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Posted on 11/23/2008 6:32:49 AM PST by CE2949BB
The Wars of the Barbary Pirates
Essential Histories #66
Most Americans are unaware that, as a young republic, their nation fought a war with the Barbary pirates, the North African corsairs who plied the waters of the Mediterranean at the turn of the 19th century in search of ships to loot and men to enslave. This is perhaps not surprising, for the wars were conducted on a small scale, over a short period of time, and at a considerable distance from American shores. They were, moreover, the product of one of the most inglorious even degrading episodes in the nations history and, as such, have been conveniently ignored. It is an unpalatable fact long since forgotten, that for many years the new republic paid tribute to the despotic regimes of North Africa in order to protect American citizens from capture at sea. Lacking both the means and the will to protect itself from extortion on a grand scale, the United States beginning with the administration led by no less than President George Washington himself furnished ransom payments on a lavish scale. Worse, perhaps, even than a proud nation, whose independence had been so recently purchased in blood, sinking to such depths, was the fact that many of its citizens were forced to wait more than a decade for their release all the while living on starvation rations in prison hell-holes and forced to break rocks in the quarries of North Africa.
The wars against the Barbary pirates signaled Americas determination to throw off its tributary status, liberate its captive citizens, and reassert its right to navigate and trade freely upon the seas. Yet the wars significance extended beyond this: they played an important part in the early development of Americas self-image, its navy, and its foreign policy. When a small party of United States Marines were dispatched to the shores of Tripoli as their hymn proudly commemorates, it was the first American military force ever to land on a hostile foreign shore, and the planting of the Stars and Stripes on the ramparts of Derna has been immortalized as one of many great feats performed by the Marine Corps since its birth less than a decade earlier. For the Navy, the Barbary Wars became a training ground, with many commanders going on to perform more distinguished service in the War of 1812 against Britain.
The depredations of the Barbary pirates obliged the United States to choose between a policy of appeasement or war. It could continue as a tributary nation or be prepared to defend the right to conduct its burgeoning maritime trade without hindrance. The choice for the young republic was nothing if not stark: to pay tribute and ransom to the Barbary States, so protecting its merchant sailors from captivity and slavery; or confront them with an uncertain prospect of success with the very limited naval resources available.
The Barbary States occupied the northern coast of Africa, bounded by the Atlantic to the west, stretching 2,000 miles (3,219km) to Egypt in the east, with the Mediterranean to the north and the Sahara to the south. They consisted, from west to east, of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, with Algiers being the most active and powerful of these. Moroccos capital, Tangier, was unique among the Barbary States in bearing a different name from the state itself. All the states were governed ruthlessly by a succession of despotic regimes, with Morocco an independent kingdom and Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli ostensibly still subordinate to Ottoman authority though by the 18th century they were effectively independent.
The period of tension that existed between the United States and the Barbary States began only a year after American independence in 1783, and did not draw to a close until 1815, by which time the United States had established the presidency, adopted a constitution, doubled in size, and fought wars with the two most powerful nations in Europe: France (17981800) and Britain (181215). Open conflict with the Barbary States occurred on two occasions: the Tripolitan War of 180105 and the Algerine War of 1815. In the first instance, the conflict not only triggered a congressional debate concerning the restrictions granted by the Constitution over the powers of the president for waging war; it constituted the first war in which the United States attempted to blockade a foreign port, shell a foreign capital, and land troops on foreign soil. In many ways the Tripolitan War reads like a Hollywood film: on land, a tiny contingent of marines makes a harrowing 500-mile (805km) march across the Libyan desert; at sea, while captive American sailors languish in filthy prisons and endure years of slavery, the infant US Navy engages in bloody encounters over the decks of opposing ships, performing, in one notable instance, perhaps the greatest exploit of the age of fighting sail.
