Mr. Perry to Mr. Seward

No. 58.]

Sir: I have had occasion in one of my despatches to speak of the support given to the cause of freedom, as opposed to slavery, by the official Arab journals of Tunis. In another despatch I spoke of a formal interview between an American slaveholder and one of the ministers of the Bey of Tunis, in which the former endeavored to impress upon the latter his ideas in regard to the advantages of slavery over free institutions. The Moslem minister of Barbary appreciated the zeal and eloquence of this propagandist of slavery, but having a practical knowledge of this institution, failed to be convinced by the arguments offered in its support.

Though piracy and slavery existed in this regency for centuries, they have disappeared with the advancing light of civilization. The former was abolished in 1816, when three thousand Christian captives (slaves) were released in one day; the latter was abolished in 1845, and on the 23d of January, 1846, Ahmed Bey, then upon the throne, addressed a letter to the resident consuls, in which he employed language to this effect: “We are all fellow-creatures of God, and as such have no right to enslave each other. I have long felt that human slavery is cruel, and have exerted myself for its eradication, and have given orders to my governors and deputies in all my provinces that no human being be henceforth recognized as a slave.”

That the actual Bey entertains similar sentiments I have ample proof. During our interview with him, after some expressions on my part in favor of constitutional liberty, he replied: “I desire to extend the liberties of my subjects as fast as they are able to receive them;” and he closed his remarks by saying, as if for a delicate home thrust on me: “I see not how any just discrimination can be made in regard to these liberties on the ground of color or race; the privileges enjoyed should rather depend upon the intelligence and character of the subjects.”

I now have the honor to lay before the department a more full, elaborate and authoritative statement of Tunisian sentiment in regard to the great question that agitates our country. It is a letter, already printed and circulated in the Arabic language, from one of the most respected and worthy men in this regency. It explains slavery from a Moslem point of view, quoting from the Koran and its acknowledged expounders, and showing from what motives the proclamation for the abolition of slavery was finally issued. In writing this letter, General Heussein, who has travelled extensively in Europe and is an accurate observer, had distinctly before him here the terrible evils consequent upon centuries of slavery. He saw here labor degraded by having been for so long a time regarded as the special and appropriate business of slaves; the public conscience deadened by familiarity with injustice and wrong; the principles of liberty uprooted, and supplanted by those of slavery, and the country impoverished to a fearful extent. With such a sad picture before him, he speaks his honest convictions as a Mussulman and as a man, and in the name of humanity exhorts Americans not to harbor an institution which produces such results.

This letter comes with the highest sanctions of the country, and the appeal which is made at the conclusion, to Americans, is but the utterance of a common [Page 340] sentiment in this region. General Heussein’s negro Bona, who was pounced upon at Paris by a chivalrous southerner, still serves as his confidential companion; and should the general visit America, as he hopes to do at the conclusion of our pro-slavery rebellion, the question is asked whether Bona would be protected in his rights as a gentleman in the grand opera saloons of America, as he was at Paris.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.

Translation of a letter on Tunisian slavery, addressed to Mr. Amos Perry, consul of the United States of America at Tunis, first printed in the Arabic language and circulated in pamphlet form in the regency of Tunis by General Heussein, president of the municipal council of the city of Tunis and major general.

Sir: I have been honored with a letter from you in which you state, that coming from a country where liberty and slavery for a long time existed and flourished side by side, and where they are at present involved in a death struggle for supremacy, you find many facts in the history of Tunis calculated to throw light on the legitimate influence of these two antagonistic principles. You ask me to explain Tunisian slavery, and to state what influence it has exerted on our institutions, and whether our people regret its abolition or rejoice thereat. You further wish to know whether our experience is favorable to servile and unpaid labor, or to that which is free and paid, and which the Tunisian government prefers as the basis of its social fabric, freedom or slavery.

1. Here is my reply. And I will first speak of slavery as modified by our laws and of the causes which led to its abolition in this regency.

