The Tripolitan War

As the United States became independent from British rule in 1776, so did their protection of commercial vessels on the high seas from the Royal Navy. Such protection was necessary in the Mediterranean Sea from Northern African states consisting of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, known at the time as the Barbary pirate states. For years, these North African States “earned a lucrative take by plundering European ships, ransoming or enslaving captive sailors, and extorting from seafaring nations handsome annual fees for safe passage through the Mediterranean.”[1] For those who did not comply with the rules of honoring such fees imposed from the Barbary states, consequences ensued, especially for the newly founded American shipping industry. Without protection from the Royal Navy after 1776, American merchant ships fell victim to Barbary piracy, and with the dissolution of the Continental Navy after the Revolutionary War, the United States only options to manage the conflict were through diplomacy or through the payment of tributes to respective Barbary states.[2]

Going along the status quo of other European nations, John Adams, at the time current ambassador to Britain under George Washington’s administration, believed that it was cheaper to pay the tribute than to retaliate against the North African pirates.[3] It was the only economically feasible option for the Washington administration. If retaliation was the course of action, a bolstering of the navy was required, and at the time wasn’t a necessary priority for the young nation. The cost of going to war against the Barbary states far surpassed the cost of paying tributes. Although this course of action seemed to be a consensus from members and ambassadors under Washington’s administration, Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France sought a different course of action. “Jefferson became ‘obsessed’ with the pirates, preferring to cut ‘to pieces piecemeal’ this ‘pettifogging nest of robbers.’”[4]

Although the Washington administration encountered minimal aggression from the Barbary pirates during the first decade of their newly founded independence, conflict soon was met after a multitude of treaties between costal European nations and the North African states. In 1785, Spain and the state of Algiers signed a truce keeping Spanish ships at bay in the Strait of Gibraltar. Before the truce, these Spanish ships patrolled the Strait of Gibraltar to keep Barbary confined to the Mediterranean Sea.[5] With the absence of Spanish naval ships, these Algerian barbary pirates extended their influence on the Atlantic, affecting American merchant ships heading towards Europe. On the 25th of July in 1785, “Algerian pirates captured the Maria off the coast of Portugal, taking its crew as hostages. On July 30th in nearby waters other pirates overtook the Dauphin, captained by Richard O’Bryen. Each American ship had a crew of twenty-one.”[6] Without the protection from the Spanish, the United States shipping suffered from these acts of piracy, setting a theme for their reliance on European intervention with these North African states, because the course of action by America was to not intervene, but appeal the Barbary pirates. Five years later, even before the United States handled and authorized ransom payments to release the 42 sailors held captive, Portugal became involved in a war against Algiers. American trade in the Mediterranean began to return to a sense of normalcy with the help of Portuguese naval squadrons occupying the Algerian coast, keeping the Barbary pirates at bay.[7] Although the aggression from the Barbary pirates seemed to be alleviated while the Portuguese conflict was ongoing, when the war came to an end, a peace treaty between Portugal and Algiers resulted in October 1793.[8] As a result, Portuguese naval pressure off the coast of Algiers came to an end, allowing for the pirates to continue to enforce their tribute laws of the Mediterranean. With the absence of European naval pressure and enforcement acting as a protectorate for American shipping vessels, Barbary “cruisers captured eleven more American merchant vessels and enslaved the 119 members of their crews.”[9]

To resolve the conflict, George Washington, although agitated by the events of merchant piracy and the taking of American hostages, sought towards treaty making with Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis. Appointing at the time current minister to Portugal, David Humphreys, he formulated a treaty with the Dey of Algiers calling for $642,000 in cash and an annual tribute of naval stores along with the assistance for negotiations with Tripoli and Tunis in September 1795.[10] After a year of negotiations, treaties were reached with the Barbary pirates resulting in the payment of tributes. In 1797, under John Adams’ administration, American diplomacy in Northern Africa emulated that of his predecessor. For two years, these treaties were respected by the United States, but with the emergence of the Quasi War in 1798, money that would have gone to these North African States instead went towards efforts to establish a standing navy to compete with French naval forces.[11]

In 1801, with the end of the Quasi War, efforts to restore diplomatic commitments from the previous treaties of the late 1790s with Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunisia continued. With these efforts to restore tribute payments brought forth more complications. “In 1801, the Bashaw of the second largest state, Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli, discovered that Algiers received more tribute from the United States than himself. The United States refused his demands for increased payments citing the 1796 treaty. On 14 May 1801, Yusuf’s forces entered the U.S. consulate and cut down the national flag declaring war on the United States.”[12] The declared war on the United States brought forth increased acts of piracy resulting in the capture of American commercial vessels and the imprisonment of their respective crews. In 1801, recently elected president Thomas Jefferson, saw a different means of action rather than responding to these events like his predecessors. As a strong believer in civil liberties, he believed that free trade was essential towards United States success as a new member in the globalized system, and these pirates contradicted his views of civilized free trade. Jefferson “was determined to respond to these attacks with military force rather than continuing to pay tributes, which to this point had been ineffective and, in his opinion, wasteful.”[13] Unlike previous Federalist policies under the presidencies of Adams and Washington, Jefferson believed it was the United States “‘interest to punish the first insult,’ he insisted, ‘because an insult unpunished is the parent of many others.’”[14]

With the recently bolstered naval fleet because of the 1798 Quasi War, Commander in Chief Thomas Jefferson had adequate tools to his disposal to ‘punish’ the insults of the Tripolitan pirates. In 1801, Jefferson sent a naval fleet to the Mediterranean off the shores of Tripoli with orders to create a blockade preventing Tripolitan ships from leaving nor entering their costal ports.[15] The strategy of blockading the Tripolitan coast lasted for two years with minimal success, resulting in a change of strategy that focused on bombarding the coast and respective cities of Tripoli in 1803. Under a new naval commander, Edward Preble, “He ordered frequent bombardments of the Tripolitan capital, tasked ships to hunt down and destroy the Tripolitan navy and launched amphibious raids.”[16] As well following the bombardments of the Tripolitan coast came with the capture of the Tripolitan city of Derne. On April 27th, 1804, United States Marines, with the help of European mercenaries and an army of local tribesman took over, and defended a counterattack of Derne.[17] The capture of Derne ultimately led the end of the Tripolitan War, with a treaty between Tripoli and the United States coming a little over a year later on June 10th, 1805. The treaty called for the release of American captives and granted the United States with the status of most favorable nation, thus ending any future annual tribute payments.[18] The 1805 treaty thus reestablished Jefferson’s vision of civilized free trade in the Mediterranean through his reversal of federalist policies under the past administrations of his predecessors, and as well setting the template for future uses of naval force to protect trade interests, especially under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, which was later known as Gunboat Diplomacy.


[1] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 39.

[2] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” Small Wars Journal 9, no. 5 (2013): 2.

[3] Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 40.

[4] Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 40.

[5] William M. Ferraro. “George Washington and the Barbary Coast Pirates.” The Washington Papers. (Accessed April 8th, 2017).

[6] William M. Ferraro. “George Washington and the Barbary Coast Pirates.”

[7] Michael Kitzen. “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 4 (1996): 603.

[8] Michael Kitzen. “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” 603.

[9] Michael Kitzen. “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” 604.

[10] Michael Kitzen. “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” 604.

[11] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 4.

[12] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 2.

[13] Alex J. Whitman. “From the Shores of Tripoli to the Deserts of Iraq: Congress and the President in Offensive and Defensive Wars.” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 13, no. 5 (2011): 1374.

[14] Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 99.

[15] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 4.

[16] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 4.

[17]Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.”  5.

[18] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 5.

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