Barbary Bullies

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Topical Summary: History of piracy—Corsairs in the Barbary Coast—The Mahgrib—Impact of piracy on American colonies—Corsairs capture American ships and crews—Extortion: "tribute" and ransom—Adams and Jefferson deal with Algerian authorities—Presidents Washington and Adams favor tributes—War clouds on the horizon


Piracy—robbery, kidnapping or physical violence on or from the sea, committed by independent, often unsanctioned parties of rogue sailors upon defenseless ships or coastal populations—may have begun soon after humans learned how to build seagoing boats, and how to use them to exchange valuable goods with distant tribes and nations, and how to turn them into instruments of intimidation. Historical records reaching back several thousand years BCE indicate that it has cropped up now and then, and prevailed for various periods of time, in almost every populated corner of the globe. In his essay De Officiis ("On Duties"), Marcus Tulius Cicero (106-43 BCE)—in whose writings Jefferson and many other leaders of the Enlightenment found affirmation and inspiration—warned that "a pirate is not counted as an enemy proper, but is the common foe of all. There ought to be no faith with him, or the sharing of any sworn oaths."1

The Vikings committed piratical assaults throughout the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. Piracy on the Mediterranean Sea gained momentum during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Ottoman rulers in Constantinople (today's Istanbul) began licensing owners of galleys called corsairs to seize foreign ships, confiscate their cargoes, and sell their officers and crewmen in the slave markets. The most notorious brigand of all was an Ottoman known as Khayr ad-Din (d. 1546) or, more infamously, as "Barbarossa, that distinguished scourge of mankind."2

Figure 1

The Mediterranean Sea and the Mahgrib

The Barbary Wars of 1801-05, 1815, 1835

map showing the countries surrounding the Meiterranean Sea

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, control of Mediterranean waters and all ports on the north coast of Africa was in the hands of the governors of Tripoli (today's Libya), Tunisia and Algeria. All three were nominal regencies of the Ottoman Empire, but they exerted an indepen-dence that sometimes rankled the sultan at Constantinople. Morocco, an independent monarchy occupying the continent's northwest coast, fell into line behind its neighbors. Together, the Barbary States controlled North Africa from the southern shore of the Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert, and from the Atlantic Ocean three thousand miles eastward to western Egypt,3 constituting a region known as the Mahgrib4.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the major European powers—England, France, Spain and Holland—had fought countless battles with pirates from the Barbary States, and more than 30,000 Christian slaves had been imprisoned in Algiers alone. Eventually, however, extortion proved to be the most potent tool in the pirates' arsenal. European kingdoms and empires cheerfully paid the "tributes" that the outlaws extorted from them rather than tie up their own naval resources fighting the upstarts one corsair at a time, the year around. Even when "protected" merchant ships were captured "by mistake," it was cheaper to reimburse their owners' losses and pay the ransom for their crews than to storm the Barbary citadels.

Protection under British Payoffs

During the Colonial Era in America, British tributes—payments in jewels, pounds sterling, or naval stores such as ships and munitions—were supposed to protect American ships from harassment by the Barbary pirates, but the pirates could not be counted on to honor their part of any treaty for very long.5 After Algerian pirates captured an American ship in 1678, churches in New Amsterdam (New York) voluntarily took responsibility for raising money for their sailors' ransom. Twenty years later another ship was captured, and its crew was similarly ransomed. All this time, "captivity narratives" filled a popular niche in American literature. The sermons of the New England Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728) crystalized the underlying religious conflict between the crescent and the cross that motivated the "Hellish Pirates."6 By the end of the eighteenth century, American readers were ready for ever deeper insights into the exotic culture of the "Mahometans." With increasing frequency, popular magazines published items like Voltaire's "Anecdote of a Young Mussulman,"7 while religious periodicals such as the Christian Observer often followed the fortunes of missionary outreach on the Barbary Coast.

