The Tripoli War, also known as the First Barbary War (May 10, 1801 – June 10, 1805), was a naval war between the United States and the North African states known as the Barbary States (basically those between western Egypt and the Atlantic). These were the independent Sultanate of Morocco and the three Regencies of Algeria, Tunis and Tripoli, which were semi-independent entities nominally belonging to the Ottoman Empire.
The main motivation for the war on the part of the United States was to put an end to Barbary piracy without having to pay the tribute demanded by the Barbary States to guarantee immunity from pirate attacks.
This first Barbary war would end with the capture of Derna by U.S. forces, which would trigger the beginning of negotiations for the release of hostages and the end of the war.
The Barbary corsairs and crews of the Ottoman North African provinces of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and the independent sultanate of Morocco under the Alaouite dynasty (the Barbary Coast) were the scourge of the Mediterranean. The capture of merchant ships and the enslavement or ransoming of their crews provided the Muslim rulers of these nations with wealth and naval power. The Trinitarian Order, founded in France (where it was also known as the order of the Mathurins), had operated for centuries with the special mission of collecting and disbursing funds for the relief and ransom of prisoners from Mediterranean pirates; and so did the Mercedarian Order. According to Robert Davis, between 1 and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Barbary privateers directed attacks against the U.S. merchant marine in an attempt to extort ransom for the lives of captured sailors and, ultimately, tribute from the United States to prevent further attacks, as they did from the various European states. Prior to the Treaty of Paris, which formalized the independence of the United States from Great Britain, the United States was protected by France during the Revolutionary years under the Treaty of Alliance (1778-1783). Although the treaty does not mention the Barbary States by name, it refers to common enemies of the United States and France. As such, piracy against U.S. shipping only began to occur after the end of the American Revolution, when the U.S. government lost its protection under the Treaty of Alliance.
This lapse of protection by a European power led to the first U.S. merchant ship being seized after the Treaty of Paris. On October 11, 1784, Moroccan pirates seized the brig Betsey. The Spanish government negotiated the release of the captured ship and crew. However, Spain offered advice to the United States on how to deal with the Barbary States. The advice was to offer tribute to prevent further attacks on merchant ships. The U.S. Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, sent representatives to Morocco and Algeria to negotiate treaties and the release of captured sailors held by Algeria. Morocco was the first Barbary Coast state to sign a treaty with the United States on June 23, 1786. This treaty officially put an end to all Moroccan piracy against U.S. maritime interests. Specifically, Article Six of the treaty stated that if any Americans captured by Moroccans or other Barbary Coast states docked in a Moroccan city, they would be released and be under the protection of the Moroccan state.
U.S. diplomatic action with Algeria, the other major Barbary Coast state, was far less productive than with Morocco. Algeria began piracy against the United States on 25 July 1785 with the capture of the schooner Maria and the Dauphin a week later. The four Barbary Coast states demanded $660,000 each. However, the envoys were only allocated a budget of $40 000 to achieve peace. Diplomatic talks to arrive at a reasonable sum for tribute or for the ransom of captured sailors struggled to make headway. The crews of the Maria and the Dauphin remained enslaved for more than a decade, and were soon joined by the crews of other ships captured by the Barbary states.
In 1795, Algeria reached an agreement resulting in the release of 115 detained U.S. sailors, which cost more than $1 million. This sum amounted to about one-sixth of the total U.S. budget, and the Barbary States demanded it as tribute to prevent piracy. The continued demand for tribute eventually led to the formation of the U.S. Navy Department, founded in 1798 to prevent further attacks on U.S. ships and to put an end to exaggerated tribute demands by the Barbary States.
Several letters and testimonies of captured sailors describe their captivity as a form of slavery. However, prisoners were able to enrich themselves and attain a status higher than that of a slave. As was the case with James Leander Cathcart, who rose to the highest position a Christian slave could achieve in Algeria, becoming an advisor to the bey (governor). Even so, most of the captives were forced to perform forced labor in the service of Barbary pirates and in extreme conditions that exposed them to parasites and disease. When news of their captivity reached the U.S., through the stories and writings of the freed captives, Americans pressed for direct government action to end piracy against U.S. ships.
