We are certain that it is not in our best interest that all the Barbary corsairs be destroyed since then we would be on a par with all the Italians and the Peoples of the North Sea ~ anonymous correspondence from a French operative in Algiers to Louis XV's Foreign Minister
In 1784 the U.S. merchant vessel Betsey was captured off Morocco not far from the port of Sale. The prize was taken to Tangiers and her crew was imprisoned there. A ransom demand was issued and the U.S. paid 10,000 dollars for the sailors' release. It was the first instance of an American vessel being attacked by Barbary pirates and it sparked a long running hostility that would not be resolved until after the War of 1812.
With the independence of the American States from Britain, the rulers of the Barbary strongholds of Tunis, Tangiers and Algiers in particular saw a chance for new and potentially extensive revenue. Prior to 1784, the Deys and Sultans had considered American ships protected under their treaty with Britain. As with most other European countries, Britain paid tribute to the North African rulers in exchange for free passage along their coasts. Since the new U.S. had no such treaty, their merchants were fair game. In 1785, two more merchants were taken by the Algerines.
The problems for the U.S., in this as in so many other issues of nation building, were complicated at best. First there was the issue of depleted funds after the Revolution. Alexander Hamilton was, of course, firmly establishing his maniacal platform of National Debt at the time so borrowing from foreign banks was a drop in the bucket. The problem with that was Congress insisting that paying off the pirates now and then was a far better investment than building a blue water navy. Finally, and perhaps most maddeningly for the U.S., there were the intrigues going on between the European powers that used the Barbary treaties as a political football.
As noted by the memo quoted at the header, Mediterranean states in particular were not eager to discontinue the status quo with regard to the African tribute payments. By 1790, the Portuguese navy had blockades at the entrance of the Straits of Gibraltar and the corsairs who could not access the Atlantic virtually had to do business with Italy, France and Spain. It was a neat economic trick that turned a blind eye to the predations still going on outside the blockade. By 1793, over a dozen American ships had been captured by Moroccan pirates.
When the British consul in Algiers, Charles Logie, negotiated a one year treaty of non-hostility with the Algerine Dey the entire mess blew up in everyone's face. Algiers asserted that the treaty included all European nations, broke up the Portuguese blockade and redoubled their predations on the still treaty-less Americans.
Finally seeing the problem for what it was, the U.S. sued for a tentative peace with Algiers while building warships. In March of 1794, the U.S. Navy was officially established and, by the following year, her famous six frigates were afloat. This mollified the Barbary corsairs for awhile, even as the U.S. paid a then ruinous 6% on it's London back loans to fund tribute to the Dey.
When the ruler of Tripoli stepped in to complain that the U.S. wasn't paying him enough, the U.S. blockaded the Tripolitan harbor in 1801. This action, though tedious, managed to keep a restive peace with the North Africans for two years.
In October of 1803, this fell apart as well. William Bainbridge's Philadelphia, in trying to keep a large galley from leaving Tripoli's harbor, ran his ship hopelessly aground on the shoals off the harbor's coast. The pirates swarmed the frigate and a bloody hand-hand-combat ensued. Barbary was victorious and Philadelphia's surviving crew including Bainbridge, Lieutenant David Porter and Midshipman Daniel Patterson, were taken prisoner. The postscript to this unfortunate incident occurred four months later when Stephen Decatur, then a Lieutenant commanding the Barbary prize Intrepid, led a night raid to deny the Algerines the American vessel. He and his men set fire to Philadelphia and she burned to the water line.
And that, in a nutshell, is how the U.S. backed herself into her first foreign war. Not glamorous at all but by 1804 Americans wanted their sailors home and the trouble with Barbary over. What happened next, though, is grist for another post.
Happy Wednesday, Brethren, and Bon Fete Nationale a France!
Header painting: Burning of the USS Philadelphia by David Geister.