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The pirates of North Africa.

KARACHI: In his last State of the Union address to the US Congress on January 12, US President Barack Obama proudly proclaimed: "The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that's the path to ruin." It may be hard to believe that two centuries ago, the US did not have a credible navy or army, and the country was so weak that it could not protect its merchant ships carrying goods to Europe from ragtag pirate ships operating from the Barbary states of North Africa - Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. The term Barbary is derived from the Berber regions of North Africa.

Nominally under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Sultans, these early nineteenth century rulers of the Barbary States - variously titled as Bey, Dey or Bashaw - enjoyed almost complete autonomy in reality. Their only obligation was to send annual tribute to the Sultan at Constantinople. In earlier times, the Ottoman Sultans used to send imperial Pashas or Governors to rules these states, but progressively, the imperial influence declined and the Sultans ceased to exercise any authority over their conduct. The pirate ships roamed the Mediterranean Sea freely, attacking and robbing ships with impunity, and capturing seamen (whom they enslaved, held for ransom, or sold in slave markets like commercial goods).

The fascinating story of the nascent American republic's existential battles in the late eighteenth century with the Barbary pirates had almost been forgotten even in the west. Now a new book, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, recounts in exquisite detail the struggle of the new republic with North African pirates that threatened to extinguish all its mercantile and commercial ties with Southern Europe.


Relations with North African States had had an auspicious start, as Sultan Mohammed III of Morocco signed a peace treaty with the US in 1786, pledging that his country would guarantee the safety of the American merchant shipping along the Mediterranean coast. Morocco was also the first country to recognize the US independence.

However, trouble soon brewed with others North Africa states. Independence from Britain under the treaty of Paris in 1783 deprived the American ships of the protection previously offered by the powerful British Navy. The French navy did not offer any help either. The last French emperor Louis XVI, who had supported the American independence struggle, saw no reason to do so now as the British had been driven out of the US. Sensing their high vulnerability, companies escalated the insurance rates of American trade vessels.

Kilmeade and Yaeger start their narration with the year 1785, nine years after US independence. The country was facing the serious problem of piracy at the time. Algerian pirates had captured two defenseless American merchant vessels, imprisoned its sailors and officers, and were demanding a huge ransom for their release. There were only two options: payment of ransom, or the use of force. The demands of the Barbary pirates were so outrageous that they were beyond the ability of the new republic to meet. On the other hand, lacking a navy, use of force was out of the question.

John Adams, who would later become the second president, was at the time the US ambassador in London, decided to explore if the amount of ransom money could be negotiated with the pirates. The book records a meeting in London between Ambassador Adams and Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, the ambassador of the Barbary state of Tripoli. The two got along exceedingly well, enjoying smoking together through a six-foot-long pipe and drinking bitter Turkish coffee. The meeting took place in a cordial atmosphere, leading Adams to believe that the affable Tripolian ambassador might help in brokering a deal with other Barbary States.

It would be cheaper to pay the ransom than to raise a naval force

A second meeting was arranged with the envoy. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (later to be the third US president, but at that time minister in Paris) participated to hammer out an agreement. This time, Sidi Abdrahaman, changed his tune, widely escalating his demands and asking for large amounts of gold, plus 10 percent gratuity for his services. Mouthing the despicable narrative propagated by the present-day Taliban or the so called Islamic State (IS), he justified the vile practice of piracy by claiming that according to his religion, "All nations that had not acknowledged the prophet [PBUH] were sinners and whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave." The meeting ended in failure.

Meanwhile, Algerians had captured ten more American ships and enslaved 110 additional seamen, keeping them in wretched conditions. Adams and Jefferson strongly disagreed on the next steps to deal with the worsening problem. Jefferson argued for building a powerful naval force to protect commercial shipping, but Adams disagreed, contending that it would be cheaper to pay the ransom than to raise a naval force. The president, George Washington, was a pacifist and did not favor either the maintenance of a standing army or a naval force, as he abhorred the notion of getting ensnarled in another conflict.

Ultimately, in 1794 the Congress decided by a narrow margin of votes to raise a naval force, comprising six frigates, armed with guns, and set aside a princely sum of $688,888 for the project. Yet, the negotiation-track was not entirely abandoned, and the freedom of first batch of captive American sailors was secured by payment of bribery.

When Thomas Jefferson became the US president in 1801, he decided to raise and use overwhelming force to end piracy. Paradoxically, the first American gun ship, George Washington, was not deployed to fight a naval battle. Instead, it was assigned the mission of carrying gifts and money as tribute to appease the Dey of Algiers. Americans were confident that the gun ship would showcase their new naval might and impress, even intimidate, the Barbary rulers. Alas, it had no such effect. Instead, the Dey, Bobba Mustaph, became angry that the Americans had not brought all the goods and money due to him.

In retaliation, he seized the ship and ordered the captain to ferry a cargo of 100 African slaves to Constantinople. To add insult to injury, he commanded that the American flag be lowered and replaced by that of his country. Having little choice, the captain meekly complied. The ship was anchored in the harbor, within easy reach of Algerian guns, and had no escape routes.

The book devotes much of the account to the conflict between America and Tripoli pirates. Concerned by early reverses, the American government assembled a naval armada of half a dozen frigates armed with powerful guns, to confront the Tripoli ruler. Again, trouble came from an unexpected source. The war ship, US Philadelphia, ran aground in shallow waters off the Tripoli coast and was captured by the Tripolian pirates, "who ripped open sailors pockets and stole watches, money, rings and any object of value," Americans were determined not give the pirates the pleasure of occupying their ship for long. The captured ship was boarded and set on fire in a stealth, nighttime raid by navy frogmen from another ship.

In the face of growing American naval power, and terrified of losing his throne to his brother, whom he had forced out, the Bashaw Yusuf of Tripoli, was ultimately compelled to conclude a truce with the Americans in 1805. Peace was declared and the Bashaw agreed to release all prisoners and pledge that American shipping vessels would not be molested. The treaty gave the president, Thomas Jefferson, a great victory. Other Barbary States also signed similar treaties in time.

Kilmeade and Yaeger's book is highly readable, and must have required a great amount of research which the authors acknowledge at the end. An especially attractive feature is the division of the text into short chapters that have been given intriguing titles. However, the involvement of numerous characters in the story, the attempt to cover events related to all four Barbary States, makes the narrative somewhat cumbersome. Also, it would have been informative had the authors included a brief description of how the practice of piracy took roots in North Africa and from where the pirates were recruited.
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Publication:Friday Times of Pakistan (Lahore, Pakistan)
Geographic Code:60NOR
Date:Feb 5, 2016
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