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Pirates in America
Barbary Pirate War
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Tripolitan War
"Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!"
- United States slogan against the Barbary Pirates

For centuries, Middle Eastern pirates demanded that tribute be paid to them, for "protection against European powers". For years, the European countries did just that, but the newfound United States refused.
A little more than a century before, England had begun paying tribute in order to spare their ships. In other words, they were stuck in a bribe that didn't seem possible to get out of. Many other European countries were the same way.
In 1785, when the United States wouldn't pay tribute, the Dey of Algiers captured an American ship and imprisoned the crew. They weren't released for ten years. Over the next nine years, eleven more ships had been seized, bringing the number of prisoners to one hundred and nineteen.
President George Washington tried desperately to negotiate with the Barbary states, but had no success. Meanwhile, more American ships were being seized and sailors held for ransom.
Seizing American ships was an ideal situation for the Barbary pirates, as the other possible "prey" was extremely limited. Turkey being an ally of Britain and an "overlord" of Barbary (Jewett, 2002), pirates couldn't attack British ships, and preferred not to attack the French.
Beginning of War
In 1785, Thomas Jefferson claimed that war was going to be the only way to solve the problem. (By the time Jefferson came to office, amounts of tribute had reached $2,000,000.) Refusing to pay tribute, saying it was "money thrown away", he asked that the Europeans join with the United States in rising against the Barbary pirates. Europe refused, however, deciding it best to just continue paying tribute.
When John Adams, the second United States President, came to office in 1797, he too decided to pay tribute. (Tribute had been authorized by Congress two years before.) Despite what Jefferson had said about tribute being money thrown away, the Dey of Algiers received $21,600 worth of naval supplies yearly, along with cash, munitions and a 36-gun frigate that equaled $642,500.
Finally the ransom was set for the one hundred and nineteen American prisoners. It stood as thus:
$4,000 for each passenger
$1,400 for each cabin boy
However, Congress was only willing to pay $200. Civilians privately raised money, and the prisoners were finally free. Thirty-seven of the one hundred and nineteen had died, and ransom had to be paid for them despite.
In 1800, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf, increased the demands on the United States, ordering absurdities such as diamond encrusted guns. When President Washington died, Yusuf demanded $10,000, saying it was "customary when a great man passed away to make a gift in his name to the crown of Tripoli." (Jewett, 2002)
The following year, Thomas Jefferson (the current president) had not paid tribute. Fed up, Yusuf brought an American representative to court. He demanded that tribute be raised from $10,000 to $225,000 as a late fee, and an annual $25,000 in goods. Naturally, President Jefferson refused.
President Jefferson ordered that Tripoli be blockaded and American shipping convoyed.
The blockade squadron, stretched out for 1,200 miles, was headed by Commodore Richard Dale.


Commodore Richard Dale

Meanwhile, the captured Philadelphia was being prepared for battle against the United States by the pirates. The frigate had to be put out of commission, and Lieutenant Stephen Decatur put together a plan.


The Philadelphia

Sailing on a captured native ketch on February 15, 1804, Decatur and a small crew disguised themselves as North Africans. What happened next would soon be called "the most daring act of the age". (British Admiral Lord Nelson)
As they neared the Philadelphia, Decatur and his crew threw grappling hooks and managed to get a hold of the ship. They then jumped onto the deck, yelling, and a fierce battle ensued. Twenty pirates were killed by the crew's hands, and the rest were pushed overboard. Only one American was injured. The Philadelphia was then set on fire and destroyed.
Little happened over the following months. Tripoli was defended extremely well both onshore and off, making for 25,000 soldiers against Preble's 1,060. All that was accomplished was blocking the pirates from practicing their trade. While this helped, it wasn't enough.
Despite the vast size differences between the "armies", Preble's squadron bombarded the Tripoli harbor on August 3. Twenty-one pirates were killed fifteen taken captive, along with three gunboats. Stephen Decatur's brother, James, was the only American killed. Decatur soon avenged him, killing James' murderer in a one-on-one combat.
Even though the invasion had few lasting effects, it gave the Americans newfound determination. Soon after, Captain Edward Preble sailed home, leaving Captain Samuel Barron to take over. Barron soon went on to lead the largest fleet America had ever had before then. Sailing with his warhawk William Eaton, (the former Consul of Tunis) America had a definite advantage.
What happened next is seldom remembered but was nevertheless a crucial step in winning the war.
William Eaton met with Yusuf's brother, Hamet, in Alexandria, Egypt. Hamet had been cast aside by Yusuf, and had since taken refuge in Egypt. Together, they agreed to usurp Yusuf's throne.


