Mr. Heap to Mr. Seward.
Sir: I have the honor to state on the evening of the 26th instant I received a circular from his Highness the Bey, inclosing a copy of a letter he had addressed to the Viscount de Botmilian, the chargé d’affaires of France, and informing me that by his (M. de Botmilian’s) act diplomatic relations between his government and that of France were interrupted on the 24th instant.
As this event may occasion serious complications, and being anxious to give the department the most authentic information on the subject within my reach, I requested his Highness to grant me an official interview, in order to receive from his own lips explanation of the causes which had brought about this unfortunate occurrence.
His Highness granted my request at once, and received me yesterday. His Highness stated that on the 24th instant, on the arrival of the mails from France, the French chargé d’affaires had called upon him, and, producing a dispatch and a private letter, congratulated his Highness on the acceptance on the part of his government of the project for the formation of a commission having for its object the administration of the financial affairs of the regency, and requested his Highness to give to it at once his formal adhesion in the shape of a letter to the Marquis de Moustier, or to himself, imbodying the eight articles or conditions upon which the commission was to be formed.
His Highness observed to M. de Botmilian that he could not comply with his demand, inasmuch as, although he had accepted the project in principle, the representatives of Great Britain and Italy had objected, not to the commission itself, but to its composition and the manner it was proposed to be carried out; and the agent of Italy having, in fact, presented a protest by order of his government, rendering his Highness personally responsible for whatever prejudice might accrue hereafter to Italian interests, he (the Bey) had formally consented to allow them time for communication with their respective governments, a course which M. de Botmilian had himself suggested in the event that a divergence of opinion between the three agents should render such reference necessary; that the matter being under the consideration of the three friendly powers, it was due to them to wait for their decision, which they would not retard to give beyond a few days, and he therefore earnestly requested that he would not press his demand for the letter in the manner and form it was required of him, and which he could not give without acting discourteously towards the governments of Great Britain and that of Italy.
The French chargé d’affaires, after having failed to persuade his Highness to change his resolution, accused him of having retracted his promises to carry out this scheme, which retraction he would represent to his government as an act of bad faith; that if his Highness was afraid of England and Italy, he ought to entertain greater fears with regard to France, his more powerful neighbor; that unless he forthwith addressed the letter he required of him, the Emperor would consider it as a personal indignity offered to him and would resent it accordingly; that his refusal would be attended with the most disastrous consequences to his person, his family, and his friends, which a persistence in his refusal would place in immediate danger.
In vain his Highness repeated his remarks, as well as his reluctance to prejudice the interests of the subjects of other governments, which, he [Page 183]had reason to hope would speedily come to an understanding in common regarding a question of importance which concerned them equally, and by which decision he would abide as soon as he was made acquainted with it through their respective representatives. M. de Botmilian questioned the interest of Great Britain and Italy in this matter, but, be that as it may, he would have the letter he demanded, or he would from that day interrupt his relations and communications with his Highness. He should regret to have to take this step, because it would result in disaster to his Highness and to his family, since, if he quitted his post, France would never again send another representative to Tunis, intimating thereby that she would occupy it militarily.
All the arguments of the Bey to dissuade him from pursuing a course of moral coercion, when the question in respect to which he employed it was still under the consideration of the three governments, having proved of no avail, his Highness then earnestly begged of him not to bring about unnecessarily a rupture between him and France, with whose previous wishes he had complied; that he could not believe that it was her desire at present to make that compliance the ground of a misunderstanding between the two governments, or between his government and those of England and Italy, and that he therefore trusted, by M. Botmilian’s forbearance and moderation, he would be spared future difficulties that would overwhelm him. Should it, however, be the fixed purpose of the French representative either to extort an acquiescence in his demand, or to produce complications, in that case his Highness had no alternative than to declare his inability to resist either France, England, or Italy, and that consequently, if it was the pleasure of the Emperor to coerce him and to occupy his country, he would surrender it, since he could not defend it; but in that case it would be more desirable that the intention should be openly expressed, instead of preparing the means to justify an attack by making demands which it was known beforehand could not be yielded without laying the foundation for future complications and dangers.
This painful conference lasted upwards of four hours, at the end of which time the French chargé d’affaires repeated his intention to interrupt his relations. M. de Botmilian retired to the ante-room with this menace, but said that he would give his Highness time to reflect. After some delay, and a further conversation in the same strain with the Bey’s minister, M. de Botmilian returned to his Highness’s presence unannounced, and in a violent and unbecoming manner said that since his Highness persisted in his refusal, and had seen fit to act towards the representative of France with bad faith, it placed him under the necessity of informing his Highness that the diplomatic relations between the two governments were suspended until instructions from his own were received.
His Highness spoke with much emotion of the distress this scene had occasioned him. His minister related the principal facts, but was frequently interrupted by the Bey with remarks on points which he seemed desirous that I should be particular in mentioning to my government.
