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Thomas Jefferson Wouldn’t Give In to the Barbary Pirates

The vast wealth of knowledge and wisdom expressed by those who are credited with the FOUNDING of our nation continues to astonish me. Now, we must keep in mind that this experiment was part of a “GLOBAL” enterprise, even then. Britain ruled the seas, but France and Spain competed for global dominance. Yet, in spite of this, rogue pirates from the northern coast of Africa, the Barbary Coast, swarmed the seas capturing vessels and individuals for ransom.

The Barbary pirates, early Islamists, operated off the coast of North Africa and throughout the Mediterranean Sea as far back as the time of the Crusades. The Barbary pirates sailed as far north as Iceland, attacking ports, seizing captives as slaves, and plundering merchant ships. Most nations equipped with sea-going vessels found it easier, and cheaper, to pay a “tribute” to the pirates rather than fight them in a war for passage through the Mediterranean. European nations often worked out treaties with the Islamist pirates from the Barbary Coast. By the early 19th century, the pirates were essentially sponsored by the Arab rulers of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

Our Founders were fully aware of these pirates, and Washington and Adams both continued the tradition of Europe and paid the required tributes to afford safe passage throughout the seaways while our infant nation stabilized and prepared for war. When Thomas Jefferson took office, he took a different tact.

    Preparation for War courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections

    “The US government adopted a policy of essentially paying bribes, or tribute, to the pirates in its infancy, but 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.”

Algerian Corsair off a Barbary port – Andries Van Eertvelt

Incensed by the audacity of these Barbary pirates, Thomas Jefferson refused to pay any more tribute. In May 1801, two months after his inauguration, 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 newly formed 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.

The capture of the Philadelphia was a victory for the pirates, but their triumph was short-lived.

The USS Philadelphia ran aground off the shore of Tripoli and was attacked and burned by the pirate ship Intrepid. The Philedelphia was soon re-captured by Stephen Decatur

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.

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.

Marine Corps Officers “Mameluke Sabre Sword

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.

The pervading threat of the Barbary pirates faded to background noise, especially as the age of imperialism conquered and divided the African states which came under the control of European powers. Pirates were mainly found off the coast of the young America and 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 opened the eyes of the young nation to the blind agenda of Islam and helped America’s conception of itself as a player on the international stage.


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