America’s First War on Islamic Terrorism

by Bill Weinberg, Middle East Policy

Book Review:

How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the US Navy and Built a Nation
by Joshua E. London
John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2005

America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805
by Joseph Wheelan
Carroll & Graf, New York, 2003 (paperback edition 2004)

Few Americans today know much about the Tripoli crisis of 1801-5, aside from a vague sense of the origins of the line “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Corps hymn. But it is actually surprising that the affair has received so little attention given both its critical role in shaping early US military and especially naval power, and its startling parallels to the “war on (Islamic) terrorism” that would be launched precisely two centuries later.

These points are certainly not lost on Joseph Wheelan and Joshua London, authors of two post-9-11 histories of the Tripoli affair. Both books are competent histories, with an emphasis on the military side of things. But both strike a triumphalist tone that borders on the embarrassing. Neither is subtle about contemporary analogies.

Most Americans are aware that US citizens were held hostage by Islamic militants when Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in 1981. Few are aware this was also the case when George Washington took the oath in 1789. While the seamen being held on North Africa’s Barbary Coast did not occupy the center of the US political stage as the 1980 hostage crisis would, how to resolve the dilemma was an issue of the day, and an early dividing line between the Federalists, who favored military force, and the Democratic-Republicans who were suspicious of any such solution. (This divide was the seed of the contemporary two-party system; with a few twists and turns, the Federalists would ultimately emerge as today’s Republicans, and the Democratic-Republicans as the Democrats.)

But the situation played out in a paradoxical way. It was the Democratic-Republican, perceived anti-militarist Thomas Jefferson who, within days of taking office in 1801, ordered a squadron of warships to the Mediterranean, without any Congressional or public debate. The popular shorthand for the depredations of the Barbary corsairs at the time was “the Terror”; Wheelan makes the point clearer by calling it “state sponsored-terrorism,” and the payment of ransom in the form of tribute to the Barbary states “arms for hostages deals.” Both writers extol Jefferson as a hardliner who would take no more of this humiliation

The Barbary states consisted of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli (contemporary Libya), all officially tributaries of the Ottoman empire but in fact basically autonomous; and the independent sultanate of Morocco. All maintained fleets of corsairs, and impounded the ships, goods and crews of any nation that did not pay them tribute. The crisis with the US began just over a year after the War of Independence had ended—in October of 1784, when the merchant ship Betsey was seized with its crew by Moroccan corsairs off the Spanish coast; nine months later the ships Dauphin and Maria were similarly taken by Algerian corsairs.

Both authors note that Morocco’s sultan Sidi Muhammed ibn Abd Allah, presumably pleased to see Europe losing its colonial holdings, expressed interest in recognizing the US as early as 1780—when the outcome of the War of Independence was by no means certain. It was the new republic’s apparent reticence to enter into a treaty with the sultanate that prompted Morocco to force the matter. Consuls were dispatched to the Barbary states, and in 1786, the US did strike a treaty with Morocco and the crew of the Betsey was released. But internecine jealousies complicated matters when the consuls attempted to negotiate treaties with the three other Barbary states.

Jefferson (then minister to France) and his Federalist friend and rival John Adams (minister to Britain) were also dispatched to London to meet with representatives of the Barbary states. After meeting with the Tripolitan ambassador, Adams wrote to Foreign Secretary John Jay that he had been told the Barbary states were “the sovereigns of the Mediterranean; and that no nation could navigate that sea without a treaty of peace with them.” Jefferson, following such a meeting, wrote that he was told “every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” Adams lamented that “the policy of Christendom has made cowards of all their sailors before the standard of Mahomet.”

The American statesmen clearly had matters other than freeing hostages on their minds. John Jay openly saw the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen the federal government. “War alone can bring together the various States, and give a new importance to Congress,” he wrote. Jefferson held that “the liberation of our citizens” has “an intimate connection with the liberation of our commerce in the Mediterranean.”

In 1788, as Jefferson returned home to become Washington’s secretary of state, he authored a “Proposal to Use Force against the Barbary States,” which openly called for selling Muslim captives in the slave market in Malta to finance the expedition. In 1793, more US ships were captured by Algiers, and the following year Congress approved an “Act to Provide a Naval Armament”—initially consisting of six frigates, including the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” which would achieve glory in the War of 1812. One Federalist congressman even warned of “Algerines off the coast of America” if the corsairs were not beaten back in the Mediterranean.

Later in 1793, however, the US consuls in Algiers struck deals in which the hostage crewmen, who had been put to hard labor, were released for cash payments. Treaties with Tunis and Tripoli also followed. But the issue did not go away, and meanwhile there was the so-called Quasi-War with France—also a largely naval affair, this one mostly in the Caribbean. In 1798, with the Federalist standard-bearer Adams then president, the Department of Navy and the Marines were created by acts of Congress.

