The Hostage Rescue, 1796

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Barlow used the three-month delay well. By June he had managed to borrow some up-front cash from a local Jewish banker, Joseph Bacri, and ransomed the suffering prisoners, whom he promptly sent off toward safety in a chartered ship. Just in time, too, for the plague had broken out in the capital city (also named Algiers). Five captives actually died, and Barlow put his own forty-two-year-old life at considerable risk by frequent visits to those Americans stricken.

His stay in Africa was not over yet. There were still the treaties to complete. In the long months of waiting Barlow took time for tourism. He grew a mustache, he hunted wild boar, he roamed the streets and alleys. He wrote to his adored wife, Ruth, back in Paris, about mosques and “Mohammedans,” veiled women in trousers, and barbaric punishments. Though cheerful and dispassionate, he was still a dismayed man of the Enlightenment in an ancient and unchanged land. He claimed Algiers to be “the haunt of pirates” and a “sewer of all vices, of all impurities that imagination can conceive or monsters practice.” As for the tempestuous Dey, Barlow finally won his off-and-on friendship but no doubt shared the opinion of another American who described Hassan Bashaw as “a huge, shaggy beast, sitting on his rump, upon a low bench, covered with a cushion of embroidered velvet, with his hind legs gathered up like a tailor, or a bear.”

The job took another year, thanks to the slowness of communications, the capriciousness of the Dey, and a generous helping of such customary human ingredients as greed, intrigue, and bad faith on more than one side. There were new actors and new crises, but finally, in autumn 1797, mission fully accomplished, Barlow could get back to Ruth and his neglected private affairs.

In exchange for laying off American shipping, Barlow offered the Dey of Algiers a 36-gun frigate. Talk about arms for hostages!

The long-run sequel is interesting in itself. When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he changed the policy of appeasement, which he had long opposed on grounds of nationalism and principle. Ironically, this enemy of navies who was an indifferent supporter of commerce sent U.S. battle squadrons into a war that thrashed Tripoli and bought Americans safety from future attacks by all the Barbary powers. But the overall problem was not settled until 1830, when France occupied Algiers and went on from there to colonize or control all three of the offending states.

Of course, in comparing America’s problems with the Barbary “pirates” then and with terrorists now, I am being facile. Hassan Bashaw was no Muammar al-Qaddafi, with links to a superpower. Nor was he a faceless kidnapper. Barlow knew with whom he was dealing and where the prisoners were held. And the Dey simply wanted money, not political concessions. Nor did he threaten to kill his victims if his demands were not met—merely to prolong their slavery. He was not an ideologue so much as a hijacker, much easier to deal with. In that sense, Barlow’s era was simpler and more like the fabled “good old days,” right down to the conclusion in which the bullies get their comeuppance.

Yet ambiguity lingers over even that happy ending. It was an improvement from our Western viewpoint. But the subjugation of North Africa by Europeans, unbroken until modern times, left a legacy of hostility among the resident populations that is one source of the potential terrorism that haunts travelers to the region and to the neighboring Middle East. The cycle never ends. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” The long-range and realistic view of history does not encourage backward-glancing sentimentality.

I was further reminded of the footloose Joel Barlow during Lech Walesa’s recent visit, which set off thoughts about historical links between the United States and Poland. Barlow is one of them, though a small one. His grave is on Polish soil. It happened this way. Barlow came home to America in 1805 to settle down outside Washington and enjoy the role of a rich man of letters. But in 1811 the government called on him again, this time to go as minister to France to persuade Napoleon to stop seizing American ships. Barlow—with Ruth—returned to Paris, but Bonaparte was even harder to see than Hassan Bashaw and left on his illfated invasion of Russia (which then included part of Poland) before any serious negotiations could take place. Barlow gamely followed him, hoping for a promised audience at Vilna. But the same bitter winter that destroyed the conquering French army gave Barlow a fatal pneumonia. He died on December 26, 1812, near Krakow, and his body has never been brought back.