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American diplomacy in Tunisia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Background literature

In a now aged article published in 1973, Paul J. Zingg described the field of US-North African relations a "historiographical wasteland." Zingg explored the US-North African relations before and after World War II and concluded that the writing of this history was still pending. He argued that the arguments of irrelevance and unimportance, which previously excused the lack of American-North African scholarship, are fallacious. (1) The American insensitivity towards North Africa, Zingg adds, seems to have been determined by an ongoing pro-colonialist rhetoric used by the US and its cultural and ideological biases towards the indigenous societies of the region. The little significant interest shown by the US towards the region after 1945 had more to do with containing communism than assuming a committed policy to North Africa according to Zingg.

Alfred Andrew Heggoy joined Zingg in calling for "the urgency of the challenge to examine American-Maghrebi relations. (2) In the case of US-Tunisian relations, the challenge barely exists. Equal attention, it is my conviction, should be given to all stages of US history in Tunisia and North Africa more broadly, especially this "long interlude" as Carl L Brown called with reference to the period 1815-1941 which he thought was "of no decisive importance to either side." (3) yet Brown does not offer any plausible explanation for his assessment of the period. This "interlude" is all the more important because American diplomacy started to take shape and its broad lines became clearer than in the period immediately following American independence.

This does not suggest that American historians showed no interest in North Africa. They wrote among other issues about the 'infamous' Barbary States, Barbary wars, Christian captives and Tunisian foreign communities. Two American historians have so far written prolifically about Tunisia. Leon Carl Brown wrote a pioneering survey of mid-nineteenth century Tunisia, Tunisia of Ahmed Bey 1837-1855, where he showed how, under a highly energetic ruler, Tunisia made its first efforts to establish European-like political and military reforms. More recently, Kenneth Perkins published A History of Modern Tunisia with Cambridge University Press (2004), the first English written history of modern Tunisia. Perkins traced the story from where Carl Brown had left it until the recent present. For Perkins, this period saw the inauguration of French colonial rule, the creation of the nationalist movement and finally independence in 1956. He also examined the problems generated by colonialism and the measures undertaken to achieve independence, and described the subsequent process of state formation, including the design of political and economic structures and the promotion of a social and cultural agenda.

Less academic studies like Gallagher's The United States and North Africa: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (1963), even though it remained for sometime a reference on these relations and Richard Parker's Uncle Sam in Barbary (2004) cover the modern period with little addition to the historical literature on Tunisia in particular. The most update works on the region such as Oren Michael's Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (2007) and Douglas Little's American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 (2008) hardly address Tunisia. Most of these studies are, in addition, redundant insofar as they all glorified the young and inexperienced American state and underlined its brave efforts to strike commercial deals with the "predatory" Barbary States.

Aside these histories, American historians have not yet thoroughly studied the US-Tunisian relations, yet, all concord that these were subsidiary to French and more broadly speaking European relations with Tunisia. North Africa more generally and Tunisia specifically remain understudied in American academia and little known by the American public. They clearly merit an increased scholarly attention, particularly with the advent of the 'Jasmine Revolution' in Tunisia and its domino effect triggering the so-called 'Arab spring' and affecting regional (Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Sudan, Mauritania, partly Morocco) and global relations (Ukraine). The little work on US-Tunisian relations is unevenly focused on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (1776-1815) and World War II periods. The US-Tunisian bilateral and interactional history is still awaiting serious scholarly interest. This article is, then, an attempt to trigger such an interest and fill in a significant gap in this history.

The US recent interest in Tunisia reflected in the tango of visits American officials made to Tunisia since the advent of the revolution in January 2011 together with the financial support the US has so far granted to the post-revolution Tunisian governments, but more importantly the US declared commitment towards the support of Tunisia's transition to democracy and the role the latter may play as a model for prospective candidates for democracies in the "Arab spring" countries suggest a significant change in the US diplomacy in Tunisia, which until recently was just a working one with no apparent prospects for improving and strengthening.

