10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates

Larry Holzwarth - July 29, 2018

It was the first war fought by the United States against a foreign power, a projection of national strength and determination against enemies overseas. The transgressions of the Barbary States, Morocco, Tripoli, and Algiers against American shipping, intolerable and costly, led to the creation of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The United States of America’s first great heroes were the young officers who led its ships to victory on the shores of Tripoli. The United States established a naval presence in the Mediterranean which has been maintained ever since, ensuring safe passage for its merchant ships as well as those of other nations.

American ships had been protected from the Barbary pirates by the Royal Navy until independence was achieved, after which its ships were seized by the pirates and their crews held hostage or sold into slavery. The only defense was the payment of tribute, which became so expensive – nearly 20% of the national budget – that Americans decided the building of a navy was a better investment. The navy’s performance during the Barbary wars made it a source of national pride, as the United States fought what was, in essence, its first war against Islamic (then called Mohammedan) terrorists.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
The Barbary States enslaved Christians seized from ships for two centuries, demanding tribute to be paid to prevent it. Wikimedia

Here are some of the events of the wars against the Barbary pirates and the birth of the United States Navy.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
Dutch ships bombarded Tripoli as punishment for attacks on its ships in 1670. Wikimedia

The Barbary Pirates

For two centuries, Ottoman and Berber raiders from the ports of North Africa, Algiers, Tangier, Rabat, Tripoli, and others, raided throughout the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic. The coast of western Africa, the ports of Spain and Portugal, and the British Channel were subject to their raids, which were based on the desire to capture Christian slaves for sale within the Muslim lands. The seizure of the precious cargoes of the merchant ships they preyed upon was secondary, though it made many local chieftains in the Barbary States wealthy. The raiders also preyed upon each other, both at sea and on land in North Africa.

By the late eighteenth century, the powerful navies of the French, Spanish, British, and Dutch had mostly suppressed their raids in the Atlantic, though they continued in the Mediterranean and around Gibraltar, hit and run raids which expanded as the Europeans were distracted by warring with each other. Ships of neutral nations, including those of the United States, were easy targets. To avoid the capture of ships, the various rulers of the Barbary States, which were vassals of the Ottoman Empire, demanded annual payments of tribute. It was common practice for the ruler of a given state to accept the tribute and then look the other way as ships left his ports to violate the agreement.

For the most part the Barbary States did not kill the crews of the ships they seized as the sailors and passengers were too valuable as slaves, and in the case of female prisoners, as concubines. Prisoners could be ransomed, on the whim of the individual holding the prisoner, and often emissaries sent to negotiate the release of a prisoner were simply imprisoned themselves. The pirates were not above killing those who resisted however, often using inventive and callous ways, after which a portion of the victim’s body would be returned. The Barbary Coast had, after all, drawn its name from the word barbarous, its inhabitants considered barbarians.

In 1786 the United States Congress of the Confederation agreed to the payment of tribute to the Barbary States, since American ships were no longer under the protection of the Royal Navy. The tribute was gratefully collected by the Beys, Deys, and Pashas allegedly ruling the Barbary States, who then allowed the seizure of ships flying the Stars and Stripes to continue. In 1797 $1.25 million was sent in tribute, while American ships continued to be seized and American citizens held hostage for ransom or sold into slavery. American outrage against the Mohammedans grew.

In 1794 the United States authorized a standing navy and the construction of six frigates to be its core was begun shortly after, following the usual delays imposed by Congress. Other ships were built by communities under subscription and given to the US Navy, including USS Essex, and USS Philadelphia. The young American Navy acquitted itself well in a brief conflict with Revolutionary France known as the Quasi-War. In 1801 the Navy was for the most part lying idle in American ports. That year President Thomas Jefferson, thoroughly fed up with the payment of tribute and Mohammedan treachery, ordered an American squadron to the Barbary Coast.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
A print of the USS Philadelphia under construction in 1799. Library of Congress

Early action with the Swedes

Sweden was officially neutral during the French Revolutionary wars, but was actively engaged in war with Tripoli when American ships arrived in the Mediterranean. In May 1802 USS Boston arrived off Tripoli to deny the use of its harbor to the corsairs of the Barbary States. Boston was smaller than most of the American frigates, armed with 32 guns, and had been built by the city of Boston under subscription as a gift to the United States. A veteran of the Quasi-War, Boston carried the United States Minister to France, Robert Livingston, to his post before joining the American squadron in the Mediterranean.