Our government, like all Mussulman governments, is a theocracy, and its administration is consequently based upon laws which are in their nature both civil and religious. The Mussulman religion tolerates or permits slavery; and this it does because slavery is an institution anterior to the three revealed religions, Mosaic, Christian, and Mohammedan. In the time of Jacob, the Israel of God, the robber was doomed to suffer slavery for one year as a punishment for his crime. Our religion substituted for the year of bondage cutting off the hand at the wrist. But it must be remarked that our religion authorizes slavery only on such conditions and under such laws as are very strict and difficult to be observed. One of these conditions is, never to injure or tyrannize over a slave. Nay, a slave who is ill-treated is declared thereby free. The words of the Prophets are: “Every slave ill-treated is free ipso facto.” There are in our religious books innumerable precepts enjoining upon masters the exercise of benevolence toward their slaves; and the last words of our Prophet, on whom may the grace, of God rest, were these: “I commend to you prayer and your slaves.” He used to say also: “The men whom you possess are your brethren; it is God who has subjected them to you. Now he who has one of his brethren under his subjection should let him eat the bread of which he partakes, and should clothe him as he clothes himself, and should not over-work him.” Oman Ben Alkatab, the second of the Califs, used to go every day where slaves were employed, and when he found any of them over-tasked, he diminished their tasks; nay, more, he went every Saturday to where beasts of burden were found, and if any of them appeared to him over-loaded, he ordered that their burdens be lightened.

It is a fact that our legislator infused into our laws the spirit of liberty, profiting from the least circumstance to favor personal freedom. Thus, if a master, by chance, let drop a word declaring one limb (for example, the arm) of his slave to be free, the law declares the whole body thereby freed from bondage. One of the eight objects for which expiatory alms are to be employed, as explained in the Koran, is the ransom of slaves. Thus we are bound to employ a part of our contributions for charity in purchasing slaves, with a view to their freedom. To be released from an oath inconsiderately taken, to atone for the crime of homicide and for the non-observance of a fast, and to be exonerated from the izhar,* the freeing of slaves is the prescribed means. Now, if the freeing of slaves had not been regarded by our lawgiver as a meritorious act, he would not have devoted to it the expiatory offerings otherwise given to the poor. Another proof of the liberal tendency of our laws is the recompense offered [Page 341] to those who free their slaves. Thus it is written: “If a Mussulman free a Mussulman slave, God shall redeem from the fire of hell as many limbs in the body of the former as there are in the body of the latter.”

Now, since all these conditions and laws were difficult to be observed when our faith was yet lively and vigorous, how much more difficult must they be in these latter times, when our faith is chilled and our zeal repressed. And the enslavement of negroes, who are so different from the whites in their instincts and character, rendered the observance of these rules still more difficult. In fact, quarrels often occurred here between negroes and their masters, which had no other cause than the natural repugnance and antipathy that exist between the two races; and these quarrels were a source of unhappiness to slaves and of offence to masters, often giving occasion for the latter to violate the laws enacted for the well-being of the former.

Slavery becoming worse with time, at length attracted the attention of the Tunisian government, which finally advised, as a radical remedy for the existing evils, the complete abolition of slavery in the regency; for when a master could no longer treat his slave with the kindness prescribed by our laws, the slave had to be either sold or freed from bondage. The former course was scarcely a remedy; since the slave sold only changed masters, and the evil was likely to be repeated. The latter course was effectual and final, and hence its adoption by our government. The act of emancipation occurred in the month of Moharram, 1262 of the Hegira, (A. C. 1845,) during the reign of Ashmed Bey, of blessed memory. This prince addressed a letter to the religious tribunals on that occasion, in which he says: “It has been proved to us in a manner beyond question that our people are incapable of holding negroes as slaves in accordance with the conditions prescribed by our laws. We have, therefore, deemed it necessary, in order to ameliorate the condition of these unfortunate beings, to abolish slavery altogether. We have been influenced in adopting this measure by some political considerations,” &c.

