In the late 1700s, the newly independent republic of the United States was continually beset by piracy at sea from four Muslim Barbary Coast states: Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco. The U.S., with limited military resources and staggering debts from the War for Independence, sought to establish secure routes for international commerce to spur rapid economic growth needed to build the emerging country. Yet the U.S. faced constant Ottoman attacks on its merchant ships. American and European ships venturing into the region routinely faced capture of crewmembers, who risked being held as slaves until hefty ransoms were paid. The persistent Barbary pirate raids created a major crisis for a new nation that could not afford to either suffer from economic isolation or pay the exorbitant tributes demanded by the pirates.
In Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates (Sentinel, 2015), coauthors Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger explore “the forgotten war that changed American history.” In an action-packed thriller that aptly captures the time, place, politics, and circumstances, the authors chronicle the crisis leading up to the Barbary Wars and their triumphant aftermath.
The authors begin their chronicle with 1785, when the American merchant vessel, the Dauphin, was intercepted off the coast of Portugal by an Algerian cannon-equipped vessel, suffering the same fate as many ships of the day venturing near the Barbary Coast. Together with the crew of the schooner Maria, captured the same year, the sailors were shipped off to Algiers to spend years or their entire lifetimes in slavery under the Ottomans.
Kilmeade and Yaeger explain that North African coastal states sustained their fiefdoms by routinely sending off ships to cruise the east Atlantic and Mediterranean looking for prey. For centuries, ships had been attacked in international waters and had their crews and cargoes held for ransom, even those belonging to the great naval powers of the day, France and Great Britain. Rather than fight the pirates, these countries preferred to pay annual tributes to purchase safe passage for their vessels.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, then respective American ambassadors to Britain and France, were confounded by the Muslim practice of attacking a nation outside the context of war and absent an identifiable threat. To understand the problem and negotiate a reasonable solution, Adams visited the office of Tripoli’s envoy to Great Britain in London, who welcomed him with great hospitality. When the Tripolitan ambassador, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, returned the visit a few days later, Adams perceived him as “a benevolent and wise man” with whom the United States could conduct business.
Sharing his positive perceptions and plans to broker an arrangement with Abdrahaman for safe passage of U.S. merchant ships, Adams invited Jefferson to join him in negotiations. Much to their mutual surprise, Abdrahaman unreasonably demanded exorbitant sums of gold for himself and informed the statesmen that additional sums would be required to buy peace with Tunis, Morocco, and Algeria.
Both Adams and Jefferson registered astonishment at the excessive tribute amounts and inquired how the Barbary States could justify “[making] war upon nations who had done them no injury.” The Tripolitan ambassador declared that “all nations which [have] not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.” Kilmeade and Yaeger describe the two founders as being “horrified by the [envoy’s] religious justification for greed and cruelty.” Exhibiting no remorse or regret, the Tripolitan further explained that “every mussulman who was slain in warfare was sure to go to paradise.”
Interestingly, Jefferson had read the Koran while in law school, been perplexed by its values, and dismissively relegated a spot for the Muslim holy book next to his collection of Greek mythology. Kilmeade and Yaeger point out the irony of Jefferson, author of “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” being confronted by the stark reality of Islamic doctrine.
Adams and Jefferson knew they couldn’t afford to relinquish trade in the Mediterranean and realized they were at an impasse. While Adams preferred to pay for peace in a negotiated settlement and viewed a potential war as too costly and unwinnable, Jefferson, a steadfast believer in the freedom of the seas, recognized the necessity of commissioning an American navy to obtain freedom of passage through battle. Furthermore, he didn’t trust the Barbary pirates to keep their word and thought a military solution would permanently end the threat.
As a young nation, America was in a difficult predicament. Trade in the Mediterranean was essential, but any exorbitant payments to pirates would have to be borrowed and piled on to the already burdensome war debt. The founders had to decide between the costs of building the capacity to patrol the waters and making ever increasing payments to guarantee safe passage.
In 1789, Jefferson returned to the United States to become the first secretary of state under George Washington. Even with the increased number of enslaved American ship crewmembers and the continuing threat to American trade in the Mediterranean, President Washington wanted neither a standing army nor navy and favored a policy of neutrality in foreign affairs. His administration made payments to ensure U.S. ships passage through the seas.