Boston found upon its arrival off Tripoli a squadron of Swedish vessels already engaged in an attempted blockade of the harbor. The American ship soon found that the Barbary corsairs were faster, more readily handled, and yielded less leeway – meaning they could sail closer inshore – than the heavier Swedish ships. Boston encountered the same difficulties, and the blockade was largely ineffective, which was what impelled the Americans to request smaller, handier vessels to work with the larger frigates. Until such ships arrived the blockade remained ineffective, and once inside the harbor the corsairs were protected by the heavy shore guns.

On May 16 Boston was joined by the Swedish frigate Froja in a chase of a Tripolitan corsair, which the two frigates managed to cut off from reaching the harbor, forcing the corsair to run itself aground. A half dozen corsairs and gunboats sailed from the port to attempt to reach their stricken ally. Boston turned from the first corsair and engaged the rescuers at long range, while the Swedish vessel damaged the beached corsair with gunfire before turning to support Boston. The two frigates ran across the harbor exchanging fire with the more lightly armed Tripolitan vessels, which could neither close with their enemies nor inflict any damage.

It was the style of the Tripolitans to overman their vessels, in order to run alongside a ship and capture it by boarding and overwhelming its crew. Both Boston and the Swedish frigate used their heavier gun batteries to force the Tripolitans to keep their distance. When Boston detected another ship entering the harbor it broke off the engagement to investigate the intruder, which turned out to be another Swedish ship. Boston then returned to the corsairs, all of which withdrew to the shelter of the harbor batteries. No vessels were sunk or captured, though all of the Tripolitan ships were damaged in varying degrees.

The Swedes later negotiated a separate treaty with Tripoli, under which their ships would be free of the raids of the Tripolitans, and the Swedish fleet withdrew. USS Constellation, a 38 gun frigate and veteran of the Quasi-War, arrived to enforce the continuing American blockade of Tripoli in late May. Boston returned to the United States and was placed in reserve at the Washington Navy Yard, where the ship remained until 1814, when it was burned during the British attack on Washington during the War of 1812. The First Battle of Tripoli Harbor, as the action of May 16, 1802 became known, was the first time the United States Navy operated in concert with the navy of an ally.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
Commodore John Rodgers was one of many US Naval officers to distinguish himself during the Barbary Wars. Wikimedia

Weakening the Tripolitan fleet

USS John Adams was another subscription frigate, paid for by the people of Charleston, South Carolina and given to the United States Navy in 1799. Ironically, John Adams later served as part of the squadron which blockaded that port during the American Civil War. Although the ship is little known today, it was one of the most successful American frigates ever built, capturing enemy vessels during the Quasi-War, the Barbary wars, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the American Civil War. It also served to suppress piracy in the Caribbean and the slave trade off the Ivory Coast. John Adams arrived in the Mediterranean in the late fall of 1802 to join the blockade of Tripoli.

Under the command of Captain John Rodgers, John Adams joined the squadron blockading Tripoli in May 1803. While en route to the Mediterranean, Rodgers had looked in at Gibraltar, where he learned of a Tripolitan ship of twenty guns, Meshuda, loading military supplies bound for Tripoli in the British port. While patrolling off Tripoli, John Adams spotted the faster Tripolitan vessel trying to run the American blockade and gain the shelter of the harbor guns. John Adams, which had previously thumbed its nose at the Tripolitan batteries by impudently engaging them in bombardment, moved to engage the Tripolitan ship.

The 32 gun American frigate held the advantage over the Tripolitan, which was the faster of the combatants, and which was sailing under the Moroccan flag. Aware of the ship’s destination and of its cargo of military supplies, Rodgers was fully authorized to detain the vessel, which refused to be boarded, giving him the right to use force to stop it. The action was a sharp one, though brief and Meshuda was soon a prize of the Americans. After capturing the ship Rodgers discovered it was sailing under two captains, one Moroccan and one Tripolitan, and its ownership papers indicated that it was the property of the Pasha of Tripoli, despite its registry to the Sultan of Morocco.

