Cuban Concessions

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

On the advice of Britain and France, Spain took a somewhat conciliatory tone toward Pierre Soulé’s threats of war. They needed more information from Cuba. Soulé didn’t buy that, as the Cuban post had long since passed the date of the Black Warrior’s seizure. If he would let them, for now, slip out from under his forty-eight hour ultimatum, Soulé would not let Madrid slip out of the issue entirely. He wanted satisfaction officially and to get Cuba out of the deal unofficially, by war or threat of war.

In mid-April, as far as the Spanish could tell, it looked a bit like Soulé had Washington on board for that war. On the thirteenth, he reiterated his demands and pressed for an indemnity and the sacking of the colonial officials connected to the ship’s seizure “before it was too late.” At the very least, that had to mean that Washington would suspend the Neutrality Act and give free rein to filibusters like John A. Quitman, the administration’s apparent darling, right?

Soulé got back that Spain expected better treatment from the United States. They had every right to insist on getting accurate information from Cuba. Soulé answered on the twentieth with a laundry list of offenses against Americans that Spain had done nothing about, and concluded:

that good faith which alone can impart a moral sanction to the purposes of men, as well as nations, is to be sought after in their deeds rather than their assertions, and is found not infrequently to fall short of its promises in the hands of those who are loudest in its praises.

This persistence finally brought the immediate question into focus for the Spanish: Did Pierre Soulé act on instructions from Washington, or had he gone off on his own? They learned from the British, via discussions with American minister John Y. Mason in Paris, that Soulé probably exceeded his instructions.

Lord Howden, the British ambassador in Madrid, went to Soulé himself to feel things out. The owners had the ship back, Pierre, why all the fireworks over it? Soulé insisted that a great public question remained that transcended the private matter of the Black Warrior’s seizure:

the time had come for a great and generous nation to be no longer bullied and baffled by a small and contemptible one […] he would have 300,000 dollars and that General Pezuela and his satellites should be dismissed.

Emphasis in the original.

The latter demand, remember, Soulé invented himself. Marcy’s instructions asked for the cash and called it good. When the Secretary of State heard about all of this, he sent Soulé a private reprimand.

As April gave way to May, the British tried to arrange some kind of arbitration. They thought it would force Washington to either own up to trying to start a war or to denounce Soulé. This storm left the rest of the American diplomatic establishment out of the loop. From Mason in Paris and Buchanan in London, complaints went up to Marcy. Did the nation have a war policy they did not know about? Marcy shot back that he gave them all he had, but then told Buchanan and France’s ambassador to Washington that Soulé went off-script. 

On May 7, as Stephen Douglas got ready to dig the Kansas-Nebraska Act out from under the pile of other bills that the House buried it beneath, Soulé got a real answer from the Spanish. They insisted that, at last, they had accurate information. Spain would give back the fine the owners of the Black Warrior paid and promised a restoration of any seized property still in Spanish hands. Soulé called it a step in the right direction. His Spanish counterpart wondered if he had instructions on whether he should take yes for an answer.


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