Immediately after the American Colonies declared their independence, British authorities made it a point to notify the Barbary states that her former possessions in America were no longer protected under British treaties with the Barbary states. The governors were delighted; American merchantmen were distraught. The landowners who grew the grain, milled the flour, sawed the lumber, salted the fish or cured the tobacco that sold so well in Mediterranean ports, were facing ruin. So were American apothecaries and physicians who needed North African asafetida, tragacanth, opium, or Tripoli vitriol (sulfate of copper or iron).

In October of 1784, Moroccan pirates seized the American merchant ship Betsey, not for its commercial value but as a hostage to force the United States to send their bashaw the consul that had been promised in 1778. Through a intercession by the Spanish government, the Betsey and her crew were released within a year.8 In July of 1785, Algiers declared war on the U.S. merely to please British interests, who sought to eliminate competition by scaring American traders out of the Mediterranean. Soon Algerian corsairs captured two more small American ships. The schooner Maria of Boston was overtaken off Cape St. Vincent, Portugal, and the Dauphin of Philadelphia 150 miles west of Lisbon.9 Jefferson and John Adams, the U.S. ministers to France and England respectively, were directed to negotiate a resolution with the Algerian authorities, an assignment complicated by the fact that, as Adams wrote to Jefferson, "Avarice and Fear are the only Agents at Algiers."10 The dilemma they faced was that, on the one hand war would involve the expense of building a navy large and powerful enough to convoy American merchantmen into the Mediterranean; it would also drive up insurance rates, or even invalidate insurance entirely, on ships and cargoes of traders venturing into the danger zone.11 But subsidizing the pirates of one of the states would only encourage the others to demand equal or even higher payoffs. Moral and ethical issues aside, which was the less expensive option? Adams, in tune with American popular opinion as well as with many members of Congress, considered it cheaper in the long run to avoid war by paying for peace. Jefferson, despite his commitment to reducing the standing army and navy to minimum levels, preferred to stand up to all of the pirates. Adams prevailed, and Congress paid.12

President Washington had similarly dealt in a conciliatory manner with the four Barbary states, and especially Morocco and Algiers, during his administration (1789-1797). On December 8, 1795, he announced to both houses of Congress: "A letter from the Emperor of Morocco announces to me his recognition of our treaty made with his father, the late Emperor, and consequently the continuance of peace with that power."13 During John Adams's presidency (1797-1801) a "peace" treaty with the bashaw of Tripoli was signed, and a frigate was built for the dey of Algiers (named the Crescent) in expiation for the United States' late payment of the stipulated tribute. The dey would have been delighted with the gift; round-bottomed Western sailing vessels were faster and more maneuverable, especially on the open seas, than the slow, clumsy galleys that had made up most of the pirates' navies, with their double banks of oars stroked by prisoners and slaves.14 The only disadvantage of the large and powerful American frigates was that they were difficult to navigate through the shallow, rocky coastal waters, especially in the Bay of Tripoli.

War clouds gather

Who can say how much of this history Lewis might have known before he walked into the president's house that April day? We only know that news about events in the capitols of the Barbary states had been reported in the American periodical press for many years, especially in the Christian missionary media, which Lewis, as a Deist, would have been inclined to ignore. Nevertheless, the fruits of the long history of the Barbarians' brand of terrorism were piling up at Thomas Jefferson's feet, and perforce at Lewis's too. For the next twenty-three months, until he left Washington City in mid-March of 1803 for Harper's Ferry, Lancaster, Philadelphia and points west, he was almost as close to the front lines of America's first intercontinental War as was his friend and commander-in-chief.

1. M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins, eds., Cicero: On Duties (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 141.

2. "General Description of the Country of Algiers," The New York Magazine, or Literary Repository, new series, vol. 2 (January 1797), 40.

3. In the Koran (Surah 47.4), Muhammed urged the capture of "those who are bent on denying the truth," and their release only if they embraced Islam, or were ransomed. The Message of the Quran, transl. Muhammad Asad (Bristol, England: The Book Foundation, 2003), 883-84 and notes 5-7. Perhaps because he knew that the Arabic language includes four characters that have no English equivalents, Thomas Jefferson taught himself to read Arabic so that he could properly study the Koran. Kevin J. Hayes, "How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur'an," Early American Literature vol. 39, no. 2 (2004), 247-61.

