The Barbary Pirates, who had been a threat off the coast of Africa for centuries, encountered a new enemy in the early 19th century: the young United States Navy.
The North African pirates had actually been an established menace for so long that most nations, by the late 1700s, were paying tribute to ensure that merchant shipping could proceed without being violently attacked.
In the early years of the 19th century, the United States, at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson, decided to call a halt to the payment of tribute. And a war between the young US Navy and the Barbary pirates ensued.
Ten years later, a second war settled the issue of American ships being attacked by pirates. The issue of piracy off the African coast seemed settled for two centuries until it recently resurfaced with Somali pirates, who once again faced the US Navy.
Background of the Barbary Pirates
The Barbary pirates operated off the coast of North Africa as far back as the time of the Crusades. According to legend, the Barbary pirates sailed as far as Iceland, attacking ports, seizing captives as slaves, and plundering merchant ships.
As most seafaring nations found it easier, and cheaper, to bribe the pirates rather than fight them in a war, a tradition developed of paying tribute for passage through the Mediterranean. European nations often worked out treaties with the Barbary pirates.
By the early 19th century the pirates were essentially sponsored by the Arab rulers of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.
American Ships Were Protected Before Independence
Before the United States achieved independence from Britain, American merchants ships were protected on the high seas by the British Navy. But when the young nation was established its shipping could no longer count on British warships keeping it safe from pirates.
In March 1786, two future presidents met with an ambassador from the pirate nations of North Africa. Thomas Jefferson, who was the US ambassador in France, and John Adams, the ambassador to Britain, met with the ambassador from Tripoli in London. They asked why American merchant ships were being attacked without provocation.
The ambassador explained that Muslim pirates considered Americans to be infidels and they believed they simply had the right to plunder American ships.
America Pays Tribute While Preparing for War
The US government adopted a policy of essentially paying bribes, or tribute, to the pirates. Jefferson objected to the policy of paying tribute in the 1790s. Having been involved in negotiations to free Americans held by North African pirates, he believed paying tribute only invited more problems.
The young US Navy was preparing to deal with the problem by building a few ships destined to fight the pirates off Africa. Work on the frigate Philadephia was depicted in a painting titled "Preparation for WAR to Defend Commerce."
The Philadelphia was launched in 1800 and saw service in the Caribbean before becoming involved in a pivotal incident in the first war against the Barbary pirates.
1801-1805: The First Barbary War
When Thomas Jefferson became president, he refused to pay any more tribute to the Barbary pirates. And in May 1801, two months after he was inaugurated, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. The US Congress never issued an official declaration of war in response, but Jefferson dispatched a naval squadron to the coast of North Africa to deal with the pirates.
The American Navy's show of force quickly calmed the situation. Some pirate ships were captured, and the Americans established successful blockades.
But the tide turned against the United States when the frigate Philadelphia ran aground in the harbor of Tripoli (in present day Libya) and the captain and crew were captured.
Stephen Decatur Becomes an American Naval Hero
The capture of the Philadelphia was a victory for the pirates, but their triumph was short-lived.
In February 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur of the US Navy, sailing a captured ship, managed to sail into the harbor at Tripoli and recapture the Philadelphia. He burned the ship so it couldn't be used by the pirates. Decatur's daring action became a naval legend.
Stephen Decatur became a national hero in the United States and he was promoted to captain.
The captain of the Philadelphia, who was eventually released, was William Bainbridge. He later went on to greatness in the US Navy. Coincidentally, one of the US Navy ships involved in action against pirates off Africa in April 2009 was the USS Bainbridge, which is named in his honor.
To the Shores of Tripoli
In April 1805 the US Navy, with US Marines, launched an operation against the port of Tripoli. The objective was to install a new ruler.
The detachment of Marines, under the command of Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon, led a frontal assault on a harbor fort at the Battle of Derna. O'Bannon and his small force captured the fort.
Marking the first American victory on foreign soil, O'Bannon raised an American flag over the fortress. The mention of the "shores of Tripoli" in the "Marine's Hymn" refers to this triumph.
A new pasha was installed in Tripoli, and he presented O'Bannon with a curved "Mameluke" sword, which is named for North African warriors. To this day Marine dress swords replicate the sword given to O'Bannon.
A Treaty Ended the First Barbary War
After the American victory at Tripoli, a treaty was arranged which, while not entirely satisfactory for the United States, effectively ended the First Barbary War.
One problem which delayed ratification of the treaty by the US Senate was that ransom had to be paid to free some American prisoners. But the treaty was eventually signed, and when Jefferson reported to the Congress in 1806, in the written predecessor of the president's State of the Union Address, he said the Barbary States would now respect American commerce.
The issue of piracy off Africa faded into the background for about a decade. Problems with Britain interfering with American commerce took precedence, and eventually led to the War of 1812.
1815: The Second Barbary War
During the War of 1812 American merchants ships were kept out of the Mediterranean by the British Navy. But problems arose again with the war's end in 1815.
Feeling that the Americans had been seriously weakened, a leader with the title of the Dey of Algiers declared war on the United States. The US Navy responded with a fleet of ten ships, which were commanded by Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge, both veterans of the earlier Barbary war.
By July 1815 Decatur's ships had captured several Algerian ships and forced the Dey of Algiers to commit to a treaty. Pirate attacks on American merchant ships were effectively ended at that point.
Legacy of the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
The threat of the Barbary pirates faded into history, especially as the age of imperialism meant the African states supporting piracy came under the control of European powers. And pirates were mainly found in adventure tales until incidents off the coast of Somalia made headlines in the spring of 2009.
The Barbary Wars were relatively minor engagements, especially when compared to European wars of the period. Yet they provided heroes and thrilling tales of patriotism to the United States as a young nation, and can be said to have shaped the young nation's conception of itself as a player on the international stage.
Gratitude is extended to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for the use of images on this page.