Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is an account of land and sea battles, as it introduces the events of the First Barbary War. After the Revolutionary War, the United States was a young nation still trying to establish itself around the world. America was at peace until 1785, when pirates off the coast of North Africa began capturing US merchant ships and taking their crews as slaves.
In July 1785, the US merchant ship Dauphin sailed the Mediterranean, its crew under the impression that it was on friendly seas, as the United States was at peace with all surrounding nations. Captain Richard O’Brien was shocked when he realized that a ship that had pulled up alongside them wasn’t merely trying to communicate”instead, the crew swung aboard the Dauphin in a surprise attack with daggers and swords drawn. This resulted in the enslaving the Americans and holding them captive in Algiers for ten years. The Mediterranean bordered the Ottoman Empire, American merchants depended on commerce with the nations along the coast, the tributes demanded by the Muslim nations to ensure the safety of US ships were exploitative and liable to increase without warning. During their successive presidencies, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson confronted the problem with different views.
Adams favored diplomacy w/tribute payments, Jefferson Preferred war. The enslaved sailors were released a decade later, the United States was struggling to piece together tributes that would satisfy the Barbary nations’ ever-increasing demands. In 1799, the George Washington delivered an unsatisfactory tribute to Algiers and in return, its crew was forced to ferry an Algerian entourage to Constantinople. When Jefferson became president in 1801, tensions were high enough that he sent the US Navy’s first flotilla of ships to the Mediterranean to keep the peace. At the same time, the Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, declared war against the United States. During the next four years, the US Navy fought battles at sea, blockaded enemy harbors, endured the capture and enslavement of the Philadelphia crew, and finally launched a plan to take Derne, Benghazi, and Tripoli by land and overthrow Yusuf Qaramanli. Only Derne fell, as Tobias Lear stepped in with a treaty and ransom that appeased Bashaw Yusuf and secured the prisoners’ release. Thomas Jefferson was acting as minister to France and John Adams as ambassador to London. The two convened to discuss the situation, and meet with Tripoli’s London Ambassador, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. who explained that because the US ships carried non-Muslims, the Islamic pirates saw no wrongdoing in plundering their ships”although they would stop if the United States paid an annual tribute to each of the Barbary Nations.
The U.S.A. didn’t have that kind of money, and besides, they didn’t want to pay ransoms. They also couldn’t afford to stop conducting trade in the Mediterranean. Adams wanted to negotiate, Jefferson wanted to use force. By 1789, they had both returned to the United States with the conflict unresolved. Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State by George Washington. He used his new position to petition Congress on behalf of the enslaved men in Algiers. President Washington authorized the Act to Provide a Naval Armament In 1794, providing for six new frigates. William Bainbridge captained the USS George Washington as it sailed the Mediterranean for the first time. He met a nervous Consul O’Brien at the dock; nervous because O’Brien knew that impatience had increased the demands of the Dey of Algiers. The Dey was not appeased by the size of the tribute the George Washington carried, and he insisted the ship and its crew must complete the payment themselves. They would do this by sailing the ship to Constantinople carrying the Algerian ambassador, his entourage, and Algiers’ tribute to the Ottoman Empire. Bainbridge had no option but to comply, following custom, he had allowed the Captain of the Algiers port to steer his ship into the harbor conveniently, the Algerian Captain had anchored the ship in the fortress guns’ line of fire. Frustrated and embarrassed, Bainbridge and his crew hoisted the Algerian flag and ferried the ambassador’s crew and their heavy tribute of slaves and animals to Constantinople, redirecting the ship toward Mecca five times a day for prayers along the way. The Bashaw declared war against the United States on May 11, 1801. Bashaw Yusuf’s Declaration occurred in the same month as President Jefferson’s proposal to his cabinet to do the same.
A few days after the declaration, a squad of Algerian soldiers made an attempted show of chopping down the flagpole at the US consulate which resulted in more of a comedy than a dramatic act of war, since the pole proved strong enough to withstand hours of hacking and chopping at its base. The first flotilla of four ships was finished and ready to sail by June of 1801. The ships were the President, the Philadelphia, the Essex, and the Enterprise. The captains were Commodore Richard Dale, Samuel Barron, William Bainbridge, and Lieutenant Andrew Sterett, respectively. Members of the US Marine Corps sailed with the crews to act as a line of hand-to-hand defense”all were under orders to shoot or fight in defense only. On August 1, 1801, the Enterprise left the Tripoli harbor on a run to Malta for provisions. On the way, Lieutenant Sterett spotted a pirate ship, the Tripoli, and decided to approach under a British flag. When they came together, the pirate captain freely admitted that they were looking for Americans. The Enterprise crew raised the American flag and fired, and an intense battle ensued”the first of the Barbary War. Though the crew of the Tripoli tried to trick their opponents with not one, not two, but three false surrenders, the bloody fighting ended in the Americans’ favor. The Tripolitan suffered thirty dead, another thirty wounded, and a ship so incapacitated that it could barely sail back to port. The battle gave US Congress a potential push toward allowing President Jefferson to declare war.
After ending the Tripoli blockade in September, Captain Dale returned to Gibraltar and was informed that Admiral Rais and his men had abandoned their ships and escaped by land. The President ran aground and had to dock in France for the winter for repairs. Dale had fallen ill. The Senate took their time approving President Jefferson’s request for use of force. Jefferson could not declare all-out war, but he could increase the size of the navy, signing into law An Act for the protection of the Commerce And Seamen of the United States, against Tripolitan Corsairs. President Jefferson appointed Richard Valentine Morris to command the next fleet that would sail across the Atlantic. Captain Morris had proven himself battles with the French. Now, married, his wife requested to sail with him. This proved to be a distraction, Morris gave more attention to socializing in friendly ports than to those where his orders directed him. Corsairs captured the Franklin, a merchant ship, and evaded the blockade again to return their hostages to Tripoli. It took a ransom of $5,000 to release the prisoners. Morris’s slow progress finally led him to Tripoli in May of 1803, but he didn’t see much action before being relieved of duty in July after Eaton returned to the United States and reported on him. Morris had to face a court-martial that ended in his dismissal from the navy.
