The Barbary Pirates


By Peadar O’Maoileoin, August 28 2014

Thomas Paine, in his pamphlet written during 1775 – 1776, outlined his vision of independence and free trade. Common Sense presented people in the thirteen colonies with a solid proposal of freedom from British rule, at a time when independence was the central issue of the day. With this consideration, the pamphlet’s title does not seem overly conceited.

Ties with Britain were disbanded in 1776, with official independence coming seven years later. From 1783 – 1816, the Atlantic world was in turmoil. Britain and France, the major European naval players of this period were at each other’s throats. Both were to capture American vessels and impress their crews, rejecting to acknowledge American neutrality. Paine’s vision of free trade was not going to be easy.

The United States would also experience barriers to free trade in the Mediterranean; The Barbary Pirates of the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and Morocco.
“The Moroccan capture of the Betsey and the Algerine taking of the Dauphin and Maria were the opening encounters in the so-called Barbary Wars, a thirty three year period of tension between the United States and the Barbary States that included two wars in the Mediterranean: the Tripolitan War and the Algerine War.” (Lambert, 2007)

In understanding this conflict, one does not need to look further than the free trade issue. Lots of treaties were signed and broken in this thirty three year period. If the pirates felt like getting more money or goods from you, they would repeat the capture and enslavement, asking for additional tribute for the release of American ships and crews. They could not be taken at their word.

Several books have been written in an attempt to make The Barbary Wars appear as a religious conflict between the Muslim pirates and the “Christian” United States. Look no further than article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, which puts this misconception firmly to bed:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” (Treaty of Tripoly, 1797)

Numerous accounts taken from long term captives describe the pirates as having one god – money. Such avaricious piratical innateness easily explains their behavior towards the United States, Britain and France. To make matters worse, there were occasions when the United States was required to build war ships for the Barbary pirates, to be used against themselves! This left a sour taste in the mouths of many Americans, as the country barely had a naval force of its own due to issues with levying taxes from the thirteen colonies. Jefferson found such national humiliation hard to swallow; he wanted to end the fiasco once and for all.

Unfortunately, from a Jeffersonian point of view, it was Madison who would complete American independence and make free trade a reality. Madison’s main advantage was time. By 1815, the Napoleonic Wars came to an end. Britain was no longer concerned with neutral countries supplying France, and therefore ceased to interfere with American shipping. Before the wars even began, Britain spread lies in relation to Barbary pirates capturing American vessels. The outcome of this nasty episode resulted in Lloyds underwiters refusing to insure American ships for less than 25 percent, whereas the English ships enjoyed a 1.5 percent rate.

Washington, Jefferson and Madison all had to deal with the Barbary pirates. With no navy in 1795, Washington treated at the cost of 15 percent of the national budget. In 1801, Jefferson dispatched a small but adequate naval force when Tripoli declared war against the United States demanding more tribute. In 1815, Madison dispatched a powerful fleet to finally settle the score. After this, the Barbary powers lost their independence. The American treaty refused tribute, and in 1816 a combined attack from the Dutch and the British crushed them. Later, in 1830, the French would invade Algiers and turn them into a colonial dependent.
I will leave you with the words of Frank Lambert, my source on The Barbary Wars, who sums it up perfectly:

“Nationalist hyperbole notwithstanding, America’s rise was the result of changes in the Atlantic world more than in the country’s military exploits. With peace in Europe, merchantmen replaced warships and privateers, transforming the Atlantic from a dangerous battleground into a beehive of commerce”.

3 replies »

  1. Fascinating article.Thank you. One statement was difficult for me however. It states that on some occasions we were “required to build ships for the Barbary Pirates’ that were then used against the Americans.


    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Charles.

      It was Hussein Dey who made the insulting demand that the US build & deliver a 36-gun warship to him. The American’s realized they were thereby providing him with the means of taking future Americans captive and exacting even more tribute.