"Perdicaris Incident;" T. Roosevelt Uses Kidnapping for Big-Stick Diplomacy, Election Insurance

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"Perdicaris Incident;" T. Roosevelt Uses Kidnapping for Big-Stick Diplomacy, Election Insurance

Theatrical Poster for "The Wind and The Lion" (1975)
(Unless noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: May 18, 1904

For today's jaunt through history, we travel back to 1904. America has been recognized as a growing world power; President Theodore Roosevelt is running for re-election; and, a North African bandit-chieftain kidnaps an American citizen to force concessions from weak-willed Arab leaders. Sounds like a movie script, doesn't it? Well, you're half-right. Here's the *REAL* story…


Ion Perdicaris (1840-1925) (Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Ion Perdicaris (1840-1925)
(Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Ion Perdicaris was born an American citizen in Athens, Greece. He was the son of Gregory Perdicaris, a Greek entrepreneur who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1830s, and later returned to his native land as the American consul. Gregory Perdicaris had married a well-to-do South Carolina lady, expanding her holdings into a considerable fortune. The family also owned property in Trenton, NJ.

Ion Perdicaris lived the life of the idle rich, developing an interest in art and literature. However, the American Civil War threatened his soft existence. The Confederate government was planning to confiscate the Perdicaris famiy's holdings in South Carolina. To avoid this possibility, Ion made the decision to return to Greece, where he renounced his American citizenship and became "a citizen of the world" [OK film-fans; in what 1942 movie was that phrase uttered?]

He spent time in England, visited his family estate in Trenton on occasion, but eventually settled in the city of Tangier, in Morocco. He built an estate outside Tangier's city walls, named it the "Place of Nightingales," and populated it with various exotic animals, including monkeys and cranes. During his trips to England, he had various dalliances with Ellen Varley, wife of British engineer C.F. Varley. After learning of the affair, Mr. Varley divorced his wayward spouse in 1873. Mrs. Varley and her two sons and two daughters promptly moved to Tangier to co-habitate with the dilettante Perdicaris. [I've seen nothing in my readings to indicate that Ellen Varley and Perdicaris ever married.]

"Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangiers, Morocco" painting by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1873)

The city of Tangier was a cosmopolitan town, numbering about 40,000 inhabitants, including 20,000 Muslims, 10,000 Jews and 9000 Europeans (with 7500 of these were Spaniards). Situated in northern Morocco, the area was constantly under the influence of the Spanish and the French. It also had heavy British influence, as the city had been under England's control from 1661-1684. Finally, the town became a sort of international city of intrigue and espionage.

Mulai Abd al-Aziz, Sultan of Morocco (Reigned 1894-1908)
Mulai Abd al-Aziz, Sultan of Morocco
(Reigned 1894-1908)

In 1904, the sultan of Morocco was Mulai Abd al-Aziz, a 26 year old man who was trying to bring his country into the modern age. He sought advice from the many Europeans in his country, but his solicitation of advice was viewed by many as weakness and indecisiveness. He also spent lavishly, thereby causing the treasury to be nearly empty. These and other acts caused constant restlessness among his people, especially the Berber tribes of the interior.

Ahmed er Raisuli,
Ahmed er Raisuli, "Last of the Barbary Pirates

One of Abd al-Aziz's most formidable enemies was a chieftain of the desert; a man nicknamed "the last of the Barbary pirates." He was Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, the sharif of the Jebala tribe. He became a thief and a brigand, but later launched a career of kidnapping prominent Europeans and holding them for outrageous ransoms. Raisuli was a kind jailer, often befriending the people he held. However, he could also be exceptionally cruel; he once burned out an enemy's eyes by placing heated copper coins on them.