Right on time, the Barbary situation started to heat up again. In July 1800, the US shipCatherine was captured by Tripoli, then petitioning for a better treaty. The crew was released a few months later—but on threat of war if terms were not met. Then in September, the USSGeorge Washington, on the first Mediterranean port of call by an American warship, was comandeered by Bobba Mustapha, the dey of Algiers, and ordered to sail to Constantinople to deliver a payment of Algerian tribute. Captain William Bainbridge acquiesced, under threat of having his ship destroyed by the dey’s harbor guns, taking both the tribute shipment and a large contingent of Algerians on board. Wheelan notes how Bainbridge’s crew exacted a perverse revenge: “The Americans took pleasure in tacking into the wind whenever the Moslems prostrated themselves facing east toward Mecca, as they were required to do five times a day. This forced the worshippers to change position incessantly so they always faced approximately east, toward Mecca.”

In Constantinople, Bainbridge met the Ottoman sultan, Selim III, who we are told (implausibly) had never heard of the United States before. But he noted that both the US and Ottoman flags were adorned with “heavenly bodies,” connoting to him a spiritual connection. Writes London: “To his mind, America was not a Christian nation and thus was not like the nations of Europe.”

The consul to Tunis, William Eaton, a veteran of campaigns against Indians in the Ohio Valley who would emerge as the crucial figure in the Barbary drama, was aghast at Bainbridge’s capitulation to Algerian threats: “Nothing but blood will blot out the impression… Will nothing rouse my country?” And: “There is but one language which can be held to these people, and that is terror.”

The complacency that New Englander and Federalist sympathizer Eaton decried would be broken in an unanticipated way. In the electoral upset of 1800, Jefferson was elected by the tie-breaking House of Representatives. It was the outgoing Adams who, seeing the move as inevitable under the incoming Democratic-Republican, eviscerated the nascent Navy, selling off most of its ships. But immediately upon taking office, Jefferson dispatched four warships from the depleted US fleet to the Mediterranean. Writes Wheelan: “His decision not to consult Congress established the president’s authority to unilaterally send armed forces abroad.” Historians have dubbed the Mediterranean squadron the “Nursery of the Navy.”

The move only precipitated war. The Tripolitan ruler, Pasha Yusuf Karamanli, declared hostilities in his traditional way—having his soldiers chop down the flag at the US consulate, sending consul James Cathcart packing for Italy.

A blockade was thrown up around Tripoli harbor, and Gibraltar was policed to hole up the Tripolitan corsair ship Meshuda—none other than the former Betsey which (we are never told how in either book) seems to have been transferred to Tripolitan hands. The first battle came in August, when Lt. Andrew Sterett, commanding the USS Enterprise, captured another corsair ship, the Tripoli, while on a water run to Malta.

Then, both writers bristle, almost nothing happened for two years. In 1802, Morocco briefly declared war on the US to demand the release of the Meshuda, but nothing much came of it. In June 1803, US Marines finally touched those fabled sands of Tripoli, in what Wheelan notes was “the first US amphibious landing on a hostile shore.” But the incursion was brief and failed to intimidate Yusuf Karamanli. Jefferson, growing impatient, dispatched more ships, and a new, more aggressive commander, Commodore Edward Preble.

In October 1803 came what both writers call (in identically entitled chapters) “the Philadelphiadisaster.” The frigate Philadelphia, commanded by Bainbridge, ran aground on a reef just off Tripoli’s coast. Bainbridge surrendered without a fight, and both the ship and crew were taken captive. Preble, based in Syracuse, Sicily, plotted revenge. In February 1804, he dispatched the captured Tripolitan corsair Mastico, now dubbed the Intrepid and flying under British colors as a ruse de guerre, to Tripoli—where a hidden crew of Marines revealed themselves, boarded the Philadelphia and set it aflame before escaping. It went straight down.

Preble followed up with a sea battle in Tripoli harbor in August. The Constitution shelled the city, wreaking random death and toppling a minaret. Preble threatened to “reduce Tripoly to a heap of Ruins…” But all the action is seen through the eyes of the Americas: US Naval officer James Decatur is mortally wounded while boarding a corsair ship, and his brother Stephen, the mission commander who would later gain fame in the War of 1812, exacts vengeance, taking the ship and killing the captain. In September, the explosives-laden Intrepid is sent to destroy Tripoli’s harbor defenses, but explodes prematurely, destroying only the ship and crew.

Europe was finally impressed. Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain’s hero of Trafalgar, hailed Decatur’s mission as “the most bold and daring act of this age.” Said Pope Pius VII: “The American commander, with a small force and in a short space of time, has done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages.”

