Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | May 13, 2011

Somalia update: "Our Jeffersonian past?"

I really don’t get my information from Fox News (Keith Olbermann used to call them “Fixed News”), but they showed up on Google with an article about a Republican Senator, Mark Kirk, who just returned from the Horn of Africa.  This, by the way, is this Mark Kirk who ‘replaced’ Barack Obama in Illinois when he became Prseident.  Senator Kirk thinks the U.S. Navy needs to get much tougher on the Somalis.  What struck me was this quote:  “We should recall our Jeffersonian past and blockade main pirate port locations.”  “Jeffersonian past?”  It didn’t compute at first, and then I recalled that era when piracy was a major problem for the very young United States.

Barbary Corsair Dragut Reis

The Barbary Corsairs were pirates in the sense that they were thieves at sea, but they were a very particular kind of brigand.  These raiders from the Barbary Coast, the area named by Europeans for the Berber inhabitants, had been bothering European ships and towns for centuries before Jefferson’s time.  Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, the chief ports, were nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, because Moors exiled from Spain in 1492 were fair game until the Sultan offered them protection.  In fact these were pirate city-states whose chief source of income was plunder.  Their main booty was not gold or goods but slaves:  It has been said that perhaps a million or more Europeans were captured between 1530 and 1780.  There was both religious and monetary drive behind the Corsairs’ activity.  For one, all Europeans were infidels, and capturing them was in their Muslim worldview a guaranteed ticket to paradise.  For another, there was profit in either selling the captives directly into slavery or getting paid a ransom for their freedom.  The captives could be slaves for years, working as manual laborers, domestic servants, or–worst of all–oarsmen aboard the dreaded Barbary galleys.  Some of the most successful Corsairs were not Moors at all but Englishmen and Europeans who had lost their privateering commissions between the many religious wars of the time and turned full pirate.  This is not, of course, unlike the buccaneers and pirates of the Caribbean, but here these turncoats were potentially enslaving their own countrymen.  Key among these scoundrels was Jack Ward, an Englishman who introduced square-rigged ships to the Barbary fleet and thus made the Corsairs the dominant maritime force in the Mediterranean in the 17th century.

By the end of the 17th century, England alone had dealt with the Barbary threat with any success.  Peace treaties were signed with Barbary States, often after the Royal Navy bombarded them.  This safe passage worked well for Colonial America, but with Independence that safeguard was gone.  In 1784, the first act of piracy against the United States occurred as Moroccan pirates seized the brigantine BetseyThomas Jefferson, then US Minister to France, sent envoys who got the Moroccans to sign a treaty in 1786.  Algeria was less cooperative.  They captured the Maria and the Dauphin in 1785 and continued to take American ships.  A full decade later, the United States acquiesced to paying $1 million to release American prisoners, a full sixth of the U.S. budget at that time.  The Naval Act of 1794 created the United States Navy and ordered the building of six frigates expressly to safeguard American ships from the Corsairs.

USS Philadelphia aground off Tripoli, 1803

In 1801 Jefferson became President.  Shortly after his inauguration, Tripoli demanded tribute from the new administration, and, when Jefferson refused, the flagpole in front of the U.S. Consulate in Tripoli was cut down, Tripoli’s sign of declaring war.  The “Jeffersonian” response was not strictly a return declaration of war but an instruction to American ships to directly engage Tripoli and its ships.  The ensuing “First Barbary War” involved such legendary ships as the Constellation, the Constitution, and the Enterprise and made legends out of such mariners as Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge (for whom Bainbridge Island here in Washington is named).  What Senator Kirk is most directly referring to is the successful blockade of Barbary ports throughout 1803 by Commodore Edward Preble.  By 1805 Tripoli had been battered into submission and signed for peace.  The problem was not really solved:  The Corsairs were at again within a few years while the U.S. was busy with the War of 1812.  A “Second Barbary War” occurred in 1815, once Napoleon had stopped distracting the world, but the treaty with Algiers that resulted from the veteran Commodore Decatur’s combination of might and negotiation was quickly ignored.  A year later, it took nine hours of bombardment by the British Navy to finally put an end to the pirate threat.  The fate of the Corsairs and the Barbary Coast was sealed over the next few decades as Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli all became European colonies.

Decatur’s squadron off of Algiers, 1815

Senator Kirk’s “Jeffersonian past” points specifically to the blockading of the Barbary Corsairs.  The first problem is that Jefferson’s Naval response didn’t really work.  It took two “wars,” the involvement of the British, and ultimately the inexorable force of colonialism to end the Barbary Corsair era.  Furthermore, in modern context, Kirk’s comment comes off as a glib patriotic reference to the grand old days of the U.S. Navy and a typically Republican call for military action.  Then there’s the problem that there are innumerable differences between the Somalis and the Corsairs.  Finally, even putting history aside, the effectiveness of a blockade against the Somali pirates would be questionable at best.  The Somalis are very mobile.  As I have said before, it is not strictly a “Somali” problem.  Yemen, where some of the pirates are already from, is in turmoil, and it is easy to imagine this becoming the new center of piracy just as Port Royal gave way to New Providence in the old Caribbean.  Sorry, Senator, but your historical accuracy is as dubious as your proposal.



  1. Senator Kirk has posted this:

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