Tripolitan War

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Tripolitan War (1801–05).Late eighteenth‐century European powers paid the Barbary states (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, called Barbary for the Berber people of North Africa) to capture their competitors' ships. Sometimes known as “Barbary pirates,” the North African sea raiders seized ships for both profit and political reasons. The raiding was an organized government activity, not piracy; the United States and other powers negotiated treaties with the North African states to protect their commerce. In 1785, Great Britain encouraged Algiers to capture two ships from the newly independent United States.

While the captive American sailors languished, the U.S. minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, tried to enlist Portugal, Naples, Sardinia, and Russia in an alliance against Algiers. France refused to cooperate. In 1793, Britain promulgated a fraudulent treaty between Algiers and Portugal, after which Algiers captured a dozen American ships and over 100 American sailors. American envoys negotiated a treaty in 1795, pledging an annual tribute in naval supplies, and a frigate as a gift to the dey, or ruler, of Algiers. Richard O'Brien, captive in Algiers since 1785, negotiated similar treaties with Tunis and Tripoli.

But the United States was slow to send tribute. When Jefferson became president in 1801, Tripoli's Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli, demanding his tribute, had all but declared war. Although Jefferson, determined to cut military spending, had sold or decommissioned most of the U.S. Navy's ships, he sent what was left to the Mediterranean with instructions to cooperate with Sweden, Sicily, Malta, Portugal, and Morocco against Tripoli. This coalition forced Qaramanli to back down, ultimately giving the United States a victory, even with a minimal navy.

For two years a small U.S. squadron (one frigate and its consorts) patrolled the Tripolitan coast. When the frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground in October 1803, Tripoli captured the 300 men on board and prepared to use the ship against the Americans. Jefferson's political opponents accused him of fighting a war without sufficient resources, but Lt. Stephen Decatur silenced the critics in February 1804 when he entered Tripoli Harbor with a small crew and burned the Philadelphia. Decatur, promoted to captain, became a national hero; the navy increased its bombardments of Tripoli.

William Eaton, American consul to Tunis, proposed an alliance with Ahmed Qaramanli, Yusuf's brother, whom the pasha had deposed in 1795. Eaton organized an army of Arabs, Greeks, and U.S. Marines to reinstall Ahmed as ruler, in the expectation that he would make a favorable treaty with the United States. Jefferson neither supported the plan nor discouraged it. Eaton's force marched from Egypt to the city of Derne, which it captured in June 1805, just as the United States made peace with Yusuf. The government ransomed the Philadelphia's crew, and Tripoli promised not to attack American ships. The diplomatic results were less impressive than the patriotic effusions in the United States: paintings, songs, poems, plays, and statues celebrated America's victory over its Muslim enemies.

In 1807, Algiers declared war on the United States, but the embargo and the War of 1812 kept American shipping out of the Mediterranean. In 1815, the Madison administration sent Decatur to settle the dispute. Algiers promised not to take American ships, and a few months later an English fleet forced Algiers to renounce attacks on European shipping. Great Britain no longer needed Algiers to fight its enemies. In 1830, France invaded Algiers, beginning a century of European colonization in North Africa.
[See also Marine Corps, U.S.: 1775–1865; Navy, U.S.: 1783–1865.]


Kola Folayan , Tripoli During the Reign of Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli, 1979.
Robert J. Allison , The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World 1776–1815, 1995.

Robert J. Allison

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Tripolitan War (trĬpŏl´Ĭtən), 1800–1815, conflict between the United States and the Barbary States. Piracy had become a normal source of income in the N African Barbary States long before the United States came into existence. The new republic adopted the common European practice of paying tribute to buy immunity from raids. Difficulties began in 1800 when William Bainbridge, the officer who took tribute to the dey of Algiers, was compelled to go under the Ottoman flag to Constantinople. When the pasha of Tripoli demanded (1800) more tribute than previously agreed upon, the United States refused payment.

Hostilities broke out in 1801, but Commodore Richard Dale's blockade of Tripoli failed to daunt the pirates. President Thomas Jefferson then decided to settle the affair by negotiation, but his envoy Richard Valentine Morris could not reach an agreement with the pasha. The war continued. Tunis was more or less drawn into the struggle because of ill feeling between the bey's court and William Eaton, the U.S. consul there.

After Eaton and Morris quarreled over the campaign, the blockade of Tripoli was lifted, and the U.S. government considered resuming tribute payments. Edward Preble then succeeded Morris as the U.S. commander in the Mediterranean. Preble dispatched the frigate Philadelphia under Bainbridge to resume the blockade. A storm drove the ship aground. It was captured, and Bainbridge and his crew were imprisoned. Stephen Decatur and a small group of men were sent (Feb., 1804) into the harbor. They set fire to the Philadelphia and destroyed her.

Despite this exploit Preble was still unable to take Tripoli, and, in Sept., 1804, he was succeeded by Samuel Barron. Meanwhile William Eaton had convinced the U.S. government of his plan for supporting a rival claimant for the rule of Tripoli by a land expedition. Eaton landed in Egypt and after an arduous march took the port of Derna. Before he could advance farther, the war was ended. John Rodgers, sent out with a strong force in May, 1805, negotiated a settlement in June. The U.S. prisoners were ransomed, and Tripoli renounced all rights to halt or to levy tribute on American ships.

Though the most favorable agreement yet made with a Barbary power, the treaty was not a brilliant triumph and did not end the threat of piracy to U.S. shipping. During the later Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, the pirates increased their raids on American commerce. Algiers actually declared war on the United States. In 1815 a squadron under Decatur forced the dey of Algiers to sign a treaty renouncing U.S. tribute, and the so-called Algerine War was ended. After 1815 the United States no longer paid tribute to any Barbary State.

See G. W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (1905, repr. 1965); D. B. Chidsey, The Wars in Barbary (1971); F. Lambert, The Barbary Wars (2005); R. Zacks, The Pirate Coast (2005).