The U.S. vs. International Terrorists

Terrorists hijack an airplane and hold the passengers for ransom. A merchant ship is seized by the forces of a small, disorganized state. The United States retaliates. The ship and crew are rescued, but many lives are lost.

Such events are shocking yet familiar manifestations of the apparent lawlessness of the modern world. But if we could bring back an American of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and ask his comment, he would show little surprise except, perhaps, at the changes in the technology of transportation. He would have seen the United States confront a similar phenomenon: the Barbary pirates.

There were in the eighteenth century four Barbary states lining the north coast of Africa from Egypt westward to the Atlantic. Morocco on the Atlantic was an independent state ruled by an emperor. Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—corresponding roughly to the modern states of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya—were nominally part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, but were in fact brazenly independent of Constantinople. The rulers of all four states maintained their revenue and power by preying on commerce—capturing ships and cargoes, making and ransoming slaves. Nations desiring immunity from these depredations could get it for a heavy price: continual tribute in cash and gifts and large sums to negotiate and renew so-called peace treaties.

The enslaved captives were usually treated according to the amount of ransom each would bring. Captains and distinguished passengers were well fed and housed. Some became advisers to their captors; others were allowed to open taverns or otherwise go into business; all were allowed to correspond with friends and representatives of their own governments in order to raise the money for ransom. Common sailors, illiterate and friendless, men of uncertain nationality and without influence, were put to hard labor building breakwaters and other public works. Their food was terrible and they were clothed in rags. With scant medical attention many of them died. Since they were worth relatively little in ransom, the Barbary rulers valued them for their labor as slaves.

The naval power of the Barbary states was enough to terrorize lightly armed or unarmed merchant ships, but was insignificant compared to that of any major European navy. Why then was the piracy condoned, even encouraged by the payment of tribute? The answer is that large, wealthy maritime powers such as Great Britain found it expedient to pay the price of protection for British commerce in order to keep the pirates in existence as a threat to smaller commercial rivals such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Naples, and—after 1783—the United States. London merchants believed, Benjamin Franklin observed, “that if there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.”

Had the smaller powers banded together in a naval alliance, they could have put an end to piracy. They talked of coalition, but did not act effectively. The result was that the Barbary states maintained a constant state of war with one or more of the smaller European nations. Algiers, for example, might make peace if the price was right and sell a batch of captives back to freedom. A few years later, with the supply of slaves depleted, Algiers would find some pretext, some alleged insult or failure to pay tribute on time, and casually declare war again. The captain of a merchant vessel from a small country could never know when he began a voyage whether by the time he reached the North African coast his country would be at war with one or more of the Barbary states.

Before the war for independence Americans traded safely in the Mediterranean under the protection purchased for all British subjects by the government in London. American peace negotiators in Paris in 1782 tried to persuade the British to continue this service for independent Yankee shipping. No luck. A few British statesmen had fraternal feelings toward the United States, but the majority agreed with the influential publicist Lord Sheffield that the upstart Americans should be punished by the most severe economic policy that Parliament could devise. Sheffield wrote in 1783 that the United States would not “have a very free trade in the Mediterranean; it will not be the interest of any of the great maritime powers to protect them there from the Barbary States.… The Americans cannot protect themselves from the latter; they cannot pretend to a navy.” American diplomats asked France to guard the new nation’s Mediterranean trade. The French promised only to provide their “good offices” when the United States dealt with the Barbary states. The cost to France and the benefit to the United States of good offices were the same: zero. Vergennes, the French foreign minister, was quite willing to give advice to the Americans, but it all boiled down to a polite reiteration of the comment that the United States did indeed have a serious problem.