President Jefferson was frustrated because nearly two years had passed with nothing to show for it. Edward Preble was Captain Morris’s replacement, and he set sail on the USS Constitution on August 12, 1803, with Colonel and Mrs. Tobias Lear on board (and without his own wife). Lear was slated to replace O’Brien as consul general to Algiers. Captain Preble had discretion to act as he saw fit, and better warships to serve him, including the Vixen and the Syren. When he arrived in Gibraltar he learned that United States relations with Morocco Were also on the decline, so he sailed first to Tangier Harbor to make a show of strength. Preble and Lear went ashore to find the Sultan sufficiently intimidated and apologetic. He recanted his threats and promised to uphold the 1786 peace treaty between Morocco and the United States. While Preble was making his first moves along the Barbary Coast, the USS Philadelphia was maintaining a blockade of the Tripoli Harbor. On October 31, 1803, they gave chase to a Tripolitan ship but ran aground less than two miles from shore. Captain Bainbridge ordered the crew to dump most of its guns and cannons into the water to lighten the ship and lift free of the rock they were stuck on; in the meantime, nine Tripolitan warships surrounded them. Feeling he had no other choice, Bainbridge surrendered, burning any information that might have been useful to the enemy. He and the crew of 306 were taken ashore as captives. The crew was kept in miserable conditions and put to work, while the officers had a somewhat easier time in the empty consulate building. Dale was comforted that at least the ship would be useless to Tripoli, but after a gale loosed it from its rock, the imprisoned Americans were forced to repair it.
After he dropped off the Lears in Algiers, Captain Preble directed his ship toward Tripoli. However, learning about the Philadelphia situation, he stopped in Malta to read Bainbridge’s letters along the way. He decided the Constitution and the Enterprise, captained by Stephen Decatur Jr., would sail in tandem to Tripoli to reinstate a blockade. President Jefferson had no good news until he learned about the Intrepid and the Philadelphia in March of 1804. Another attempt was made at seeking a truce. Preble waged one largely successful battle in the Tripoli Harbor and two relatively unsuccessful bombardment attempts, all during the month of August. On September 3, he sent the Intrepid back into the harbor under cover of darkness, helmed by Captain Richard Somers and stuffed with gunpowder and explosives. It was intended to get close enough to ship or shore to bomb them, but the ship had barely crossed into the harbor when the powder was set off”none of the crew escaped the explosion, and no harm was done to Tripolitan Property. During their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, Eaton convinced Commodore Barron to support his plan to ally with Hamet Qaramanli. Barron committed a ship to Eaton to search for the exiled prince in Egypt.
Egypt was in a state of political instability, and Eaton was hesitantly welcomed by the Egyptian Viceroy in Cairo. Appealing to commonalities between Christianity and Islam, Eaton sought his approval and assistance in the plan to find Hamet and overthrow Yusuf. The viceroy sent word out to his contacts and Hamet was found on January 3, 1805. Reunited, Eaton and Hamet drew up a treaty stating that the United States Would provide funds and equipment to restore Hamet to the throne if, in exchange, he would release all the Philadelphia prisoners and turn over Bashaw Yusuf and Admiral Rais to the United States when he came to power. Eaton, Hamet, and their army, composed of ten Americans, ninety Tripolitans, and a few hundred Arab and Greek mercenaries, set forth from Alexandria on March 6, 1805. On April 23 the troops arrived at Derne; a truce was offered and rejected. Four days later, the traveling army launched its attack on the city with the help of warships that had posted up in the harbor. Derne fell in only two and a half hours. The Americans and Greeks suffered minimal casualties (fourteen), while Hamlet’s party and the Arabs lost hundreds of men. Consul Lear seized the chance to show off his diplomatic authority and broker a peace deal with Bashaw Yusuf, wherein the United States paid $60,000 for the Philadelphia prisoners’ release on June 3, 1805.
Yusuf won out in this deal intimidated by the attack that had been waged on Dearne, he would have been willing to release the prisoners for free. Lear had betrayed Eaton’s plan and Hamet’s trust in the deal. While Eaton and Hamet’s army still held Derne, Eaton sent requests for supplies and reinforcement, but instead received news of the peace accord that required him to relinquish his spoils and give up his plan. After news of the treaty arrived, the Americans in Derne left in secret, bringing only Hamet along and abandoning the rest of the Arabs who had supported them to deal with the aftermath. In June, the US Senate ratified Lear’s treaty, although they disapproved of his rashness in making it. President Jefferson was relieved when he learned about the treaty and the release of the US prisoners from Tripoli. In mid-September 1805, Captain Bainbridge and 117 men from the crew of the Philadelphia were received back in the United States with fanfare, awards, and honors.
The conclusion of the First Barbary War was not considered a complete victory, but it had achieved decent results and helped the Navy gain the necessary experience to fight the British In the War of 1812. Jefferson and Adams, who began as friends before they were rivals, eventually resolved their differences before dying, both on the same day: July 4, 1826 (the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the US Constitution). I found this book to be very informative, though it seemed written with a bias that I am in tune with. I couldn’t help notice these attacks came from religious extremists, the first attacks against our new nation, and America’s first involvement in coupes.
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