The Barbary Wars

Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the US Navy-Glenn Tucker (Amazon Kindle)

The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World-Frank Lambert (Amazon hardcover)

Ed. note: Dawn Like Thunder is one of the finest history books I’ve ever read. In lieu of a full review of the book–since I have nothing but effusive praise for it–I will simply set the stage for its events. In this capacity, Lambert’s Barbary Wars is a solid resource as a remedial overview for those of us who are justifiably rusty about our early 19th century American history.

Forgotten by most historians and ignored by many even during their own time, the Barbary Wars were nonetheless a pivotal set of events in our nation’s early history. For over thirty years (1784-1816) America struggled for its economic independence against a quartet of weak protectorate states located over three thousand miles away. The Wars shaped past and present US foreign policy, spurred the creation of the Navy, and, upon their successful completion, ensured that the American experiment could continue.

There’s something in this tale for everyone. The casual reader will find the story of the Barbary Wars fascinating. There were harrowing battles on the high seas, duels between military leaders, kidnappings and ransom demands. There was betrayal, palace intrigue abroad and political drama at home. There were heroes whose legacies still endure; names like Decatur and Preble and Eaton that probably sound familiar, even if one can’t put their finger on why. And there were villains whose names remain forgotten, but who tortured Americans in some of the most grotesque ways imaginable (save, perhaps, Southern slave owners).

A professor looking to expound upon international relations concepts could use the Barbary Wars as a case study for many: ruthless realpolitik exercised by Britain in aiding Barbary pirates to advance its mercantile interests; balance of power strategies employed by the Barbary states to play European nations off one another; the various attempts of America to establish regional free trade, first through failed Jeffersonian tactics (bilateral trade agreements) and then, successfully, through Hamiltonian power projection.

Every reader should find this conflict intriguing based simply on how different things were such a short time ago. 21st century America is the greatest naval power on the planet, able to project force on any continent with overwhelming firepower and near-certain odds of victory. Yet scarcely over two centuries ago–a blink of an eye in historical terms–it was a fledgling country that needed every ounce of its willpower and ingenuity to stand up to a ragtag band of pirates.

AFTER AMERICA WON the Revolutionary War, it was, as Lambert points out, only nominally independent. It had massive economic potential but needed free trade across the Atlantic and Mediterranean to unlock it. And that was not something the European powers wanted to cede. Napoleonic France worried about America’s tremendous agricultural resources feeding its enemies. Britain shared similar concerns about the French, but even had it not, it embraced a mercantilist strategy that assumed trade was a zero-sum game; letting American ships have access to global markets would, by their thinking, deprive Britain of gold and goods. Portugal and Spain were, at best, ambivalent about protecting American shipping interests.

Britain in particular antagonized American ships for decades following Yorktown. In an era when an affront to one’s pride was considered a legitimate reason for violence, Britain regularly seized American vessels, imprisoned its sailors, and forcibly repatriated deserters.

But America had no recourse. Its deepwater navy was essentially nonexistent, and its shore defenses couldn’t have stopped a single determined power from invasion. (Indeed, much as America is said to have benefited from oceans to protect her, it was even more fortunate that potential belligerents Spain, France, Portugal and England were too busy fighting each other to conquer her. It wouldn’t have been hard.) The Articles of Confederation made creating a modern navy almost impossible, as it lacked provisions for an executive branch and direct taxation. Building seaworthy ships with even modest firepower required a great deal of cash and national cohesion; America in 1784 had neither.

IN ADDITION TO the big-power problem loomed the emerging threat of piracy. Located inside the Strait of Gibraltar, the Barbary States (Morocco, Algiers, Tunisia and Tripoli) had little arable land, so they relied on pirate raids to fuel their economies. They were third-rate powers at best, but brilliantly exploited European divisions and their geographic advantage to conduct asymmetric warfare and opportunistic diplomacy.

