The U.S. Wages War Against The Barbary States
To End International Blackmail and Terrorism
By Thomas Jewett
The events of September 11, 2001 shocked the United States out of its complacency concerning its invulnerability. Even though the U.S. has the most powerful military machine on earth, it might be of little avail; it seems that a new type of war will be fought. A war that will need resolve, years of effort, and new tactics.
This is not the first conflict in which America has faced such deprivations against life and property. There was another time when it was determined that diplomacy would not only be futile, but humiliating and in the long run disastrous. A time when ransom or tribute would not buy peace. A time when war was considered more effective and honorable. And, a time when war would be fought, not with large concentrations of military might, but by small bands peopled with individuals of indomitable spirit.
Almost 180 years ago our infant country attacked Tripoli under circumstances that are eerily similar to contemporary times. That conflict, immortalized in the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” called the Tripolitan War or the Barbary Pirate War, came shortly after we gained our independence from England. The United States chose to fight the pirates of Barbary, rather than pay tribute, as did all the other nations who traded in the Mediterranean Sea. The decision was bold, but the eventual victory by the tiny United States Navy broke a pattern of international blackmail and terrorism dating back more than one hundred and fifty years.
The Barbary States was a collective name given to a string of North African seaports stretching from Tangiers to Tripoli. These ports were under the nominal control of the Ottoman Empire, but their real rulers were sea rovers or corsairs who sallied forth from the coast cities to plunder Mediterranean shipping and capture slaves for labor or ransom. Among the famous prisoners ransomed from the shackles of Barbary were St. Vincent de Paul, and Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote (Castor, 1971).
Common piracy by the Barbary States blossomed into a sophisticated racket in 1662, when England revived the ancient custom of paying tribute. The corsairs agreed to spare English ships for an annual bribe paid in gold, jewels, arms, and supplies. The custom spread to all countries trading in the Mediterranean.
England paid tribute for the vessels of her American colonies, and France guaranteed it for them during the War of Independence. The new United States awoke abruptly to an ugly responsibility of independence when in 1785 the Dey of Algiers seized an American ship and jailed its crew for nonpayment of tribute (Channing, 1968).
The Dey was in no hurry to wring tribute from this new source of revenue. The capture of American ships would be more profitable, and in view of the naval weakness of the United States, a rather safe venture. Eleven of the first unfortunate Americans to fall into his hands died before their country ransomed the rest ten years later.
To the sea hawks of Barbary, the American ships in the Mediterranean were “fat ducks” prime for the plucking. In this view, they were encouraged by England and France whose trade was being hurt by the upstart Yankees (Castor, 1971). Turkey, overlord of Barbary, was an ally of Britain. The North Africans depended on free trade with France for supplies. Hence the pirates were forbidden to attack British shipping and in plain self-interest could not raid the French. With targets so limited, the American “fat ducks” were a godsend. By 1794, the Dey of Algiers had plundered eleven American ships and held one hundred and nineteen of their survivors for ransom.
In 1785, the exasperated Jefferson suggested that war was the only solution. His mind was “absolutely suspended between indignation and impotence.” Jefferson declared that tribute was “money thrown away” and that the most convincing argument that these outlaws would understand was gunpowder and shot. The future president proposed a multi-national effort between European powers and America that would in effect economically blockade North Africa and ultimately provide for a multi-national military force to combat pirate terrorism. The European powers chose to continue paying tribute to the Barbary States (Irwin, 1970).
John Adams, the next President, went along with the Europeans and paid for peace in the Mediterranean. Congress, in 1795, authorized payment of tribute. Algiers was granted the equivalent of $642,500 in cash, munitions, and a 36-gun frigate, besides a yearly tribute of $21,600 worth of naval supplies. Ransom rates were officially set for those Americans already in Barbary prisons-$4,000 for each passenger, $1,400 for each cabin boy. Sunday after Sunday, a sad roll of names was read out in the churches of Salem, Newport, and Boston, listing the men in irons. Congress would only pay $200 for their freedom, the rest of the money had to be raised privately. Eventually, at long last, the American captives of the Dey of Algiers walked into the light, except for thirty-seven dead, whose ransoms had to be paid nevertheless (Malone, 1951).