American Diplomacy

Diplomatic relations with the regency of Tunis were those which concealed the fleeting character of American encounters with Tunis, making them possible and of historical significance. A close look at these diplomatic relations, yet, reveals a different narrative. Until the Rogers Act of 1924, American diplomatic and consular services were separate. The US had diplomatic relations with major countries like European ones and consular ones with less important countries. The relations between the US and Tunisia belonged to the second category (4). Within the consular framework, the level of US representation in Tunis was subsidiary to those of Morocco and Algiers, which used to have consul generals, whereas Tunis had only consuls even when those relations were assumed to be at their best.

Since the early 19th century there were indications that the US-Tunisian relations were handicapped. In 1817, William Shaler, consul general in Algiers drew the attention of john Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, to the deplorable conditions of consuls in both Tunis and Tripoli in contrast with those of Algiers. "Under such circumstances," the Consul general wrote," the American consuls in those two residences are placed in the most embarrassing situation, that can possibly be imagined, from the total inadequacy of their salaries." (5) The inappropriate material support of American consuls was indeed one of the main themes in the consular correspondence. For those reasons and others, some refused to join their posts like consul Benjamin Homans in 1812, Vice consuls R. B Dole in 1843 and Evans L. Barryste in 1899; others resigned shortly after being appointed like William B. Hodgson in 1842 and the French Alfred Chapelie in 1896. In 1881 and with the establishment of the French protectorate over Tunis, the US closed its consular post for thirteen years. It seems, however, that a consular agency in Tunis operated from 1894 to 1904. In 1905, it was reopened as a consulate and in 1906 it was downgraded again to a consular agency under the jurisdiction of Algiers and was finally closed in 1912. (6)

Other factors seem to have affected American diplomacy in Tunis in the nineteenth century. Until 1847, US consuls in Tunis were not required to be US citizens; did not necessarily belong to the diplomatic service; were allowed to do business to supplement their meagre incomes and could resign at will. Some were little educated; bickered with other diplomatic representatives and mixed their own interests with those of the country they represented. Amateurism apparently characterised some of the US diplomats in Tunis. Thomas D. Anderson refused to kiss the bey's hand like any foreign diplomat in Tunis; failed to abide by the courtesy laws of the host country; and hence made the US-Tunisian relations tense before resigning in 1819. Samuel D. Heap collided with his colleagues of the diplomatic service for not having been invited to an official dinner; John Howard Payne just forgot that his task consisted in representing his country's interests in Tunis and not preoccupying himself solely with works at the consular mansion as reflected in the dozens of dispatches sent to the State Department for that purpose, while consul Harris N. Cookingham complained about being seated with merchant consuls, who were honorary consuls and not career consuls during a ceremony held by the French Resident General in 1922. (7)

Some American consuls lacked diplomacy and thoroughness in their assessment of events and of the decisions they used to take. Samuel D. Heap could not think twice before requesting the presence of the commander of US forces in the Mediterranean in October 1848 in the Tunis bay to press the Bey to admit having violated consular privileges and infringement of the rights of the flag guaranteed by treaty in arresting the dragoman Ali, a guard in the US consulate, who was under the protection of the consulate without informing the consul. (8) Such diplomatic "approach" based on the use of intimidation and force even for trivial reasons moved some in the American consular post in Tunis. Such a line did not help US-Tunisian relations to develop smoothly and effectively.

Such lack of consistency was also mirrored in the appointment of consular agents in Tunis and their suppression. In 1871 the US had seven consular agents in the towns of Jerba, Goleta, Mehdia, Monastir, Sfax. Bizerta and Susa suggesting that business activities in those port towns were significant with many US ships calling to the ports and the volume of tonnage and freight large enough to require an agent to take care of them. Four years later, the State Department informed consul Hamilton Fish that four consular agencies would be suppressed without affecting public service. (9) In 1917, judging American interests to be insignificant, vice consul Edwin Kemp informed the State Department that he would refuse application for the opening up of four consular offices in Bizerta, Susa and Mehdia when the State Department required it. The US was clearly more concerned with minimising the consular expenses in Tunis by suppressing consulates, which were already minimal, when commercial benefits were meagre, than with the long-term diplomatic relations with the regency. (10)