The wars against the Barbary States would provide the US Navy with vital experience that would stand it in good stead during the Anglo-American War of 1812. Indeed, many officers would cut their teeth under Commodore Edward Preble, who led the most successful squadron, later known as the nursery of the Navy, to the heart of the pirates lair. Men such as Isaac Hull, Charles Stewart, William Bainbridge, James Lawrence, Thomas Macdonough, David Porter, and Stephen Decatur all having served in the undeclared naval conflict with France known as the Quasi-War (17981800), and all protégés of Preble would later distinguish themselves in command of their own vessels against the Royal Navy both at sea and on the Great Lakes.
The origins of the wars with the North African corsairs are simple enough to trace. The Barbary States had for centuries partly sustained themselves through piracy. They maintained a more or less constant state of conflict against the smaller, more vulnerable states of (mostly southern) Europe, enslaving their captives and either releasing them upon payment of ransom, or keeping in perpetuity those (usually impoverished fisherman and merchant sailors) whose governments lacked the resources to secure their release. The annual payment of tribute, which varied from nation to nation, protected a countrys citizens from capture; failure to satisfy what in todays terms constituted protection money left sailors of nearly all nationalities vulnerable to capture at sea, followed by years of hardship and suffering and not uncommonly death in captivity.
The pirates of the North African coast shared little in common with their namesakes best known to the Western world the buccaneers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries who cruised the waters of the Caribbean and the Atlantic seaboard in search of Spanish gold and silver. European pirates such as Bartholomew Roberts and Edward Teach did not, for the most part, conduct their infamous operations at the behest of a government; rather, they preyed on vessels more or less indiscriminately, their object seldom extending beyond seizing cargo and riches irrespective of the nationality of the ships concerned. The Barbary pirates, on the other hand, were subjects of countries engaged in war with other nations albeit conflict existing merely as a pretext for dispatching corsairs to prey on shipping for the sole purpose of financial gain. In some respects this was not war at all, for the Barbary States had no interest in achieving political advantage over their enemies, nor was the practice of piracy ideological in nature or the product of religious hatred. Raiding commercial vessels was a business and, indeed, a state-sponsored enterprise whose limits depended on the vulnerability of the target and the risk of retribution from the nation whose vessels were seized.
Pragmatically, the Barbary States knew better than to intimidate or antagonize powerful nations that is, those with substantial navies by harassing their merchant ships. While merchant vessels hailing from weaker nations faced grave risks if they ventured within reach of North African waters, by the time the United States finally confronted Tripoli, vessels flying the Union Jack or the Tricolor stood immune from seizure. If this was not war on a grand scale, nor was it, from the perspective of the Barbary States, piracy either, for while Western nations viewed the corsairs as mere cut-throats and thieves who took to the seas, the pirates styled themselves as privateers sent out legitimately to prey on shipping at the behest of their rulers. The Barbary Wars, in short, blurred numerous boundaries.
Such issues of course meant little to those who fell victim to the corsairs, for prisoners were considered more valuable to the Barbary States than any other commodity. Captives could be exchanged for ransom and families were known to impoverish themselves for the redemption of a loved one or, failing this, could be put to hard labor at minimal cost. Over the centuries the institution of white slavery had in fact grown essential to the North African economy, and seizing the nationals of Western countries on the high seas proved simpler and more lucrative than obtaining black Africans from beyond the Sahara. The former could be ransomed; the latter could not. Nor, in enslaving Europeans and Americans, was there any risk of capturing co-religionists, whom Muslims refused to hold in bondage.
Captured crews were immediately stripped of their possessions and taken ashore. Some were reserved for service in the rulers household, but most were brought in manacles to the town square or slave market and sold at public auction or by private sale. Interested buyers inspected a prisoners teeth and hands, made him run to gauge the level of his fitness, and sometimes struck him to see what reaction he produced. A few prisoners might be fortunate enough to find themselves ransomed and released within a matter of years, but the majority spent decades sometimes their entire lives in miserable captivity. Slaves were often chained together and forced to work in quarries or on the rowing benches of galleys, with death not uncommon from overwork, disease, and maltreatment. Women, though far fewer in number, fared particularly badly, for the most attractive were sent off to Constantinople to serve as concubines for the sultan, while the remainder might find themselves in similar circumstances in the households of local rulers or, worse still, the town's brothels. Still others were doomed to an appalling existence as scullery maids, cleaners, or street vendors.