Adam’s acquiescence to Algiers prompted Tunis and Tripoli to demand and be promised their own blood money. Tripoli, especially, was piqued at the Dey of Algiers’ good fortune.
The payment of blackmail did not end the indignities perpetrated by Barbary. An absurd episode in 1800 pointed up the futility of giving in to the pirates. When the frigate George Washington docked in Algiers with a consignment of tribute, the Dey, to impress his master, the Sultan of Turkey, shanghaied the American ship to run an errand for him. The captain of the luckless ship, William Bainbridge, was forced to haul down the American flag and to run up the Algerian colors. The George Washington was commandeered to take a shipment of treasure, livestock, and some lions to the Sultan in Istanbul (Irwin, 1970).
Yusuf, the Pasha of Tripoli, seeing the weakness of the Americans, decided to increase demands on the United States. Among the trifles he ordered as part of the American tribute were several diamond-studded guns. On the occasion of the death of George Washington the Pasha informed President Adams that it was customary when a great man passed away from a tributary state to make a gift in his name to the crown of Tripoli. Yusuf estimated Washington to be worth about $10,000.
By the spring of 1801, Yusuf had heard nothing about his $10,000 and his impatience with America had grown to a fine rage. The Pasha summoned the American representative to his court, made him kiss his hand and decreed that, as a penalty, tribute would be raised to $225,000, plus $25,000 annually in goods of his choice. If refused, the alternative was war. To make his point, Yusuf had his soldiers chop down the flagpole in front of the American consulate, a significant gesture in a land of no tall trees-and one that meant war (Channing, 1968).
The reason for Yusuf’s lack of tribute was that the United States had a new president — the former frustrated ambassador, Thomas Jefferson. Upon entering office, Jefferson had been appalled to discover that tribute and ransoms paid to Barbary had exceeded $2,000,000, or about one-fifth, of the entire annual income of the United States government.
Jefferson decided that a little “showing of the flage” in the Mediterranean was more appropriate than tribute. He ordered the frigates President, Essex, and Philadelphia and the sloop Enterprise to blockade Tripoli and convoy American shipping (Malone, 1970). This squadron, under Commodore Richard Dale, had to patrol and control a coastline over 1,200 miles in distance, which resulted in a “most desultory blockade.” The lone success of the force was the defeat of a larger Tripolitan ship by Enterprise. Since there had been no declaration of war by the United States, the Barbary cruiser could not be taken as a prize. However, the captain of the Enterprise did have all of the corsair’s guns thrown overboard before allowing the ship to continue on its way, with sixty casualties to his none (Channing, 1968).
Yusuf was so furious at his captain’s defeat at the hand of the American “fat ducks” that he had him bastinadoed (beaten on the soles of his feet) and paraded backward on a donkey, his neck festooned with sheep’s entrails (Castor, 1971).
At this time, U.S. naval enlistments were for only one year, so in March 1802, Commodore Dale sailed home. Congress still refused to declare war against Tripoli, but did levy a light war tax and proclaimed “protection of commerce” by the navy.
Command of the American effort evolved in September 1803 to Captain Edward Preble, who immediately set about on the offensive. He scored a bloodless victory at Tangier by convincing the Sultan of Morocco that it would be to his benefit not to molest American shipping in the future. Preble accomplished this feat by sailing the Constitution into Tangier harbor, opening up the gun ports, running out the cannon, and pointing them at the Sultan’s palace. The Sultan hastened to agree, and to seal the bargain, supplied the crew of the ship with provisions (Channing, 1968).
