiction. Cathcart’s story is one of capture, slavery, and survival in a period when those three things could be expected.
Ekin pulls the reader into the story, not simply with his imagery, seamless transitions, and surprising humor but also with how he treats the reader. The author plays the role of storyteller with the rare occasion of using second person. His ability to pace the story swiftly and then stop it or slow it down for either reflection or clarification is impressive, because it works and is enjoyable, and provides a sense of almost familial comfort.
The story itself, however, is oceans away from comfort. No, it is a tale that exemplifies man’s capacity for cruelty. But more importantly, it exemplifies the indomitable spirit and man’s capacity for unselfishness and sacrifice.
A New Nation’s New Enemy
In 1785, America is a new nation without a navy facing a new enemy across the Atlantic Ocean. When the Barbary pirates are recalled in American history, it is often the pirates from Tripoli during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. But before the heroic events of that era and the battles that ensued, American merchant ships also faced the threat of Algerian pirates. At 18, Cathcart becomes a prisoner of what is termed in Ekin’s book as the “crazy capital.”
The capital along the African coast; the various characters (Algerian, American, British, French, and otherwise); the harsh treatment and punishing climate; the constant threat of violence and execution; the ebb and flow of hope and disappointment; the surprise of kindness and the beauty of goodwill: There is so much in Cathcart’s story assembled by Ekin that it becomes nearly impossible to stop reading. He provides not only a well-crafted story but also insight into the early struggles of American geopolitics.
A New American Hero
The plight of the Barbary prisoner (and the many other prisoners) is a harrowing one. Ekin does not avoid the harshness, but he does not pursue an overly graphic narrative. The beatings and the beheadings are readily conceivable without going into extensive detail.
Cathcart’s innate ability to adapt to his surroundings―abilities that stem from his linguistic talents, his approachable personality, and his good-heartedness―is the crux of the story. It is this young man’s dexterity for handling people of all rank and file that ultimately benefits himself, his fellow prisoners, and his country.
Ekin has presented an individual who should quickly be elevated to the status of American hero. Perhaps not on the scale of a George Washington or a Benjamin Franklin, but indeed with those like a John Paul Jones or a Benjamin Tallmadge.
Along with heroes there are villains, primarily the Algerian prison guards, but even including the British and French consuls to Algiers. As Ekin details, it is not just survival that Cathcart has to consider but also outwitting his opponents, even those who do not possess the power of life and death in the “crazy capital.”
There are moments in this book that seem stranger than fiction (but that is often the definition of truth). Cathcart, an American prisoner in a foreign land, becomes a tavern owner (actually, multiple taverns). Ekin describes Cathcart and his pub Mad House as a quasi Rick’s Café Américain from the film “Casablanca.” The author also describes Cathcart as being somewhat Humphrey Bogart-esque. The Mad House was a type of refuge. Or as Ekin so aptly wrote: “If you wanted to escape the lunacy of the ‘crazy capital,’ the Mad House was the only place to go.”
A Debt of Gratitude
For all his efforts to keep his men alive, alleviate their suffering, and broker a peace deal all while remaining a hostage, Cathcart is owed a debt of gratitude. As Ekin notes at the end of his book, Cathcart has been overlooked. It is understandable, as there have been so many heroes who have come along in America’s story. But as the author states, his book is an attempt to “remedy the oversight.” He adds that the book “does not attempt to nominate [Cathcart] for sainthood.” For my money, I would rather a true-to-life Rick from “Casablanca” than a saint.
For history enthusiasts of early America, this is a highly recommended read. For anyone looking for a fast-paced and wonderfully written story that indulges in dark humor, heroism, and arguably the insane (there’s a reason it’s called the “crazy capital”), “The Lionkeeper of Algiers” will be a book you won’t be able to put down and, once you finish, won’t be able to forget.
‘The Lionkeeper of Algiers: How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland From War’
By Des Ekin
Prometheus Books, March 15, 2023
Hardcover: 272 pages