The political considerations here alluded to can be interpreted in different ways; but in my opinion our lamented sovereign had in mind the principles demonstrated by the great political economists of our age, that those countries where free labor exists, to the exclusion of that which is servile and forced, are thereby rendered more prosperous and happy. One of our distinjguished writers and religious dignitaries, in a document issued to induce all those under his charge to comply with the requisitions of our late sovereign, employed the following language:

“O, generous souls, hearts full of compassion, your law is on the side of liberty; holding men as slaves is a misfortune and a disgrace; but God, who is the author of our being, can change the order of things, making slaves masters and masters slaves.”

2. Another of your inquiries relates to the influence of slavery on our institutions and to the sentiments entertained by our people in regard to its abolition.

Since the holding of men in slavery was found to be neither necessary to supply the common wants of life, nor needful to the well-being of society, such a practice was, in general, abandoned here without pain, if not cheerfully; and now, after nearly twenty years of experience, I am satisfied that this change is not regretted. And why should persons well to do in life, who have at heart the well-being of their fellow-creatures and the improvement of their country, regret liberating their slaves, when they can have in their stead the service of free men? And here the satisfaction of such persons was enhanced by their religious convictions that they would be rewarded before God in the final abode. But if there were persons who at first were disturbed by the abolition of slavery on account of changes introduced in their mode of service, or by reason of their selfishness and avarice leading them to prefer what was present and near to what was future and remote, these persons were at length consoled and satisfied, learning by experience the advantages of free and paid labor over that which is servile and unpaid—advantages which are appreciable alike in the light of reason and of general experience. Those who had employed slaves and could not afford to employ free servants readily returned to the order of nature, which is the best, doing their work with their own hands, so as to have the least possible need of their fellow-creatures. Indeed, when a person gets used to being served by others, he often becomes incapable of performing even the simplest duties of life; for man is more a slave of custom and habit than a follower of instinct. To gratify various wants of his existence, he is obliged to depend somewhat upon those around him; but in proportion as he is thus dependent, it is difficult for him to be gratified, and those things for which he is most dependent on others are most difficult for him to get.

Mankind may be divided in respect to labor into four classes. The first class comprises those who attend to their own business in person, working, and in general putting forth their utmost efforts. They perform the largest amount of labor. The second class comprises those who are out at service and are paid stipulated wages. Not putting forth, in general, their utmost efforts, they perform a smaller amount of labor, and though invaluable to society, are as a whole inferior to the first class. The third class comprises those who work by compulsion and without pay. To this class belong slaves and bondmen. Their inducements to labor being small, their amount of service is also small, and their rank as a producing class is very inferior. The fourth class comprises those who work neither for themselves nor for other people. They are the lazy and idle, whom God hates. Regarding labor as the part of slaves [Page 342] and slavish people, they would shun the very suspicion of belonging to such a class. Yet these persons, who stand lowest in the scale of the political economist and in the divine order, may not be lost beyond remedy. They may be benefited by seeing those of more intelligence and elevated station performing the offices which they regard with disdain. The idle and lazy need to be urged and encouraged by persons of influence and authority to pursue the path of usefulness. Man is more disposed by nature and the light of reason to love and do good than to approve and do evil. He is prompted to evil by his lower or animal instincts; but as a man, or rather as a reasonable being, he aspires to that which is good, and when he finds a physician skilful in overcoming the infirmities of his nature, he is put in the best moral condition. It is when men are thus treated and helped that general prosperity is secured; mutual assistance is afforded in the various occupations of life; all hands are employed for a common good; the sources of wealth are developed, and the country is enriched. It is thus that those countries are more prosperous where liberty exists to the exclusion of slavery, than where slavery exists to the injury of liberty and labor. The cause of this difference seems to me clear. The amount of labor voluntarily performed by free men is far greater than can be forced from wretched slaves, and is at the same time infinitely more satisfactory and advantageous to society.