The Americans had a treaty of friendship with Morocco, which dated to 1786 (and which remains in effect over 230 years later) but the realities of the situation in North Africa, in which the political and often family intrigues among the various clans took precedence created an uneasy situation. The rulers of the various Barbary States had enemies among their own people which they feared as much as they did the Americans. Concerned that the Moroccan ports were open to the corsairs, the American Commodore Richard Morris, temporarily in command of the American squadron, lifted the blockade of Tripoli and withdrew most of the American ships to Gibraltar.

Morris thought Gibraltar a better site from which to keep an eye on the Moroccan ports, as well as to monitor ships entering the Mediterranean. The decision cost him his command. When Jefferson learned of the lifting of the blockade of Tripoli he ordered Morris relieved and recalled him to the United States. Rodgers assumed command of the American squadron and reinstated the blockade. Rodgers remained in command until the arrival of Commodore Edward Preble, in USS Constitution. By late summer of 1803 the United States had dealt severe financial losses on the Barbary States, but a clear military victory continued to elude them.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
The sail plan for the USS Philadelphia, the largest American ship lost in the war. National Archives

American blockade of Tripoli

The states which Jefferson found the most offensive (he referred to their leaders as petty tyrants) were those of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, all of which were under the control of the Ottoman Empire, but were ruled autonomously by local chieftains who paid tribute to the Sultan. In May 1801 the ruler in Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, known as the Pasha, cut down the American flag at its consulate there, indicating a state of war. In the United States, Congress did not vote for a declaration of war, but provided an authorization for the President to use the military to provide for the defense of American interests and property, through whatever means he deemed necessary.

At the end of May 1801, American Commodore Edward Preble arrived in Messina, Sicily, then part of the Kingdom of Naples, and negotiated an agreement which gave the United States access to the ports of Palermo, Messina, and Syracuse. The Neapolitans also provided the United States with gunboats and supplies to act against Tripoli, which was a walled fortress city protected with well over 100 mounted guns, a fleet of heavily armed brigs, schooners, and gunboats, and over 25,000 troops. In August 1801 USS Enterprise captured the Tripolitan vessel Tripoli, killing thirty of its crew. Ordered to take no prizes, Enterprise’s commander freed the ship, which limped back to Tripoli.

Upon its arrival in the port an outraged Karamanli had its captain humiliated by being marched through the streets of the city covered with the intestines of sheep, while seated backwards on a mule. After the humiliation the captain was bastinadoed (whipped on the soles of the feet) 500 times and dismissed from the Pasha’s service. The United States was by then blockading the port of Tripoli, but without defined rules of engagement. The absence of direction from the President or Congress prevented the American fleet from doing little beyond challenging the Tripolitan vessels entering or leaving the port. Tripoli had responded to such a challenge with gunfire, hence its defeat by Enterprise.

Throughout the year 1802, the United States dispatched ships to the region to blockade the Barbary ports, including the most powerful ships of the American fleet. The frigates Constitution, Chesapeake, Essex, Philadelphia, and Constellation patrolled the waters of the Mediterranean, protecting American merchant shipping from the Tripolitan corsairs, supported by smaller American sloops and brigs. The American heavy frigates sailed into the harbor of Tripoli to bombard its shore batteries and other defenses, and gunboats ran in under the guns of the frigates to engage those of the Tripolitans.

After pacifying Morocco and intimidating Algiers and Tunis, Preble returned his attention to aggressive offensive action against the Tripolitans. The Americans launched several raids using gunboats obtained from the Sicilians, supported by the smaller sloops and brigs of the American fleet, which were in turn supported as closely as possible by the heavier American frigates. The bombardments became so heavy that the Pasha openly displayed American prisoners on the walls of some of the fortifications to divert the American guns. As 1803 drew on, Preble, aware that his relief would soon arrive from the United States, ordered his ships to become yet more aggressive against the Tripolitans.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
USS Chesapeake, a hard luck ship later in its career, served with distinction during the Barbary Wars. US Navy

Intimidation and hit and run raids

One of the first actions taken by Commodore Preble was to demonstrate to the Sultan of Morocco his intention of enforcing the treaty between that nation and the United States. Preble dispatched part of his squadron to Tripoli to reinforce the blockade, including recently arrived vessels designed for the purpose of operating close inshore in the shallow waters of the harbor, in offensive operations. These were backed by heavier American frigates. He then sailed with a squadron to the Moroccan port of Tangier, nearly opposite the Mediterranean from Gibraltar, a sign to the Sultan of his intent to impose a blockade there, if events proved it necessary.