Kilmeade and Yaeger relate that, in the end, America’s course of action changed after Algeria in 1793 sent out a new flotilla of eight ships to roam the Atlantic near Gibraltar and specifically seek American ships. Following the capture of ten American ships, Washington’s political leaders decided to begin building a permanent, professional U.S. Navy despite deep divisions among political parties and regions of the country.
Meanwhile, under presidents Washington and Adams, tributes had continued to be paid to Muslim leaders of the Ottoman Empire. But that policy changed as well because of the humiliation suffered in 1800 by the USS George Washington, the first American warship to enter the Mediterranean. The ship arrived safely in Algiers but failed to carry a significant enough tribute to satisfy the bashaw of Algeria. Under threat of attack, the despotic ruler, along with his extensive entourage and cargo, commandeered the ship and its crew for a visit to the sultan of Constantinople.
After receiving a full report in October 1800 of what had occurred to the George Washington, then-president Jefferson responded with a flotilla of U.S. Marine Corps ships as a show of power to repel future attacks. The declaration of war and naval blockade that followed on Jefferson’s orders served as a watershed in the Barbary conflict.
In 1802, with outrage still fresh over the George Washington and Tripoli’s continued seizure of American ships, Jefferson signed into law “An Act for the protection of the Commerce and Seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan Corsairs.” This legislation authorized the president to end the failed era of appeasement and diplomacy and freed him to pursue a military response against the pirates.
In their book, Kilmeade and Yaeger detail a series of inconclusive battles that occurred afterward until, in 1805 in the Battle of Derna, U.S. Marines achieved a turning point under the leadership of self-declared “General” William Eaton, a former Army captain. Eaton captured Tripoli and raised the American flag in victory, an action memorialized in a line of the Marines Hymn, “to the shores of Tripoli.”
Although Eaton saw that a complete victory over Tripoli was imminent, Jefferson’s State Department appointee, Tobias Lear, preferred to exercise diplomatic authority. Lear prematurely signed an armistice agreement, an action later condemned as an “inglorious deed” and “the basest treachery on the basest principles.” With news of Eaton’s initial military success, Lear used the triumph to broker a peace rather than see the conflict through to a successful military end. Sadly, Eaton’s victory against the Barbary leaders – the complete humbling of the Tripolitan leader – was underestimated, a declaration of peace was signed, prisoners freed, a small tribute paid, and the near dethroned bashaw of Tripoli retained his kingdom.
Shocked to receive an order to retreat, Eaton had planned to continue the fight to Benghazi and Tripoli for a complete defeat of the enemy. Instead, he was forced to relinquish ground valiantly fought for by his men, a dangerous sign of weakness in a region that respected only strength.
In the end, Jefferson’s decision to fight for the freedom of navigation of the seas proved to be the right one. Eaton’s successful mission demonstrated that interference with American commerce and the captivity of American seamen required a strong response.
Ultimately, America received two important benefits from this incomplete victory: the free flow of American shipping in the region and the promise that future American captives would not be enslaved, but be treated as POWs.
The First Barbary War, marking the first time that the American flag was raised in victory on foreign soil, had ended with America standing up to the pirates, something the established European naval powers had not done. The young nation’s navy now had valuable experience and had proven that it could effectively fight for its interests. As a critical military legacy, it marked the emergence of the young nation as a force to be reckoned with in foreign seas. It was the first American victory outside the Western hemisphere and the first conflict in which the U.S. Navy worked in concert with U.S. land forces to demonstrate that American forces could fight as a cohesive unit in the execution of a war far from home to sustain national honor and respect.
With naval experience under its belt, the U.S. was now well prepared to return to the Maghreb during the War of 1812 and win handily. As a result of that British-instigated conflict which lasted a mere 48 hours, full shipping rights, minus financial fealty, were won for all American ships as well as restitution for damaged vessels and stolen goods.
It wasn’t until 1815 that the naval victories won by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur led to treaties ending all tribute payments. After a decisive victory in Algiers, Decatur sailed to Tunis and Tripoli, where he reached similar agreements, gaining reparations and the releases of American and European slaves. Thus, Kilmeade and Yaeger conclude in their dramatic retelling of this mostly forgotten war that the Americans under James Madison finally put a stop to the centuries-old practice of Barbary kidnapping, theft, terror, and slavery. From this early international victory in the Barbary Wars, the U.S. embarked on its journey to become one of the world’s greatest military and economic superpowers.