Many slaves worked on farms, while those condemned to working in government quarries suffered perhaps the most. From dawn to dusk they quarried stone and dragged it into the city on crudely made carts. At night they returned to the bagnios, or prisons, there to eat unwholesome and meager rations and to sleep only to rise before dawn to repeat the whole loathsome process. For years the United States government refused either to ransom or to compel the release of its citizens from this wretched state. Later, it adopted what many contemporaries condemned as the craven policy of paying the Barbary States for protection against piracy. Conflict eventually arose, however, when the United States bristling with righteous indignation at the continuous demands for more tribute, newly armed with a fledgling navy, and determined no longer to play the role of a tributary nation dispatched a naval force to the Mediterranean.
With pirates in the news lately, a look back might be helpful in finding a way forward.
The Introduction is from the publisher's site.
Thanks for the post.... a timely reminder that America’s first war abroad was against Muslim savages who were enslaving American sailors at sea AND ON LAND.
>>>>>”...It constituted the first war in which the United States attempted to blockade a foreign port, shell a foreign capital, and land troops on foreign soil.... at sea, while captive American sailors languish in filthy prisons and endure years of slavery, the infant US Navy engages in bloody encounters over the decks of opposing ships, performing, in one notable instance, perhaps the greatest exploit of the age of fighting sail.”<<<<<<
"Back in 1784, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had to decide whether to appease or stand up to armed Middle Eastern pirates. Sound familiar?
.... The Middle East, a term coined by Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of McCains boyhood idols, is where both American warfare and American diplomacy began in the late 18th century, as our infant republic faced its first post-Revolutionary struggle against the evocatively named Barbary States of the Ottoman Empire.
The regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers (future homes of Muammar Qaddafi, Yasser Arafat, and the Islamic Salvation Front, respectively) had been hosting and sponsoring Islamic piracy since the Middle Ages. Scimitar-wielding corsairs would regularly interrupt the flow of trade and traffic along the coasts of North Africa, seizing European vessels and taking their crews into bondage. Cervantes wrote his first play, in the 16th century, about the dread corsairs, and by the 18th, the American colonies had a minor seagoing presence in the Mediterranean protected by the redoubtable British Navy. But the Crown was reluctant to war against so petty an antagonist, preferring to pay tribute to the Barbary States instead, as a shopkeeper would protection money to the mafia. After the U.S. broke away from England and became its own nation, however, the geopolitical dynamics changed, as did the American equanimity with doing business with pirates.
In 1784, corsairs attacked the Betsy, a 300-ton brig that had sailed from Boston to Tenerife Island, about 100 miles off the North African coast, selling her new-made citizens as chattel on the markets of Morocco. The U.S. was not free of its own moral taint of slavery, of course, but it would be impossible to hasten the industrial development that would eventually render the agrarian-plantation economy obsolete if merchant ships could not be assured of safe conduct near the Turkish Porte. Other vessels, such as the Dauphin and Maria, were also seized, this time by Algiers, and the horrifying experiences of their captive passengers relayed back home were the cause for outrage. James Leander Cathcart described the dungeon in which he was being kept as perfectly dark where the slaves sleep four tiers deep many nearly naked, and few with anything more than an old tattered blanket to cover them in the depth of winter.
In response, Thomas Jefferson, then the Minister to France, suggested a multilateral approach of what we would now term deterrence. He asked that Spain, Portugal, Naples, Denmark, Sweden and France enter into a coalition with America to dissuade the regencies from their criminal assaults on life, liberty and the pursuit of international commerce. As Michael Oren, in his magisterial history Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to Present relates, By deterring, rather than appeasing, Barbary, the United States would preserve its economy and send an unambiguous message to potentially hostile powers. Jefferson thought it would impress Europe if America could do what Europe had failed to do for centuries and beat back the persistent thuggery of Islamists. It will procure us respect, said the author of the Declaration of Independence. And respect is a safeguard to interest.
