Wednesday, April 08, 2009

To the shores of Tripoli

International It’s rough out there: the headline in the New York Times reads, “Pirates Seize Ship With U.S. Crew Off Coast of Somalia.” Few things change.

Old Ironsides sits in Boston harbor as a reminder that when push comes to shove the U.S. Navy can and does act worldwide in the interests of both the US and other nations. In 1803 she was designated the flagship of the U.S. Mediterranean Fleet and was used to blockade, bombard and intimidate the Barbary pirates.

Trouble began in July 1785, when the Barbary pirates from Algeria captured two American ships and the Dey of Algiers held their crews captive for a ransom of nearly $60,000. Thomas Jefferson, then minister to France, opposed the payment of tribute and proposed an association of countries to deal with them. Jefferson argued that "The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace." The plan fell through when both England and France continued to pay ransoms.

When Jefferson became president in 1801 he rejected Tripoli's demands for an immediate payment of $225,000 and an annual payment of $25,000. The pasha of Tripoli then declared war on the United States. President Jefferson quickly dispatched a squadron of naval vessels to the Mediterranean. Jefferson said in his first annual message to Congress: "To this state of general peace with which we have been blessed, one only exception exists. Tripoli, the least considerable of the Barbary States, had come forward with demands unfounded either in right or in compact, and had permitted itself to denounce war, on our failure to comply before a given day. The style of the demand admitted but one answer. I sent a small squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean. . . ."

Ultimately a small force of marines was sent to re-install the hereditary ruler of Tripoli. The U.S. marines raised a mercenary army of Arabs and Greeks and began the difficult march across the Libyan Desert towards Tripoli, winning a bloody victory in the outlying town of Derne. Just as soon as victory was assured the marines were informed by messenger that the war was over. The treaty that was signed guaranteed the return of American prisoners but little changed. North African piracy continued until France brought the era to an end by invading and colonizing most of North-West Africa.

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