America Defeats the Barbary Coast Pirates

(This article is going to get me in hot water with the PC crowd, but even they should know it is historical, not racist.)

“It is written in the Koran that all nations which have not acknowledged the Prophet are sinners, whom it is the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave…”
— Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, Tripolitan ambassador to England, 1785.

Trade between nations during the 18th century was strictly a maritime affair, and most ships had to pass through the Mediterranean Sea. Standing in the path of those ships were the Muslim Countries of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco, collectively known as the Barbary Coast, the rulers of which had long sponsored piracy as an easy way to enrich their coffers. They simply captured merchant ships and held their crews for ransom. Any country which didn’t “ante up” saw their citizens captured and sold into slavery.


Prior to the American Revolution, American merchant ships and sailors had been protected from the North Africa pirate attacks by the naval and diplomatic power of Great Britain and the tribute Britain paid to the Barbary Coast states. During the Revolutionary War, the ships of the United States were protected by the 1778 alliance with France, which required France to protect “American vessels and effects against all violence, insults, attacks, or depredations, on the part of the said Princes and States of Barbary or their subjects.”

After the United States won its independence, in the Treaty of 1783, it had to assume its own protection. Beginning in 1784 Congress followed the tradition of the European shipping powers and appropriated $80,000 as tribute to the Barbary States, directing its ministers in Europe, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to begin negotiations with them.

Troubles began almost immediately. In July 1785, Algerians captured two American ships and the Dey (governor) of Algiers held their crews of twenty-one sailors for a ransom of nearly $60,000.

In 1795 alone the United States was forced to pay nearly a million dollars in cash, naval stores, and a frigate to ransom 115 sailors from the Dey of Algiers. Annual “gifts” were also settled by treaty on Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli.

When Jefferson became president in 1801 he refused to accede to Tripoli’s demands for an immediate payment of $225,000 and an annual payment of $25,000. The pasha of Tripoli then declared war on the United States.

In response, President Jefferson dispatched a squadron of naval vessels to the Mediterranean. The mission was simply to put an end to the harassment of American merchant vessels by the pirates. Among the officers and crew was a young Lieutenant named Stephen Decatur.

In a less than auspicious start, one of the frigates, the USS Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef near Tripoli’s harbor, and was seized by the Barbary pirates. Decatur immediately volunteered for the dangerous and risky mission of leading a small crew to board and burn the American frigate. Under the cover of night they quietly approached the Philadelphia in a small craft, boarded her and set her on fire. British Admiral Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the Age. “

Edward Preble (1761-1807)

Edward Preble

Over the next few weeks a cat and mouse game ensued as the Americans patrolled the harbor looking for corsair vessels to pick off. After signing a peace treaty with Morocco, Commodore Edward Preble established a blockade off Tripoli. Then Preble launched an assault on the Tripolitan fleet with Decatur in command of the second division of gunboats.

The Tripolitans were prepared and the Americans met with fierce resistance, but soon the battle turned in the their favor. When a gunboat commanded by Decatur’s brother, James, captured a small Tripolitan corsair, the pirates lowered their flag in a symbol of surrender, and American officers, including Decatur’s brother, boarded her. The pirates quickly raised the flag again, taking the Americans by surprise and killed the American officers who had boarded, including James. The galley then slipped away, escaping capture.

At sea there are certain “rules’ of war,” especially those pertaining to surrender, and this act marked the pirates as uncivilized. If the act of “surrender” could no longer be trusted, the only alternative was a fight to the death. Decatur had just captured another Tripolitan gunboat when he heard the news. He and nine volunteers made straight for the offending gunboat and bordered her with Decatur leading the charge. They were outnumbered five to one but fought ferociously. Decatur found the burly Muslim captain who killed his brother, and immediately confronted him.

The captain thrust at him with a boarding pike, which Decatur deflected with his cutlass. That saved his life, but his cutlass broke at the hilt. The captain had the upper hand on Decatur, who was smaller – and he tried attempted to kill him with his long knife. Decatur managed to deflect the blow, draw his pistol and fire it point blank into the captain’s chest, killing him immediately. Given the conduct of the pirates, the Americans were not terribly disposed to take prisoners, and when the fighting was over there were only three Tripolians left alive. Twenty one had been killed.

Stephen Decatur (1779-1820)

Stephen Decatur

"To the shores of Tripoli..."

“To the shores of Tripoli…”

The aggressive action of Commodore Preble had forced Morocco out of the fight and his five bombardments of Tripoli restored some order to the Mediterranean. Hostilities ended in 1805, after an American fleet under Commodore John Rogers and a land force under the command of Captain William Eaton threatened to capture Tripoli and install the brother of Tripoli’s pasha on the throne.

The treaty of 1805 still required the United States to pay a ransom of $60,000 for each of the sailors held by the dey of Algiers, and it went without Senatorial consent until April 1806. (Just like today, many in Congress were firmly on the side of appeasement.)

Nevertheless, Jefferson was able to report in his sixth annual message to Congress in December 1806 that in addition to the successful completion of the Lewis and Clark expedition, “The states on the coast of Barbary seem generally disposed at present to respect our peace and friendship.”

The Second Barbary War (1815), under President James Monroe, was more ham-fisted than the first. In this war, U.S. vessels bombarded Tunis and Algiers, captured prisoners and demanded treaties that freed the U.S. from both Barbary threat and extorted tribute. Naval victories by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur led to treaties ending all tribute payments by the United States. European nations continued annual payments until the 1830s, however, international piracy in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters declined during this time under pressure from the Euro-American nations. There was no longer a European war between nations, and this allowed the Europeans to challenge Barbary power in the Mediterranean without their forces being divided.

Beginning about 1840, the entire region fell under the sway of colonization. Tunis and Algiers became French possessions, and the other two became part of the Ottoman Empire.

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