History repeats itself, this time with a return of a version of the Barbary Pirates. This is our history, and the solutions we found back then have their bearings on who we became as a nation and what we face in the present.
First the present:
|The Seabourn Cruise Lines ship Spirit was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia early Saturday morning but escaped capture.|
|Two boats carrying between eight and 10 pirates armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers attacked the Spirit, which had 150 passengers and 160 crew members on board, CNN reported.|
|Canadian passenger Mike Rogers said, the captain tried to run one of the boats over, and eventually outran the boats. The captain didn’t hit the emergency alarm for fear passengers would rush to the deck. He alerted them over the loudspeaker.|
|One person was injured but there are no details.|
|The ship suffered a little damage. Rogers said there wasn’t running water and he heard that a grenade went off in a cabin.|
|The World Food Program announced Thursday that pirates are hijacking shipments into the area and hampering relief efforts.|
|The WFP website called the coastline one of the most dangerous in the world.|
This is an old story. The fact that piracy is becoming more common and is affecting wealthy civilians rather than commerce says much about the growing anarchy on land and sea. These things are connected.
As Americans, most of us are ignorant of history outside our shores, including history in which we were involved. In the case of the Barbary Pirates, that history goes back to the very beginning of our nation, of our initial attempts to establish commerce as a sovereign nation. What is of especial interest is that the tack we took in confronting the problem runs like a thread through all of our history. And the solution the Europeans hit upon is also part and parcel of their character.
First some background on the Barbary Pirates: they got their name from the Berber states – Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli – located on the southern coast of the Mediterranean during the 1700’s. Given the culture of these fiefdoms, the customary way to raise revenue was piracy, ransom of slaves caught in these raids, and ongoing demands of tribute from whichever countries wished to ply the waters there for reasons of trade or travel.
|The first half of the 17th century may be described as the flowering time of the Barbary pirates. More than 20,000 captives were said to be imprisoned in Algiers alone. The rich were allowed to redeem themselves, but the poor were condemned to slavery. Their masters would not in many cases allow them to secure freedom by professing Mahommedanism. A long list might be given of people of good social position, not only Italians or Spaniards, but German or English travelers in the south, who were captives for a time. The chief sufferers were the inhabitants of the coasts of Sicily, Naples and Spain. But all traders belonging to nations which did not pay blackmail in order to secure immunity were liable to be taken at sea. The payment of blackmail, disguised as presents or ransoms, did not always secure safety with these faithless barbarians. The most powerful states in Europe condescended to make payments to them and to tolerate their insults. Religious orders – the Redemptionists and Lazarites – were engaged in working for the redemption of captives and large legacies were left for that purpose in many countries. The continued existence of this African piracy was indeed a disgrace to Europe, for it was due to the jealousies of the powers themselves. France encouraged them during her rivalry with Spain; and when, she had no further need of them they were supported against her by Great Britain and Holland. In the 18th century British public men were not ashamed to say that Barbary piracy was a useful check on the competition of the weaker Mediterranean nations in the carrying trade. When Lord Exmouth sailed to coerce Algiers in 1816, he expressed doubts in a private letter whether the suppression of piracy would be acceptable to the trading community. Every power was, indeed, desirous to secure immunity for itself and more or less ready to compel Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Salé and the rest to respect its trade and its subjects. In 1655 the British admiral, Robert Blake, was sent to teach them a lesson, and he gave the Tunisians a severe beating. A long series of expeditions was undertaken by the British fleet during the reign of Charles II, sometimes single-handed, sometimes in combination with the Dutch. In 1682 and 1683 the French bombarded Algiers. On the second occasion the Algerines blew the French consul from a gun during the action. An extensive list of such punitive expeditions could be made out, down to the American operations of 1801?5 and 1815. But in no case was the attack pushed home, and it rarely happened that the aggrieved Christian state refused in the end to make a money payment in order to secure peace. The frequent wars among them gave the pirates numerous opportunities of breaking their engagements, of which they never failed to take advantage.|
That’s the British perspective.
To the Americans, things appeared quite different. Europe, enthralled as it was in its own internecine divisions and wars, found it easier to pay this maritime jizya tax than to take on the Barbary pirates. For America, though, the problem was more crucial. For one thing, we weren’t at war, our focus was to begin to move out into the world and build an international commerce. That couldn’t happen if our ships could not move safely in foreign waters. For another, it went against the grain of the American character to be at the mercy of the lawless and the whimsical notions of the Berber area.
