Barbary Wars


On a mission to free the 307 men taken prisoner from the captured Philadelphia, the USS Constitution, under the command of Commodore Edward Preble, blasts the shore batteries in the harbor of Tripoli.


“Barbary Wars” is a collective name for two naval conflicts, the Tripolitan War of 1800–05 and the Algerine War of 1815. Both were USN actions against the state-sanctioned piracy of Muslim mariners operating out of the “Barbary states” (present-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) on the coast of North Africa. Such piracy had been directed against the shipping of Christian (i. e., non-Muslim) nations since the 17th century, and governments became accustomed to paying extortionate tribute money to the Barbary states for protection against the pirates. Beginning in the administration of Thomas Jefferson, however, U. S. policy would no longer brook extortion, which was seen as a threat to sovereignty.

The origin of the Tripolitan War may be traced to 1785, when Great Britain encouraged Algiers to capture two American vessels. At the time, Jefferson was American minister plenipotentiary to France; from this post, he attempted to draw Portugal, Naples, Sardinia, Russia, and France into an anti-Algerian alliance. A French refusal to cooper- ate brought the collapse of the alliance, and Britain incited Algeria to an even more vigorous piracy, in which a dozen American ships were captured and more than 100 American sailors imprisoned. The U.S. government negotiated a treaty with the bey of Algiers in 1795, pledging tribute to secure release of the captives and to ensure freedom of navigation. Additional treaties were concluded with Tunis and Tripoli. The United States, however, delayed sending the tribute money, which, shortly after the inauguration of President Jefferson in 1801, moved Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli, Tripoli’s ruler, to declare war, albeit informally.

Jefferson responded by creating a coalition with Sweden, Sicily, Malta, Portugal, and Morocco against Tripoli, forcing Qaramanli to back down. From 1801 to 1803, one USN frigate and several smaller USN vessels patrolled the Tripolitan coast. In October 1803, USS Philadelphia ran aground and was captured; 300 American sailors were imprisoned in Tripoli. In February 1804, however, Lieutenant STEPHEN DECATUR led a daring raid on Tripoli harbor and burned Philadelphia, thereby denying the prize to the bey. Following this, Commodore Edward Preble increased an ongoing bombardment of Tripoli while the American consul at Tunis, William Eaton, proposed an alliance with Ahmed Qaramanli, the brother Yusuf had deposed in 1795. At the same time, Eaton recruited a force of Arabs and Greeks who joined a contingent of U.S. Marines to support the restoration of Ahmed. In coordination with the USN bombardment, Eaton’s force captured Derna in 1805. Eaton had never secured the authorization of the Jefferson government, however, and the president concluded a treaty of peace with Yusuf Qaramanli on June 4, 1805. Although the treaty stipulated a $60,000 ransom to be paid for the release of the American prisoners, it also ended the practice of annual tribute payment, establishing unhindered commerce between the United States and Tripoli. Americans hailed the war as a triumph of U. S. seapower.

Despite the Treaty of Tripoli, Barbary piracy soon revived, especially during the W AR OF 1812, when U. S. Navy vessels that had been patrolling the Barbary waters had to be withdrawn for service closer to home. The bey of Algiers exploited the absence of patrolling vessels to resume piracy. After expelling the U. S. consul and imprisoning or enslaving American nationals, the bey formally declared war in 1815. His timing, however, was bad. With the War of 1812 ended, Commodore Stephen Decatur was able to lead a 10-ship squadron into the Mediterranean and, between March 3 and June 30, 1815, capture two Algerian warships. He then sailed into the harbor of Algiers, where, at the mouth of his cannon, he demanded an end to tribute and the release of all prisoners without ransom. The bey acquiesced, concluding on June 30, 1815, a treaty ending state-sanctioned piracy. Decatur continued on to Tunis and Tripoli, where he also coerced treaties and even secured compensation for American vessels that had been seized by those states (at British prompting) during the War of 1812. Like the Tripolitan War, the briefer Algerine War was a triumph for the U. S. Navy as an instrument of American international policy. Nevertheless, despite the treaty of 1815 and another concluded in 1816, Algerian piracy remained a threat—although at a significantly reduced level— until France captured Algiers in 1830.


For a long time, the Muslim rulers of the so-called Barbary States—Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis—sanctioned piracy against the vessels of Christian nations plying the Mediterranean near the coast of North Africa. The so-called Barbary Pirates demanded tribute—protection money—in return for allowing shipping to be conducted unmolested. In its early years, the United States, a struggling young republic in no position to wage war against the Barbary Pirates, concluded tribute treaties. However, in May 1801, a new bey assumed the Tripolitan throne, demanded a more exorbitant tribute, then declared war on the United States in an effort to get it. In 1803, during the course of the war, the bey’s navy captured the USN frigate Philadelphia. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, USN, led a daring raid, which included marines, to set fire to the Philadelphia while it was in harbor, thereby depriving the bey of his prize.

In 1804, while the U. S. Navy blockaded the harbor of Tripoli, a mixed force of Egyptians, European troops, and eight U. S. Marines under the command of Lieutenant PRESLEY O’BANNON in- cited a revolt against the bey. O’Bannon and his marine detachment led the force 600 miles across the Libyan desert and attacked and took Derna on April 27, 1805, defeating superior forces. Shortly afterward, the bey concluded a favorable peace treaty with the United States—and presented O’Bannon with a jeweled MAMELUKE SWORD , which became the model for that worn by USMC officers on ceremonial occasions. O’Bannon’s victory was also the source of the reference to the “shores of Tripoli” in the MARINE HYMN .


One of the early heroes of the U. S. Navy, Preble was born in Falmouth (modern Portland), Maine, and, during the AMERICAN REVOLUTION , enrolled as a midshipman, not in the fledgling Continental navy but in the state navy of Massachusetts, one of sev- eral navies raised by the states during the conflict. He rose to lieutenant in this service and, after the war, shipped out with the merchant marine. When the QUASI – WAR WITH FRANCE heated up in 1798, Preble joined the USN and, the following year, was promoted to captain. As skipper of the USS Essex, he led an expedition to Batavia, Dutch East Indies. and his ship became the first USN vessel to show the flag beyond the Cape of Good Hope. With the outbreak of the BARBARY WARS , Preble commanded a squadron against the Tripolitan raiders and against Tripoli itself. He enjoyed great success during 1804, then returned to the United States, where he took charge of the construction of a much-needed fleet of GUNBOATS .

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