Monday, November 12, 2007

Barbary Pirates, Tribute, and Tripoli

Why aren't the Barbary pirates, Tripoli, and Algeria being cited in discussions about the War on Terror?

Contemporary culture, in America at least, has what I'd call historical myopia. I get the impression that, for most people, anything that happened BB (Before Beatles) seems to be ancient history, and anything before James Dean is roughly contemporaneous with the last ice age.

Many people's "well of the past" is hardly more than a muddy puddle. That may explain why the Barbary pirates aren't part of the public debate on the war on terror.

The Barbary pirates had a good thing going for over two and a half centuries. Operating from seaports in present-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, they made piracy pay from about 1550 to 1816. At first, they were conventional pirates, simply attacking and robbing ships that passed through their territory. The Ottoman Empire claimed to hold those lands, but sea rovers or corsairs - classy pirates - actually controlled the Barbary Coast

European shipping in the Mediterranean suffered from this piracy, until 1662. That's when England revived the ancient custom of paying tribute. This application of practical diplomacy was an immediate success. England paid the corsairs gold, jewels, arms, and supplies: and the corsairs didn't hit English ships.

Paying tribute caught on, and it wasn't long before all countries trading in the Mediterranean were employing this diplomatic means of avoiding conflict.

England paid tribute for the North American British colonies until they became the United States of America. The Dey of Algiers seized an American ship in 1785: and jailed its crew for nonpayment of tribute.

The United States didn't pay tribute at first, but the Dey of Algiers seemed willing to wait for his money. He found that it was profitable - and fairly safe - to capture American ships, since the new country didn't have much of a navy. His forces plundered eleven American ships and held one hundred and nineteen survivors for ransom in the next nine years.
That situation reminds me of the sixties and early seventies, when terrorists routinely took hostages, made demands, and got what they wanted. That golden age of terrorism ended, in my opinion, when a particularly exuberant group murdered a number of young athletes in Munich.

That exercise left a very bad taste, and a little later, in 1973, America settled on a 'no concessions policy. The immediate trigger for that decision was the murder of two diplomats.
Back to the Barbary pirates.

President Washington tried to find a diplomatic solution, but the corsairs were happy with things as they were, and the European powers ridiculed America's efforts to free the captives.

That was the late 1700s: Not much has changed, has it?

When John Adams became president, he followed the wisdom of the older European powers, and paid tribute to Algiers.

Then, Tunis and Tripoli demanded tribute. And got it. Remember, the American policy was one of diplomatic engagement: finding out what the Barbary pirates wanted, and giving it to them.

By the time Thomas Jefferson became president, about a fifth of the American government's income was going to the Barbary states. America developed a new strategy: trying to stop the pirates by military force.

That was 1801. Although there had been some victories, including the one that inspired the "Shores of Tripoli" song. The job was far from over when the war between England and America (1812-1814) sidetracked anti-piracy efforts. Besides, after 1812, there wasn't much of an American navy.

In 1815, America formally declared hostilities against Algiers. Algiers fell. Tunis was next on the list. The Dey of Tunis, groomimg his beard with a diamond-encrusted comb, complained "Why do they send wild young men to treat for peace with the old powers?" He also paid $46,000 to the Americans, who went away. Remember: that's 46 grand in early-nineteenth-century money.

The "old powers" didn't get any more tribute from America. And, seeing what America had done, European nations decided that they didn't need to bankroll the Barbary states, either.
The War on Terror isn't a re-run of the conflict with the Barbary states, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda aren't corsairs.

Just the same, there's something to be learned from the Barbary confrontation.
  • Diplomacy and concession work, for a while
  • Using military force doesn't always result in disaster
  • Things take time
"Things take time" may be the most important lesson. Dealing with the Barbary pirates took about 14 years: 12, if you take out the War of 1812.

I'll be surprised if the War of Terror is over that soon: but I've been wrong before.

There's a pretty good recounting of the Barbary pirates in American history in "Terrorism In Early America The U.S. Wages War Against The Barbary States To End International Blackmail and Terrorism" - and there's a virtually identical article at Also, a pretty good timeline at (what else?) "Timeline of Piracy."
Last week I Said that I'd cut back to one post a week, on Monday, unless "something genuinely major happens." Well, I couldn't resist the temptation on Friday, or Sunday, or today. We'll see what happens this week.


Ottavio (Otto) Marasco said...

A thought provoking and educational piece thanx. Also quite an interestng article you link to in the post ("two diplomats") about terrorism and counterterrorism...We should heed more from the lessons of history but rarely do...

Brian H. Gill said...


And, ain't it the truth.

Unique, innovative candles

Visit us online:
Spiral Light CandleFind a Retailer
Spiral Light Candle Store


Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.