Because of the financial pressures, the subsidiary position of US consular servicemen compared to their European counterparts and the State Department growing disinterest in the US consular post in Tunis, many American consuls underestimated their post and some even despised it. Gone were the days when in the late eighteenth century and the beginning of those relations, US consuls in Tunis directly corresponded with the Secretary of State. From 1815 onwards, US consuls had to deal with the third Assistant secretary of the State Department, a sign that Tunis was losing whatever former diplomatic weight it used to have for Americans. "I cannot promise a typewriter, the third Assistant secretary wrote to Mr Touhay," because I regard it as a useless expenditure for such an unimportant place." (11) Over time, US consuls themselves were convinced of the insignificance of their consular post. "The office does not seem to justify the expenses," consul Edwin Kemp, who was assigned as consul of class nine and swore before the British Consul General in 1916, wrote in the same year to the State department having informed them of the office urgent need for basic furniture. (12) Such were the concerns of US diplomats in Tunis, material and basic.

In such conditions, American consuls could not help taking long leaves away from the consulate as long as half a year.

This lack of interest and indifference to the Tunis post on the part of the State department amounted to a total geographical and political confusion between Algeria and Tunisia. As late as 1916, the State department and many Americans who corresponded with the US consuls in Tunis could not distinguish between Tunisia and Algeria and ignored their status and their relation to colonial France. "North Africa is a geographical rather than a political division," Consul Kemp complained to the State Department," Algeria is an entirely separate political division, a French colony, while Tunisia, though under French protection, is still nominally ruled by the Bey." (13) Kemp used to receive mail, which was wrongly addressed with the most common error being that Tunis was part of France or of Algeria. With the loss of Algiers following the Barbary question in 1816, and little interest in Morocco and Tripoli, Barbary diplomatic posts became dead ends for Americans.

This growing American diplomatic disinterest towards Tunis in the nineteenth century and after also reflected the increasing economic gap between both countries. Tunis was becoming tiny by American standards and as a market, the larger the US was growing in the course of the nineteenth century, the smaller Tunis appeared. By the late nineteenth century, the US had developed a colossal industrial economy capable of absorbing the needs of the bulk of American businesses. "The trouble with our people," Robert Skinner, the US General Consul in Marseille wrote to vice-consul Auguste J. Proux in Tunis in September 1907," is they find so many avenues for enterprise in America, that they seldom like to go far a field." (14) This huge economic gap between the young republic and the elderly regency kept widening to the extent that economic relations no longer made sense. American consuls reiterated this. "The commercial relations of the US and Tunisia," according to consul Harris N. Cookingham, indicate plainly that trade has not developed on an altogether safe and permanent basis. Trade conditions in which reciprocity is at a hundred--to--one ratio cannot be regarded as healthy." (15) "The advice of the consulate to young Americans who think of establishing themselves in Tunisia must inevitably be "don't," the same Cookingham replied to Mr E.B Fitsinger of Lawrence and Company in New York city in a letter sent to the consul in connection with a report on "opportunities for young men in foreign countries." (16)

Apart from size and volume, further factors hampered adequate commercial intercourse and diplomacy between Tunis and the US. Americans were aware and increasingly persuaded that without an American community resident in Tunisia, firms and institutions like a chamber of commerce and direct transportation between both countries, the prospects for commercial development were frail. In 1922, one hundred and twenty years after the establishment of the first US consulate in Tunis, barely a dozen Americans resided in the regency, a surgeon, a missionary, a naturalised shopkeeper, three naturalised artisans and a monk, in addition to the representative of an American firm. There were, in addition, forty-two missionaries, thirty of whom were established in Tunis, the capital. (17) Furthermore, both American officials and businessmen believed that their prospects for success in Tunis, and more generally North Africa, were weak compared to the Mediterranean countries like France and Italy because of geographic proximity as well as countries whose diplomatic relations with Tunis were older and enjoyed certain commercial privileges like Britain. Above all, Americans thought that they could not compete with the French as long as Tunis was under French tutelage. In addition to economic pragmatism, some US consuls in Tunisia openly considered the French protectorate as the unique avenue for the progress and enlightenment of native Tunisians. Such prejudices indeed ran high among these diplomats. "I believe the backwardness of the country," consul Perry wrote in 1862, " to be attributable more to the inherent character of the people and to causes explained in their history." (18) Such a discourse had not changed much half a century later. In 1925, Consul Lelland L. Smith reflecting on the operation and taxation of American insurance companies in Tunisia still thought that, "the native population is a great drawback to the progression of trade as it is Arabian and not inclined to work or adopt modern standards." (19) This attested to an unfortunate attitude of cultural superiority echoed in a whole catalogue of negative images of the Tunisian, Arab, Muslim, Oriental, Eastern 'Other" as, Layachi, (1990), Schaefer (2001), Little (2008) and others demonstrated.

