My Search for the First American Consulate and the Original Mount Washington

By Lawrence Peskin, AIMS Fellow/Morgan State University

Most discussions of the U.S. presence in Tangier do not really go back before 1821. This is readily understandable. Everyone wants to know about the interzone years and the fascinating flock of “accidentals” (Elena Prentice’s term) who arrived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Additionally, the “donation” of the American Legation in 1821 makes for an easy starting point to the story of Americans in Tangier since that building has always been the center of American activity. I put donation in scare quotes because so far as I can tell the present building was not actually begun until the 1840s and a lot of it was built much later, as is discussed clearly in an exhibit in the old consular office of that very building.

My own research revolves around the first “American” consul, James Simpson. American is in scare quotes because Simpson was in fact a Scotsman who never came to America and had no connection to the U.S. beyond his job and his wife, who travelled there as a young child while her father’s regiment attempted to put down the Revolution. Simpson served from 1797-1820, and since he had the misfortune of dying just before the “donation” of the legation building and before the arrival of any accidentals, little has been written about his term other than the well-known diplomatic negotiations between Morocco and the U.S.

The biggest unaddressed mysteries, at least from the perspective of local history, are the locations of Simpson’s homes. He had two: the official U.S. consulate and a country estate. When I came to Tangier I was not sure of the location of either, and now that my time here is coming to an end, I am still not entirely enlightened, although I have developed some solid theories. At least they seem solid to me. Any old Tangier hands who might want to provide supporting or contradicting information would be very much appreciated.

The town house is the easier of the two to locate. For Simpson, though, it was nothing but trouble. All sources describe it as a very small structure located in the garden of the Swedish consulate. Some imply that it was attached to the consulate, and one observer, the former captive (and Simpson friend) James Riley wrote that it had been built as a kitchen. Simpson’s successor, John Mullowny, believed it had originally been constructed to house Swedish seamen in Tangier. Either way, it was quite small. Riley wrote that when Simpson’s son’s family came to visit there was no space for them and they were forced to rent rooms in a Jew’s house nearby. Simpson unsuccessfully pestered the US government for a new house until the end of his life.

Several scholars, including Susan Gilson Miller, locate the old Swedish consulate at the site of the current Spanish church, La Purissima on Rue Siaghine, the main artery in the Medina. An 1808 map drawn by the French official Antoine Burel clearly shows the relationship between the American and Swedish houses. Note that these structures are very close to the Petite Socco, which is the large square to the right. Incidentally Miller’s map (not pictured) shows some very large homes owned by Jews located just to the west of the Swedish consul which are good candidates to have been the lodging place for Simpson’s visitors.