The Hostage Rescue, 1796


Nothing is more seductive and false than the illusion of golden yesterdays, a spin-off of the undying human dream of lost innocence. I thought of this recently when I saw the grisly picture of a U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel, kidnapped in Lebanon, dangling lifeless at the end of a terrorist’s rope. It was tempting to think that this could not have occurred in a simpler day, when the world was less disfigured by doctrinaire murderers and America was universally respected. But a moment of recollection brought me down to earth. For the record shows that nearly two hundred years ago more than a hundred American mariners were the hapless captives of a North African Muslim ruler whom the United States had neither the strength nor the will to fight.

As it turned out, this particular set of “hostages” was finally freed in 1796—after the United States had shelled out a stiff ransom. The liberation was managed by an unusual emissary, and his story of the affair, in personal and official letters, tells us a good deal about what has and hasn’t changed in our dealings with peoples and leaders in the southern and eastern Mediterranean.

The negotiator was Joel Barlow, a Connecticut-born Yale graduate (1778), a would-be poet (whose verses are pretty awful to a modern ear), and a failed lawyer. In 1788 he sailed for Paris to sell Ohio wilderness tracts to French emigrants, hoping to earn some money for a change. The trip stretched into a seventeen-year stay, during which Barlow matured into a successful international businessman as well as a witty, congenial, and persuasive citizen of the world and a strong admirer of the French Revolution and associated radicalisms. In 1795 the American Department of State asked him to travel to Algiers and take over uncompleted negotiations for treaties with the so-called Barbary states of North Africa. Barlow spoke three languages, loved travel, was a patriot, and said yes. But he had taken on a brutal task.


The three countries involved—Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis—were onetime provinces of the Ottoman Empire that had gradually become almost independent and were so treated by other nations. All three had small but potent navies that plied Mediterranean waters capturing merchant vessels of foreign nations—especially small foreign nations. The crews and cargoes were then held for ransom to fill the treasuries of the dictatorial Barbary rulers. Sometimes the extortion was practiced wholesale instead of retail—that is, a large sum of “tribute” would be exacted for a treaty that guaranteed immunity to the contributing nation for a period of time.

This seagoing protection racket was rightfully denounced by the civilized world as piracy and a violation of all rules of international law. But the two great naval powers that could have stopped it—France and, in particular, Britain—let it go on because it was especially costly to small maritime states that were commercial competitors, such as Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, and the young, almost unarmed United States.

It should be noted with hindsight that the Barbary states’ depredations were no greater than those inflicted by France and Britain on neutral shipping during their wars with each other. But this was of little comfort to the citizens of President Washington’s America. The administration faced a harsh situation in 1795, with Algiers alone holding 119 Americans who were doing forced labor for its prince, the Dey Hassan Bashaw. Readers will be surprised to learn that Washington’s Federalist advisers responded with pragmatism rather than pride. From their mercantile viewpoint, tribute added to the expense of doing business but was cheaper than building and deploying a navy. So Congress was persuaded to authorize up to eight hundred thousand dollars (about $5.6 million today) in payoff funds. Barlow’s job was to use it to buy freedom for the kidnapped Yankees and long-term peace not only with the Dey but with the rulers of Tripoli and Tunis, over whom the Dey supposedly had some influence.

Barlow set off from Paris on Christmas Day of 1795, his baggage stuffed with twenty-seven thousand dollars’ worth of jeweled pistols, snuffboxes, brocaded robes, and other gifts to soothe what he considered at least a semisavage beast. It took him some eleven weeks of often delayed land and sea travel to cover the approximately eight hundred miles to Algiers.

He found the Dey a challenge to his skill and charm. Hassan Bashaw had already been promised money and he wanted it immediately, or he would make no deal at all and would step up his war on American-flag vessels. At the glacial pace of eighteenth-century international banking, there was simply no way for the United States to raise and transport the bullion that the Dey demanded in a hurry. So to buy time, Barlow made an astonishing offer, which his government astonishingly backed. If your modern sensibilities are offended by the idea of tribute to the “pirates,” consider this: Barlow promised the Dey, in exchange for a ninety-day moratorium on captures, a brand-new thirty-six-gun frigate to be built and delivered by the United States. Talk about arms for hostages and encouraging terrorists! Yet the bargain was made and kept in the presumable hope that Algiers would use its enhanced sea power only against members of the international community other than the United States.