We Paid What for Tribute?

When the American Revolution ended in 1783, as a country we wanted to resume our trade with Europe and the duchies on the north shore of the Mediterranean. Before the war began, our ships flew under the British flag and enjoyed protection of the Royal Navy. During the Revolutionary War, our merchant ships enjoyed the protection of the French Navy in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

But, on May 12th, 1784 all that changed when the Treaty of Paris was signed. As of that date, our merchant ships no longer had the protection of the Royal or French Navy or the Continental Navy whose last ship – Alliance – was decommissioned in 1783 and sold in 1785. In other words, once our merchant ships ventured into the Atlantic, they were on their own.

Our leaders rationalized that it was cheaper to pay tribute than pay for a navy. The first treaty was negotiated with Morocco in 1787 for $20,000 (~$528,647 in 2020 dollars). It is the only money we paid Morocco.

Farther into Mediterranean, it was a different story. Starting in 1785, pirates based in Algiers wanted $60,000 (~$1,585,942 today) to give back two ships and 21 captives. We countered with $4,200 (~$111,016 in 2020). It wasn’t nearly enough.

Meanwhile, U.S. merchant ships sailed into the Mediterranean at their own peril. By 1790, Algiers had taken 11 ships and 100+ prisoners. Many of these man languished in captivity in terrible conditions for 11 long years.

It was not until March 27th, 1794 that the Congress passed the Navy Act that created the modern U.S. Navy and authorized the construction of six frigates. Thanks to political wrangling and funding issues similar to what happens today, those ships wouldn’t take to sea for two years.

Frustrated, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Vice President John Adams wanted to create a league nations trading in the Mediterranean to force an end to this piracy. No other country was interested. For the record, the British, Dutch, and French had treaties with the pirates based in Algiers in Algeria, Tripoli in modern Libya and Tunis, the capital of Tunisia that paid the pirate leaders an annual sum to leave their ships alone.

In 1796, we signed a peace treaty with Dey of Algiers that paid him $646,500 (~$17,088,538 in 2020) that also a 36-gun frigate built designed by the same man – James Hackett – in the same shipyard that built John Paul Jones frigate Ranger plus naval supplies to support it.

This left us to deal with the pirates based in Tunis and Tripoli. We paid them each $160,000 (~$479,229 in 2020) plus naval supplies, presents and other materials. One gift was a pair of pistols with gold inlays and diamonds.

The U.S. government didn’t have the money to pay the Algerians or the Tunisians or the Libyans so it borrowed it. Debt service on these loans amounted to 20 percent of the Federal budget!

The treaties didn’t last because the leaders of the Barbary Pirates wanted more and more money every year. In May 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the U.S. and the war against the Barbary Pirates was on.


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