Undoubtedly, most of you are familiar with the lyrics “the shores of Tripoli,” which are included in the “Marine Hymn.”  But, most of you may not be cognizant of the facts, circumstances and significance behind them.  If you are interested, read on.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries the northern coast of Africa was ruled by four Muslim states – Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis, which were part of the Ottoman Empire, and The Sultanet of Morocco, which was independent.  Collectively, they were known as the Barbary States.   The Barbary States featured a fighting force known as the Barbary Pirates, and their ferocity in battle was unequalled.  It was said that they won many a battle before it even began.  The pirates would forcibly board a ship, many of which were unarmed merchant ships, with “one dagger in each hand and another in their mouth.”  At that point, it was not unusual for the merchant ship to surrender.

The  pirates would enslave their captives and either sell them as slaves or hold them for ransom.   According to Robert Davis, a noted historian and author of the book “British Slaves on the Barbary Coast,” during their four century reign of terror, the pirates captured and enslaved between one million and 1.25 million Europeans.  Most countries paid annual tribute to them to protect their shipping from attacks.  Others paid handsome ransoms to free captives.  This activity comprised the major portion of the Barbary States’ income.   European countries and their merchants were not happy with the situation but viewed it as another cost of doing business.

Before 1783 the American colonies’ shipping was under the protection first of England (prior to the Revolutionary War) and then France (during the War) and, therefore, safe from the pirates’ raiding.  After 1783 the US was on its own, and problems quickly arose.  In the late 18th and first few years of the 19th centuries the fledgling US government was forced to pay ransom to release captured American sailors several times.  For example, it paid over $1 million in 1795 alone, which amounted to 1/6 of its entire budget for that year.  Most captured seamen were virtually enslaved and suffered greatly.  They were subjected to hard labor under very trying conditions and exposed to poor diet, unsanitary conditions and disease.

In the late 18th century Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, recognizing the seriousness of the problem, became very active proponents of seeking a diplomatic solution.  They negotiated repeatedly with Barbary diplomats to no avail.  As an example of Tripoli’s intransigence in this matter, at one point its ambassador to England was quoted as declaring: “It was written in the Koran that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every [pirate] who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise…”  Sound familiar?  Things haven’t really changed much, except, perhaps, for the method of attacks.

Jefferson and Adams were against paying tribute, rightfully recognizing that it would merely invite further raids and, likely, bankrupt the country.  But, the US had little choice as it did not yet possess a navy that could protect its shipping from the pirates.  Americans had just fought a long and exhausting war and had neither the funds nor the will for another one. Finally, in 1798 the US Department of the Navy was formed with one of its primary missions being to protect shipping from the pirates.

In 1801 Thomas Jefferson was elected the third President of the US.  He was now in a position to “push” his plan to deal with the pirates militarily.  In 1804 the US Navy was finally ready for war.  The decisive battle was the capture of the Tripolitan city of Derna, which was located on the coast of present-day Libya near Alexandria, Egypt.  This was a major turning point in US military history.  Not only was it the first time the US flag was raised in victory on foreign soil, but also it earned the US much needed respect with both the Barbary States and the rest of the world.

It was this victorious battle that became memorialized in the Marine Hymn with the line, “the shores of Tripoli.”  (The reference to the “Halls of Montezuma” refers to the battle of Chapultec Castle in Mexico City during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.)   The Marines were founded in 1775.  The Hymn dates back to the 19th century.  The author is unknown.

This war demonstrated that the US could fight as a cohesive nation, not merely as New Yorkers or Pennsylvanians.  The new country had indeed arrived.


Unfortunately, the Barbary States reneged on the treaty in 1807.  At the time, the US was distracted by its deteriorating relations with England, which ultimately led to the War of 1812.  By 1815 the US was able to refocus on the pirates.  They fought a Second Barbary war (which caused the previous war to be renamed as The First Barbary War) in which the US again earned a decisive victory.  This ended the reign of terror of the Barbary Pirates for good.

The heroes of the First Barbary War are further memorialized by the “Tripoli Monument.”   It is the oldest military monument in the US.  Over the years, it has been located in various venues, but currently it resides at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.

In addition, Hollywood got into the act.  The Barbary Wars are depicted in the 1942 movie “To the Shores of Tripoli” starring John Payne, Maureen O’Hara and Randolph Scott.



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