Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Column: The Barbary Pirates are History

"Were we to give up half our territory rather than engage in a just war to preserve it, we should not keep the other long."
Thomas Jefferson, newly elected President of The United States, in regard to the Barbary Pirates.

For nearly four hundred years Europe paid tribute as Barbary Pirates in swift corsairs terrorized much less agile and much more poorly armed merchant ships in the waters of the Mediterranean. The Barbary States; Tunis, Algeirs, Morocco and Tripoli were the state sponsors. The Ottoman Sultan, ruler of the region, collected his share from these states who exacted their portion from the pirate loot in exchange for providing ports, bases and stores for weapons. Alternatively, tribute was paid to the Barbary States which sent a percentage to the Sultan and granted protection.

With American independence the Royal Navy no longer patrolled the sea lanes on behalf of the colonies and in 1793 America was forced to pay out more than twenty percent of it’s seven million dollar budget to ransom eleven ships. However, by 1801, with the election of Thomas Jefferson as President, the era of ransom and tribute was soon to come to an end.
Jefferson had long opposed tribute as an affront to the dignity of the nation and as poor strategy. He saw that weakness would only encourage higher and higher demands as the thirst of the pirates and their sponsors only grew greater with each appeasement.

By 1803 Jefferson ordered The U.S.S. Constitution ("Old Ironside") and its sister ship the U.S.S. Constellation to the Mediterranean. The Constitution had been built at great expense- some $300,000- the equivalent of the cost of a carrier today. It wasn’t the power of its cannon that was novel but the combination of its formidable number of powerful cannon, great maneuverability, and the strength of its "iron sides"- which repelled cannon balls. The Constitution turned its long guns upon the fortress in Tripoli and the palace of the Pasha and all his stores, barracks, and powder magazines were made rubble.

The war continued until 1805 when two decisive events resulted in the most favorable agreement yet made with a Barbary State. The first was when the Marines- backed by the Constitution- landed on the shores of Tripoli and destroyed the harbor citadel at Derna that served as the headquarters for the pirates. The second was the threat of regime change when Yusuf Karamanli, the Bey of Tripoli, learned that his brother was ready to replace him in a plan devised by William Eaton, the American consul in Tunis. Aboard the deck of the Constitution a treaty was negotiated and signed between the Bey and Johnny Rogers that put an end to the raids against American ships and provided for the release of captured American sailors.

Though the the best treaty to date with a Barbary power, the treaty did not not end the threat of piracy to U.S. shipping. During the later Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 the Barbary pirates increased their raids. In fact, Algiers declared war on the United States, a war which continued until 1815 when Decatur forced the dey of Algiers to sign a treaty. In that year the United States paid its last tribute to any Barbary State.

There are valuable lessons to be learned here. The first is that today's terrorism appears to have a predecessor in the Barbary Pirates. The "statelessness" of the pirates and their relationship to sponsor states is familiar. While the pirates perhaps flew the "skull and bones" they took refuge and comfort in the ports and strongholds of the sponsor states. Moneys and goods changed hands- benefits accrued to the states and the Ottoman Empire they served. These types of relationships need to be understood as part of Arab history and culture. The looseness of relationships and apparent statelessness of pirates or terrorists should not confuse the observer or camouflage the connections between the perpetrators and their partners.

Secondly, the events that led to the beginning of the end of the Tripolitan War need to be understood. It was the destruction of the headquarters of the pirates in Derna and the subsequent threat of regime change that put the finishing blows on the Bey of Tripoli-- in that order. Once the headquarters of the pirates at the citadel were destroyed by the Marines the future of the pirates looked bleak indeed. They needed bases to operate. Presented with the threat of regime change, Karamanli reformed - after the citadel was laid waste.

While the above quoted statement of Jefferson was clearly made in exaggeration to make a point, how strange it is that two hundred years later Israel should be expected to do just that very thing in order to appease terrorists who so resemble their pirate forerunners. Based on the history of the Tripolitan War one would be very hard pressed to make the case that the piracy would have ever ended if instead of sending the Constitution Jefferson had continued in the European tradition of paying tribute and ransom-- much less had he handed the Barbary Pirates, the Barbary States, or the Ottoman Sultan half of America's territory.


Post a Comment

<< Home