The US almost ceased to have direct diplomatic relations with Tunis since the State Department informed consul Samuel Heap in July 1829 to consider that his consulate as subordinate to the General Consulate of Algiers. (20) Since then, the State Department and the many consuls who were in charge of the US post in Tunis most often clashed about the policies to adopt with the regency, the nature of the consular post and the extent to which there was a need for such a post. US consuls in Tunis saw themselves dwarfed by their European counterparts, in particular the French, the English and the Italians and could not understand the reasons for not playing equal roles since their country was diplomatically represented. The fact was that Tunis meant little for the US, even though consuls kept despatching lengthy reports to the State Department about the regency even after the French settled down in Tunis as protectors. Tunis and North Africa by extension, American officials increasingly believed, were strategically in the French zone of influence while Americans had theirs elsewhere. "The forces of manifest destiny," Bryson writes, proved more influential." (21) That strategic balance between imperial powers and their areas of influence , which characterised the late 19th century had to be respected and promoted and this explains why the US did not question or challenge the French protectorate in Tunis. The Americans were just a little annoyed by French growing power in North Africa because of their "neutrality".

It is true that the US foreign policy saw a shift towards the late nineteenth century with the "closure" of the American western frontier and after the US stretched its feet towards the western hemisphere and once it exerted control over the Philippines, Cuba, Korea, Japan and Hawaii and was, as a result, in a position to "tease" if not criticise and even compete with other imperial powers, but North Africa including Tunisia, were not of any interest to the US during this period. They were, above all, in the safe hands of imperial France and France was an old "friend" and a respected power.

It is difficult to know how aware the US was of what was going on in Tunis especially after the suppression of its consulate in 1881. What is obvious, however, is that the US acquiesced to French colonial plans. When they came back years later, the Americans remained indifferent to Tunisian nationalist aspirations with growing contests over French rule. Popular unrest was underestimated and described as insignificant. The "young Tunisian" movement was depicted as idealist in a confidential despatch to the State Department in 1920 (22) and Tunisian nationalism was often associated with communism (23).

The American revolutionary impulse, which used to characterise the young American republic seems to have mellowed over time and the US increasingly regarded itself as a member of the restrictive club of western civilised countries and growing imperial powers. American society and politics were largely transformed in the course of a century and particularly during the so-called "interlude". The US was increasingly moved by its political and economic interests and these clearly resided in the Americas, especially before the end of the first World War.

The US diplomatic relations with Tunis in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not a priority for a country which was in the making and which made "neutrality" one of the pillars of its diplomacy during the period under review. The relations between both countries were uneven and divergent. They could, however, have remained at least working relations. The Tunisian Revolution of 2011 came to remind Americans that one day the American people revolted against tyranny and Tunisia was among the first countries to have recognized the independent young republic. It is equally a reminder that the US was the first country to have recognized independent Tunisia in 1956. The argument of insignificance and irrelevance, which characterised the analysis of US-Tunisian relations during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is weak because diplomacy is not based solely on principles, but interplays with political and socio-economic circumstances, which operate in various contexts, regional and global. The US-Tunisian diplomatic relations should be viewed from such perspectives. A proper understanding and analysis of the American-Tunisian diplomatic relations today should include all the stages those relations went through even when these were thought to be at their rock bottom.


Most of the archival materials pertaining to the US-Tunisian relations are in the National Archives at the University of Maryland, College Park. They consist of consular reports coded "Tunis-Tunisia French Africa Consular posts RG 84/Finding Aid UD Entry 905". They cover the period 1799 to 1935.

A Miscellaneous Record Book (452 pages) handwritten and referred to as "Declassified" covers the period 1894-161. It includes information on basic consular duties such as the authentication of signatures and the registration of births and deaths.

These archives are incomplete since they do not cover the period 1881-1916 when the consulate was closed.


Amos, Perry: "Carthage and Tunis, Past and Present in Two Parts", (Providence RI: Providence Press, 1869).