For a time we were able to slide by because we were a colony under Britains’ protection. But with the birth of the United States as a sovereign nation, we no longer had that security. Serendipitously for us, Portugal declared war on Algiers and began patrolling the Straits of Gibraltar. The pirates were effectively prevented from moving into open waters. When Algiers and Portugal reached an agreeement in 1793, the pirates of the Barbary coast moved back into the open seas; within three months Algiers had captured almost a dozen American ships, their cargo and crews. As was the custom, the men on these ships were enslaved and put to work until such time as the Americans were willing to pay their ransom and begin the process of negotiating for ongoing tribute.
This became a tumultuous problem beginning in President Washington’s administration, and continuing into that of President Madison. The country had no money with which to redeem the men from these Muslim potentates or to pay the exorbitant annual tributes. In addition, there was sharp disagreement about the policies that would be formulated to address the issue structurally. Political and philosophical conflict existed from the very beginning:
|During President Washington’s administration, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson disagreed sharply over policy toward the Corsairs [the pirate ships]. Adams strongly favored paying off the pirates, arguing that a long and protracted war would financially ruin the young nation. Jefferson vehemently disagreed, appealing not only to an American sense of honor, but also to the notion that a single, decisive war might be more cost-effective than annual bribes for perpetuity. Not surprisingly, their subsequent administration policies reflected these beliefs. Adams was anxious to prevent conflict, and ensured payment of all demanded tribute. In addition, Adams even agreed to build and deliver two warships for the Algerian Corsairs. Since the Corsairs were considered more a force of nature than a foreign nation, the fact that this was contrary to the popular, “millions for defense, not one cent for tribute,” attitude toward French demands for bribes, was rarely noted. Yet, frustrated during tribute negotiations with Tunis, negotiator William Eaton wrote home that, “there is but one language which can be held to these people, and this is terror.” [editorial emphasis]|
|In May of 1801, the Corsairs of Tripoli became restless and declared war on the United States, figuring they could increase their annual tribute. Their disorganized fleet passed into the Atlantic but was chased back by a recently dispatched American squadron. The Americans cruised the Mediterranean, evacuating American merchantmen and winning several engagements with the Corsairs. Later that year Sweden declared war on the Tripolitans and lent considerable support to the American blockade of Tripoli. The combined fleet of Swedish and American, and infrequently Danish, ships was unwilling to bombard the city until early 1802 when President Jefferson ordered that the war be pursued with greater vigor. Despite occasional bombardment, as the blockade continued, it became impossible for the large American ships to prevent some of the smaller, faster Corsair gunboats from slipping through. The Americans wanted to draw the pirates into a large decisive battle, but their attempts proved fruitless. When Sweden made peace that year, the blockade collapsed.|
Other problems intervened. The War of 1812 held our attention. And American relations with each Berber state varied. It was a long, complicated process with Congress, as usual, dithering about what was to be done. Slowly, all too slowly, an American Navy began to be formed. In fact, it was born of necessity with the decades’ long conflicts with the Barbary Pirates.
Eventually we won the wars, both on sea and land. From the shores of Tripoli to the final settlement with Algiers in 1815, America developed her Navy and seasoned its veterans in war. Stephen Decatur and John Paul Jones became part of our national mythos. The US began to formulate a coherent foreign policy. After years of humilation, of ransom, tribute, and betrayal of treaties with the Berbers, President Madison brought it to an end. When the dey of Algiers demanded yet another round of tribute, Madison declined, most famously.
|“the United States whilst they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none.” [Thus, the]… “settled policy” … “that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute.”|
And now there are pirates abroad again. And they are Musselmen, as of old. But are they the same muslims, with the same goals?
Probably not. There are some parallels, of course, considering that today’s terrorists are descendants of that Berber culture. One thing is their use of hostages as tools – in one case for raising money, in the present day for propaganda purposes or to influence policy. But the Barbary pirates merely wanted to raise money by terrorist means, they weren’t waging jihad against the infidel, they just wanted his money.
Essentially, piracy ended in the Mediterranean when France captured Algiers. And now we know what the long-term outcome for that victory was:
Paris is burning.