Barbary Pirates – U.S. war against them

What is better, the world wonders, to attack Iran’s rogue president with planes and bombs or to rein him in with diplomacy and boycott? One hundred years ago the Western world faced a similar dilemma. The nexus of the problem was four Arab countries situated in modern day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Lying westward of powerful Egypt, they were collectively known as the Maghrib (the Land of Sunset) or the Barbary States.

Commercial Piracy

The Barbary states’ main business was raiding Christian merchant vessels, which were no match for the light, speedy pirate craft often powered by gigantic oars. Among their victims was James Leander Cathcart whom the pirates enslaved after capturing his sailing vessel the “The Maria Boston.” In his book, The Captives, Eleven Years a Prisoner in Algiers, Cathcart described how life with the Barbary pirates, or Corsairs, was often brutal.

“We were then driven into the boat without being permitted to go into the cabin and taken on board the Cruiser and conducted to the quarter deck, every person having a pull at us as we went along, in order to benefit by our capture. Our hats, handkerchiefs and shoes were the first articles that were taken from us and which we most wanted as we could not endure the scorching heat of the sun on our heads nor were our feet calculated to bear the heat of the deck…”

“It is impossible to describe the horror of our situation while we remained there. Let imagination conceive what must have been the sufferings of forty- two men, shut up in a dark room in the hold of a Barbary Cruiser full of men and filthy in extreme, destitute of every nourishment, and nearly suffocated with heat, yet here we were obliged to remain every night until our arrival at Algiers and wherever we were either chased or in chase.”

The pirates’ slaves generally led a harsh life with scanty food supplies and vicious corporal punishments. A far worse fate was to be consigned to rowing their galley boats, a ship that became less common towards the end of the eighteenth century. Jean Marteille de Bergerac, who served as a galley-slave, provides a vivid description of what men could suffer for up to twenty years:

“Think of six men chained to a bench… holding an immensely heavy oar, bending forwards to the stern with arms at full reach to clear the backs of the rowers in front, who bend likewise, and then having got forward, shoving up the oar’s end to let the blade catch the water, then throwing their bodies back on to the groaning bench. A galley oar sometimes pulls thus for ten, twelve, or even twenty hours without a moment’s rest.”

The Corsairs probably captured well over a million slaves during their five centuries of depredation. Besides subjecting them to slavery, they conducted a lucrative business collecting ransoms from the slaves’ friends and governments.

There was also an ideological side to their enterprise. To jump forward in our story, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams once met the Tripolitan ambassador to Britain, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, and asked him why he was being so hostile to the United States, he told them that “it [their hostility] was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman [Muosliem] who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

Although unhappy and disgusted with the situation, European states generally decided that appeasement was the better part of valor. Ransoms were cheaper than war and besides, by paying protection money they could enjoy increased trade through elimination of competition from nations on the pirates’ blacklist.

State Sponsored Terrorism

By today’s standards, the Barbary States were engaged in state-sponsored terrorism. In those times, world politics was not quite the same. Many European states had until recently engaged in a genteel mode of piracy called privateering whereby private individuals were licensed to prey on the shipping of a state’s enemies, a state of affairs that only ceased with the 1856 Declaration of Paris in which all major European powers agreed that “Privateering is and remains abolished.”

European nations had also been guilty of sometimes helping the Corsairs fight their enemies. France encouraged the pirates to attack Spain and later England, and Holland helped them fight France. Barbary raiding reached its peak during the first half of the seventeenth century when Dutch seamen used the Barbary ports to attack Spanish shipping during the Dutch revolt against Spain.

Furthermore, Christian Europe had its own Corsair stronghold based on the Island of Malta under the aegis of the Knights Hospitalers of St. John who moved there after being ousted from Yerushalayim in the Crusades. Set up in the mid seventeenth century as a bastion against Muslim pirates, Malta’s fleet was a powerful force employing 4,000 men and 3,000 slaves. The Maltese put slaves to work in galley ships or on their island and collected handsome ransoms in exchange for their release. It was said that together with Tunis, Malta was perhaps the most important slave market of the Mediterranean.

In his sefer, Emek Habochoh, Rav Yosef Cohen described one of the early attacks of the island:

“In the year 5312 (1552), the ships of the monks of Rhodes, of the order of Malta, were cruising to find booty and encountered a ship coming from Salonica that had seventy Jews on board. They captured it and returned to their island. These unhappy persons had to send to all quarters to collect money for the ransom exacted by these miserable monks and only after payment were they able to continue their voyage.”

With Muslims capturing Jews from Christian lands and Christians kidnapping Jews from Muslim territories, pidyon shevuyim organizations had their hands full ransoming Jews from both sides. The Chevras Pidyon Shevuyim organizations of Venice and Leghorn even financed special botei kevoros in Malta for Jewish prisoners who died on the island before they could be saved. Malta’s slaving only came to an end when Napoleon captured the island in 1798.

But times were changing. By the end of the nineteenth century slavery and piracy were diminishing in the Western World and Corsair activity had been significantly reduced by the action of powerful European navies. It was time to administer the coup de grace.

Millions for Defense, Not One Cent for Tribute

Together with its independence in 1776, the United States gained a huge disability. Until then, Americans were protected from the Corsairs by the British Navy and English treaties. Now, they were defenseless. Ironically, while Morocco was the first nation to recognize the United States’ independence, it was the first Barbary state to seize an American merchant ship when it impounded the “Betsy” in 1864. More raids followed and by 1793 there were 119 American slaves in Algiers alone. For each of them, the pirates demanded the sum of about one or two thousand dollars.

George Washington had favored destroying the pirates, warning that “if we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known, that we are at all times ready for war.” But the US Navy was practically non-existent and there was little choice other than to cut a deal. Initially, Algiers left US shipping alone for a bribe of almost a million dollars, about one sixth of America’s annual budget, while Tripoli’s protection racket ran at about $18,000 an annum.

As the US built up its navy, the public became increasingly jingoistic,, By 1800 a new slogan raced across the land: “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!”

Tripoli obliged by declaring war on the US in 1801, and successive strikes and counterstrikes lasted through the candidacy of four American presidents – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – until December 1815 when President James Madison boasted of definitive US victory in his annual message to Congress:

“I have the satisfaction on our present meeting of being able to communicate to you the successful termination of the war which had been commenced against the United States by the Regency of Algiers,” he said. “The squadron in advance on that service, under Commodore Decatur, lost not a moment after its arrival in the Mediterranean in seeking the naval force of the enemy then cruising in that sea, and succeeded in capturing two of his ships, one of them the principal ship, commanded by the Algerine admiral..

“Having prepared the way by this demonstration of American skill and prowess, he hastened to the port of Algiers, where peace was promptly yielded to his victorious force. In the terms stipulated the rights and honor of the United States were particularly consulted by a perpetual relinquishment on the part of the Dey [ruler] of all pretensions to tribute from them.”

The Origins of the Marine Hymn

The US Marine hymn beings, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our countries battles, in the air, on land, and sea.” The “shores of Tripoli” refers to the first Barbary War, specifically the battle of Derne in 1805. This was the first time in history that the U.S. flag was raised in victory on foreign soil.

Piracy continued on a smaller scale until a large French fleet sailed from Toulon in 1830 and occupied Algiers. The Dey sailed off with his family and attendants and for close to a century that was the last Algiers saw of its troublesome Muslim rulers. The only language they ever understood was terror.

(A couple of quotes including the Jihad citation are from an article by Joshua E. London, author of “Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation,” Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.)


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