Tangier is a history full of odd ducks and strange corners of history. You probably know that for the first half of the 20th century, it was a popular haunt for oil barons and shipping magnates, bankers and spies, thieves and artists.
These are all strange and interesting in their own right, but perhaps there is no quintessentially stranger story belonging to Tangier more than the story of Ion Perdicaris.
The son of the American Ambassador to Greece, Ion “Jon” Hanford Perdicaris, was born in Athens Greece in 1840. However, he largely grew up in New Jersey in the US. His father was quite accomplished in his own right, marrying Perdicaris’ mother, the daughter of a wealthy land owning family in South Carolina. Perdicaris attended classes at Harvard, though because of his wanderlust nature, he dropped out after his sophomore year to continue his studies in Europe. By the time he was 31 years old, he was living in London studying electricity and began an affair with a married woman, Ellen Varley, that was quite the scandal of the day. The two fled to Tangier as Ellen worked to secure a divorce.
By 1872, he had renounced his US citizenship, taken up Greek citizenship, and was living with Ellen and her four kids from her first marriage. In 1887 he purchased 70 hectacres of forested property in the Rmilate Forest on the “Big Mountain” of west Tangier. It was here where perdicaris built his famous “Place of Nightingales.” He built a gallant house on a bluff in the middle of the domain fit for the most lavish parties, which he hosted as the unofficial head of Tangier’s expatriate community of the day. The surrounding forested land he developed for Ellen, who was continuously ill with tuberculosis. The fresh air and the many diverse walks Perdicaris made for her around their domain are the very same reasons the Tangerines of today still flock to this spot.
Though his heart was in Tangier, Perdicaris’ business and other adventures took him around the world. One of his hobbies was to bring back wild animals and plants from different regions of his travels. Though the wild animals that formed his managerie haven’t thrived, the plants have.
Today, the “Place of Nightingales” is better known as “Perdicaris Park.” This 70 hectacre park, once the playground of Perdicaris, boast hundreds of Eucalyptus trees from Australia, introduced in 1919, as well as California, Canary and Coconut palm trees. Here, you’ll also find dragon trees, mimosas, pine trees, Mirbeck’s oaks, weeping willows, and silver poplars. There are many flowers throughout the park as well, including rockrose, different flowering dandelions, madder, tree mallows, and Mediterranean fleabane. This incredibly diverse flora is fed, in part, by the yearly visits of migratory birds that travel from Europe to Africa. The Black Kite, Common Kestrel, and Griffon Vulture are just a few of the many birds that literally flock to the park.
For its various flora, it has been named an official Site of Biologic and Ecologic Interest, giving it a favored, protected environmental status in Morocco. Though many locals are unaware of the history of Perdicaris, his contribution in making one of the most beautiful, diverse parks in all of Morocco is one everyone appreciates… particularly for the weekend picnics, which are a bit of a Tangier tradition.
If Perdicaris’ story ended with the formation of the Perdicaris Park, that would be a wonderful pocket of history, though nothing too strange.
The strangest turn of Perdicaris’ history began with a kidnapping. On May 18, 1904, Perdicaris and his stepson, Cromwell Varley, were abducted by Moulay Ahmed Raisuli, a much-feared Moroccan bandit dubbed “The Last of the Sale Pirates.” Admired by his followers and championed as a local hero by many of his home region, Raisuli was a continual thorn in the side of Moroccan authorities. The kidnapping of Perdicaris was one three internationally publicized kidnappings over a decade-long stretch of crime — the other two being Walter Harris, a correspondent for The Times, and Sir Harry “Caid” MacLean, an British army officer.
Depending on what account you believe, Raisuli stormed down through the Perdicaris domain with somewhere between 9 and 150 people. Raisuli and his men quickly cut the telephone lines, dispatched of Perdicaris’ small security force, locked Ellen away and absconded with Perdicaris and his stepson. Through the night, they galloped on horseback to Raisuli’s native Rif Mountains where they took refuge. Along the ride, Perdicaris fell and broke his leg.
Ellen alerted the local authorities. They, in turn, cabled the US who quickly became involved in the affair.
While in captivity, Perdicaris came to know Raisuli and, in the months following his release, while Perdicaris lived in Tangier, Raisuli would occasionally visit his property. Today it is thought that perhaps Perdicaris suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, though by all accounts, he was treated well and enjoyed his conversations with Raisuli.
Raisuli, for his part, over the course of the kidnapping upped his demands until the ransom stood at a hefty $70,000 (around 2 million USD in today’s currency).
In the US, Roosevelt was struggling with his campaign. Allegation of blackmail and corruption in the Bureau of Corporations was set to derail his political aspirations of being voted in for a second term.
When the American Secretary of State became aware of the Perdicaris kidnapping, the affair landed directly in the midst of President Theodore Roosevelt’s reelection campaign.
The US incorrectly labeled Perdicaris a US Citizen. Roosevelt made a quick call to action. Seven US warships that were touring the Mediterranean were dispatched to Tangier. Marines stormed onto Moroccan soil. Calls on the Sultan of Morocco were made to bring the “brigand” Raisuli to justice. French, Great Britain, and Italy were all involved, each of them trying to stave off the quick international escalation, a precursor to the frayed tensions that gave way to World War I.
Back in the US, at the Republican National Convention, Roosevelt’s reelection rallying cry was born:
“Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
On the show of strength of his foreign policy — namely as being seen as a firm hand in dealing with the Perdicaris kidnapping — Roosevelt easily won his reelection. He fought for American interests both at home and abroad. Never mind that he was aware early on that Perdicaris had renounced his American citizenship. And never mind that the Sultan of Morocco paid the ransom, which is why, a little over a month after being kidnapped, Perdicaris was restored to his home, his broken leg well on the mend.
In the years directly following his kidnapping, Perdicaris penned an autobiographical account about his kidnapping for the National Geographic and eventually moved back to the UK, where he lived out the rest of his life. He died in 1925. Interestingly, the same year his kidnapper, Raisuli, died.
If you think the events would make for a great movie, so did Hollywood! The story of Perdicaris’ kidnapping found its way to the theaters with Sean Connery playing Moulay Ahmed Raisuli in The Wind and the Lion. As strange as it might have been to cast 007 himself as a Riffian warrior, it was perhaps stranger who they cast in the role of Ion Perdicaris: Hollywood starlette Candice Bergen!
Hollywood wasn’t convinced that people would want to watch a bearded 61 year-old be taken captive. Instead, the events were retold with the age-old Hollywood magic of recasting the kidnapping victim as a young woman by the name of Eden Pedecaris.
Perdicaris’ house, the “Place of Nightingales,” was abandoned when he and his family moved back to the UK. Once falling into ruin, the palatial property has recently been renovated by the Moroccan state. Now dubbed “Chateau Perdicaris,” it commands the view over the domain as it has for over a century. These days, it still stands strong in its domain, drawing locals in to visit the majestic Perdicaris Park, enjoy a picnic, a chat with friends, breath in the fresh Eucalyptus-infused air, and marvel at the the stunning views of the Strait of Gibraltar. The Chateau Perdicaris is now a museum to Ion Perdicaris, his story, and the vast biodiversity of the park. Entrance is 70Dh.
Text and photos by award-winning writer, photographer, and Morocco expert, Lucas Peters (public domain photos of Ion Perdicaris and Moulay Raisuli obviously not!). After spending years traveling to the distant corners of Morocco and writing about his adventures, he penned the best-selling guidebook Moon Morocco as well as Marrakesh and Beyond. He lives in Tangier with his family. He can often be found wandering in Perdicaris Park.