The glow of success was soon tarnished when news reached Preble of the capture of the frigate Philadelphia. The Philadelphia arrived on station in the Mediterranean ahead of the rest of the squadron. Its captain, William Bainbridge, unwisely set about trying to blockade Tripoli alone. On October 31, while pursuing a corsair under full sail, Philadelphia grounded on a sandbar about two miles offshore. Despite five hours of desperate work by her crew, she stuck fast. With her broadsides tilted at crazy angles, her firing was harmless to the pirates’ small craft that quickly swarmed about her.
Bainbridge, after jettisoning his useless cannon, and thinking the ship’s carpenter had scuttled the ship, surrendered to prevent a massacre. Three hundred and seven Americans were taken prisoner, put in chains, and forced to slave in the building of Tripoli’s fortifications (Irwin, 1970).
Preble’s hands were tied. Any action by the Americans might result in the Pasha murdering Philadelphia’s crewmen in reprisal. So, Preble first offered $50,000 and then $100,000 for their release, but was scornfully refused. Whereupon, Preble released his own seahawk, Stephen Decatur.
In December, young Lieutenant Decatur, captain of the Enterprise, had apprehended an enemy ketch, a four-gun vessel of shallow draft, which could be rowed. Decatur planned a raid to destroy the unlucky Philadelphia, whom the pirates had refloated and were rigging for action against the Americans. Decatur’s plan called for the use of a native vessel, and the captured ketch filled the bill.
Decatur and his small crew disguised as North Africans sailed the Barbary ketch into Tripoli harbor on the night of February 15, 1804. The tiny craft bumped into the Philadelphia, and Decatur’s boarding party flung grappling hooks to lash the rails together. Then yelling and screaming, they leaped onto the deck of the frigate. As a pirate reported later, the Americans “sent Decatur on a dark night, with a band of Christian dogs fierce and cruel as the tiger, who killed our brothers and burnt our ships before our eyes.” Decatur’s men wielded tomahawks and killed twenty pirates in as many minutes, chasing the rest over the side. Only one raider was wounded before the Philadelphia was set afire in four places. Then the Americans withdrew (Castor, 1971).
Decatur’s luck held in the even more perilous escape from the harbor. The Pasha’s artillery thundered wildly after the brazen Americans, but the little ketch, scarcely scratched, was rowed through the storm, to rejoin the American squadron (Castor, 1971).
When British Admiral Lord Nelson heard of the raid, he called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Decatur, just twenty-five, won promotion to captain-then the highest rank in the navy-and remains the youngest man ever to be so honored (Bobby-Evans, 2001).
Decatur’s act, no matter how bold and daring, did not alter radically the situation in the Mediterranean. Tripoli was defended by 25,000 soldiers and 115 cannon ashore, and 24 warships guarded the harbor. Against them Preble could pit only 1,060 men aboard seven ships, of which only the Constitution was heavy-gunned. Without troops to storm the port, all that Preble and his men could do was to disrupt the Pasha’s economy by not allowing the pirates to practice their trade and to keep the pasha on the defensive (Channing, 1968).
On August 3, Preble’s squadron sailed into Tripoli harbor to open bombardment of the city. The pirates were sheltered safe behind thick walled defenses, some of which had been constructed by Philadelphia’s crew under the lash.
The bombardment caused little damage, but Preble was pleased by the behavior of his crews who had taken on the pirates at their own game. The corsairs were supposed to be invincible at hand-to-hand fighting, but never again would they attempt this, their favorite method of attacking and boarding on an American ship. The “fat ducks” had turned into fierce seahawks. American sailors led by men like Lieutenant John Trippe, outnumbered three to one, killed twenty-one of the pirates and captured fifteen in one engagement alone. Trippe himself took eleven wounds from a Turkish captain before ending the combat with a pike thrust. Three Tripolitan gunboats were captured, and one sunk (Castor, 1971).
Only one American was lost; Decatur’s younger brother, James, had been treacherously murdered by the captain of a pirate ship after its surrender. Stephen Decatur avenged his brother by killing the murderer in a savage man-to-man encounter before witnesses (Castor, 1971).
