Wednesday, October 19, 2011

US Navy & the Barbary Corsairs

The schooner USS Enterprise takes on Pirate corsair Tripoli

“We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.”
- John Adams, in regards to the Barbary pirates

According to Gardner Weld Allen, in his authorative book
Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Houghton, Mifflin and Cmpany, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1905), there was some serious debate in political circles over whether the United States should build a Navy to fight the Barbary Pirates or pay them tribute.

Apparently, at least at first, John Adams favored a policy of peace and payment of tribute, as he wrote to John Jay, Dec. 15, 1784, but he later supported the idea that if we must fight, the United States form a NATO-like coalition with sympathetic European nations to fight the pirates together.

“As long as France, England, Holland, the Emperor, etc., will submit to be tributaries to these robbers, and even encourage them," Adams wrote, "to what purpose should we make war upon them? The resolution might be heroic, but would not be wise. The contest would be unequal. Then can inure us very sensibly, but we cannot hurt them in the smallest degree...Unless it were possible, then, to persuade the great maritime powers of Europe to unite in the suppression of these piracies, it would be very imprudent for us to entertain any thoughts of contending with them, and will only lay a foundation, by irritating their passions and increasing their insolence and demands for long and severe repentance.”

Of course the cost of building a Navy and the increase in taxes that would require became an issue.

Thomas Jefferson, who advocated the creation of a Navy to fight the pirates, wrote (to John Page – August 20, 1785) that, “You will probably fine the tribute to all these powers make such a proportion of the federal taxes as that every man will feel them sensibly when he pays those taxes. The question is, whether their piece or war will be cheapest? But it should be addressed to our honor as well as our avarice. Nor does it respect us to these pirates only, but as to the nations of Europe. If we wish our commerce to be free and uninsulted, we must let these nations see that we have an energy which at present they disbelieve. The low opinion they entertain of our powers cannot fail to involve us soon in a naval war.”

Adams then wrote that, “Perhaps you will say, fight them, though it should cost us a great sum to carry on the war…If this is your sentiment, and you can persuade the southern States into it, I dare answer for it that all from Pennsylvania, inclusively northward, would not object. It would be a good occasion to begin a navy…It would be heroical and glorious in us to restore courage to ours. I doubt not we could accomplish it, if we should set about it in earnest; but the difficulty of bringing our people to agree upon it, has ever discouraged me.”

Jefferson wants a Navy to bolster the power of the federal government and suggests the coalition when he wrote, "I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace through a medium of war...but I should prefer the obtaining it by war. 1) Justice is in favor of this opinion. 2. Honor favors it. 3. It will procure us respect in Europe; and respect is a safeguard to interest. 4. It will arm the federal had with the safest of all the instruments of coercion over its delinquent members. 5. I think it least expensive. 6. Equally effectual. I ask a fleet of 150 guns...So far, I have gone on the supposition that the whole weight of this war would rest on us. But 1. Naples will join us...2. Every principle of reason assures us that Portugal will join us....I suppose then, that a convention might be formed between Portugal, Naples, and the United States, by which the burthren of the war might be quotaed on them, according to their respective wealth; and the term of it should be, when Algiers should subscribe to a peace with all three, on equal terms.”


“I accordingly prepared and proposed to their ministers at Paris, for consultation with their governments, articles of a special confederation....Portugal, Naples, the Two Sicilies, Venice, Malta, Denmark, and Sweden were favorably disposed to such an association...”

“It will be said there is no money in the treasury," Jefferson said but, "There never will be money in the treasury, till the confederacy shows its teeth...”

"On Feb. 22, 1792, the Senate favored paying one hundred thousand dollars annually for peace with Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis, and forty thousand dollars ransom for the captives. A bill was reported January 20 by the Committee of Ways and Means providing for the construction of six vessels at a cost of six hundred thousand dollars. The opponents argues that the finances of the country did not justify the expense, and that the public debt must first be discharged.”

"The bill passed the House by a vote of fifty to thirty-nine. Its passage, however, was only made possible by the insertion of a provision that in case of peace with Algiers all work on the frigates should stop. Having passed the Senate, it was approved March 27, 1794. The law authorized the President “to provide, by purchase or otherwise, equip and employ, four ships to carry forty-four guns and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each;...This legislation is of special interest and importance because it marks the beginning of the present navy, the Revolutionary navy having been allowed to lapse completely. The work was well begun, and the selection of Joshua Humphreys, a shipbuilder of Pennsylvania, to design the ships, was a most fortunate one. He was a man of exceptional ability, and his views as to the type of ships most suitable at that time showed great wisdom."

Humphreys proposed to build “such frigates as in blowing weather would be an over-match for the double-decked ships, or in light winds may evade coming to action by out-sailing them; If we build our ships of the same size as the Europeans, they having so great number of them, we shall always be behind them. I would build them of a larger size than theirs, and take the lead of them, which is the only safe method of commencing a navy.”