Amos, Perry: "An Official Tour Along the Eastern Coast of the Regency of Tunis, Geography and History of the Country, and Manners and Customs of the People", (Providence RI: Standing Printing Company, 1891).

Baker, J. M: "A View of the Commerce of the US and the Mediterranean Seaports Including the Adriatic and Morea", (Philadelphia: Barrington and Murphy, 1847).

Brown, C. L: 1976. "The United States and the Maghreb", (The Middle East Journal 30 (1976)).

Bryson, T. A: "American Diplomatic Relations with The Middle East, 1784-1975: A Survey", (Methuen NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1977).

Frye, M. F: "Barbarian Virtues, The United States Encounters Foreign peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917", (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000).

Hammons, T. B. "A Wild Ass of a Man: American Images of Arabs to 1948." PhD diss. University of Oklahoma, 1978.

Heggoy, A. A ed: "Through Foreign Eyes: Western Attitudes Toward North Africa", (New York: University Press of America, 1982).

Kearny, H. M. "American Images of the Middle East, 1824-1924." PhD diss University of Rochester, 1975.

Layachi, A: "The United States and North Africa: A Cognitive Approach to Foreign Policy", (New York: Praeger, 1990).

Little, D: "American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945", 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 2008).

Miscellaneous Record Book 1894-1961. American Embassy Tunis.

Mordecai, Noah: "Travels in England, France, Spain and the Barbary States in the Years 1813-1814 and 1815", (New York: Kirk and Mercein, 1819).

Schaefer, H., ed., 2001. America and the Orient. Heidelberg: Universtatsverlaf.

Sessions, F. C: "In Western Levant", (New York: Fracker, 1890).

Sha'ban, F: "Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought, the Roots of Orientalism in America", (Durham NC, the Acorn Press.,1991)

Smith, W. B: "American Diplomats and Consuls of 1776-1865", Occasional Paper No2. (1986).

Suleiman, M. W: "The Arabs in the Mind of America", Vermont: Amana Books, 1988).

Vincent, Franck: "Actual Africa or the Coming Continent: A Tour of Exploration", (New York: D. Appleton, 1895).

Woodberry, G. E: "North Africa and the Desert". (New York: Charles Scribner, 1914).

Zingg, P.J: 1973. "The United States and North Africa: An Historical Wasteland", (African Studies Review 16 1 (1973)).


(1) Zingg, "The United States and North Africa", p.117.

(2) Heggoy, Alfred (editor)"Through Foreign Eyes: Western Attitudes Toward North Africa", p.139.

(3) Brown, ""The United States and the Maghreb", p.274.

(4) Smith, "American Diplomats and Consuls of 1776-1865".

(5) Consular archives, vol 5, 25 September 1817.

(6) Miscellaneous Record Book 1894, Introduction.

(7) "Consular archives Tunis, Tunisia French North Africa", vol.88, March 17th 1922.

(8) Ibid, vol.22, Despatch 18, October 22nd , 1848.

(9) Ibid, vol.33, Despatch 103, April 22nd, 1875.

(10) Ibid, vol.63, August 21st, 1863.

(11) Ibid, vol.58, December 4th, 1900.

(12) Ibid, vol.62, November 23rd, 1916.

(13) Ibid, vol.62, December 6th, 1916.

(14) Ibid, vol.59, September 24th, 1907.

(15) Ibid, vol. 81, September 23rd, 1921.

(16) Ibid, vol.83, April 17th, 1922.

(17) Ibid, vol. 128, 1927, Part III. Classes 340 to 610.

(18) Perry, "An Official Tour Along the Eastern Coast of the Regency of Tunis, Geography and History of the Country, and Manners and Customs of the People", pp.37-38.

(19) "Consular archives", vol.113, 1925 (part X), classes 850 to 866.11.

(20) Ibid, vol. 7, July 24th, 1829.

(21) Bryson, "American Diplomatic Relations with The Middle East, 1784-1975: A Survey", p.24.

(22) "Consular archives", vol.70, June 24th, 1920.

(23) Ibid, vol.108, August 29th, 1925.

Adel Manai (PhD) is Associate Professor of Modern History at Qatar university.
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Author:Manai, Adel
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Date:Apr 16, 2014
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