Every once in a while one of my followers requests that I publish a blog on a particular topic. So, Michael, my friend, this one’s for you.

The Barbary pirates, aka Barbary corsairs, operated primarily in the western Mediterranean Sea, however, on occasion, they ranged as far as Iceland and South America. Their primary bases of operation were the ports of Tripoli, Algiers and Tunis, which, collectively, were known as the Barbary Coast. Piracy in the Mediterranean can be traced back to the Emirate of Crete in the 9th century, but its peak was from the 16th to early 19th centuries. The pirates would not only hijack ships but they would also raid coastal towns ala the Vikings of earlier times. The main purpose of these raids was to capture Christians who would either be held for ransom, sold to the Ottomans as slaves, or retained as galley slaves on pirate ships. Basically, galley slaves were subjected to a horrendous existence. They were chained virtually permanently to their seats, received very little rest or sustenance, and were worked to death in a relatively short period of time.

Normally, the money for ransoms was paid by church groups or wealthy individuals. It seems to have operated as a type of business arrangement – the corsairs would capture individuals and sell them back at a certain price. One can see parallels to how the Somali pirates of present day operate. These raids of coastal areas, known as “Razzias,” had a secondary consequence, which was that coastal areas of Italy and Spain, among others, became abandoned as people were afraid to live in those areas. During the aforementioned peak period, it is estimated that as many as 1.2 million people were captured and sold into slavery. During much of this period the pirates operated, for the most part, with little organized opposition as the European powers had not yet developed naval power sufficient to oppose them. European military forces consisted primarily of mercenaries, not professional, well-trained, soldiers.

Interestingly, not all the pirates were Muslims or North Africans as one might assume. For example, about two-thirds of their ships captains were Europeans, no doubt motivated by financial gain, who had “taken the turban.” The pirates’ power began to wane at the end of the 17th century when countries such as England, France, Spain and Portugal developed their navies into effective fighting forces. It took another blow when the US defeated them in the Barbary Wars; it ceased for good when France conquered Algiers in 1830.

Until the American colonies won their independence from England their shipping was protected under the umbrella of the British, who, like other European powers, had negotiated a treaty with the pirates. Typically, these treaties required the payment of tribute in return for safe passage. Reasonable tributes were regarded as merely a cost of doing business. One of the unintended consequences of independence was the termination of this protection. Ironically, Morocco, which had been the first nation to officially recognize the US as an independent country also became the first to seize an American ship. Eventually, the US negotiated a treaty of its own, but the cost of tribute and ransoms was exorbitant. As a fledgling nation, America’s financial resources were limited. In 1800 the amount of tribute and ransom paid amounted to 20% of the US government’s expenditures. This was unsustainable. Something had to be done.

Many politicians were vehemently opposed to paying this onerous tribute. Among the most outspoken was Thomas Jefferson. He had firsthand experience as during the 1790s he was often involved in negotiating the release of prisoners. He firmly believed that paying tribute and ransoms only encouraged further hijackings. (If this sounds familiar, it should, as this was likely the foundation of our policy of not negotiating with terrorists.) Around this time the US began to develop a navy to deal with the pirates as well as to protect its national interests on the high seas.

When Jefferson took office as President in 1801 he decided to cease these payments. This decision led to two Barbary Wars, 1801 – 1805 and 1815. The pasha of Tripoli declared war on the US in May of 1801. In response, Jefferson sent a fleet to the area. At first this show of force calmed things down, but things accelerated again when one of the ships ran aground, and the pirates captured its crew. That led to armed conflict. Eventually, the US marines landed in Tripoli and captured the port. This battle was the genesis of the line in the Marine hymn with which we are all familiar – “from the halls of Montezuma to the shore of Tripoli.” As a result of this victory a new pasha was installed who was friendly to the US. As a symbol of this victory, the new pasha presented the American naval commander with a special sword called a “Mameluke,” which is named for North African warriors. The “Mamaluke” became the model for the Marines’ dress sword. It is still in use today. The victory at Tripoli marked the end of the first Barbary War. Incidentally, two young officers and soon-to-be-famous naval leaders whom you may have heard of distinguished themselves in this war – Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge. They both went on to long, distinguished naval careers.

The second war began after the conclusion of the War of 1812. The Dey of Algiers, believing that the US was now considerably weakened, declared war. In response, the US promptly sent a fleet under the command of Decatur and Bainbridge to the area. The fleet defeated the pirates quickly and decisively. This led to a new treaty and the end of the pirate attacks on US shipping permanently. As mentioned above, the pirates’ power ended soon afterwards when France conquered Algiers and established colonies in North Africa.


The Barbary Wars marked the first time that the US asserted itself on the world stage. The prompt response and decisive victories served notice that the US was to be respected. I believe that establishing itself in this manner was critical for the young fledgling nation.

In my opinion, we can learn a lesson from this that can be applied to today’s terrorists. It sounds trite, but it’s true. Deal with them promptly and decisively and from strength, not weakness. History has demonstrated this time and again. Compare and contrast our success/failure in WWII with that of Viet Nam and the Barbary pirates with ISIS and other Muslim terrorists. It doesn’t take a genius to see which approach is more effective.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s