The Taking of Ion Perdicaris

On the evening of May 18, 1904 Mr. Perdicaris and his step-son Cromwell Varley were eating dinner on his veranda of his villa when the evening calm was interrupted by shrieks and shouts from the servants' quarters. Perdicaris and Varley went to investigate, when they were met by a number of robed, rifle-armed intruders. The Berbers knocked the two down, struck them with gun stocks, and bound their arms. The two were then taken outside the villa and forced at gunpoint to mount horses and accompany their kidnappers. Mrs. Varley and the other children were left alone. After riding a day into the desert, the two men were thrust into a tent and fed, whereupon they final met their captor, Raisuli.

Soon after, Raisuli issued his demands for their return: $70,000 in gold, the release of Raisuli's men currently being held by the sultan, safe-conduct for his followers, and an appointment as governor of two provinces in the vicinity of Tangier. The sultan asked for help in resolving the crisis. The American consul in Tangier, Samuel R. Gummere contacted Washington.

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th U.S. President (1901-1909) - Official White House portrait by John Singer Sargent
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th U.S. President (1901-1909)
Official White House portrait by John Singer Sargent

When informed of the kidnapping of the two "Americans," President Roosevelt sprang into action. He ordered the South Atlantic Squadron – seven modern warships – to sail to Tangier along with several Marine companies to stand by for action. On June 1, Roosevelt received some disquieting news from John Hay, his Secretary of State. Hay had contacted Great Britain, France and other embassies, asking for their assistance to pressure Morocco's ruler to agree to the ransom demands for the "American" citizen. The Greek embassy sent Hay a confidential message, saying that Perdicaris was not an U.S. citizen, and had not been one for over 40 years. In his typical blustering action-hero mode, Roosevelt said the information was not important, but only that Raisuli and the sultan both thought Perdicardis was American.

Finally, on June 21, the sultan agreed to Raisuli's demands. The news, however, did not reach America quickly. The next day, at the Republican National Convention being held in Chicago, Secretary Hay read part of a telegram which the President had sent to the Moroccan sultan. The main portion stated simply, "This government wants Perdicardis alive or Raisuli dead!" The reaction of the convention delegates was immediate, as cheering erupted throughout the Chicago Coliseum. Even party officials who were less-than enthusiastic about the "trust-busting" Chief Executive applauded his short, but eloquent, phrase.

Footnote #1: Afterwards, Perdicaris stated he was treated very well by Raisuli. Perdicaris and his family moved to England shortly afterwards. He made occasional visits to Trenton, where he still had business interests. He died in England in 1925.

Footnote #2: Raisuli later led a revolt against the French, who had taken over most of Morocco in 1912. He eventually hitched his star to Spain, leading its troops against the natives during the Berber Rif War of the 1920s. Raisuli was kidnapped by the followers of Abd el-Krim, the Berber leader, and was held for several months. Raisuli is believed to have died sometime in 1925.

Another theatrical poster for
Another theatrical poster for "The Wind and The Lion"

Footnote #3: In 1975, writer-producer-director John Milius made the film "The Wind and The Lion," a film loosely based on the Perdicaris incident. While generally (and I use that term very loosely) following the history of the incident, it was decided to add an element of romance for female moviegoers, thus Ion Perdicaris was magically re-gendered into "Eden Perdicaris." Scottish actor Sean Connery was cast as the Raisuli (still speaking with a brogue), Brian Keith played Teddy Roosevelt, John Huston portrayed John Hay, and Candice Bergen was cast as Mrs. Perdicaris (after assuming the role from Faye Dunaway, who fell ill during filming).

Footnote #4: The closing narration of the movie is taken from an actual letter which Raisuli wrote to President Roosevelt after the incident. In part it says, "You are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours."

Footnote #5: It would not be much of an exaggeration to say President Roosevelt's performance in this crisis was partly responsible for his November 1904 re-election to the White House. In that election Roosevelt outpolled Democrat Alton Parker 7.6 million to 5.1 million votes.

Footnote #6: The truth of Perdicaris's non-American citizenship was kept under wraps. [Secretary of State Hay wrote, "It is a bad business. We must keep it excessively confidential."] It was not until 1933 that the truth finally came out.

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Outstanding movie based on historical fact! Uh-Rah!

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.