Fortnightly Club Paper- February 27,1941
George R. Momyer
Time was when the great maritime powers of Europe paid tribute to the
Barbary Pirates, Against these bandits in 1775, Spain hurled four hundred ships and thirty
thousand soldiers, only to be thrown back in disastrous defeat.
When galleys driven by chained galley slaves gave way to sails, Barbary
coast pirates ranged far at sea. Britain and even Norway felt their sting. For two hundred
and thirty years, England's consuls to Algiers endured every insult. A Danish and a French
consul were thrown into prison to work with slaves because of delay in paying tribute.
In 1786 the Tripoli ambassador at London boasted that Turkey, Tripoli,
Algiers, and Morocco were the sovereigns of the Mediterranean and that no nation could
navigate that sea without a treaty of peace with them.
The growing American republic disputed this. President Thomas Jefferson
backed American merchants by sending squadrons to punish the Barbary coast pirates. There
was need for action. In 1784 the American Brig, Betsy, was taken; in 1?85,
the ship, Dauphne, of Philadelphia was rearmed by the pirates.
In 1?86, Congress favored paying the Barbary states one hundred thousand dollars annually for peace and forty thousand dollars ransom for
the captives in their prisons. Paul Jones was sent as consul with authority to act. In
1793 , eleven American vessels and one hundred
and nine officers, and men were taken by Algiers, altogether, twelve hundred Christian
slaves were serving the Mohammedan pirates.
In 1794, Congress authorized six hundred thousand dollars for six naval
vessels and eight hundred thousand dollars for ransom. Two of the vessels, the
Constitution and the Constellation milepost a famous era in our naval history.
The peace treaty with Algiers in 1796 in one year accounted for an
expenditure of nearly a million dollars, over half for ransom of captives and presents to
pirates. This was exclusive of naval stores, ship timber, spars, cordage, etc., valued at
more than twenty five thousand dollars, the present of twenty thousand dollars given with
each. new consul, seventeen thousand dollars in biennial presents to government officials,
and miscellaneous gifts such as jeweled pistols to Arab sheiks.
In 1797, William Eaton, new United States consul to Tunis, after seeing
the be y, wrote," Can any man believe that this elevated brute has seven kings of
Europe, two republics, and a continent tributary to him, when his whole naval force is not
equal to two line of battle ships? It is so'
In 1799, eighty American ships were engaged in commerce on the
Mediterranean and in 1801 an American squadron appeared on which young Stephen Decatur was
a first lieutenant.
In 1801, out of a clear sky, Yusuf, pasha of Tripoli, declared wax against
the United States. To his brother, Hamet, whom he had deposed, he offered the near by
province of Derne. Consul William Eaton advised an American alliance with Hamet to
In 1802, Eaton turned over a shipment of jeweled muskets to the boy of
Tunis, welcoming at the same time a United States squadron with midshipman Oliver H. Perry
on board. This fleet set up a blockade of Tripoli's harbor. The Barbary coast was rocky
and shallow, ideal for the small, light pirate ships, and dangerous for the larger ships
of our nary.
In 1803, the flagship, Constitution, and seven other vessels were sent to
Algiers. All the ship captains were under thirty. It was a young man's fleet, a training
school for youths like Decatur and Perry for the battles with Britain a few years later.
Eleven famous officers of the war of 1812 came from this fleet.
November 1, 1803, the Philadelphia, chasing a pirate ship into the rocky
shallows, slid up on a shelving rock, was set upon by pirates and captured with her crew.
At high tide the Tripolitans floated their prize into the harbor. It was thought to be
impossible to take the Philadelphia from under Tripoli's guns, so Captain Decatur
volunteered to take a crew and destroy the ship in the harbor. His instructions included
this sentence, " After the ship is well on fire, point two of the eighteen pounders,
shotted down the main hatch, and blow the bottom out." Five officers and sixty two
men were selected with a Sicilian pilot, familiar with the harbor.
