The Perdicaris Incident

The Perdicaris Incident (1906): Ion Perdicaris was the son of wealthy Greek immigrant, Gregory Perdicaris. The family’s fortune came from the Trenton Gas Company in New Jersey. As an adult, Ion Perdicaris moved to Morocco and with his wife Ellen Varley Perdicaris, became the center of the American expatriate community in Tangier. Because of his wealth, Perdicaris, and his stepson Cromwell Varley, were kidnapped in 1906 by a powerful Berber chieftain named Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli. Raisuli made ransom demands of the sultan of Morocco, Abd al-Aziz.

President Theodore Roosevelt, his Secretary of State John Hay, and the U.S. Counsel-General of Morocco, Samuel R. Gummeré, wanted both to rescue Perdicaris and Varley and to remain aloof from the ongoing negotiations by European colonial powers concerning the future of Morocco. When the weak sultan did not move quickly enough, Roosevelt had to act. Gummeré, who was a friend of Perdicaris, suggested military engagement. Roosevelt determined instead to lean on the sultan by ordering part of the Great White Fleet to Tangier. He also directed Hay to pressure Abd al-Aziz so Hay sent Gummeré the famous telegram which read “We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli Dead.” Gummeré could not allow U.S. armed forces to come ashore nor “seize the custom house” without Roosevelt’s express orders.

U.S. military might proved unnecessary in the end, as the sultan and Raisuli had come to terms and Perdicaris regained his freedom. Roosevelt was relieved, especially as he learned—in the midst of the crisis—that Perdicaris had relinquished his American citizenship years earlier. Perdicaris was Greek. Regardless, Roosevelt knew that Raisuli believed he had kidnapped an American, and thus a larger principle was at stake.

The Perdicaris Incident remains well-known for the wording of Hay’s telegram. It is also a clear example of Roosevelt’s “big stick” diplomacy. In 1906, the French and the Germans would seek Roosevelt’s assistance to bring about the Algeciras Conference, where the fate of Morocco would be decided.