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How Did the United States Defeat the Barbary Pirates?

This article was published in 2001.

Though a definite link has yet to be established (or publicized), it becomes more apparent with each passing day that the acts of terror on September 11 were undertaken by individuals belonging to or associated with the Al-Qaida organization. While the group has ties to the Taliban, the current ruling faction in Afghanistan, neither can really be considered a government, making war with either an unconventional one. Yet the United States is hardly unused to combating unconventional foes. While the Vietnam War and the"War on Drugs" may bear some parallels, perhaps the most germane historical example is the often forgotten war with the Barbary pirates in the early 19th century. This conflict, pitting the United States against a stateless enemy, was memorable for the use of careful diplomacy, coalitions, special military tactics, and, unfortunately, confused goals.

The pirates of North Africa, operating variously with or without the approval of the nominal rulers of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, had long been a thorn in the side of the European powers. Even Britain, the rarely disputed ruler of the seas, paid tribute to these pirates. Due to Britain's payments, colonial American merchants were rarely accosted, but after the peace of 1783 ships flying the Stars and Stripes were seen as easy prey. Fortunately for our young, cash-strapped nation, unable either to pay tribute or protect shipping, Portugal declared war on Algiers in 1785, sending a fleet to patrol the Strait of Gibraltar and prevent the Corsairs from passing into the Atlantic. In 1793, the war ended and in the last three months of that year eleven American ships were seized. Unable to raise funds to pay the ransom for the crews, the American negotiator was compelled to borrow from a Jewish moneylender living in Algiers to pay the nearly million-dollar ransom.

During President Washington's administration, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson disagreed sharply over policy toward the Corsairs. Adams strongly favored paying off the pirates, arguing that a long and protracted war would financially ruin the young nation. Jefferson vehemently disagreed, appealing not only to an American sense of honor, but also to the notion that a single, decisive war might be more cost-effective than annual bribes for perpetuity. Not surprisingly, their subsequent administration policies reflected these beliefs. Adams was anxious to prevent conflict, and ensured payment of all demanded tribute. In addition, Adams even agreed to build and deliver two warships for the Algerian Corsairs. Since the Corsairs were considered more a force of nature than a foreign nation, the fact that this was contrary to the popular,"millions for defense, not one cent for tribute," attitude toward French demands for bribes, was rarely noted. Yet, frustrated during tribute negotiations with Tunis, negotiator William Eaton wrote home that,"there is but one language which can be held to these people, and this is terror."

In May of 1801, the Corsairs of Tripoli became restless and declared war on the United States, figuring they could increase their annual tribute. Their disorganized fleet passed into the Atlantic but was chased back by a recently dispatched American squadron. The Americans cruised the Mediterranean, evacuating American merchantmen and winning several engagements with the Corsairs. Later that year Sweden declared war on the Tripolitans and lent considerable support to the American blockade of Tripoli. The combined fleet of Swedish and American, and infrequently Danish, ships was unwilling to bombard the city until early 1802 when President Jefferson ordered that the war be pursued with greater vigor. Despite occasional bombardment, as the blockade continued, it became impossible for the large American ships to prevent some of the smaller, faster Corsair gunboats from slipping through. The Americans wanted to draw the pirates into a large decisive battle, but their attempts proved fruitless. When Sweden made peace that year, the blockade collapsed.

Following the abandonment of the blockade, a series of unfortunate incidents made the American position increasingly difficult. An American captain killed the personal secretary of the British governor of Malta in a duel, straining relations with that important source of respite and supply. In early 1803, an accidental explosion aboard an American ship killed nineteen men. In May of that year, a large squadron of American warships was assembled and proceeded to Tripoli to destroy the Corsairs' fleet entirely. Large guns protected the anchored fleet, but marines landed close to the walls of the city to set fire to many of the docked ships as they were pelted with stones from the town’s inhabitants. However, a heroic group of Tripolitans endured bombardment from the squadron and small-arms fire from the marines and extinguished the fires.

In October of that year, a large U.S. man-of-war, Philadelphia, gave chase to a Corsair ship trying to break the blockade, but was lured into an uncharted reef. The ship was paralyzed and overtaken and put into the service of the pirates. The following February, eight marines sailed a small merchant vessel alongside the anchored Philadelphia, killed twenty Corsairs, and destroyed the warship without any loss of life of their own side. Upon hearing of the attack Admiral Horatio Nelson called it,"the most bold and daring act of the age." Yet the blockade remained largely ineffective.

Early in 1804, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies declared war on Tripoli, lending a number of small, maneuverable gunboats that were thought to be helpful in subduing the pirates. On August 3, the American-led force began an all-out attack, sailing into the harbor and bombarding the city at direct range. The Americans aboard the smaller gunboats decided to counter the pirates' standard technique and approached the enemy ships fast, boarding them and engaging in hand to hand combat. After destroying much of the town's fortifications, several gunboats, and a large mosque, the squadron withdrew.

Bombardment of the town achieving little besides massive civilian casualties, a change in strategy was in order. A small force of marines was sent to Alexandria, Egypt, to locate the original hereditary ruler of Tripoli, with the intent of restoring him to the throne. Upon finding him, they raised a mercenary army of Arabs and Greeks and began a several hundred-mile march towards Tripoli from the land. After a difficult march across the Libyan Desert and a bloody victory in the outlying town of Derne, the marines were informed by messenger that the war was over. The treaty that was signed guaranteed the return of American prisoners but changed little. The difficulties with the Barbary States, including a series of confrontations with Algiers in 1814-17, would continue until France brought the era to an end by invading and colonizing most of North-West Africa. Notably, Algiers in 1954 proved to be the forerunner to the type of war being waged against the United States today.