Yusuf, dey of Algiers

Basics on the Barbary Pirates...
The Barbary pirates preyed for hundreds of years, from the Crusades to the early nineteenth century. Usually victimizing ships on the Mediterranean Sea, the pirates were from Tunis, Aligers, Tripoli and Morocco. A part of northern Africa, today known as the Barbary Coast, was their rampart.


Photo courtesy of:


Thomas Jefferson

Although the initial blockade was disappointing and not much progess was made, there was one success. The American sloop Enterprise defeated a large Tripolitan ship. Enterprise had all of the guns thrown overboard before allowing the ship to pass on. (Enterprise couldn't capture the ship because there had been no official declaration of war.) Yusuf was infuriated with the defeat of his ship, and had his captain beaten, his neck surrounded with sheep's entrails and paraded backwards on a donkey.
In 1802, Commodore Richard Dale returned home and Captain Edward Preble took over. He instantly had victory at Tangier. By sailing into to the harbor, opening the gun ports and cannons, and aiming them at the palace, the Sultan agreed not to attack American shipping.
However, not too long after, the frigate Philadelphia was captured. Captain William Bainbridge had tried to solely blockade Tripoli, and the Philadelphia got stuck on a sandbar. Due to the odd angles the ship took, they were unable to attack the pirates that soon defeated them. Three hundred and seven Americans were taken hostage and forced to work as slaves.
Despite Captain Preble's offers of up to $10,000 to free the Americans, the Barbary pirates refused. Stephen Decatur then took over.


Stephen Decatur


"Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804"
Oil on Canvas by Edward Moran


William Eaton

The two assembled a force of between five hundred and six hundred men, Arabs, Greeks and Americans alike. They then set off on a five hundred mile hike across the desert, where Eaton encountered threats of mutiny and abandonment. Nevertheless, he held the small army together, despite the fact he was running out of the money that had been supplied to him ($20,000) and had to borrow some from the marines and mercenaries.
They had contact with two ships, the Argus and Hornet, who kept the army supplied with food and munitions during the journey. There were several close calls when the forces ran out of food and there were no signs of the ships. However, they all pulled through.
They finally reached their destination of Derna on April 25. Two days later, the army of five hundred attacked. After an hour of open fire, America captured the first Old World city. (Jewett, 2002) Fourteen Americans died.
Meanwhile, Yusuf had proclaimed himself ready to negotiate the release of the Philadelphia crew. In order to do so, Eaton and Hamet agreed to leave Tripoli. In response, Yusuf agreed to release all the prisoners, to end ship and slave capture, and to pay $60,000.
Thinking the war was over, all American vessels sailed home. However, several years later in 1807, Algiers captured three American ships. The United States bought them back for $18,000, but the threat of pirates seemed to be back. Right before the war with England, the ship Edwin was captured and its crew enslaved.
It wasn't until after the War of 1812 when the United States declared hostilities. They sailed back to Barbary, once again under the command of Stephen Decatur. There was an immediate (and successful) attack on the Dey's fleet, and 486 people were taken prisoner. Decatur then set up his demands to the Dey:
- free every slave
- pay $10,000 to the survivors of the ship Edwin
- cease all tribute demands
Stephen Decatur also went to the Deys of Tunis and Tripoli. The dey of Tunis paid him $46,000 and the dey of Tripoli paid $25,000 and freed their slaves.
The Barbary pirates never attacked American ships since.

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