The Barbary States were a collection of North African states, many of which practiced state-supported piracy in order to exact tribute from weaker Atlantic powers. Morocco was an independent kingdom, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli owed a loose allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. The United States fought two separate wars with Tripoli (1801–1805) and Algiers (1815–1816), although at other times it preferred to pay tribute to obtain the release of captives held in the Barbary States.
The Barbary Wars
The practice of state-supported piracy and ransoming of captives was not wholly unusual for its time. Many European states commissioned privateers to attack each others’ shipping and also participated in the transatlantic slave trade. The two major European powers, Great Britain and France, found it expedient to encourage the Barbary States’ policy and pay tribute to them, as it allowed their merchant shipping an increased share of the Mediterranean trade, and Barbary leaders chose not to challenge the superior British or French navies.
Prior to independence, American colonists had enjoyed the protection of the British Navy. However, once the United States declared independence, British diplomats were quick to inform the Barbary States that U.S. ships were open to attack. In 1785, Dey Muhammad of Algiers declared war on the United States and captured several American ships. The financially troubled Confederation Government of the United States was unable to raise a navy or the tribute that would protect U.S. ships.
In contrast to the dispute with Algiers, U.S. negotiations with Morocco went well. Moroccan Sultan Sidi Muhammad had seized a U.S. merchant ship in 1784 after the United States had ignored diplomatic overtures. However, Muhammad ultimately followed a policy of peaceful trade, and the United States successfully concluded a treaty with Morocco in 1786. However, Congress was still unable to raise enough funds to satisfy the Dey of Algiers.
In an attempt to address the challenge posed by the Dey of Algiers, Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Minister to France, attempted to build a coalition of weaker naval powers to defeat Algiers, but was unsuccessful. However, the Kingdom of Portugal was also at war with Algiers, and blocked Algerian ships from sailing past the Straits of Gibraltar. As a result, U.S. merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean remained safe for a time and temporarily relieved the U.S. Government from the challenges posed by the Barbary States.
In 1793 a brief Portuguese-Algerian truce exposed American merchant ships to capture, forcing the United States, which had thus far only managed to conclude a treaty with Morocco, to engage in negotiations with the other Barbary States. In 1795, The U.S. Government dispatched diplomats Joel Barlow, Joseph Donaldson, and Richard O’Brien to North Africa and successfully concluded treaties with the states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Under the terms of these treaties, the United States agreed to pay tribute to these states. The treaty with Algiers freed 83 American sailors.
The adoption of the Constitution in 1789 gave the U.S. Government the power to levy taxes and to raise and maintain armed forces, powers which had been lacking under the Articles of Confederation. In 1794, in response to Algerian seizures of American ships, Congress authorized construction of the first 6 ships of the U.S. Navy. In 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, citing late payments of tribute, demanded additional tribute and declared war on the United States. The United States successfully defeated Qaramanli’s forces with a combined naval and land assault by the United States Marine Corps. The U.S. treaty with Tripoli concluded in 1805 included a ransom for American prisoners in Tripoli, but no provisions for tribute.
In 1812, the new Dey of Algiers, Hajji Ali, rejected the American tribute negotiated in the 1795 treaty as insufficient and declared war on the United States. Algerian corsairs captured an American ship several weeks later. In accordance with an agreement between the Dey and British diplomats, the Algerian declaration was timed to coincide with the start of the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. The war with Britain prevented the U.S. Government from either confronting Algerian forces or ransoming U.S. captives in Algiers. Once the Treaty of Ghent ended war with Britain, President James Madison requested that Congress declare war on Algiers, with Congress authorizing the use of force on March 3, 1815. The U.S. Navy, greatly increased in size after the War of 1812, was able send an entire squadron, led by Commodore Stephen Decatur, to the Mediterranean.
When the U.S. naval expedition arrived in Algiers, a new ruler, Dey Omar, was in power. Omar wished to restore order after several years of political instability and was acutely aware that he could no longer count on British support against the Americans. Decatur had already defeated two Algerian warships and captured hundreds of prisoners of war, and was in a favorable position for negotiation. Dey Omar reluctantly accepted the treaty proposed by Decatur that called for an exchange of U.S. and Algerian prisoners and an end to the practices of tribute and ransom. Having defeated the most powerful of the Barbary States, Decatur sailed to Tunis and Tripoli and obtained similar treaties. In Tripoli, Decatur also secured from Pasha Qaramanli the release of all European captives. The U.S. Senate ratified Decatur’s Algerian treaty on December 5, 1815. Dey Omar repudiated the treaty, but another U.S. squadron arrived after a combined Anglo-Dutch bombardment of Algiers, and U.S. commissioner William Shaler dictated terms of a new treaty which contained essentially the same provisions as the old one. Shaler concluded his negotiations on December 23, 1815, but the Senate, owing to an accidental oversight, did not ratify the treaty until February 11, 1822.
The Barbary States, although they did not capture any more U.S. ships, began to resume raids in the Mediterranean, and despite punitive British bombardments did not end their practices until the French conquest of Algeria in 1830.