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The First Barbary War

Before the American Revolution, Britain's navy protected its colonist tradesmen sailing from the Americas. By the 1770s one-fifth of the maritime trade from Britain's Atlantic coast colonies went to the Mediterranean in the holds of around 100 American-owned ships. One seaman from the British Isles complained that there was hardly a "petty harbor" without a Yankee bargaining with the natives.

At this time in the Mediterranean, Arabic-speaking pirates were taking cargoes and hostages, collecting ransoms and dealing in slaves. They sailed from where Morocco is today, and they sailed from Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, semi-independent areas attached at least in name to the Ottoman sultan in Turkey. Westerners called the region along this North African coastline, the Barbary in reference to the Berber peoples of North Africa.

Those whom the pirates kidnapped who had wealth usually won their freedom quickly with ransom money. This included women associated with wealth. They have been described as unusually not molested and as ransomed quickly. Money talked. But other captives suffered in prisons or roamed towns with chains on their legs. According to historian Paul Johnson,

The USS Enterprise against the Tripoli

The USS Enterprise, on the left, against piracy and a Tripolitan corsair, off Malta in 1803. (click to enlarge)

An American paying tribute

An American paying tribute.

Torture was used to obtain conversions to Islam: 'turning Turk,' as Western sailors called it... Most women who could not raise a ransom were, if pretty, married off to locals, or put into harems as concubines. note18

Europe was not aroused to fight the pirates, perhaps because is was not hurting the wealthy that much, but there was the usual minority who were incensed. In 1799, Britain's Admiral Nelson wrote, "My blood boils that I cannot chastise these pirates. They could not show themselves in the Mediterranean did not our country permit [it]."  note19

British colonists in North America lost the protection of the Royal Navy when they declared independence. By the end of their war against King George III, according to historian Michael Oren, "... most of America's warships had either been captured, sold off, or sunk." note20  

The newly independent United States was scarcely capable of defending its own coastline. The French had promised to protect American ships, citizens and goods with their navy, but they had lost interest and were unenthusiastic about competition with American tradesmen on the Mediterranean Sea. Ignored by the French, American tradesmen were easy prey for the Arab-speaking pirates from North Africa.

In 1784 an American-owned 300-ton brig, the Betsy, was boarded by pirates with sabers between their teeth and pistols in their belts. They took the American crew and cargo away in the holds of their ships. Two months later, two more ships were captured. Twenty-one U.S. crewmen were fettered and pushed past jeering crowds of Muslims to the ruler of Algiers, Hassan, who called them Christian dogs, put them in a dungeon and fed them fifteen ounces of bread per day. Hassan asked for $60,000 dollars as ransom – an old form of income for rulers like Hassan and for the communities they ruled. 

The U.S. Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, complained that paying ransom to Hassan would only encourage more attacks. The US Congress chose bribery. The US paid Algiers its ransom – as much as $1 million each year for the next fifteen years to the year 1800. This was close to like 20 percent of Washington's revenues (federal revenues in 1800 adding up to a little more than 10 million dollars).

In France, Jefferson asked Tripoli's ambassador what right Tripoli had to extort money and take slaves. According to Jefferson, the ambassador answered that such a right was founded on the Laws of the Prophet: that it was written in the Koran that all nations who did not recognize their authority were sinners; that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found; and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Muslim slain in battle was sure to go to heaven.

Following Jefferson's inauguration as president in 1801, the pasha of Tripoli, Yussif Karamanli, demanded $225,000. Jefferson refused. In May, the pasha declared war on the United States, not through any formal written documents but by cutting down the flagstaff in front of the US Consulate in Tripoli. Morocco, Algiers and Tunis joined their ally Tripoli against the United States. Jefferson had opposition from political opponents and members of his cabinet, but he chose war against far away Tripoli. Jefferson sent some frigates to the Mediterranean with the approval of Congress – without having declared war. 

Seven U.S. ships were sent to the Mediterranean and through 1803 the US maintained a blockade of the Barbary ports and attacked Barbary pirate ships. In 1804, the USS Philadelphia was captured after it ran aground while patrolling Tripoli harbor. Efforts by the Americans to float the ship while under fire from shore batteries and Tripoli's navy were unsuccessful. The ship, its captain, William Bainbridge, other officers and crew were held as hostages. A series of inconclusive naval battles were fought in 1804.

A turning point in the war came in 1805 at the Battle of Derna. on the US side was a combined force of 54 United States Marines and soldiers and something like 400 Arab, Greek and Berber mercenaries. This action was commemorated by the Marine Corps in the words "to the shores of Tripoli" in their hymn. The Marines wore leather around their necks as protection from sabers, leaving them with the name leathernecks.

President Jefferson's war policy worked. Weary and threatened by an advance on Tripoli (and worried about a scheme to replace him with his deposed older brother), Pasha Karamanli signed a treaty ending hostilities with the United States. Article 2 of the treaty reads:

The Pasha of Tripoli shall deliver up to the American Squadron now off Tripoli, all the Americans in his possession; and all the subjects of the Pasha of Tripoli now in the power of the United States of America shall be delivered up to him; and as the number of Americans in possession of the Pasha of Tripoli amounts to 300 persons, more or less; and the number of Tripolino subjects in the power of the Americans to about 100 more or less, the Pasha of Tripoli shall receive from the United States of America, the sum of $60,000 as a payment for the difference between the prisoners herein mentioned.

The U.S. paid the ransom, buying its sailors out of slavery in exchange for ending the war.


Power Faith and Fantasy, America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present,  by Michael B. Oren, 2007

Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, www., "the First Barbary War"

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