An Axis of Evil
Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli were the North African seaports that came to comprise "the Barbary States". It became their habit to terrorize ships along the Mediterranean, and even further on. They kidnapped, murdered, ransomed, and enslaved merchant ships with impunity. If not sold into slavery or ransomed, Christian sailors could find themselves rotting away on a diet of starvation in the dungeons of the Pirate States. According to Joshua E. London,
"Piracy was deemed an acceptable and important component of the al-jihad fi’l-bahr, or the holy war at sea, and the ta’ifa, or community, of seamen became integral to the Muslim struggle with Christendom,"
By 1662, these Muslim pirates- Barbary corsairs- had refined piracy to a sophisticated, highly disciplined and well-organized racket. And,
“In that year, England revived the ancient custom of paying tribute, which meant that corsairs agreed to spare English ships for an annual bribe paid in gold, jewels, arms, and supplies. The custom quickly spread to all countries trading the Mediterranean."2
Not just England, but all European powers paid bribes and tributes to the Barbary rulers in order to avoid having their ships boarded and ransacked, and their citizens enslaved. France paid 200,000 annually, to Algiers alone. Britain, up to 280,000! When the United States gained its independence from Britain, it also lost the protective umbrella of Britain's protection payments to the Barbary rulers.
America Faces its First Major Foreign Policy Crisis
Confronting the Dilemma of State-Sponsored Terror on the High Seas
In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was minister to France, and John Adams minister to England. They had the approval of the Continental Congress to negotiate for treaties with the Barbary States. For the life of them, they could not understand why they were so hated by these Muslim States. And so in London, after an initial private meeting with him by Adams, both Adams and Jefferson confronted His Excellency, Abdrahaman, Tripoli's ambassador to London, who told them:
“America was a great nation, but unfortunately a state of war existed between America and Tripoli. Adams questioned how that could be, given there had been no injury, insult, or provocation on either side. The Barbary States were the sovereigns of the Mediterranean all the same, he was told, and without a treaty of peace there could be no peace between Tripoli and America. His Excellency was prepared to arrange such a treaty…The sooner peace was made between America and the Barbary States the better. Were a treaty delayed, it would be more difficult to make. A war between Christian and Christian was mild, prisoners were treated with humanity; but, warned His Excellency, a war between Muslim and Christian could be horrible.”3
Bill Bennett, in his new book, "America, the Last Best Hope", describes it this way:
The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners.
Joshua E. London's description of the meeting in his book:
"The response was unnerving. As Adams and Jefferson later reported to the Continental Congress, the ambassador said the raids were a jihad against infidels. Muslim privateers felt "it was their duty to make war upon them [non-Muslims] wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could as Prisoners, and that every Mussleman [Muslim] who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise."
The Americans now had two choices: pay tribute or fight the pirates."
Abdrahaman made it known that peace with all the Barbary States might amount to 200,000 to 300,000 guineas. Because it was such a vast amount, and Congress had only guaranteed them 80,000, they had to refer back to Congress. The Republican pacifist, Thomas Jefferson, came away from this encounter, mongering for war as a matter of honor, and made an appeal to John Adams. Adams agreed with Jefferson in principle; but America, without a navy and the funds needed to carry on a war, decided it would be cheaper to go the example of the European nations, and pay into the extortion racket set up by the Barbary Corsairs, rather than opt for war. Adams cautioned Jefferson, “We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever,”4 Prophetic words, perhaps?
Appeasement is Not the Answer
Coalition of the Unwilling
Bedding with the Enemy?
Of course, there was also devious self-interest in allowing this "cozy cartel" to continue, unmolested:
"British, French, and Dutch ships could sail the waters with impunity, while relying corsairs of both complexions [Muslim Barbary Corsairs and Christian Malta Corsairs- Wordsmith] to harrass the shipping of their competitors. This cunning arrangement allowed British and French merchantment to take a substantial proportion of the Mediterranean trade. In France, there was clear and sometimes explicit understanding that the raids of the Barbary corsairs had advantages: 'We are certain that it is not in our interest that all the Barbary corsairs be destroyed, ' ran one anonymous French memo, 'since then we would be on par with all the Italians and the peoples of the North Sea.' " 6
America Perceived as "Paper Tiger"
In 1794, the Navy Act saw the rebuilding of America's navy, with six ships authorized for construction; and
"in anticipation of fighting the Barbary pirates. Yet, in 1795, Congress approved a treaty with Algiers that led to the release of the hostages the following year, but that cost the US nearly $642,500 in cash, munitions, and a 36-gun frigate, besides a yearly tribute of $21,600 worth of naval supplies! Ransom rates were officially set for those Americans already in Barbary prisons: $4000 for each passenger and $1,400 for each cabin boy."7
"Upon viewing the Americans’ weakness, the other Barbary States stepped up their blackmail demands."7
By the spring of 1801, when Yusuf still did not receive his monetary "gift" from the U.S. for the death of George Washington, he sent for the U.S. consul to be brought before him. After making the consul kiss his hand, the Pasha proclaimed that the annual tribute that the U.S. was to pay Tripoli, would now be raised in the amount of $250,000; plus $25,000 in goods of his choice. Refusal to pay up would be taken as an act of war. On May 14th, he ordered that the flag staff at the American consul be cut down
“To make his point, Yusuf had his soldiers chop down the flagpole in front of the American consulate, a significant gesture in a land of no tall trees and one that meant war.”8
So why had America not paid up? Because by 1801, the Pasha was now dealing with President Thomas Jefferson….and the peace-loving Jefferson, itching for war for the past 17 years, was having no more of this nonsense.