Preble returned five times to harass and bombard Tripoli, but without troops to affect a landing, they were basically ineffectual. His tour of duty over, Preble returned home in modest triumph, to be commended by the President, to receive a gold medal from Congress, and to die of tuberculosis a year later. Pope Pius VII said that under Preble’s orders Americans “had done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages” (Castor, 1971).
Preble’s successor, Captain Samuel Barron, led the largest flotilla assembled under the American flag up to that time: six frigates, seven brigs, and ten gunboats. Barron had another weapon on his flagship, William Eaton, former Consul of Tunis (Irwin, 1970).
Eaton knew that Tripoli could be taken if ground troops were committed or if the political climate of the city could be altered. Eaton planned to do both. His scheme called for fomenting rebellion to supplant Yusuf with his brother Hamet (Channing, 1968).
To achieve his design Eaton had at his disposal $20,000 in cash, the little brig Argus, and a cadre of nine men. One of the latter was a midshipmen-man by the name of Pascal Paoli Peck, and the other eight were United States Marines led by Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. This handful of men would share in an incredible adventure little recalled today except in the Marine Corps Hymn (Pike, 2001).
Eaton and the puppet Hamet met at Alexandria, Egypt and agreed to attack Yusuf’s port of Derna. In that city Hamet had some support. To avoid an exhausting 500-mile march Eaton wanted to transport the American force by sea, but Hamet insisted that his flighty followers might disappear if the Americans did not march with him.
By promising riches and plunder after victory, “General” Eaton, as Hamet dubbed him, recruited probably the strangest army to march under the stars and stripes. The men were mostly Arabs and Levantine brigands, with some Greeks and other European soldiers of fortune. There were about six hundred in all (Bobby-Evans, 2001).
The expedition would be supplied by sea, and the Argus would pace the marchers just offshore. The Argus’ cannon would provide Eaton with minimal naval support, and her eight marines were added to the rabble army.
The motley force moved out of Alexandria on March 8, 1805, along a route now made famous during World War II. Two of Eaton’s rest stops were at Tobruk and El Alamein. Eaton’s army, like those of the future would suffer from the sandstorms of the khamsin wind, which brings darkness at midday (Castor, 1971).
On the march Eaton’s Arab cavalry threatened to mutiny. Eaton outfaced the horde with a show of bayonets from his squad of eight marines. Eventually Eaton’s $20,000 was drained, and at times, he had to borrow money from his marines and Greek mercenaries to keep the expedition going (Irwin, 1970).
The Argus lost contact with the march about 90 miles from Derna, just as the land forces’ food gave out. Some of the mercenaries vowed to quit, but Eaton coaxed them to eat a pack camel and wait a day or so. Fortunately the Argus reappeared on April 16, followed by the Hornet, with food and munitions. After a few days rest, Eaton resumed his advance, and arrived outside of Derna on April 25 (Irwin, 1970).
To Eaton’s demand for surrender, the captain of Derna’s defenses replied, “My head or yours!” After two days of maneuvering, Eaton’s lone cannon opened on Derna’s stonewalls and houses. The noise was impressive, dust flew, and in their excitement the Greek artillerymen burst the cannon by firing it with the rammer still in the tube (Castor, 1971).
At four in the afternoon, Eaton ordered a frontal attack, and with his tiny force of eight marines and fifty Greeks charged the walls. The town was won but at a high cost of fourteen dead, two of them marines. Eaton took a musket ball through the wrist in the assault, which captured the first city in the Old World by Americans (Bobby-Evans, 2001).
The victors were besieged in Derna throughout the month of May, but Hamet’s cavalry repulsed the attacks. Eaton begged Commodore Barron to proclaim Hamet the new ruler of Tripoli, and to reinforce his troops for the 700-mile march on the Pasha’s capital. Barron refused both requests because Yusuf had reopened negotiations with the American consul for the release of the Philadelphia’s crew (Bobby-Evans, 2001).