But as things approached a climax, the decisive tactics switched from conventional warfare to intelligence intrigues. William Eaton was sent in as “Naval agent for the Barbary Regencies,” with a design to form an alliance with Hamet Karamanli, the former pasha of Tripoli who had been dethroned and exiled by his brother Yusuf in 1795. Hamet had taken refuge in Egypt—then in the throes of a chaotic four-way war among the Ottomans, British, French and the local dynasty, the Mamluks.

Eaton landed at Alexandria in November and made his way up the Nile to Cairo, where he received the blessings of the Ottoman viceroy. He established contact with Hamet, hurriedly assembled a polyglot army of Marines, Turks, Greeks and Bedouin, and began marching west across the desert into Tripolitan territory. Wheelan hails Eaton as “America’s first modern intelligence operative” and “America’s Lawrence.”

In April 1805, “General” Eaton and his ragged army succeeded in taking Derna, easternmost of the Tripolitan cities, for the first time raising the stars and stripes over foreign soil. Eaton’s program of “regime change” (as Wheelan calls it) was well underway.

And, predictably, it was undercut by the bureaucracy. Tobias Lear, the general consul for the Barbary states, opposed Eaton’s mission, but exploited the tight spot it had put Pasha Yusuf in, negotiating a deal in which the Philadelphia captives would be ransomed, but no annual tribute paid. The war was over. Sailing out of Derna, Eaton wrote that his erstwhile comrade Hamet “falls from the most flattering prospects of Kingdom to beggary!” The men who had fought for Eaton and Hamet were left to their own devices, not trusting Yusuf enough to accept his amnesty offer. While both Wheelan and London expended much ink portraying the Bedouin soldiery as an undisciplined rabble that Eaton successfully struggled to master, we are told nothing of how they fared in the expedition’s aftermath.

Eaton wrote that the deal was “more honorable than any peace obtained by any Christian nation with a Barbary regency at any period within a hundred years: but it might have been more favorable and more honorable.” We can hope that his concern was not merely with US prestige.

The new treaty with Tripoli contained a secret clause which allowed Yusuf to keep Hamet’s family, who had been seized in his coup of 1795, imprisoned for four years more, as insurance against further uprisings. Hamet was exiled to Syracuse and paid a “paltry” sum for his efforts. After much pleading, he finally prompted the US to bring pressure to have his family released to Sicily in 1807.

Back in the USA, Eaton was hailed as the “modern Africanus” (a reference to Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal) and “inheritor of the mantle of Alexander the Great!” But his growing bitterness that his regime change plans were betrayed turned him, like the whole affair, into a political pawn. The Federalists blasted the treaty as a betrayal (an “inglorious deed” said a Senate committee called to investigate the matter) while the Democratic-Republican press portrayed Hamet as a degenerate “addicted to sordid propensities,” contrasting Yusuf’s “elevated centiments” (sic). Eaton was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature, but, drawn into endless political intrigues and, ultimately, alcoholism, he died in obscurity, a pathetic figure.

The trouble in Barbary wasn’t quite over. Tunis threatened war over the return of Tunisian ships confiscated in the Tripoli blockade. A warship under Decatur was dispatched to the scene, and the crisis was resolved with what had become the usual admixture of threats and diplomacy. In November 1807, Algiers, this time goaded by Britain, seized more American ships. In a sideshow to the War of 1812, war with Algiers was formally declared in 1814. Decatur was dispatched yet again, and Lear threatened: “Algiers will be humbled to the dust.” But it ended in a truce before that happened. Ironically, it was the British themselves who really did shell Algiers into submission two years later. The glory days of the Barbary corsairs were over.

The authors document the Orientalist prejudices that served war propaganda in the Barbary campaigns. Bainbridge wrote that if Americans could see “the weakness of their garrisons, and the effeminacy of their people, I am sure they would not be long tributary to so pitiful a race of infidels.” Eaton wrote of the North Africans that “they have no property in the soil to inspire an ambition to cultivate it. They are abject slaves to…the despotism of priestcraft. They live in more solemn fear of the frowns of a bigot who has been dead and rotten above a thousand years than of the living despot whose frown would cost them their lives.” He describes Dey Bobba Mustapha as “a huge, shaggy beast…with his hind legs gathered up like a tailor or a bear,” and expresses disgust at having to kiss his hand.

Unfortunately, both authors share in these prejudices, portraying the Arabs as gutless, conniving and greedy (using shameless adjectives like “perfidious” and “irascible”), while ascribing the highest of motives to the Americans—even while acknowledging that they also engaged in ruses and trickery.

The American officers and consuls were aghast at what they saw as an oppressive society in Barbary, but seemed blissfully blind to their own oppressions. Wheelan notes that Preble ran what was known as a “tight ship”—meaning, for instance, that he had the word MUTINEER burned with a branding iron into the forehead of a seaman who circulated a letter of protest about onboard conditions among the crew. The 320 lashes he was subsequently given must have seemed a mere afterthought. London notes that Eaton, to his credit, really grappled (in his journal) with the contradiction that they were fighting to free Americans from slavery, even as America practiced slavery at home.