This sober judgment fused the cold calculations of latter-day realism with the morality behind revolutionary interventionism: not only would America protect its citizens from plunder and foreign slaveholding; it would ensure that other countries under Christendom were similarly protected.
Though Jefferson found a stalwart Continental ally in a former one, the Marquis de Lafayette, France squelched the idea of a NATO made of buckshot and cannon. While waiting for funds that would never come from Congress for the construction of a 150-gun navy, the sage of Monticello resigned himself to further diplomacy with the enemy. In 1785, he dispatched John Lamb, a Connecticut businessman, to secure the release of hostages in Algiers, held by its dynastic sovereign Hassan Dey. Lamb failed ignominiously.
At the same time, John Adams, then minister to England, agreed to receive the pasha of Tripoli, Abd al-Rahman al-Ajar, in his London quarters to discuss a possible peace deal. Adams described his interlocutor as a man who looked all pestilence and war, a suspicion that was soon confirmed by the pashas demand of 30,000 guineas for his statelet, plus a 3,000 guinea gratuity for himself. He also did Adams the favor of estimating what it would cost the U.S. to broker a similar deal with Tunis, Morocco and Algiers the total price for blackmail would be about $1 million, or a tenth the annual budget of the United States.
Adams was incensed. It would be more proper to write [of his meeting with Abd al-Rahman] for the New York Theatre, he thundered. He agreed with Jefferson that a military response was increasingly likely, but Adams doubted his countrys economic ability to sustain it. For the short term, he thought it better to offer one Gift of two hundred Thousand Pounds rather than forfeit a Million annually in trade revenue, which the pirates were sure to disrupt. Not long thereafter, Jefferson joined him in London to prevent the universal and horrible War and reach an accord with the refractory envoy from Tripoli. Both gentlemen of the Enlightenment, and comrades in revolution, affirmed Americas desire for peace, its respect for all nations, and suggested a treaty of lasting friendship with the regency. Abd al-Rahman listened well, but his reply was one that would shock modern ears less than it did those of the two Founding Fathers:
It was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged [the Muslims] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon wheoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.
Though a period of paying tribute and douceurs (or softeners expensive trickets and toys) to Islamic pirates would continue, the words of Abd al-Rahman Adams were chilling enough to leave Adams and Jefferson in no doubt as to the sanguinary and messianic nature of their adversary. An angel sent on this business, lamented Jefferson, could have done nothing to placate such men. He called them sea dogs and a pettifogging nest of robbers. The episode preceded further acts of piracy against American vessels and the imprisonment and sale of its crews and passengers, and was enough to get Jefferson to overlook his wariness of federalism and agree to a Constitution with a strong central government capable of building and keeping a powerful navy. Adams, as it turned out, was more worried that American opinion wouldnt rally for war, or accept its dire consequences. But the Philadelphia convention that drafted our national covenant in 1787 was hastened, and its welter of opinions unified, by the Barbary question. As the historian Thomas Bailey wrote, In an indirect sense, the brutal Dey of Algiers was a Founding Father of the Constitution.
Barbary Pirates torture western prisoners
America still sued for peace. The Betsys release had been negotiated, albeit abjectly, and to the accompaniment of Americas first diplomatic accord, the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Ship-Signals, signed with Morocco in 1786. But no sooner was the ship let go and its captives freed than it was recaptured by Tunis and renamed the Mashuda. Also, Washington at one point found itself spending 20% of its annual revenue in paying blackmail to a loose confederation of terrorists on the high seas. Under Jeffersons presidency, the first era of American military predominance was inaugurated, with men like William Bainbridge, William Eaton and the Byronic swashbuckler Stephen Decatur, becoming folk heroes.
....Santayana got it backwards, in fact: even those who remember history are still doomed to repeat it."
