May 30, 2017: Jefferson & the Tripoli Pirates

This Book by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger tells the story of the First Barbary War. It is a page turner. 

I found great relevance to events in our time that our young nation had to face and overcome in international waters and on foreign soil.

The Barbary Pirates refers to four states that were still subjects of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1700’s; Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. The capital of the Ottoman Empire was in Constantinople at that time.  Through conquest the Ottomans became the de facto leaders and representatives of the Islamic world.   The Ottoman Caliphate lasted from 1517 to 1924.

The four countries on the northern coast of Africa built their economies by stealing and capturing the possessions of merchant ships in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic Ocean. Captured crews and passengers were enslaved.  Sold in slave markets or used by the capturing countries.  Part of what the Barbary Coast pirates stole was forwarded to Constantinople as tribute to their Muslim leaders.

Old world European countries had been dealing with this menace for more than a century. The great naval powers of Great Britain, France, and the Dutch accepted pirate raids and enslavement of seamen as “normal” to their way of life at that time.  Those countries paid tribute for “protection” from the pirates and sometimes were able to paid ransom to free their countrymen. 

The United States history with Barbary Coast Pirates didn’t just begin after 1783 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The problem for Americans had been going on much longer.  In 1655 American Abraham Browne working on a Dutch ship was enslaved when the ship was captured.  But since 1783 the former Colonial merchants who were under the protection of the Union Jack were now on their own.

The new nation tried to negotiate peace with the Pirates and sent ministers to conduct negotiations. That proved fruitless when the ministers encountered a completely foreign ideology.

In 1786 the Tripoli ambassador in London Sidi Haji Abdrahaman explained to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that according to his holy book, the Qur’an, “all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave”.

This statement captures the conflict and the reason why the first approach to deal with the escalating violence against Americans in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea failed. Tribute and ransom never satisfied the Muslim leaders.  Agreements the Muslims made with non-Muslims did not last. The Muslims pirate leaders did not view non-Muslims as being worthy of their honor, so they were not bound. 

The book goes on to explain the building of the new United States Navy and the early setbacks to the plan to use a show of force to curb the Pirates demands. It wasn’t until 1805 that the Navy was able to prevail along with a land assault on Derne that secured a peace for a short time. 

In the War of 1812 or the Second War for Independence, the British enticed the Barbary states to again target American ships. At the end of the war in 1815 the American Navy went back to the Mediterranean and defeated the pirates again securing protection for American ships and receiving reparations for damages.  Even securing release of British sailors with whom they were just at war. 

But the Pirates just turned their attention to other countries ships. In 1816 the British and Dutch military action forced Algiers to release 3,000 Christian captives and sign a treaty to cease enslaving Europeans. When the Algerians reneged on the deal the French followed up with a stronger military action.  In 1830 the French occupied Algiers and only then was piracy along the North African coast eradicated.

The older and stronger European countries took the lesson of the United States to not tolerate the behavior of the Islamic countries sponsored reign of terror on the seas by taking military action against them after decades of trying to buy peace. The evil only stopped when confronted, fought and overcome.  There were personal consequences to the leaders of the Barbary states. 



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