In October, 1803, Commodore Preble and US Consul to Morocco James Simpson met with Sultan Mulai Suleiman, the ruler of Morocco, and reaffirmed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations, with the Americans backed by the big guns of USS Constitution, Preble’s flagship, and other American warships in the harbor at Tangier. With his flank secured by the Moroccan agreement Preble was free to concentrate on offensive actions against the Tripolitans, and demonstrate American resolve to Algiers and Tunis. With the lighter and handier ships now under his command Preble determined to destroy the Tripolitan fleet.

Up until this point American actions in the Mediterranean were limited to naval activity, with the only troops involved being US Marines. Several “cutting out” expeditions had been launched from various ships, to destroy Tripolitan facilities ashore and to recover prizes taken by the pirates. Prisoners were taken in the hope that they could be exchanged, but the value of Christian slaves to Karamanli exceeded the value of the freedom of his own people, in his estimation. Prisoners of the Tripolitans, though slaves, had the opportunity to obtain both money and property of their own under the Pasha’s system, further complicating the issue.

The ability to obtain money made it possible for the prisoners to buy themselves positions which, though they were still enslaved in that they were owned by the Pasha or some other worthy, let them live in comfort and even luxury. The innate corruption of the government of Tripoli allowed astute prisoners to play their masters against each other, gaining both prestige and profit. James Leander Cathcart, an American taken from a captured merchant ship and enslaved in Algiers, managed to manipulate his captors to such a point that he became an advisor to the Bey (ruler of Algiers) gaining considerable influence and wealth in the process.

Most of the Americans held by the Muslim rulers were not so lucky, spending their nights in chains in the fortresses of the ruling clans and their days in hard labor, often forced to build fortifications against the Americans, or work as galley slaves. Food was of poor quality and scant, whippings and the bastinado were frequent, and the treatment was justified, according to the captors, because the Americans were infidels, deserving of nothing better than slavery. Letters from the more literate prisoners, smuggled out of their dungeons by guards who were less concerned with the Quran than they were with gold, gave Preble a greater sense of urgency over winning the war.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
The stricken USS Philadelphia under fire from Tripolitan gunboats prior to its surrender. Library of Congress

The loss of USS Philadelphia

In October 1803, USS Philadelphia, another subscription frigate under the command of William Bainbridge, spotted a Tripolitan coastal vessel well within the shoal waters of the harbor at Tripoli. Philadelphia had been operating with the ketch Vixen, which was designed for sailing in the shallows, but Bainbridge had detached Philadelphia’s consort for other duties. Despite the standing written orders from Commodore Preble that the big American frigates were not to enter the shoals unescorted, Bainbridge put Philadelphia into pursuit, remaining just out of range of the harbor batteries.

Philadelphia possessed charts of the harbor, which were unreliable and out of date, and in the pursuit Bainbridge put on as much sail as the ship could carry under the conditions. Inevitably the ship ran aground, and its momentum when it hit an uncharted reef caused the foremast to break, with the topmast sheering off. Almost immediately Tripolitan gunboats left their moorings to attack the stricken frigate. They approached at an angle which prevented the Americans from bringing guns to bear on them as the crew struggled to free the ship from the reef. Under fire, the Americans tried to float Philadelphia off of the reef by rocking the ship from side to side.

When that attempt failed, Bainbridge ordered the damaged foremast to be cut down and cast over the side, in an attempt to lighten the bow. Forward guns, useless against the approaching Tripolitans, were first moved aft to change the vessel’s balance, and when that too proved ineffective were cast into the harbor with their carriages. Bainbridge ordered the water supply over the side, followed by the shot for the guns, and cut loose the ship’s anchors, all to no avail. All of this herculean labor was conducted under the fire of the Tripolitan gunboats over a period of five hours. The gunfire was mostly inaccurate, the Tripolitans too respectful of Philadelphia’s guns to close the range for better effect.

All efforts to free the American frigate from the reef failed and rather than wait for the incoming tide to possibly refloat the ship, Bainbridge ordered all small arms aboard to be thrown over the side and the remaining gunpowder to be wetted using the ship’s pumps. He then surrendered. Philadelphia was the second ship of the United States Navy to surrender to an enemy; the first had been USS George Washington, a 24 gun frigate also surrendered by Bainbridge (though later returned). The Tripolitans swarmed over the side of Philadelphia, its crew was taken into custody and all personal items of the officers and crew were confiscated.

