Background of the Barbary Pirates
The Barbary pirates operated off the coast of
North Africa as far back as the time of the
Crusades. According to legend, the Barbary pirates
sailed as far as Iceland, attacking ports, seizing
captives as slaves, and plundering merchant ships.
As most seafaring nations found it easier, and
cheaper, to bribe the pirates rather than fight them
in a war, a tradition developed of paying tribute
for passage through the Mediterranean. European
nations often worked out treaties with the Barbary
By the early 19th century the pirates were
essentially sponsored by the Arab rulers of Morocco,
Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.
American Ships Were
Before the United States achieved independence
from Britain, American merchants ships were
protected on the high seas by the British Navy. But
when the young nation was established its shipping
could no longer count on British warships keeping it
safe from pirates.
In March 1786, two future presidents met with an
ambassador from the pirate nations of North Africa.
Thomas Jefferson, who was the US ambassador in
France, and John Adams, the ambassador to Britain,
met with the ambassador from Tripoli in London. They
asked why American merchant ships were being
attacked without provocation.
The ambassador explained that Muslim pirates
considered Americans to be infidels and they
believed they simply had the right to plunder
America Pays Tribute While Preparing for War
The US government adopted a policy of essentially
paying bribes, or tribute, to the pirates. Jefferson
objected to the policy of paying tribute in the
1790s. Having been involved in negotiations to free
Americans held by North African pirates, he believed
paying tribute only invited more problems.
The young US Navy was preparing to deal with the
problem by building a few ships destined to fight
the pirates off Africa. Work on the frigate
Philadephia was depicted in a painting titled
"Preparation for WAR to Defend Commerce."
The Philadelphia was launched in 1800 and saw
service in the Caribbean before becoming involved in
a pivotal incident in the first war against the
1801-1805: The First Barbary War
When Thomas Jefferson became president, he refused
to pay any more tribute to the Barbary pirates. And
in May 1801, two months after he was inaugurated,
the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United
States. The US Congress never issued an official
declaration of war in response, but Jefferson
dispatched a naval squadron to the coast of North
Africa to deal with the pirates.
The American Navy's show of force quickly calmed the
situation. Some pirate ships were captured, and the
Americans established successful blockades.
But the tide turned against the United States when
the frigate Philadelphia ran aground in the harbor
of Tripoli (in present day Libya) and the captain
and crew were captured.
Stephen Decatur Becomes
an American Naval Hero
The capture of the Philadelphia was a victory for
the pirates, but their triumph was short-lived.
In February 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur of the
US Navy, sailing a captured ship, managed to sail
into the harbor at Tripoli and recapture the
Philadelphia. He burned the ship so it couldn't be
used by the pirates. Decatur's daring action became
a naval legend.
Stephen Decatur became a national hero in the United
States and he was promoted to captain.
The captain of the Philadelphia, who was eventually
released, was William Bainbridge. He later went on
to greatness in the US Navy. Coincidentally, one of
the US Navy ships involved in action against pirates
off Africa in April 2009 was the USS Bainbridge,
which is named in his honor.
To the Shores of Tripoli
In April 1805 the US Navy, with US Marines, launched
an operation against the port of Tripoli. The
objective was to install a new ruler.
The detachment of Marines, under the command of
Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon, led a frontal assault
on a harbor fort at the Battle of Derna. O'Bannon
and his small force captured the fort.
Marking the first American victory on foreign soil,
O'Bannon raised an American flag over the fortress.
The mention of the "shores of Tripoli" in the
"Marine's Hymn" refers to this triumph.
A new pasha was installed in Tripoli, and he
presented O'Bannon with a curved "Mameluke" sword,
which is named for North African warriors. To this
day Marine dress swords replicate the sword given to
A Treaty Ends the First Barbary War
After the American victory at Tripoli, a treaty was
arranged which, while not entirely satisfactory for
the United States, effectively ended the First
One problem which delayed ratification of the treaty
by the US Senate was that ransom had to be paid to
free some American prisoners. But the treaty was
eventually signed, and when Jefferson reported to
the Congress in 1806, in the written predecessor of
the president's State of the Union Address, he said
the Barbary States would now respect American
The issue of piracy off Africa faded into the
background for about a decade. Problems with Britain
interfering with American commerce took precedence,
and eventually led to the War of 1812.
1815: The Second Barbary War
During the War of 1812 American merchants ships were
kept out of the Mediterranean by the British Navy.
But problems arose again with the war's end in 1815.
Feeling that the Americans had been seriously
weakened, a leader with the title of the Dey of
Algiers declared war on the United States. The US
Navy responded with a fleet of ten ships, which were
commanded by Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge,
both veterans of the earlier Barbary war.
By July 1815 Decatur's ships had captured several
Algerian ships and forced the Dey of Algiers to
commit to a treaty. Pirate attacks on American
merchant ships were effectively ended at that point.
Legacy of the Wars
Against the Barbary Pirates
The threat of the Barbary pirates faded into
history, especially as the age of imperialism meant
the African states supporting piracy came under the
control of European powers. And pirates were mainly
found in adventure tales until incidents off the
coast of Somalia made headlines in the spring of
The Barbary Wars were relatively minor engagements,
especially when compared to European wars of the
period. Yet they provided heroes and thrilling tales
of patriotism to the United States as a young
nation, and can be said to have shaped the young
nation's conception of itself as a player on the