I stated to his Highness my conviction that the government of the United States would receive the details which he had had the kindness to communicate to me with deep sympathy, and that I felt I was only anticipating its wishes in assuring his Highness that, should an opportunity offer whereby its friendly intervention could with propriety be exercised in his behalf, it would not be wan ting. I reminded his Highness, however, that my government carefully abstained from all interference in discussions of this nature in which it was not immediately a party interested. [Page 184]I also ventured to remark to his Highness that as a sovereign he could not yield his just rights without abdicating his throne; that their maintenance with firmness against a superior power would gain him the sympathy of the civilized world; that at the present day a decent respect for public opinion was sometimes the most effectual protection of weak governments against the encroachments of stronger ones; that the Emperor of France was a great, powerful, and generous sovereign, and that when the facts, as related by his Highness, were brought to his knowledge, there was every reason to hope that his Majesty would take no step that might tarnish his honor.
His Highness having been pleased to ask me what opinion my government would form if he should yield the possession of his government to France, I replied that my government, having sent me to represent it near an independent sovereign, I could not doubt that it would feel the deepest concern and sympathy if such an unfortunate event should come to pass. My country was eminently just towards all nations; that while it sometimes bore patiently injuries and even slights from weaker powers, it never brooked insult or wrong from an equal; and though it was not our policy to interfere in discussions in which we had no immediate interest, yet, as one of the principal powers of the world, we did not hesitate to express our disapproval of all acts of oppression, whether upon nations or individuals.
Upon taking my leave, his Highness requested me to communicate all the facts he had related to my government. I informed him that I intended to call upon M. de Botmilian for the same purpose I had in asking an interview with his Highness, and while I disclaimed all pretense of exercising any influence over him, I intimated my readiness to convey any message his Highness might be pleased to intrust to me. He said that as M. de Botmilian had thrice refused to receive the letter, a copy of which had been sent to me, it was hopeless to expect that he would in any way change the line of conduct he had traced out for himself; but he desired me to remember, and to repeat, that under all circumstances he was the devoted friend and ally of France, and that he had never, before or since his accession to the throne, experienced so much distress of mind as when he heard that the flag of that nation had, for the first time in the history of Tunis, been lowered in displeasure at the consulate.
I then called on M. de Botmilian and informed him of the conversation I had just had with the Bey, and that I now requested to hear from him, for my government’s information, the reasons he might deem proper to communicate to me which had induced him to interrupt his friendly relations with this government.
M. de Botmilian stated that the Bey’s minister had sent for him some three weeks ago and proposed to him that the plan of a mixed commission which should have for its object the administration of the finances of this country, &c. After some discussion as to details the plan was accepted by M. de Botmilian, and he remained at the minister’s house until both it and a letter from the minister to M. de Botmilian to accompany it, and in which he begged M. de Botmilian to use his influence with his government to induce the acceptance of the project, were written. The plan in question certainly delivered the government of Tunis—bound hand and foot—over to a commission composed in majority of Frenchmen and presided over by a financial agent appointed by France. It also ignores the rights of English and Italian subjects, which are at least as important as those of the French. A few days later, another plan was sent by the minister, accompanied by another letter, which gave still greater powers to the commission. M. de Botmilian considered these [Page 185]official letters of the minister binding on the Bey, and transmitted them to Paris under the full belief that the acceptance by his government was all that was now required to render the plan irrevocable. When the dispatches arrived on Friday last, conveying the approval of the French government to the project proposed by the Bey’s minister, he hastened to the palace impressed with the conviction that he was carrying to his Highness pleasing news. His surprise, therefore, was great when, upon announcing to the Bey that the dispatches he had in his hand contained the ratification of his government to the second plan offered by the minister, and which the latter had, in his master’s name, so strongly urged M. de Botmilian to recommend to the favorable consideration of the French government, and when he asked the Bey to address him a letter confirming the formation of the commission, to be told that his Highness having received strong protests and even threats from the consuls of Great Britain and Italy when the plan was brought to their knowledge, he was now under the necessity of refusing his assent to it. As the remainder of M. de Botmilian’s narration coincided in all material points with that I had just received from his Highness, I will not trouble the department with a repetition of it.
It appears to me that M. de Botmilian placed too much stress upon the official and binding character of the plans offered by the minister. Either the Bey was entirely ignorant of the minister’s letters, or their importance as being binding upon him was concealed from him.
M. de Botmilian is probably technically correct in considering an official communication from the Bey’s minister as binding on the Bey himself as if it had been signed by the latter, but his previous experience of these people, and of the loose manner in which they transact business, and more especially his knowledge of the minister, should have prepared him to feel no surprise if in a matter like this he (the minister) had, for objects of his own, acted a double part. The Bey asserts that he considered the object in sending the plan or plans to Paris as merely to elicit the opinion of the French government, but that he was in no way bound by the kasnadar’s letters, which were rather officious than official.
However this may be, the political question this unhappy event gives rise to is one in which all the great powers of Europe are equally interested to have satisfactorily settled. It cannot be overlooked by those which have an interest in the eastern question that it should no more originate in Tunis than on the Danube; for if one powerful neighbor attempts to justify annexation on the ground of political exigency, there is no reason why another should not follow the example on a similar plea.
For the information of the United States ministers at Florence and Constantinople I shall venture to transmit to each a copy of this dispatch, that they may be placed in possession of all the facts of an event which, though apparently small in itself, may lead to important consequences. But for want of time to make a copy in season to go by this mail, I shall send this open, under cover to General Dix, for his perusal.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.