Allies in the War Against the Barbary Pirates

When Thomas Jefferson declared war on the Barbary Pirates on May 10th, 1801, he committed the United States of America to conduct the most challenging type of military operation to execute successfully – expeditionary warfare.

To conduct expeditionary warfare, one must control the sea to and from your home country to ensure the ships on station and the beachhead is protected and sustained while the military objectives are achieved.

When Jefferson declared war on the Barbary Pirates, the U.S. had been independent for less than 18 years. Between 1783 and 1794, we didn’t have an army, much less a navy.

The U.S. stayed neutral despite Jefferson’s meddling in the French Revolution when he was Washington’s Ambassador to France and John Adams’ Secretary of State. U.S. merchants sent American-flagged ships far into the Mediterranean and to India. The result was that the U.S. economy grew substantially. About 70% of our trade went to England, 20% to France, and the rest to other countries.

While England offered to allow American ships headed for England or an English colony to sail in Royal Navy protected convoys, U.S. merchant ship captains were on their own when headed elsewhere. The pirates based in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli – collectively known as the Barbary Pirates – began capturing American ships right after we won our independence since we no longer enjoyed the protection of either the Royal or French navies. U.S. ships (as well as those from other nations) and their cargos were resold, and the pirates’ demanded ransoms from the U.S. government to return the sailors.

In the 1800 election, Jefferson criticized Adams for paying tribute. Once in office, Jefferson continued the policy of paying ransoms while at the same time defunding the Navy created under Adams. Jefferson turned what was left into a weak, ineffective coastal defense force.

The ships captured by the Barbary Pirates were owned by shipowners in almost every state, their crews were U.S. citizens AND they were all voters! The ransoms demanded by the pirates grew every year and depending on the year, were 20 – 30% of the Federal budget. Far more than what an effective Navy would cost.

To his credit, Jefferson reversed course and got Congress to fund the U.S. Navy so it could bring ships out of storage, and man, and equip them to take on the Barbary Pirates. To achieve his foreign policy objectives, the U.S. needed allies and overseas bases.

From 1792 to 1802, four of the major maritime powers in Europe – Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Spain – were at each other’s throats in the Wars of the First and Second Coalitions a.k.a., The French Revolutionary Wars. The 1802 Treaty of Amiens provided some breathing space between the French Revolutionary Wars (1792 – 1800) in which the kings and queens of Europe were trying to put the Bourbons back on the French Throne and the start of the Napoleonic Wars.

The Kingdom of Sicily which was, after Napoleon conquered Naples in 1799, moving closer to England. When the Barbary War began, Sicily was the primary Royal Navy base in the Mediterranean and the Kingdom of Sicily offered its ports to the U.S. to be used as bases.

Sweden, for the same reasons as the U.S., had been fighting the Barbary Pirates and offered to help. It contributed three well-built frigates. Now the U.S. had allies and nearby bases, the U.S. Navy was re-constituted and launched a naval campaign that is still studied today.

In the process, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps re-laid the cultural foundations of leadership, seamanship, initiative, and courage espoused by John Paul Jones, James Barron, and John Barry that exist in our Navy today.

Image is the flag of the Kingdom of Sicily.

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