The little sixty ton, Intrepid, with four light guns, slipped into the
harbor under the faint light of a new moon and edged up alongside the Philadelphia with
its forty guns. known to be loaded and double shotted. The pilot, when hailed, explained
that the ship had just arrived in the harbor, and asked permission to make fast to the
Philadelphia for the night. Permission was granted, ropes were thrown over, and the
vessels touched as the cry, " Americanos:" shrilled from the Philadelphia, and
the commands "Board:" roared from the Intrepid. In a murderous hand to hand
fight, the Tripolitans were overcome, combustibles were placed, and immediately the noble
ship was a blazing inferno. ,
The crew of the Intrepid cut loose as the batteries of Tripoli opened on
them. In extreme danger from the burning Philadelphia, whose broadsides commanded the
passage by which they were retreating and whose guns were discharged as they became
heated, firing a deadly broadside into the town, Decatur escaped without the loss of a
man. Admiral Nelson ranked this exploit the most daring act of the age.
In the summer of 1804 the American fleet before Tripoli grew to twelve
ships with one hundred and fifteen heavy guns and one thousand and sixty officers and men.
The pirates opposed with twenty four ships manned by more men than the Americans had,
backed by twenty five thousand Arab and Turk defenders in the fortifications. It was no
easy nut to crack.
On August third, the American fleet advanced on Tripdili,, captured two
pirate ships and bombarded the town. On August seven, they silenced some of the shore
batteries. On August twenty four, they sailed in close and shelled the town.
On August twenty eight at dawn, the noble ship, Constitution, two miles
out, made straight for the harbor into a raking fire from the fort, the castle, and the
batteries. Reaching a point two cables length from the rock, with the support of the
fleet, she engaged thirteen Tripolitan gunboats, sinking one, running two ashore, and
Holding her position for three quarters of an hour, she fired broadside
after broadside into the batteries, the castle, and the town. At 5:45 P.M. the
Constitution and supporting fleet withdrew.
On September three, the Constitution again carried its starry banner
straight into the harbor, firing eleven broadsides into the pasha's castle and the harbor
in spite of seventy gund bearing down upon it. At four thirty, firing ceased.
On September 10, Tripoli was put under permanent blockade. Hemet,, the deposed pasha, had fled from Derne into Egypt.
September fifteen, the Argus started with William Eaton for Alexandria, initiating one5
uncle Samana Tripoli, one of the most amazing adventures in American history. Eaton found
Hamet at a rendezvous One hundred and ninety miles inland at the edge of the great desert.
It was agreed they should unite forces and march overland from Egypt to Derne, meeting a
supply ship and troops at the Bay of Bomba, seventy five miles East of Derne.
Eaton was to be commander in chief of the allied forces which assembled at
the Arab's tower, forty miles West of Alexandria. On March 8, four hundred men of many
nationalities with one hundred and seven camels began. the six hundred mile March across
the Libyan desert to Derne, following a course next to the sea.
It was a hectic march. The first day the camel drivers mutinied for more
pay. On March 17 in a cold rain the Arabs threatened to quit. On March 18, one hundred and
fifty miles out, Eaton learned that Hamet had paid the camel drivers only for that
distance. The caravan folded up and turned back. In the next few days the camel drivers
sifted back by twos and threes and the march was continued.
On March 22, they arrived at an Arab oasis, secured a new caravan, and
many Arabs enlisted. Hearing that Yusuf, his~brother, was advancing from Tripoli, Hamet
grew faint hearted and decided to quit. Eaton led on with the baggage. Within two hours,
Hamet followed. Daily there were violent encounters between Arab sheiks who knew no common
allegiance but Mohammed.
In his tent on the evening of April 2, Eaton held a pep meeting with Hamet
and all his shdiks at which the six hundred fighting men, an equal number of camel drivers
and camp followers, pledged their faith and honor. The American, Eaton, was leading a
strange American expedition along the North African shore in 1806.
At the end of six days, the Arabs rose as one man against the Christians.
Drawing up in a grim line, muskets loaded and primed,they confronted the Christians eager
to blast them out of the desert.
A company of Arab chiefs rode between the lines. The next morning the
united army moved forward.
On the twelfth of April., provisions failed. The next day Hamet killed a
camel for meat. The two following days they lived on roots and herbs. On the fifteenth at
the hay of Bomba no supply ship was in sight, The Arabs grew so ugly that Eaton withdrew
the Christians to a mountain and kept fires burning throughout the night. In the morning
the vessel appeared and supplies were. brought ashore.