The crew and officers were paraded through the streets of Tripoli to dungeon quarters, after being claimed by the Pasha as his personal slaves. During their captivity the Pasha distributed them to other ranking Tripolitans as payment for political favors or simply for gold. Tripolitan sailors refloated the formerly American frigate and towed it under the protecting guns of the harbor fortress. Within days work was underway to refit the ship, much of it conducted by its former crew, working as slaves for the Tripolitans. Others worked from small craft recovering the ship’s guns from the shallow water in which they had been discarded. The former American frigate gave Tripoli a warship equal to any but the heaviest American ships, Constitution, United States, and President.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
An all volunteer crew led by Stephen Decatur retook Philadelphia long enough to destroy it, denying its use to the Tripolitans. Library of Congress

Stephen Decatur and Intrepid

In December 1803, as Philadelphia lay sheltered under the guns of Tripoli being refitted by its captors, Lt. Stephen Decatur, in command of the American sloop-of-war Enterprise, captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico. Mastico was condemned as a prize and taken into the US Navy as USS Intrepid. Decatur then developed a plan by which the Tripolitan built Intrepid would be used to enter the port under a ruse of war, allowing American sailors to board the Philadelphia and either retake the frigate or burn it to deny its use to the Tripolitans. The crew of Philadelphia were at that time being used as slave labor, housed in a fortress from which they had full view of their former ship.

With his plans approved by American Commodore Edward Preble, Decatur asked for volunteers, and in February 1804 sailed from Syracuse in Intrepid with 80 men, the majority being US Marines. Intrepid rendezvoused with USS Syren outside of Tripoli harbor and took aboard another eight men, adjusted its rigging to appear as a more slovenly Tripolitan vessel, and entered the harbor in the early evening of February 16, 1804. Its men carried combustibles made of pitch and shredded rope fibers and canvas. Intrepid crept across the harbor slowly, in a meandering course, to mask its intent of approaching Philadelphia, which by that time had been re-gunned by the Tripolitans.

Intrepid flew British colors, a legitimate ruse of war for the time (as long as they flew an American flag when combat began), and carried Sicilian volunteers fluent in Arabic. The men of the boarding party remained concealed below decks, armed with cutlasses and bayonets, under strict orders to avoid the use of firearms unless absolutely necessary. The men below waited in silence for more than three hours as Intrepid crept towards its target, impeded by contrary winds. When Decatur and his men finally did board the frigate, it was through complete surprise, and more than two dozen Tripolitans were killed in the attack without the loss of a man of Decatur’s party. They next inspected the ship to see if it could be taken out to sea.

It took just a cursory look for Decatur to realize that Philadelphia was inadequately rigged to get underway, and Intrepid was too lightly built to take the heavier vessel under tow. With the now aroused Tripolitans opening fire from the shore on both ships Decatur ordered his men to set the frigate ablaze. Meanwhile Syren moved inshore to provide covering fire for the raiding party. The fires on Philadelphia grew quickly, soon burned through the mooring lines, and Philadelphia began to drift toward the rocks near the harbor fortress. Convinced that the ship was beyond saving by the Tripolitans, Decatur ordered his men back aboard Intrepid, which left the harbor under heavy fire.

The destruction of Philadelphia made Decatur a national hero when word of the act reached the United States. Officers of European navies acknowledged the daring nature of the raid, although there is no evidence that Lord Nelson called in the most daring act of the age, as he is often quoted as having said. The Pope did praise Decatur’s raid, saying that, “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble and humiliate the anti-Christians barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Decatur was promoted to Captain for his efforts, and upon return to Syracuse resumed command of Enterprise.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
Led by USS Constitution the American squadron bombards Tripoli in August, 1804. US Navy

Attacks on Tripoli in 1804

In the spring of 1804 Commodore Preble obtained bomb ketches and more gunboats from Naples. Displaying his strength outside of the range of the Tripolitan defenses, Preble attempted to negotiate with Tripoli, as he had successfully with the Moroccans and at Algiers and Tunis. The Pasha remained intransigent. In August Preble directed a series of bombardments using the smaller vessels, supported from a distance by the heavy frigates under his command. A series of bombardments of the city during August and September led to the destruction of several Tripolitan gunboats, the capture of three, and only light damage to the city’s defenses.

