At Large

Piracy Then and Now

Today's Somali pirates are fortunate they're not up against the U.S. and British forces of 1815.

By 11.20.08

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Reading about the activities of Somali highwaymen, seawaymen rather, brings to mind the circumstances of our Republic's first experience in power projection.

In 1785, as soon as the colonies -- battered by the War for Independence -- were in condition to resume the lucrative trade with southern Europe, two American merchant ships were seized by Algerian pirates, and their crews held for ransom.

Domestic considerations and fair-weather foreign friends caused the young nation to waste valuable time while figuring out how to respond, during which its citizens suffered further damage to their interests and lives. In the end, Thomas Jefferson's initial reaction was the right one: "Weakness provokes insult and injury, while a condition to punish, often prevents them."

The Barbary pirates at the end of the 18th century had two operating methods. They sold "peace treaties" and they held ships, crews, and passengers for ransom. The major commercial power of the day, Great Britain, found it worth its while to buy treaties rather than wipe out the North African gangs, which it was well within its power to do. In effect kept in business by British subsidies, the pirates preyed on weaker maritime nations, improving Britain's competitive position. The calculation was a ruthless one. As Benjamin Franklin put it: "If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England's while to build one."

The young nation did not have a navy. Indeed, under the Articles of Confederation, the United States did not even have an executive branch legally empowered to devise and execute an anti-pirate policy. And one of the principal problems confronting Thomas Jefferson, the Confederacy's ambassador to France, was that the Congress was not especially keen on raising any money for a national war-fighting machine, either on land or on sea.

Thomas Jefferson saw the advantages that a strong central government could muster, diplomatically, if it had some muscle at its disposal. He wrote to James Monroe that with the Unites States taking the lead, "a convention might be formed with those powers establishing a perpetual cruise," which is to say a deterrent force, in the Mediterranean.

The Constitution gave the national government enhanced powers and responsibilities, but it was not until 1794 that the Congress authorized funds for a six-shop navy. By then, Algerian pirates had seized 11 more American vessels, putting more than 100 officers and men in conditions of wretched captivity. "Death would be a great relief," wrote one captain. But rather than using force, money and military supplies were used to ransom off the Americans.

Mr. Jefferson, temperamentally and philosophically scornful of the practice of paying tribute, accepted the war Tripoli declared on us in 1801. It did not go especially well for us. Capt. William Bainbridge was captured with his ship, the Philadelphia; the entire crew of 300 was put to hard labor and had to be ransomed off. In 1804 Lt. Stephen Decatur sailed into Tripoli harbor and destroyed the ship. Perhaps the most perceptive observation on the war was made by Sen. William Plummer of New Hampshire: "Had [Jefferson] sent a sufficient number of men and ships it would have been expensive -- it might have endangered his reputation for economy and lessened his popularity with the rabble, but most probably would have saved the lives of deserving men."

An American named William Eaton, acting in a private capacity, attacked Tripoli from the desert, planning to install opponents of the pirate gang that sat there. The campaign went well, but the Jefferson administration decided to end the war by resuming payments of tribute.

In 1815, after the continuing troubles with Great Britain were settled by the War of 1812, the problem of Barbary piracy returned, as Algiers reneged on the tribute deal and captured an American vessel. Congress declared war. Lt. Decatur and Capt. Bainbridge returned to the Mediterranean with much more power than the first time and brought memories of Carthage to Algiers. Great Britain, meanwhile, encouraged by the American example, gave up its policy of paying tribute and instead joined in the naval operations, which included heavy bombardments. Algiers accepted treaties, abolishing tribute; Tunis and Tripoli soon did likewise. Although lone-gun pirates continued to infest the North African coastline until the French established their hegemony there in the 1830s, state-sponsored piracy in that part of the world was finished -- until the 20th century.


SO YOU SEE. I should note, by the by, that my former colleagues at the Detroit News will I am sure not object to reprinting this interesting little piece, since I wrote it for that storied paper, shortly before President Reagan ordered punitive raids against Libya -- and you will note that it was not until President Bush's show of quite considerable -- but sufficient? -- force in the larger region that the Muammar Qaddafi regime (a) ended its nuclear bomb program and (b) released hostages it was holding on absurd poison-conspiracy charges. The French government took credit for that one, and as far as I know never has apologized for interfering with Mr. Reagan's actions, which almost surely contributed to the losses our aviators sustained while carrying them out.

Observe, too, that it is easy to understand Thomas Jefferson's mixture of frustration and stop-and-start policies. What in the world are the Saudis doing with their billions if they cannot hire some tough guys -- there must be some in their neighborhood? -- to go and clean up the Somali coast. Could they know something we don't about what's really going on over there? After all, seizing one of their super tankers must do something not good, from the rest of the world's point of view, to the price of oil.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.