“As soon as Congress had agreed to build frigates, it was contemplated to make them the most powerful, and, at the same time, the most useful of ships...From the construction of those ships, it is expected the commanders of them will have it in their power to engage, or not, any ship, as they may think proper; and no ship, under sixty-four, now afloat, but what must submit to them.”

These ships, launched the following year, were the United States, Constitution and Constellation. They were the first of a long and honorable list containing many famous men-of-war, and the two last are still on the Navy Register.

In his annual message in December, 1796, Washington said; “To an active external commerce, the protection of a naval force is indispensable....The most sincere neutrality is not a sufficient guard against the depredations of nations at war. To secure respect to a neutral flag requires a naval force, organized and ready to vindicate it from insult or aggression. This may even present the necessity of going to war, by discouraging belligerent powers from committing such violations of the rights of the neutral party, as may, first or last, leave no other option.... These considerations invite the United States to look to the means, and to set about the gradual creation of a Navy.”

The frigate USS Philadelphia was one of the first ships built and sent to fight the Barbary Pirates. It was under the command of Capt. William Bainbrige, who lived in Philadelphia.

William Bainbridge was born in New Jersey in 1774, and entered the navy as a lieutenant in 1798, having been in the merchant service since the age of fifteen. He was made a captain in 1800 and given command of the frigate George Washington, of twenty-four guns, a vessel which had been purchased in 1798...sent with tribute to Algiers, where she arrived in September 1800, being the first United States man-of-war to enter the Mediterranean. This was a duty very repugnant to Bainbridge, as it must have been to any naval officer appreciating keenly the inglorious attitude assumed by his country towards barbarians.

Nov. 1, 1803 Captain Bainbrige, of the captured frigate USS Philadelphia, wrote to Commodore Preble that: "Misfortune necessitates me to make a communication the most distressing of my life; and it is with deep regret that I inform you of the loss of the United States frigate Philadelphia, under my command, by being wrecked on rocks between four and files miles eastward of the town of Tripoli."

On Jan. 31, 1804 issued the following: “It is my orders that you proceed to Tripoli in the company with the Siren, Lieutenant Stewart, enter that harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her and make good your retreat with the Intrepid, if possible, unless you can make her the means of destroying the enemy’s vessels in the harbor, by converting her into a fire-ship for that purpose, and retreating in your boats and those of the Siren...The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance and I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it...”

Lt. Stephen Decatur successfully completed the first part of the order and destroyed the Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor, while Master Commandant Richard Somers perished in the explosion of the USS Intrepid while trying to carry out the second part of the order.

In the meantime, William Eaton had been appointed consul to Tunis in July 1797...Born in Connecticut in 1764, and at the age of sixteen enlisted in the Continental Army. After the war he taught school, graduated at Dartmouth College in 1790, and two years later was appointed a captain in the army. December 22, 1798 he embarked on the US brig Sophia, Egypt where he met with former Bashaw of Tripoli Hammid Karamanli.

In Egypt, Eaton convinced Hammid Karamanli to seek a return to power in Tripoli by overthrowing Yousef with the help of the United States. With Sgt. Presley O'Bannon USMC, a small contingent of Marines, a company of Greek Christians and a cavalry of Bedouin Arabs, they marched across the desert and like Lawrence at Akaba, attacked the coastal town of Derna from the unprotected land side. After taking the town, and successfully defending against a loyalist counterattack, Yousef Karamanli agreed to a peace treaty with US counsel Tobias Lear. Yousef freed the American sailors from the Philadelphia, but remained in power in Tripoli, thus betraying our ally Hammid Karamanli. Eaton, O'Bannon and Hammid escaped Derna aboard a US Navy ship and for his friendship, Karamanli gave O'Bannon his Mamaluk sword, which is now the dress sword of the USMC.

After being freed Capt. Bainbridge was court martialed at sea. The verdict of the court (Which included Stephen Decatur and William Eaton) was “The Court deliberated on the evidence deduced from the testimony of the witnesses heard in this case, are decidedly of opinion that Captain William Bainbridge acted with fortitude and conduct, in the loss of his ship the United States frigate Philadelphia, on the 31st October, 1803; and that no degree of censure should attach itself to him from that event.”

A few years later, when the Barbary Pirates broke the treaties that ended the first war against the Barbary Pirates, Stephen Decatur successfully led the American Squadron in the Second Barbary War. Decatur was said to be considered as a Presidential candidate, but he was killed in a pistol duel of honor.

But in the end, the United States had a Navy that distinguished itself in the wars against the Barbary Pirates and continues today to fight pirates off the coast of Afria in ships that include the USS Bainbridge, the USS Sterret and the USS Barry, named after the Father of the US Navy, John Barry, and senior mentor to both Charles Stewart, Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur.

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