"Millions for defense, not a penny for tribute"
Tributes came to an end. The Pasha of Tripoli became enraged. In 1801, May 10th, war was declared by Tripoli, in what has become known as "The Tripolitan War" or the "Barbary Wars". Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis subsequently joined in on declaring war against the U.S. "Millions for defense, not a penny for tribute", became the slogan of the day, in the U.S.
America's First Covert Op in Foreign Land
2 years into the War, the U.S. made little headway. On October 31, 1803, the USS Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef off the coast of Tripoli. The crew and officers were taken captive. On February 16, 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led 74 brave volunteers on a mission to rescue the ship, lest it be used against the Americans themselves. Sailing covertly at night in the Intrepid, a renamed captured Tripolitan ketch, Decatur and his men stole aboard the Philadelphia, were forced to set the Philadelphia ablaze instead of retaking her, and made their escape before an alarm was sounded. This heroic raid led the famous British admiral, Horatio Nelson, to call it "the most bold and daring act of the age". The crew of the Philadelphia, unfortunately, remained captives; and the asking price for their return was $200,000.
America's First Endorsement of Regime Change
3 years into the war, we meet William Eaton, the American consul in Tunis. Principled, self-righteous, a lover of liberty, Eaton had this to write to the Secretary of State regarding the nature of the enemy:
"Taught by revelation that war with the Christians will guarantee the salvation of their souls, and finding so great secular advantages in the observance of this religious duty [i.e. keeping captured cargoes] their inducements to desperate fighting are very powerful."9
At the same,
"Eaton also possessed the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that the cruelty of the Barbary slavery he witnessed was '…but a copy of the very barbarity which my eyes have seen in my own country. And yet we boast of liberty and national justice.'"10
"We find it almost impossible to inspire these wild bigots with confidence in us or to persuade them that, being Christians, we can be otherwise than enemies to Musselmen [Muslims]. We have a difficult undertaking."
Serving with Eaton was a Marine Lieutenant, Presley O'Bannon from the USS Argus. He was an Irish-American from Marshall, in Fauquier County, Virginia. On April 25, 1805, after 45 days, they came to Derna.
Surely by then, many in this small army must have been happy at the prospect of battle, as opposed to dying a miserable death in the desert. A message was sent to the governor of Derna to surrender. His defiant reply was, "My head or yours." Shortly after this, the attacking force was bolstered by the arrival of the USS Argus, USS Hornet, and USS Nautilus in the harbor.
On April 27, 1805, outnumbered 10 to 1, they attacked.
It was decided that Hamet and his Mamelukes would attack the governor's castle, while O'Bannon, with his Americans, along with the Greeks and Turks, would lead an assault on the harbor fort. The naval guns would assist by bombarding the objectives.
As the attack began, the firing from the governor's castle proved too much for Hamet's force, and they held back. With enemy reinforcements known to be on the way, the attackers were in dire need of a quick victory. Eaton ordered O'Bannon to lead his men in a frontal assault on the harbor fort. Two hours of desperate fighting ensued, but finally O'Bannon and his men drove the Tripolitans from the fort and captured the guns there before they could be spiked. This would prove to be important.
O'Bannon had carried a U.S. flag with him, and now, for the first time in history, the Stars and Stripes was raised over foreign soil. Seeing this, the defenders in the governor's castle took flight and Hamet's men took possession of it and the town. The victory was not complete, however, for now the feared enemy-reinforcements arrived, determined to recover what had been lost.
A number of vigorous assaults followed. All were repulsed, with O'Bannon's men able to use the captured guns of the fort to good effect. Finally the Tripolitans gave up, and the battle of Derna was over. Presley O'Bannon had led the first victory of American land forces on foreign soil. It had not come without a cost. O'Bannon lost 13 killed in the attack, including two of his Marines: Pvt. John Whitten and Pvt. Edward Steweard. The people of the town proclaimed Hamet the new ruler of Tripoli, but the victory was fleeting.
In 1807, however, the Algerians (not the Tripolitans) seized three American ships and again demanded ransom. Thus, the Barbary threat continued in this way for another seven years. “Following the War of 1812, Stephen Decatur entered the Mediterranean with ten tall ships and the steely determination that made him a hero. Like Preble before him, he let his cannon do the talking. Fighting fire with fire, he took 486 prisoners and forced the Algerians to pay a ransom of $10,000, to release all captives immediately, and to cease and desist all demands for further tribute from America forever. Such insurmountable logic was not lost on the Dey. Likewise the Dey of Tunis paid Decatur $46,000 to not hurt him, and the Pasha of Tripoli contributed $25,000 to see the last of the Americans. Decatur finally broke the Barbary threat with the only weapon the pirates understood.11
"Our Country Right or Wrong!"
Some observers have drawn parallels between the Barbary Mussulmen pirates and Islamic terrorists of today. The two groups are similar in their considerable skill in wielding the hostage tool to gain their ends, but the Barbary pirates were not jihadists—they did not, as far as we know, terrorize merchant shipping in the name of Allah with the intent of eradicating infidels from the face of the Earth. Rather, they terrorized ships to acquire revenues to support their way of life. It is possible that the two groups are similar in that if they ever stopped terrorizing civilians, no one would any longer fear them.