Transparent Excuses for the Transparent Diplomat

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Pierre Soulé, the American minister in Madrid, went off script and constructed for himself a brand new crisis out of the Black Warrior affair. He delivered the Pierce administration’s demands to Spain just before Holy Week began, waited three days, and then replaced them with a new and more extensive set that came with a forty-eight hour ultimatum. Thus in mid-April, 1854, according to Pierre Soulé, the United States and Spain stood at the brink of war. Though certain elements in Washington very much wanted that war, Soulé had no instructions to grease the wheels for it. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had given others, and some of the same men, more war than they cared for already and it now rested under a pile of other bills in the House with antislavery and free soil men hoping it would die quietly where they buried it instead of turn into a time bomb.

When Soulé’s second note reached the Spanish foreign minister he admitted at once that he had yet circulated the first one. As Soulé knew very well, things tended to grind to a halt during Holy Week. The Spanish court knew very well that Soulé had quite the temper and might just shoot a random person for something someone else said, but a wildcat threat of war? Even Soulé had to have some limits. The Americans might send a less than ideal minister, but they wouldn’t send an out-and-out irresponsible, bellicose lunatic…right?

Taking the matter seriously, the Spanish Council of Ministers made an exception from the usual Holy Week festivities to discuss the matter. They also reached out to the British and French, who had made noises in the past about guaranteeing Spanish control over Cuba. In order to sweeten the deal in its favor, Spain promised them a fig leaf of reforming its laws on the slave trade. But those powers had their own problems much closer to home than Cuba. They had just joined in the Crimean War against Russia. They needed to invite a Russo-American alliance like they needed additional holes in their heads. The French passed along that their man in Washington rated the Cabinet less eager for war than Soulé, or even Pierce, let on. The British sided with Spain, but would not commit to armed intervention if war came. But both powers could still lend their weight to reaching a peaceful settlement. 

The Spanish correctly read this as an expression of sympathy combined with instructions to make concessions. They opted for the tactic that had worked so well in the past: delay. Late on April 11, the day of the ultimatum, they sent back a note they claimed dated to before that ultimatum and served as a response to Soulé’s first message. The note did not give anything asked. Instead it apologized, pleading that Madrid needed to get all the facts of the matter before any real reply could come.

Soulé saw through that, and Ettinger quotes him on it in The Mission to Spain of Pierre Soulé: 

Her Majesty’s Government cannot, on the eleventh day of April, plead want of authentic data in a case of wrong perpetrated at Havana as early as the twenty-eighth of February last, when, at the same time, an authorized announcement was made on the eighth instance, by the official gazette, that the government was in possession of despatches from the authorities at that place up to the tenth of March, and when it is known that letters have been received in Madrid more than three days since, with Havana dates up to the thirteenth of the same month.

If the Spanish wanted to make excuses, they needed better ones.

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