The Black Warrior Ultimatum

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

While the House debated the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Black Warrior’s owners regained and her cargo. Secretary of State William L. Marcy sent instructions for the American minister in Spain, Pierre Soulé, to demand a $300,000 indemnity and that the Queen express her displeasure with the officials responsible for the ship’s seizure in Cuba, whatever the latter meant. With all the delays in getting a message across the Atlantic, Soulé did not present the American demands to the Spanish Foreign Minister until April 8. Cuban authorities seized the ship on February 28, 1854 and its owners had it back by March 16, but considering that the Captain-General of Cuba intended the seizure as a provocation and everyone knew that, pursuing the matter allowed for the address of related issues. 

For Pierre Soulé, related issues meant taking Cuba. He delivered his note on a Saturday, April 8. At noon on April 11, all of three days later, Soulé sent along a second note. He repeated all the original demands and added a new one:

all persons, whatever be their official rank and importance, who have, in any responsible manner, been concerned in the perpetration of the wrong, be dismissed from Her Majesty’s service in the offices which they now hold

Spain had forty-eight hours from the receipt of the note to give a clear answer, with the implication that in the absence of one the shooting would soon commence. Soulé had not run this ultimatum by Marcy. The Secretary of State’s instructions told him to deliver the first note, without any deadline or the demand to sack the officials involved, and then call it quits on the subject until he heard back from Spain.

In Soulé’s defense, Spain did have a history of passing the buck around over this kind of thing. The Consul in Havana would complain to the Captain-General, who would say that Madrid did not authorize him to negotiate directly with foreign powers. Protests would go to Madrid, which would claim ignorance and refer the matter back to Havana. But Marcy and Pierce knew that well enough that Pierce alluded to it in his message to Congress, using martial language that so alarmed Joshua Giddings. They had not given Soulé any kind of instructions to speed the process along this way and Marcy especially probably got a few gray hairs when he heard of it.

Furthermore, Soulé’s cultivated his impatience for public consumption. He presented his first note on Saturday, April 8. Holy Week began that year on Sunday, April 9. Soulé grew up in France. He had lived in New Orleans. He knew all about Holy Week. He also could not have missed that the proper form of address for the Queen called her Her Catholic Majesty. He surely used the style frequently himself. Anybody would expect a very Catholic country with a very Catholic government full of very Catholic officials to have some distractions on Holy Week which might delay official business. Clearly, he saw Holy Week at hand and guessed correctly that he could use a normal delay as an excuse to escalate things.

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