On September 4 Preble decided to use Intrepid in a deceptive attack for a second time, packing the small vessel with gunpowder and detonating it just beneath the walls of the Pasha’s castle. One hundred barrels of gunpowder and 150 explosive shells were packed into the vessel, and slow fuses cut to a length which would allow them to burn for fifteen minutes were rigged to the magazine, allowing the crew of the vessel ample time to escape before it exploded. Obviously for an operation so fraught with risk, the men carrying it out needed to be volunteers. Throughout the squadron officers vied for the opportunity to lead the mission.

Preble selected Lieutenant Richard Somers to lead the mission, with a crew of twelve to sail the ketch into the harbor and light the fuses. Accompanying the ketch were two ship’s boats to carry the volunteers aboard Intrepid away from the floating bomb. The Americans intended to moor Intrepid among the gunboats huddled beneath the Pasha’s castle, hoping to sink as many of them as possible as well as demonstrate to Karamanli that he wasn’t safe from a direct American attack on his person. The American attack began on September 4 at eight in the evening. Shortly after, the ketch was spotted by the Tripolitan shore batteries which opened fire.

Intrepid continued to approach its planned destination under the fire of the shore batteries, with the range steadily decreasing as the ship drew nearer the castle and the gunboat moorings. Shortly after nine the gunboats joined in the bombardment, and it was evident from observers on the American ships in the harbor that Intrepid would not be able to reach its goal without capturing some of the gunboats. It was not carrying enough men to do so. Just before ten o’clock the harbor was rocked by a tremendous explosion as Intrepid blew up. There were no American survivors from either Intrepid or the boats which accompanied the ketch.

The morning revealed that several of the gunboats had been severely damaged and at least one was missing entirely. In his report Preble noted that Somers had announced that he would not be taken by the Tripolitans when he solicited volunteers for his crew, intending instead to cause as much damage as possible to the enemy at the cost of his own life. Following the loss Preble suspended offensive operations against the harbor fortifications. Less than a week later Commodore Barron arrived at Tripoli with more American frigates to assume command, and Preble returned to the United States, receiving a hero’s welcome when he reached home.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
With American ships bombarding the defenses, US Marines lead the attack on Derna “on the shores of Tripoli”. US Marine Corps

The attack on Derna

In the spring of 1805 former US Consul to Tunis William Eaton was sent to Egypt where the brother of the Pasha of Tripoli, Hamet Karamanli, was living in exile. A plan was formed for an expedition led by Eaton, and manned by mercenary troops, to attack Tripoli in an overland expedition from Alexandria, in order to install Hamet as Pasha, deposing his brother. A force of ten Americans, including Eaton, two navy midshipmen, and seven US Marines contacted Hamet, who raised a force of about 300 Arabs and less than one hundred Christian mercenaries, many from Greece. Accompanied by camels and pack mules, this force marched 500 miles across the desert toward Derna.

The expedition departed Alexandria in early March. Inadequately supplied, by the time the expedition neared the Gulf of Bomba their rations were consumed and the Arab faction, by far the bulk of the little army, was threatening to abandon the operation. Relief was obtained when the brig of war USS Argus met the expedition at the Gulf of Bomba and transferred rations ashore. Argus also arranged to support the proposed attack on Derna with shore bombardment, and its captain, Isaac Hull, promised Eaton that he would attempt to arrange further naval gunfire support from other ships from the Tripoli squadron.

On April 27 three American ships, Argus, Nautilus, and Hornet, bombarded the defenses manned by Yusuf Karamanli’s forces and they were attacked by land by Eaton’s expedition. The city of Derna was captured in the assault, and for the first time the flag of the United States was raised over a captured foreign city. Hamet Karamanli declared himself the true Pasha but his brother disagreed and twice attempted to retake the city, failing in both attempts. At the end of May USS Essex arrived at Tripoli carrying Tobias Lear, who entered into negotiations with Yusuf to end the war. The reinforced American squadron carried with it the threat of further actions.