Rather than attempt to go toe-to-toe with large navies, Barbary corsairs and xebecs conducted hit-and-run operations against defenseless merchant ships. Their light design gave them the speed to escape before reinforcements could arrive and the maneuverability to operate in shallow waters that would ground European warships. At the same time, Barbary kings negotiated strategically-timed non-aggression pacts to prevent a unified European response. Their tactics were so successful that most European powers paid regular tributes to the Barbary states; these bribes often amounted to tens of thousands of dollars per year, in addition to “consular gifts” of rare cloths, durable goods, and even military supplies.

The thirteen colonies had been protected from Barbary raids by the British navy, which was happy to let them fend for themselves upon declaring war. Meanwhile, American political opinion about France was mixed at best, making Napoleon hesitant to deploy vital ships to protect a vacillating ally. American commercial shipping was suddenly vulnerable in the crucial Mediterranean trade market.

The point was hammered home by the taking of two US vessels and enslavement of their crews by Morocco and Algiers in 1784 and 1785, respectively. (Lambert, 9) The Moroccan raid, as it turned out, was really just a way to get America’s attention and negotiate a lasting peace. They saw the potential of the emergent nation and wanted to procure an alliance. (It was an interesting way to get attention, to be certain.) But Algiers–by far the most powerful of the remaining three Barbary powers–used the 1785 attack as a springboard with which to declare war on American shipping.

The United States faced a choice: it would have to either fight the pirates with its nonexistent navy or commit to annual tribute payments that it couldn’t afford.

THE RATIFICATION OF THE CONSTITUTION in 1788 made the military route at least theoretically possible. America now had an executive branch and commander-in-chief of its armed forces. It had a unified treaty-making apparatus rather than 13 sovereign states negotiating on their own. Furthermore, national sentiment increasingly seemed to favor a forceful response to the continued Barbary provocations. But there were still plenty of issues.

First, the US was broke. Second, it took time to build ships: not only did shipyards need to be constructed, but institutional knowledge needed to be cultivated. There were only a handful of people in the country who knew how to design and create war vessels, let alone command them. Finally, even under the more expansive powers of the Constitution, it was largely written to -limit- centralized government planning. Unlike today, presidents of the early republic took very seriously their responsibility to govern within the document’s confines.

The 1790s were marked by repeated American efforts to procure peace while Barbary powers continued to attack their shipping. With no recourse, Algiers routinely ran afoul of agreements, knowing that America couldn’t do anything about it. American leadership was split roughly into two camps. Thomas Jefferson, normally one to eschew military conflict, wanted to mobilize and fight. John Adams wanted to continue tribute payments. The US was too busy with other issues at home–notably the Whiskey Rebellion and escalating tensions with the British–to decide one way or the other.

It is here that Dawn Like Thunder begins. Tucker artfully depicts America’s first act of resolve against the Barbary states: on November 9th, 1800, Captain William Bainbridge sneaked a 24-gun frigate into an Ottoman port that had never been visited by a Western vessel. That the George Washington was on a diplomatic mission was irrelevant; Bainbridge not-so-subtly announced that America was building a modern navy and was not afraid to use it. The ship’s presence served as notice that America could now field legitimate warships with bold leaders.

In the ensuing 15 years, the US switched between states of war, peace, and a muddled middle ground with three of the four Barbary states. (Peace with Morocco endured despite some incidents.) The aforementioned Preble conducted the nation’s first successful naval offensive (in Tripoli) before being inexplicably relieved of duty. Eaton led an army of multinational soldiers across a barren desert in the Marines’ first successful occupation of a foreign city (Derne) before also being relieved. The US paused to fight The War of 1812 before immediately letting loose its battle-hardened Navy against Algiers in a one-sided affair.

Coupled with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Western history entered a new epoch. The United States stumbled its way through much of the Barbary Wars but emerged as a bona fide regional player with a respected navy and admiralty. It now had actual independence and economic autonomy. With trade corridors open and its hostages freed, America would focus on westward expansion. It completed its continental contiguity–for better or worse–through decades of wars and smaller incursions, none of which would have been possible without an improbable victory over upstart pirates.

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