In March 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams traveled to London to negotiate with Tripoli”s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman (or Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja). When they asked “about the motive for waging war on nations that had done them no harm,” the ambassador replied:
It is written in the Koran that all nations that do not acknowledge the Prophet are sinners, and that it is the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave them; and that every Muslim who dies in this war will go straight to paradise. He said also, that the man who first boards a ship is entitled to one more slave, and that when they jump on the deck of an enemy”s ship, the sailors carry daggers in each hand and in their mouths; that they so terrify the enemy that he immediately demands surrender.
Jefferson continued to advocate the cessation of payment increasingly supported by George Washington and others. With the commissioning of the U.S. Navy in 1794 and the increased potential for fire on the seas, it became increasingly clear that the United States could refuse to pay tribute, although the custom of paying seemed difficult to reverse.
Just prior to Jefferson”s inauguration in 1801, Congress passed naval legislation that, among other things, provided for six frigates that “shall be personally governed and commanded by the President of the United States.” In the event of a declaration of war on the United States by the Barbary powers, these ships were to “protect our commerce and punish their insolence, by sinking, burning, or destroying their ships and vessels wherever found.” At Jefferson”s inauguration in 1801, Yusuf Karamanli, the Baba of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 (equivalent to $3.31 million in 2017 dollars) from the new administration (in 1800, federal revenues totaled just over $10 million). Putting his criteria into practice, Jefferson rejected the lawsuit. Accordingly, on May 10, 1801, the bajah declared war on the United States, not by formal written documents, but in the usual Barbary manner of felling the flagpole in front of the U.S. Consulate. Algiers and Tunis did not follow their ally in Tripoli.
Before learning that Tripoli had declared war on the United States, Jefferson sent a small squadron, consisting of three frigates and a schooner, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. He carried presents and letters to try to keep peace with the Barbary powers. However, in case war had been declared, Dale was instructed to “protect American ships and citizens from possible aggression.” Jefferson insisted, however, that he was “not authorized by the constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond defensive action.” Although Congress never voted a formal declaration of war, it did authorize the President to allow the U.S. fleet to seize all ships and property from the Pasha of Tripoli. The U.S. squadron joined a Swedish flotilla commanded by Rudolf Cederström in the blockade of Tripoli. The Swedes had been at war with the Tripolitans since 1800.
On May 31, 1801, Commodore Edward Preble traveled to Messina, Sicily, to the court of King Ferdinand IV of Naples. The kingdom was at war with Napoleon, but Ferdinand provided the Americans with manpower, artisans, supplies, gunboats, mortar boats, and the ports of Messina, Syracuse, and Palermo. These ports served as naval bases to launch operations against Tripoli, a port city that was fortified and walled, protected by 150 pieces of heavy artillery and garrisoned with 25,000 soldiers, as well as having a fleet of ten ten-gun brigs, two eight-gun schooners, two large galleys and nineteen gunboats.
On August 1, 1801, the schooner Enterprise (commanded by Lieutenant Andrew Sterret) captured the fourteen-gun Tripolitanian privateer Tripoli.
In 1802, in response to Jefferson”s request for authority to deal with pirates, Congress passed the “Act for the Protection of the Commerce and Seamen of the United States against Tripolitan attacks,” authorizing the President to “…employ such armed vessels of the United States as may be deemed necessary … to protect effectively the commerce and seamen thereof in the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the contiguous seas.” The act authorized U.S. vessels to capture ships belonging to the Bey of Tripoli, and their captured property to be distributed among all sailing vessels coming into port.
The U.S. Navy was not challenged at sea and Jefferson continued to build up military strength and deploy the navy”s best ships to the region during 1802: Argus, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, Enterprise, Intrepid, Philadelphia and Syren served during the war under Commander Preble. During 1803, Preble established and maintained a blockade of Barbary ports and executed attacks against the Barbary fleets.
In October 1803, the Tripoli fleet captured the USS Philadelphia intact after the frigate ran aground on a reef while patrolling Tripoli harbor. Efforts by the Americans to refloat the ship while under fire from shore batteries and Tripolitan ships failed. The ship, her captain, William Bainbridge, and all officers and crew were held hostage. The Philadelphia was placed in the harbor as a battery against the Americans.