An agreement was reached. Eaton and Hamet fled from the shores of Tripoli with the marines and Christian mercenaries to escape certain death at the hands of their angry followers, for whom peace would end all prospects of loot. What the fearless Eaton might have accomplished with the one hundred or more marines who were idle aboard Barron’s squadron is tantalizing to imagine (Bobby-Evans, 2001).
The negotiated treaty with Yusuf called for the release of all prisoners, an end to slave taking and ship seizure, and a final ransom of $60,000. Yusuf was more than eager to sign. American naval presence had destroyed his normal source of revenue, and he had been alarmed at the success of Eaton’s ragtag army (Irwin, 1970).
The Dey of Tunis, seeing what had happened to Tripoli, sent a blooded horse to Jefferson as a sign of peace and the end of tribute. Jefferson, a horseman, refused the gift. The Americans now thought that the Mediterranean was safe for United States’ shipping, and brought Barron’s squadron home (Castor, 1971).
However, in the fall of 1807, Algiers detained three vessels. Freedom was bought for the ships and crew for a mere $18,000 but it signaled the resumption of two bad habits, pirate terrorism and tribute. The renewal of these would last for many years and cause the American navy to once again sail against Barbary.
The war with England during 1812-14 pushed the Barbary pirates into the back of American concerns. In any event, retaliation against the corsairs would have been impossible, for after 1812 the American navy was swept from the seas by the British.
As soon as the American navy was no longer a threat, the Dey of Algiers announced a “policy to increase the number of my American slaves,” whereupon he captured the brig Edwin and its crew in August 1812. This situation lasted until the end of the war with England (Irwin, 1970).
On March 2, 1815, ten weeks after the end of the War of 1812, the United States formally declared hostilities against Algiers. Retribution, long delayed but richly deserved, was dispatched in the form of ten tall ships under the command of the scourge of Barbary, Stephen Decatur (Pike, 2001).
The punitive expedition arrived off Algiers in June. Decatur promptly shot up the flagship of the Dey’s fleet, capturing it with 486 prisoners. He then sent an ultimatum to the Dey: Free every slave at once, pay an indemnity of $10,000 to the survivors of the brig Edwin, and cease all demands for tribute forever.
Numbed by Decatur’s ferocity, the Dey whined that perhaps there had been a “misunderstanding” which he would like to correct with “the amiable James Madison, the Emperor of America” (Castor, 1971).
Tunis and Tripoli were next on Decatur’s list. The Dey of Tunis groomed his beard with a diamond-encrusted comb and complained, “Why do they send wild young men to treat for peace with the old powers?” Still, he paid the Americans $46,000 to go away. In its turn, Tripoli felt Decatur’s wrath, paying him a $25,000 indemnity and freeing its slaves (Castor, 1971).
The “old powers” never again molested any American ships. Decatur’s swift and firm action impelled the other European powers to follow the American example. The degrading yoke of tribute and the raiding of the Barbary corsairs were over.
America’s involvement in the Tripolitan War suppressed pirate terrorism in the Mediterranean only after resolute action. It also saw the development of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps with their proud traditions, and for the first time America made its presence known, not as a “fat duck” but as an eagle in the world of the old empires.
Bobby-Evans, Alistor. (2001). “The Tripolitan War 1801-1805”.
Castor, Henry. (1971). The Tripolitan War 1801-1805. Franklin Watts, In. New York.
Channing, Edward. (1968). The Jeffersonian System 1801-1811. Cooper Square Publishers, Inc. New York.
Irwin, Ray W. (1970). The Diplomatic Relations of the United States With the Barbary Powers 1776-1816. Russel & Russel. New York.
Malone, Dumas. (1951). Jefferson and the Rights of Man. Little, Brown and Company. Boston.
Malone, Dumas. (1970). Jefferson the President First Term 1801-1805. Little, Brown and Company. Boston.
Pike, John. “Barbary Wars”. http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/ops/barbary.htm.