The Barbary Wars, 1801-1805

When the United States won its independence, Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis on the Barbary Coast had been preying on the world's merchant ships for three hundred years. They would cruise the Mediterranean, board merchant ships, and take the crew captive. If the home countries agreed to pay ransoms, the crews were released. If not, the crews were sold into slavery. Over time, most countries simply paid a yearly bribe to the sultans.

After President Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated, the sultans raised their demands. Jefferson argued it would be cheaper to build a navy than give in to the increasing demands.

In 1801 Jefferson sent three frigates for observation purposes, but Tripoli declared war on the United States. Lieutenant Sterrett defeated the pirate Tripoli in battle, demonstrating a major weakness of the Barbary pirates.

Commodore Richard Morris commanded a larger fleet. He continued the policy of escorting American merchant ships. He was dismissed within a year for lack of diligence.

The new commander, Commodore Edward Preble was admired for his great courage, his fairness in dealing with his men, and his expertise as a mariner. Captain William Bainbridge had accidentally run the Philadelphia aground near Tripoli Harbor and then surrendered the ship and its crew to the Tripolitans. Preble realized there was no chance of recapturing the Philadelphia and that the ship had to be destroyed. A raiding party boarded and burned the Philadelphia and then escaped.

Preble hoped to force Tripoli to accept peace with the U.S. and win the freedom of Bainbridge and his crew. He planned a series of assaults, which were mainly successful. After each assault Preble sent a message suggesting negotiations and offering payments of $40,000 and then $50,000 in exchange for the American prisoners from the Philadelphia.

In September, Preble conceived a plan. The Intrepid, loaded with a hundred barrels of gunpowder, sailed into Tripoli Harbor with a volunteer crew with the intention of being abandoned and exploded, hopefully destroying many pirate ships. However, as she approached the enemy ships, the pirates spotted the Americans and fired cannons. Seconds later, the Intrepid exploded. A direct hit ignited the Intrepid’s gunpowder, destroying the ship and killing her crew.

That same month, Commodore Samuel Barron arrived off Tripoli with reinforcements and to take command of the squadron.

Commodore Barron continued the blockade of Tripoli but stopped the attacks. He developed a new approach to peace by undermining the authority of the pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli. The American consul in Tunis suggested that they replace Yusuf Karamanli with his older brother, who was in exile in Egypt. Fearing that he would be overthrown, Yusuf Karamanli agreed to negotiate a peace. On June 4, 1805, he accepted $60,000 to release the American prisoners and approve a new treaty that did not require bribes.

Source: The Barbary Wars, 1801-1805
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