The Barbary Pirates

Today as I was researching embassies on Wikipedia, I came across mention of the Barbary Wars I’d just encountered mention of in The Last Patriot. Curious, I clicked on the links and read about them, or at least the first one. Seems there were some muslim North African states (called the Barbary States) — Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli — who’d been preying on the shipping traffic in the Mediterranean, capturing ships and crew and holding them for ransom, then afterward demanding tribute from whatever nation the ships were from for safe passage. At first American ships were protected by the British Navy since we were a British colony; during the revolution the French took over that job. But once we won our Independence protection of our ships was rightly deemed to be our responsibility.

Not having much of a Navy this was problematic, so Congress voted for funds to be allocated to pay the tribute to the pirates. In 1783 our Ambassadors to Britain and France (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were sent over with the money and the charge of seeking to negotiate peace treaties with the Barbary States. Unfortunately the price for a treaty was more than the tribute money Congress had approved.

 Two years later, Adams and Jefferson tried again, this time in Britain where they sought to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy to London.  When they asked him on what grounds his nation took it upon itself to attack other nations who’d done it no harm, his reply, according to Jefferson’s report to the US Secretary of Foreign Affairs, was that…

“It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.   [From “American Peace Commissioners to John Jay,” March 28, 1786, “Thomas Jefferson Papers,” Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Library of Congress. LoC: March 28, 1786 ]

And I just found that fascinating. Rush says sometimes that for most people history begins the day they are born, and everything before just doesn’t exist. I can see a lot of justification for the statement. I did know that Islam began in the seventh century, that the Ottoman empire had dominated the Middle East for six centuries (1299 to 1923), a sort of Islamic version of the old Roman Empire… but that was “over there”. And we were over here. So it really surprised me to find out the United States had already had interaction with fundamentalist Islam, more or less at its birth. And now it’s back again. Which I believe is something Jefferson warned about, at least according to The Last Patriot: “Jefferson was convinced that one day Islam would return and pose an even greater threat  to America…”

And so it has.

The  painting above is of the burning frigate Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli in 1804, painted by Edward Moran in 1897.

2 thoughts on “The Barbary Pirates

  1. Donna Hagan

    Wow! Great post Karen. I too did not know this. Thank you for some very important and historical facts and the research you did.

    The Internet may proliferate evil but one has to admit people can find truth via research on it also – if that is what they seek.

    Reply
  2. Gayle Coble

    Karen, the early Marine Corps did a tad of fighting in Tripoli, with these very same pirate types. Thus the line in the Marine Corp Battle Hymn to the shores of Tripoli. If there has been an American battle, the Marines have been there.

    Reply

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