The United States of America v. the Barbary Pirates ($3.62)

Let’s talk about the Barbary Pirates. I had vague memories about a war with the Barbary Pirates from American history classes, but only the sketchiest idea of what this was all about. It never quite fit in with everything else. Having read “First Americans in North Africa” by Louis B. Wright and Julia H. McLeod, I now know much more. (I don’t know much about the authors, other than that Wright was a rather prolific author, and perhaps taught at Princeton. I know Princeton gave him an honorary degree in the late 1940s, and that the Princeton University Press published this book.)

The book was published in 1945. I found it on a book store bargain table, and was intrigued, so I picked it up for, I think, $2. It was worth every penny.

Without getting too detailed, what did I learn?

First, that the Barbara pirates were not free agents roaming the coast of North Africa. They were actually working with the support of, or on behalf of, the leaders of the North African reaches of the Ottoman Empire, states that were in fact relatively free in the early 19th century of strong controls from Constantinople. We are talking largely of the Deys of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

Second, that these pirates had a long history of attacking and capturing merchant ships in the Mediterranean Sea, and that, when a ship was captured, at least three things happened: one, the cargo was taken; two the ships were taken; and three the crew were made slaves and/or held in prison for ransom.

Third, that the way to avoid this was to pay large amounts of protection money (often, in kind, such as in armaments, or ships, or whatever) to the Deys, which is something that the European countries did on a regular basis, and that, as a matter of competition, in fact at times one European power would not only pay for the protection of its own vessels, but would pay to keep its rival commercial powers under regular attack. England especially had worked out financial arrangements with the Barbary powers, and England protected American ships until the American Revolution.

Fourth, that trade was very important to the new United States of America, that many American ships plied the Mediterranean, and that we were not willing to play the game.

Fifth, that we had consuls in these places at a very early time – even before the beginning of the 19th century, whose job it was to support our commercial activities and keep in the favor of the powers that be.

Sixth, that our various consuls differed in temperament and quality, and that the various Deys themselves were very different in attitude and approach. Perhaps our strongest consul was William Eaton in Tunis, and the most aggressive of the pirates sailed under the aegis of the Dey of Tripoli.

Seventh, that our efforts to keep out of harm’s way were not always successful.

Eighth, that when Americans were captured and presumably held for ransom, our consul demanded of Washington that we fight back, that we send ships to free them.

Ninth, that Congress in those days was as difficult to reach a decision on anything that Congress is today, and that our budget limitations were great then as now.

Tenth, compounding the problem, communication was so slow and difficult that sometimes a year or more would pass before a response to a message would get through from America to North Africa.

Eleventh, Congress finally did authorize additional ships (it is said that protection against the Barbary pirates actually led to the creation of the United States Navy), and President Jefferson did send ships, but our commanders and crews turned out not to be the best, and we lost some ships (and in one incident when a naval ship ran aground, we actually burned it, very daringly, so that it would not get into African hands) and found more of our naval troops being held in Tripoli, and

Twelfth, that Eaton (no longer consul but still in the neighborhood) decided that the best way to free American prisoners was to go to Egypt and recruit a makeshift army (Muslims, and Christians, always fighting each other) to travel by land from Tunis west to be met by American ships, to attack the Dey of Tripoli and free our sailors. The story of the trek over the desert would make you laugh if it weren’t so serious, and the ships that were supposed to meet the trekkers never arrived, but the day was saved because, separately, after continued naval actions by the Americans, a treaty had been signed, and the hostages freed.

The immediate problem was solved, but the problem of the Barbary pirates remained and led to another American War in 1815, which, along with treaties signed at the Congress of Vienna, achieved the results of getting things under control, including ending the practice of enslaving captives by the Barbary states.

If this at all intrigues you, I’d recommend this (probably hard to find) book or perhaps a book written more recently that tells the same tales.


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