On 25 July 1785, three miles southeast of Cape St. Vincent, Portugal, a small, American merchant vessel plodded along in light winds. She was the Maria out of Boston, bound for Cadiz. Among her crew of six was Seaman James Leander Cathcart, a veteran of the American Revolution who had enlisted in the Continental Navy and served in the frigate Confederacy until she was captured by the British. As a prisoner of war, he had endured horrid conditions in the British prison ships Good Hope and Old Jersey. All things are relative, however, and that terrible trial would pale in comparison to what lay ahead.
As the summer sun approached meridian, a strange-looking vessel closed on the Maria. She had long yards that curved downward toward the narrow hull, giving the sails an exotic triangular shape Cathcart recognized as typical of the so-called Barbary States of North Africa.