Pirates and the Barbary War

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From the mid-eighteenth century until the early nineteenth century, pirate ships from the so-called Barbary States on the North African coast terrorized foreign shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. What are now the seaport cities of Tangiers (Morocco), Algiers (Algeria), Tunis (Tunisia), and Tripoli (Libya), as well as their surrounding areas, were recognized as separate states. Unless a foreign nation paid tribute to the leaders of these states, its ships were plundered and their crews sent into slavery. Even Great Britain, with its mighty navy, found it easier and cheaper to buy peace than to fight. The newly independent United States, with very little in the way of sea power, did likewise. However, in 1801 an infuriated President Thomas Jefferson surprised the Barbary pirates by sending ships into the Mediterranean. Although this brave show did not end the piracy, it did mark the beginning of recognized U.S. naval power. Another fourteen years would pass before the Barbary War came to an end.

the barbary states

The Barbary States probably got their name from the Berbers, who were largely scattered in tribes across the North African coast. These tribes had been relatively independent until the twelfth century, when invading Bedouin Arabs destroyed their economy and sent many of them into a life of nomadic wandering.

By the sixteenth century, piracy along the Barbary Coast had become a relatively easy, publicly acclaimed way of making a living. The pirates were technically corsairs, meaning sailors who were given a government license to steal, and piracy was profitable to the beys, deys, and pashas who ruled these coastal cities. These rulers were under the nominal control of the Grand Turk, or sultan, at Constantinople, but in practice they were independent and absolute monarchs. They answered to no one and considered violence and the profits from piracy almost a tradition.

Barbary pirate raids were generally conducted by one ship only, and they were terrifying. The heavily-manned pirate ship would look as though it carried few passengers as it approached a foreign vessel, but as it drew alongside the pirate crew would spring over the side, screaming and brandishing swords. They stole everything in sight, including the seamen's clothes, and killed anybody who stood in their way. Even more terrifying was the taking of prisoners to be sold in the open marketplace, either to a private person or to some backbreaking government project. In either case, the captured seamen were not likely ever to be freed.

bribing the pirates

By the time the United States gained its independence in the late 1700s, the Barbary States had come to regard the Mediterranean as their own private lake. Common piracy had grown into a sophisticated business. Great Britain had long before revived the ancient custom of paying tribute for the freedom to sail the Mediterranean, although the mighty British navy could easily have defeated the pirates. During the colonial period, the British had also paid tribute for any vessels from the colonies, and France had done so during the American Revolution. So it was a shock to the newly independent United States when one day in 1785 an American ship was seized and its crew jailed by a pirate ship in the employ of the dey of Algiers.

American ambassadors tried to free the sailors but were unsuccessful, and George Washington agreed, reluctantly, to pay tribute to Algiers and Tripoli in 1796 to stop the piracy. Congress authorized a cash payment plus a yearly tribute in naval supplies, which resulted in freedom for a number of American captives in Algiers.

defending national honor

When Thomas Jefferson became the nation's third president in 1801, the country was still paying tribute. He soon discovered that the nation had paid an amount roughly equivalent to one-fifth of its annual income to the Barbary pirates. Congress had authorized the building of four frigates in 1794, including the Constellation and the Constitution, and Jefferson, although in principle against having a national navy, decided to put this new navy to use.

In 1801, Jefferson refused to negotiate a new arrangement with the pasha of Tripoli. This bravado seemed to amuse the pasha, who promptly declared war by chopping down the flagpole in front of the American consulate. In another show of bravado, Jefferson sent four ships into the Mediterranean. The lone success of the mission was the taking of a Tripolitan ship by the sloop Enterprise, which served to infuriate the pasha without accomplishing much else in the Mediterranean.

In 1803, the United States lost the ship Philadelphia, which was captured and held in the port of Tripoli. When it was rumored that pirates would refloat the vessel and use it against the Americans, Stephen Decatur from the Enterprise apprehended an enemy four-gun ketch and sailed into Tripoli harbor on February 15, 1804, killing many pirates, setting fire to the American ship, and escaping. Decatur, who was then twenty-five, was promoted to captain, then the highest rank in the U.S. Navy. He remains the youngest American seaman to have held that rank.

In July of that year, Captain Edward Preble led five attacks against Tripoli. His three vessels, one of them commanded by Decatur, plus three mortar boats and six gunboats faced twenty-four warships in a harbor defended by about 25,000 soldiers. The bombardment caused little damage, and the American fleet suffered the loss of the Intrepid.

The war with Tripoli did not end until March 1805, when the U.S. Navy and Marines, with the help of allied Arabs, took the Tripolitan port of Derma. This adventure is remembered in a line from the song of the U.S. Marines: "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli." The pasha of Tripoli signed a peace treaty in June for the return of his city.

But piracy resumed in 1807, when Algiers began harassing foreign shipping once again. Soon thereafter the United States turned its attention to the War of 1812, an inconclusive conflict with Great Britain over oppressive maritime practices, mainly the issue of impressment. The British boarded foreign ships to search for deserters and then impressed the foreign sailors into the Royal Navy. It was not until after the War of 1812 ended that the Americans declared war on Algiers in March 1815. Algiers signed a peace treaty in 1816.

Although it was a small war, America's conflict with the Barbary pirates was nevertheless significant. In addition to protecting American shipping, Jefferson's decision to build an American navy indicated the new nation's determination to use armed force to protect its sovereignty and commerce. The U.S.S. Constitution, or Old Iron Sides, remains the navy's oldest commissioned vessel and an enduring symbol of the nation's independence and identity.


Chidsey, Donald Barr. The Wars in Barbary: Arab Piracy and the Birth of the United States Navy. New York: Crown, 1971.

Nash, Howard P., Jr. The Forgotten Wars: The U.S. Navy in the Quasi-War with France and the Barbary Wars, 1798–1805. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1968.

Tucker, Glenn. Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.

Internet Resources

"Jefferson and the Barbary War." University of San Diego. Available from <http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/classes/diplo/barbarywar.html>.

Williams, Richard. "Another Forgotten War." Upper Mississippi Brigade. Available from <http://umbrigade.tripod.com/articles/forgotten.html>.

Corinne J. Naden and

Rose Blue

See also:Jefferson, Thomas; War of 1812.