As they resumed the march with provisions to carry them to Derne, news
came of Yusuf's rapid approach to Derne and they hastened. On the afternoon of the twenty-fifth
they encamped on a height overlooking the town and harbor.
The higher part of the town was loyal to Hamet. The water front with the
fortified positions was loyal to Yusuf. `1 `he bey of Derne had eight hundred fighting men
and Yusuf's army was approaching to aid him.
To Eaton's request for surrender, the bey replied," My head or
yours." Smoke signals brought American ships to the horizon. The Nautilus and the
Hornet came close in and sent a boat ashore with two field pieces. Eaton landed one and
dragged it up the hill. Eaton's rabble was milling around wildly, ready to flee. Realizing
that only one thing would unite them, he gave the order to charge. Down the steep hillside
ran Greeks, Turks, Americans, hot into the water front. The scared pirates abandoned their
guns and the stars and stripes were hoisted over the battery on this foreign shore. The
guns, ready loaded and primed were turned on the town which yielded at four o'clock.
Scarcely was the front consolidated ere Yusuf's forces attacked. Unable to take the town,
they encamped on the hills and laid siege. It was the last day of kayo On June 11, the
Gonstlf be evacuated.
Yusuf's army, believing that the #brought reinforcements, remained in camp
while Eaton's Christians went on board the Constellation, and his Arab followers scrambled
onto their camels and sought the wide open spaces on their desert.
The peace concluded at Tripoli, providing for an exchange of prisoners and
evacuation of Derne proved to be temporary. The war with England interposed and little
could be done.
On February 23, 1815, on President Madison's recommendation, war was
declared against Algiers. Two squadrons were to sail, the first ,under Decatur from New
York, the second , later, under Bainbridge, from Boston Decatur got off first, May 18,
with a flotilla of nine vessels. ?n June 17 he captured the Algerian frigate, Mashuda,
with forty six tuns and a crew of four hundred and thirty six, and a little later, the
brig, Estedio with twenty two guns and a crew of eighty.'
Decatur arrived at Algiers, June 28, and through the Swedish consul
presented a draft of a treaty stipulating that tribute in any form would be abolished
forever. The Americans in prison were to be released,
ten thousand dollars to be paid the United States for property seized by the bey, other American property in his hands to >e
restored, and an agreement, that in the future, captives in war should be prisoners, not
The bey's commissioners requested a truce for consideration. Decatur
refused. They begged for three hours. The reply was, " Not one minute." It was
agreed. however, that fighting should cease when boat should be seen coming from the shore
with a white flag hoisted, .indicating that the treaty had been signed and that the
American captives were in the boat. This settled, the Swedish consul and the captain of
the port -ent ashore, and although the distance to the landing was five miles, the boat
returned under a white flag with the captives and the signed treaty within three hours..
Decatur wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, " The treaty has been
dictated at the mouths of cannon and the presence of a respectable naval force in the sea
will be the only guarantee for its observance."
The bey 's minister complained to the British consul, " You told us
the Americans would be swept from the seas in six months by your navy, and now they make
war upon us with some of your own vessels which they have taken*"%
The peace was concluded within less than six weeks after the departure of
the squadron from 'yew York. The treaty was the most advantageous ever made by any
Christian nation with Algiers.
Decatur next gave his attention to Tunis. There he collected forty six
thousand dollars in cash for payment of two prizes taken by the Tunisians and proceeded on
to Tripoli, arriving there August 5.
Decatur demanded of Yusuf thirty thousand dollars indemnity for two
prizes, but compromised at twenty thousand dollars and the release of ten Christian
prisoners, not Americans. His work completed, Decatur returned to New York where he was
received with high honors.
Bainbridge, who arrived with his squadron too late. to participate,
impressed the pirates with the poorer of America to send two fleets, acrd left a small
squadron in the Mediterranean for the protection of American interests.
Captain Oliver H. Perry sailed from Newport for the -4editerranean.,
January 22,1816, with the ratified treaty. The bey of Algiers had changed his mind and
refused to accept it. Midshipman Farragut on the Washington, wrote home that they still
lay off the coast of Algiers during the month of December. 1816., negotiating with the
pirates during one continuous gale. A new and final. treaty was signed, December 23, 1816.
With it, trouble with the Barbary States, so far as America was concerned, was ended.