4. A highly instructive view of the First Barbary Coast War is contained in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Salim Ahmed Hamdan v. Donald H. Rumsfeld, et al. The brief is found in a pdf document titled Supreme Court of the United States. No 05-184.

5. Paul Baepler, "The Barbary Captivity Narrative in American Culture," Early American Literature, vol. 39, no. 2 (2004), 219-20. Martha Elena Rojas, "'Insults Unpunished': Barbary Captives, American Slaves, and the Negotiation of Liberty," Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall 2003), 159-186.

6. The New York Magazine, or Literary Repository, Vol. 2, No. 1 (January 1791), 50. In British and American literature throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, an adherent of the Mohammedan faith was often referred to as a Mussulman. The name originated as a Persian word that evolved into the Arabic Muslim, which was the active participle of the verb aslama, meaning "to submit oneself to the will of God."

Mussulman may have become a surname during the early 16th century, when Mennonite missionaries in Switzerland converted to their brand of Christianity many Mohammendan (or Mahometan, as it was then commonly transliterated into English) families whose Moorish ancestors had settled in southern and central Europe beginning in the 8th century. The Mennonites' firm commitment to nonviolence may have been one of the principal reasons for their appeal to Europeanized Muslims. J. C. Wenger, The Mennonite Church in America, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1966).

The first Mussulmans emigrated to the United States during the second half of the eighteenth century. The present author's ancestors may have arrived in Virginia in the 1760s, perhaps 80 years after the first French Huguenots of his maternal lineage, including the Huguenot family Agée, stepped ashore in Virginia. The last pre-immigration Islamic branches in his family tree have not been identified.

7. All but one of the crew members, that is. Peter Lisle, a Scottish deckhand on the Franklin, had already chosen the proffered alternative to slavery (see note 3 above) and "turned Turk," taking the name of a famous sixteenth-century Algerian pirate, Murad Reis; he consolidated his new allegiance by marrying one of Bashaw Yussuf Karamanli's sisters. The Betsey was renamed the Meshuda, and refitted to serve as the 28-gun flagship of the little Tripolitan navy, with Murad Reis as its grand admiral. Above the Meshuda's stern Reis flew the flags of all the nations whose vessels he had captured, in order of their rank in his esteem; the old Franklin's colors were at the bottom.

8. Gardner W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905), 13-14. Robert J. Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 110.

9. Adams to Jefferson, June 6, 1786. Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 1:133. Adams was quoting Charles Gravier, count de Vergennes, the foreign minister who led the French alliance that helped the U.S. throw off British rule.

10. Kenneth Morgan, Bristol and the Atlantic Trade in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 201.

11. James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 11 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902-04), vol. 1, parts 1 and 2. and 10894 (retrieved September 24, 2009).

12. Allison, The Crescent Obscured, 10.

13. President Washington's Seventh Annual Message. Yale Law School, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, The Barbary Treaties, 1786-1816, (retrieved October 14, 2009). The treaty Washington mentioned was the Treaty of Peace and Friendship for a period of fifty years, which the Emperor of Morocco signed on June 23, 1786. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, U.S. ministers to London and France, respectively, negotiated an addition to the tenth article, in which the Moroccan emperor agreed to protect, as much as possible, any American ship in any of his ports from pursuit or engagement by any vessel whatsoever "belonging either to Moorish or Christian Powers with whom the United States may be at War . . . as we now deem the Citizens of America our good Friends." The treaty was ratified by Congress and proclaimed on July 18, 1787.

In July of 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with the Moroccan Foreign Minister Dr. Taie Fassi Fihri, praising Morocco as "one of America's oldest and closest allies: in 1777"—it was 1778—"it became the first country to recognize the independence of the American colonies, and the Treaty of Friendship and Peace of 1787 between the United States and Morocco remains America's longest-unbroken treaty." "Morocco," she declared, "has long partnered with the US to build bridges between the Islamic world and the West, as well as to combat acts of terrorism in the lawless regions of the Sahara." (retrieved 7 April 2015).

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