Eaton had signed an agreement with Hamet in which Hamet would become Pasha, which Lear renounced, and Yusuf was allowed to remain the ruler of Tripoli. The Americans provided Hamet with a small sum for his troubles and leaned on Yusuf to install his brother as the head of state of Derna, to which Yusuf acquiesced. He was also persuaded to release the prisoners he held, including the former crew of Philadelphia, in return for $60,000 dollars. Finally he agreed to renounce tribute from the United States and cease the practice of capturing merchant ships from the United States and European nations. He was still free to raid on the other Barbary States.

The American squadron, then under Commodore Rodgers due to Barron becoming ill, immediately sailed to Tunis and forced a similar agreement from the Bey. With the accession of Tunis, the First Barbary War was over. The naval operations of the war had been noted by the European naval powers and the professionalism of American officers had impressed those of Great Britain, France, and Spain. During the ensuing Napoleonic Wars and British blockade of the French fleets in their home ports, the Barbary pirates returned to their raiding, though not against American ships until the War of 1812 began, and the US Navy remained largely preoccupied with war with Great Britain.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
The bombardment of Algiers in 1816 by an Anglo-Dutch force destroyed the city’s defenses and brought an end to the Barbary Wars. Wikimedia

The Second Barbary War

During the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 the Barbary States returned to their raiding on ships of any Christian nation, and the Americans and Europeans had few assets at hand with which to stop them. After the end of the War of 1812 the United States sent another squadron to the region. On May 20, 1815, after the action was sanctioned by Congress earlier that spring, a squadron including three heavy frigates (one of which was the former HMS Macedonian, captured by Stephen Decatur during the War of 1812) and supporting sloops and brigs sailed for the Mediterranean under Commodore Decatur. After entering the Mediterranean the squadron captured two Algerian ships.

Stopping first at Algiers, Decatur demanded the Bey enter into a new treaty with the United States, backed by the guns of the squadron. The Bey acquiesced to the Americans and was forced to pay damages of $10,000 for which he received his two ships and their crews which had been taken by the Americans. Decatur extracted similar agreements from the remaining Barbary States, and informed them that American naval presence would remain in the Mediterranean to enforce the agreements. Once Decatur’s force was out of sight, the Bey of Algiers once again ignored the treaty, which had been forwarded to the Congress of Vienna and ratified.

In response to the continuing piracy of Algiers a British squadron of ships of the line under Lord Exmouth (Edward Pellew) was dispatched to Tunis and Tripoli, both of which quickly endorsed the treaty and renounced the practice of seizing ships of Christian nations. The squadron then went to Algiers where the Bey was reluctant to accept it. After he did sign it the Algerians under his command massacred fishermen from Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily, killing more than 200. The islands from which the victims came were under the protection of the British, and Exmouth returned to Algiers with his squadron.

When Exmouth returned he brought with him a much larger squadron of British ships, supported by ships of the Dutch Navy. On August 27, 1816 the combined fleet unleashed a bombardment of the city of Algiers, its defenses, the harbor defenses, and the ships lying in the harbor. The bombardment was accurate and the heavy guns of the ships of the line wrought much destruction. For just under nine hours the fleet pounded the Algerians, who fought back, inflicting heavy casualties in some ships. The bombardment ceased only because the ships of the British fleet had expended all of their gunpowder, but Exmouth decided to bluff.

The following day the Bey was informed that he must accept the terms of the preceding agreement or the bombardment would resume, and continue until he did. Unaware that the British were out of ammunition the Bey agreed to the terms. He also freed the three thousand Christian slaves he was holding, and agreed to end the practice of enslaving Europeans. The bombardment of Algiers brought an end to the Barbary wars, and the Barbary States themselves were soon to become targets during the colonization of Africa. The depredations of the Barbary pirates were over.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Barbary Wars, 1801-1805 and 1815-1816”, by the Office of the Historian, US Department of State, online

“The Wars of the Barbary Pirates”, by Gregory Fremont-Barnes, 2006

“The First Barbary War”, entry by the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, online

“Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy”, by Ian Tolle, 2006

“Cathcart’s Travels’, by Liva Baker, American Heritage Magazine, June 1975

“Ready to Hazard: A Biography of Commodore William Bainbridge”, by David F. Long

“Bloodshed at Dawn”, by C. S. Forester, American Heritage Magazine, October 1964

“If By Sea”, by George C. Daugham, 2008

“General Eaton and his Improbable Legion”, by William Harlan Hale, American Heritage Magazine, February 1960

“Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth”, by C. Northcote Parkinson, 1934