On the night of February 16, 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a small detachment of U.S. Marines aboard a Tripolitan ship, renamed USS Intrepid, close enough to board the Philadelphia to prevail against the Tripolitans. With fire support from the U.S. ships, the Marines set fire to the Philadelphia so that it could not be used by the enemy.
Preble attacked Tripoli on July 14, 1804, in a series of skirmishes, including a valiant but unsuccessful attack that attempted to use the Intrepid, under the command of Captain Richard Somers, as a bomb ship, filled with explosives to be sent into Tripoli harbor, and destroy the enemy fleet. However, the Intrepid was destroyed, possibly by enemy gunfire, before it achieved its objective, killing Somers and his entire crew.
The turning point in the war was the Battle of Derna (April-May 1805). Ex-consul William Eaton, an ex-Army captain who used the title General, and U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Presley O”Bannon led a force of eight U.S. Marines and five hundred Greek mercenaries from Crete, Arabs, and Berbers on a march across the desert from Alexandria, Egypt, to capture the Tripolitan city of Derna. This was the first time the United States flag was raised in victory on foreign soil. The action is commemorated in a line from the Marine Corps Hymn: “from the shores of Tripoli.” The capture of the city gave U.S. negotiators leverage to secure the return of hostages and an end to the war.
Tired of the blockade and raids, and now under threat of a continued advance on Tripoli and a plan to restore his deposed older brother Hamet Karamanli as ruler, Yusuf Karamanli signed a treaty ending hostilities on June 10, 1805. Article 2 of the treaty reads: “The Bashaw of Tripoli will surrender to the American squadron now off Tripoli, all Americans in his possession; and all subjects of the Bashaw of Tripoli now in the possession of the United States of America will be surrendered to him; and as the number of Americans in the possession of the Bashaw of Tripoli amounts to three hundred persons, more or less; and the number of Tripoli subjects in the possession of the Americans to about one hundred more or less; The Bashaw of Tripoli will receive from the United States of America the sum of sixty thousand dollars as payment for the difference between the prisoners hereinbefore mentioned.”
By agreeing to pay a $60,000 ransom for American prisoners, Jefferson”s government drew a distinction between paying tribute and paying ransom. At the time, some argued that buying sailors by freeing them from slavery was a fair exchange to end the war. William Eaton, however, remained bitter for the rest of his life about the treaty, feeling that his efforts had been wasted by the U.S. emissary of the U.S. State Department, diplomat Tobias Lear. Eaton and others felt that Derna”s capture should have been used as a bargaining chip to obtain the release of all American prisoners without having to pay a ransom. In addition, Eaton believed that the honor of the United States had been compromised when it abandoned Hamet Karamanli after promising to restore him as leader of Tripoli. For the most part, Eaton”s complaints went unheeded, especially as attention turned to the strained international relations that would eventually lead to the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from the area in 1807 and into the War of 1812.
The First Barbary War was beneficial to the reputation of the U.S. military command and warfare mechanism, which up to that point had been relatively untested. The First Barbary War demonstrated that the United States could execute a war far from home, and that U.S. forces had the cohesion to fight together as Americans rather than separately as Georgians, New Yorkers, etc. The U.S. Navy and Marines became a permanent part of American government and American history, and Decatur returned to the U.S. as a post-revolutionary war hero.
However, the more immediate problem of Barbary piracy was not completely solved. In 1807, Algiers had again taken American ships and sailors hostage. Distracted by the aftermath of the War of 1812, the U.S. was unable to respond to the provocation until 1815, with the Second Barbary War, in which naval victories by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur led to new treaties that ended all U.S. tributary payments.
The Tripoli Monument, the oldest military monument in the United States, honors the American heroes of the First Barbary War: Major Richard Somers, Lieutenant James Caldwell, James Decatur (brother of Stephen Decatur), Henry Wadsworth, Joseph Israel and John Dorsey. Originally known as the Naval Monument, it was carved from Carrara marble in Italy in 1806 and brought to the United States aboard the Constitution (Old Ironsides). From its original location at the Navy Yard in Washington, it was moved to the west terrace of the National Capitol and finally, in 1860, to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.