When America was a colony, it was heavily involved in
shipping and foreign trade. Britain garnered the lion’s share of American
goods, but today every school child learns about the slave-sugar-rum triangle
with the Caribbean and Africa. It is less well-known that a significant number
of American merchants plied the waters of the Mediterranean, trading with many
nations and cities on that sea.
The declaration of independence in 1776 brought home an
overlooked truth. When it was a British Colony, American shipping trade had
been protected by the might of the British Navy, which dominated the seas at
that time. Now that it was independent, America had no such protection. Indeed,
it had no navy at all. This fact was not lost on the Barbary Pirates of the
North African coast. They preyed on American shipping with impunity, taking
captives, demanding ransom, and stealing American goods.
They even sailed into the Atlantic Ocean and
interfered with American trade with Western Europe.
The problem arose from the religio-political situation of
the Muslim Ottoman Empire. The Empire was based in Istanbul, in modern-day
Turkey, which nominally controlled the countries along the north-eastern,
eastern, and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, from Greece clockwise
around to Algiers.
Ottoman Empire was decaying and some North African leaders had carved out
independent states under the Ottoman umbrella. Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli were
ruled by pashas who had created their kingdoms by force, and they continued to
use force, piracy to be specific, as a tool of state to earn their countries
Although the Barbary kingdoms targeted Americans, the
Ottomans themselves held America in great esteem. At a time when the British,
Russians and Austrians were pressuring the Empire, and Napoleon even had the
temerity to invade Egypt and Syria, Sultan Selim III was impressed when the
ship George Washington
Istanbul harbor in 1800, representating the one nation in the world that had
thrown off European over-lordship.
If divisions in the Muslim Mediterranean caused America’s
pirate problem, then divisions in Christian Europe hindered the solution.
France had just sided with America against Britain in the War of Independence,
as had the Netherlands and Spain. But their alliance with the nascent America
did not lead to alliances at home. Rather than confront the Barbary Pirates,
each nation paid them an annual tribute to leave their ships alone.
The problem was that this did not work for America. When it
offered tribute or tried to ransom a captured ship, Algiers or Tripoli would
simply seize another ship and demand a another, higher ransom. Since America
had no navy, it could not enforce ransom or tribute agreements. The European
nations all had navies. Even though some were small, they were large enough to
keep tribute and ransom demands in check and could, in theory at least, launch
an attack on Tunis or Tripoli if ship attacks got out of hand. Since America
had no navy, it was at the mercy of the Barbary kingdoms.
At first, America tried diplomacy. In the 1780s, they
suggested an alliance with the French, the Dutch, and other nations with
smaller navies to create a force to rid the Mediterranean of the pirates.
Although some thought this was a good idea, no nation volunteered the use of
In the end, it took the Constitutional Convention of 1787,
which formally created the United States of America, to lay the conditions for
the creation of the US Navy. And it was not until the end of the second war
against the British, the War of 1812, that American naval power was sufficient
put down the state-sponsored activities of the Barbary Pirates. In June 1815,
ten American warships entered the Algerian harbor. The Pasha appealed to the
British, who gave him no help. So he accepted the terms of Admiral Stephen
Decatur, which included payment of compensation to the USA. Tunis and Tripoli
America solved its pirate problem. American merchants were
once again free to trade on the open seas. And the nation had created a navy.
Although Americans today think that involvement with Islamic countries is new;
it is as old as the nation itself.
This essay is indebted to Michael B. Oren’s book Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the
Middle East, 1776 to the Present
(New York: Norton, 2007).