3. It is my belief also that as liberty, unharmed by slavery, exerts an influence favorable to the material prosperity of a country, so it serves to elevate the character and sentiments of the people. There can be no permanent prosperity without justice, and justice results from freedom. If freedom be destroyed tyranny takes its place, disregarding the claims of justice and injuring the best interests of society. There can be no doubt that the prevalence of freedom tends to the elevation of the character of men, by leading them to reflect and reason in regard to general principles and their application in life. Men breathing the spirit of freedom are elevated and ennobled thereby, and are less likely to contract certain bad habits, such as vulgarity of manners, vanity, pride, and the like passions which often predominate in slave masters; for by habitually dealing with slaves these latter persons often become haughty in spirit and imperious and overbearing in manner. Nay, they often learn to regard other men, especially if they are black, as they regard their cattle. Slaves seem to them scarcely elevated above the brute creation.

In illustration of what I have here said, I will state an incident of which I was a witness. During the carnival of 1856, I went to the grand opera at Paris with a young negro. I had been in the saloon but a short time when an American gentleman sprang upon my companion, and, trying to seize him by his clothes, cried out with rage, “What is this negro doing in the saloon where we are? When has a slave ever been permitted to take rank with his masters?” The poor negro, not understanding what the American was saying, was astonished, stupefied at the scene. I immediately approached and said to the American, “Be calm, my friend; we are in Paris, and not at Richmond.” Meanwhile, attracted by the noise, one of the guardians of the theatre hastened to the scene and informed the American that French laws give no preference to gentlemen on the ground of color or race, but much honor to character. In fine, the poor negro was delivered from the clutches of the American, not by the clearness of his white cravat and yellow gloves, but by the splendor of truth and the justice of freedom.

4. To return to our subject: The Tunisian government, deeming it needful for the harmony of society that slavery should be abolished, enacted the law of emancipation, regardless of the prophecies of those who maintained that slaves did not wish for their freedom, and that if emancipated they would prefer to return to a state of bondage. The poet says:

“Sore eyes shun the light of day.”

‘‘To the sick, pure water often has a bad taste.”

But the instances of freedmen repenting that they were not again slaves occurred only immediately after the act of emancipation, when these poor creatures were thrown suddenly upon the world like cattle loosed from their stalls. They were ignorant and quite unprepared for the exigencies of their new life of freedom. But now that they have had experience, we find none of them with the slightest inclination to return to a life of slavery.

But passing by this objection, that falls to the ground of itself, I turn, in connclusion, to address myself to the people of your country.

O, inhabitants of America, ye are like that nation of whom Omar Ben Elaas, the friend of our Prophet, on whom be the grace and blessing of God, said: “They are the most compassionate people in times of war and domestic trouble; the quickest to recover from misfortunes; repulsed, they return to the charge; to the poor, the orphans, and the feeble, they are most charitable; and against the tyranny of kings they are most valiant.” Such is the story of your character; and since God has permitted you to enjoy full personal liberty and to manage your civil and political affairs yourselves, while many other people are deprived of such distinguished privileges and blessings, it would not tarnish the lustre of your crown to grant to your slaves, as an act of gratitude for the favors God has bestowed on you, such civil rights as are not denied to the humblest and meanest of your citizens. You are too far advanced in civilization to imitate the example of those who, with bandaged eyes, ever turn in the same circle under the pretext of following in the footsteps of their fathers. Humanity invites you to eradicate from your Constitution all that can give countenance to the principle [Page 343] of slavery. Pity the slave. God loves the merciful among his worshippers. Be then ye merciful to those upon earth, that He who is in heaven may be merciful to you.

In concluding this letter, Monsieur La Consieur General, permit me to express my profoundest regrets for the war that afflicts and saddens your land, and my tenderest sympathies for the slaves there doomed to suffer.

You will please accept the assurance of my distinguished consideration.

Written with his perishable hand by the poor before the mercy seat of his God,

GL. HEUSSEIN, Major General and President of the Municipal Council of Tunis.

Mr. Amos Perry, Consul of the United States of America at Tunis.

  1. The izhar is the state into which a husband falls by the hasty utterance of a word, which, according to the Moslem law, makes it a sin for him longer to live with his wife. Thus, for instance, if he says to his wife in a fit of passion, “I shall not touch you any more; if I do may it be as I touch my mother or my sister,” he must either divorce his wife, or, to live with her, must atone for that inconsiderate expression. By comparing his wife to his mother or his sister he loses his marital rights.