Gerard W. Gawalt:
"Paying the ransom would only lead to further demands, Jefferson argued in letters to future presidents John Adams,
then Americas minister to Great Britain, and James Monroe, then a member of Congress.
As Jefferson wrote to Adams in a July 11, 1786, letter, I acknolege [sic] I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro the medium of war.
Paying tribute will merely invite more demands, and even if a coalition proves workable, the only solution is a strong navy that can reach the pirates,
Jefferson argued in an August 18, 1786, letter to James Monroe: The states must see the rod; perhaps it must be felt by some one of them. . . .
Every national citizen must wish to see an effective instrument of coercion, and should fear to see it on any other element than the water.
A naval force can never endanger our liberties, nor occasion bloodshed; a land force would do both.
From what I learn from the temper of my countrymen and their tenaciousness of their money,
Jefferson added in a December 26, 1786, letter to the president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles,
it will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.
The more things change the more Islam remains the same.
See also Ian Toll’s “Six Frigates”. It has a section on the near war between the US and Napoleonic France as well as the war with the Barbary Pirates.
For the US, the answer was to not rely on the British or French for protection in the Mediterranean, which was in their spheres of influence, but to build our own navy to protect our own merchant shipping. Of course we now have virtually no merchant shipping and those countries that provide “flags of convenience” to US owned vessels have no navies to protect them. If ship owners want the US Navy to protect their vessels, crews and cargoes they should pay our registration fees, obey our labor laws and fly the US flag. Either that or Liberia and Panama should start launching aircraft carriers.
TR had it right - “Pericardis alive or Rasauli dead”. The rag head radical muslims only understand power.
The US WAR ON TERRORISM - started then with President Jefferson sending in war ships to destroy their ports - it never went away - but yet we forget...it was just a little over 200 yrs ago - and when looking at the time Islam has been founded - that’s not very long...
History teaches us that we don’t learn from history.
This whole subject is extraordinarily important to understand, especially when answering those who CLAIM that US Founding Fathers were isolationists, non-interventionists, non-internationalists, turn-the-other cheek-ists, "a million for tribute, nothing for defense-ists," no foreign alliances-ists (note that a proto-NATO was Jefferson's FIRST choice solution), etc., etc.
It's all just not true. What IS true is that our Founding Fathers, whenever and however they could, TOOK CARE OF BUSINESS.
On the subject of historical novels, I highly recommend the books by David Liss. I’m currently reading his “Whisky Rebels” which is set during the time of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. He’s got 5-6 books out from roughly the 1650-1800 time period that are fascinating.
Just adding to the catalog, not sending a general distribution.
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One of thirty-six lieutenants retained by the US Navy, Decatur was assigned to the frigate USS Essex as first lieutenant in 1801. Part of Commodore Richard Dale's squadron, Essex sailed to the Mediterranean to deal with those Barbary states that were preying upon American shipping. After subsequent service aboard USS New York, Decatur returned the US and took command of the new brig USS Argus. Sailing across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, he turned the ship over to Lieutenant Isaac Hull and was given command of the 12-gun schooner USS Enterprise.
On December 23, 1803, Enterprise and the frigate USS Constitution captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico after a sharp fight. Renamed Intrepid, the ketch was given to Decatur for use in a daring raid to destroy the frigate USS Philadelphia which had run aground and been captured in Tripoli harbor in October. At 7:00 PM on February 16, 1804, Intrepid, disguised as a Maltese merchant ship and flying British colors, entered Tripoli harbor. Claiming that they had lost their anchors in a storm, Decatur asked permission to tie up alongside the captured frigate.
As the two ships touched, Decatur stormed aboard Philadelphia with sixty men. Fighting with swords and pikes, they took control of the ship and began preparations to burn it. With combustibles in place, Philadelphia was set on fire. Waiting until he was sure the fire had taken hold, Decatur was the last to leave the burning ship. Escaping the scene in Intrepid, Decatur and his men successfully evaded fire from the harbor's defenses and reached the open sea. When he heard of Decatur's achievement, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called it "the most bold and daring act of the age."