Alternative histories such as Peter Lamborn Wilson’s cult classic Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes (Autonomedia, New York, 1995) have portrayed the Barbary states as multi-cultural autonomous zones where Iberian, French and Balkan converts to Islam were welcomed as brothers-in-plunder. Wilson concludes that many“renegadoes” (Europeans who had “turned Turk” and joined the corsairs) were drawn to Islam and piracy by the lure of cultural and even sexual freedom, a “proto-individualist-anarchist” ethic, and a rage against oppressive Euro-Christian society. While the fact that captives who converted were freed from forced labor was also doubtless a factor, Eaton actually vindicates Wilson’s thesis somewhat, writing that the corsair ships were commanded by “scoundrels who had just escaped from certain Christian countries to evade the punishment which their crimes merited…” Wheelan notes that the Muslims’ (perceived) sexual lasciviousness and acceptance of homosexuality helped fuel the war fever.

We are told that the Tripolitan grand admiral Murad Reis—commader of the Meshuda and later the chief defender of Tripoli’s harbor—was actually the Scottish renegado Peter Lisle. Wheelan mentions that Barbary raids had reached as far as Iceland, but fails to note that the notorious 1627 expedition to that northern isle was carried out by an earlier Murad Reis, for whom the Tripolitan grand admiral was named. And (as PL Wilson notes) the 17th-century Murad Reis, who sailed for Morocco, was also a renegado—born Jan Janz, a Dutchman.

Wheelan and London both provide some cursory historical background, tracing the roots of the corsair jihad to the 1492 expulsion of the Moors from Spain, followed by Muslim raids on their former Iberian homeland, prompting, in turn, Spanish-Hapsburg incursions into North Africa (e.g. Charles V’s attempted invasion of Algiers in 1541). The Barbary states appealed to Constantinople for aid, and the centuries-long contest was on. The authors’ attempts to reach deeper into history get confused, with Wheelan stating, for instance, that the Crusaders had fought the Ottoman Turks. (It was the Seljuk Turks who ruled the Middle East back then). Inaccuracies aside, both writers flirt with the tiresome “clash of civilizations” thesis.

Many of the historical analogies are left unspoken, but they become obvious with just a little imagination. Before going to war over its captive seamen, the US sought the aid of the Holy Order of Redemption of Captives (known as the Redemptionists, Mathurins or Trinitarians)—who were accused of perpetuating the slave trade by buying back hostages. This was an early echo of the contemporary controversy around groups that have similarly intervened in the Sudanese slave trade.

Muslim piracy itself is again a reality off the coast of Somalia, where the US is again backing one faction against another.

The spectacle of the rival Karamanli brothers being adopted by rival factions in the US elites may remind contemporary readers of the CIA promoting Iyad Allawi as Iraq’s leader while the Pentagon was supporting Ahmad Chalabi. And Jefferson’s treatment of Hamet Karamanli’s partisans recalls George HW Bush’s betrayal of the rebel Kurds and Shi’ites in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.

Aside from the Marine Corps hymn, the Tripoli affair has found its way into other bits of Americana. The USS Reuben James, which famously galvanized pro-war sentiment when it was torpedoed by the Nazis in 1941, was named for a sailor who was at the siege of Tripoli and is credited with saving Stephen Decatur’s life. More significantly, Francis Scott Key’s first prototype for “The Star-Spangled Banner” was inspired by the Tripoli war, with lines like “And pale beam’d the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d/By the light of the star-bangled flag of our nation” and “the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.”

London’s very last lines note the fall of Algiers to the French in 1830, and he hails this victory for European colonialism as a triumph of civilization without a trace of irony. “The terror of Barbary was finally laid to rest,” he happily concludes.

But if these books are, on some level, “really” about contemporary Iraq and Afghanistan, there are some obvious differences. One senses that, whatever its roots, the Barbary states’ jihad had become a largely mercenary affair by Jefferson’s day. As Richard O’Brien, consul to Algiers, remarked: “Money is the God of Algiers and Mahomet their prophet.” The contemporary jihadis, in contrast, are motivated by a genuine rage. And however criminal their tactics and totalitarian their ideology, the reasons for that rage are real and obvious.

It is instructive that neither author mentions the famous line from the US-Tripoli treaty of 1796 which for two centuries has been pointed to by defenders of American secularism: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,—and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

From the first days of the republic, there has been a tension between secularism and what some have called “Christian nationalism” in the United States. It is an irony that the latter has the upper hand just as the US has launched a global crusade ostensibly to protect the Western secular tradition from Islamic extremism.


This review first appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Middle East Policy Journal


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Oct. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution