The first Barbary war in America was fought between 1801 and 1805.The war took place between the United States and the Muslim North African countries – Tripoli, Tunisia, Algiers and Morocco. The four countries collectively were refereed to as the Barbary nations. The Barbary nations became a foe to the United States because of ransom demands on American crews captured at the Mediterranean Sea. The rulers of the four countries had become very wealthy and built a strong naval power through the ransoms paid for the captured crews and tributes paid by European nations doing commerce at the sea.

The pirates also sold some of the crews into slavery. The pirate ships had the ability to take over the American merchant ships that were undefended. America had to act and protect its citizens from the pirates’ menace at the Mediterranean Sea.

Background of the war

When the United States gained its independence in 1783 through the Treaty of Paris the British troops left the country. Thus, the American merchant ships no longer had the protection of the Royal Naval and they become an easy target by pirates. Many American merchant ships were seized in the Mediterranean Sea and ransom demanded by the pirates for the seized crews. The US congress made a decision to pay tribute to the Barbary nations to protect the American ships because the country was still at war with France and involved in Indian wars therefore she had no resources to spare.

The treaty was signed amongst Morocco, Tripolitania, Algeria and Tunisia. The treaty gave the American ships a guarantee against corsair attacks. The United States paid ransom and tribute running into over $2,000,000. The amount was about a fifth of what was expected and thus the corsair attacks resumed.

Consequently, the then president Thomas Jefferson halted tribute payments in 1801[1]. The attack of the straps and stripes by Pasha was taken as assign of war declaration and the first Barbary war began in earnest in May1801.

The war

Thomas Jefferson did not agree with tribute payment anymore because he felt this was not going to end piracy.

While serving as a minister to France Jefferson wrote about his thoughts concerning piracy in the Mediterranean sea to John Adams who was serving as a minister to Great Britain in 1978 and expressed that he felt war was the only war to attain peace”. In 1786, he still held the belief that war was the only way of achieving peace. He wrote to James Monroe who was then serving in the a congress and told him that he felt that if American continued to pay tribute to the pirates their demands would only escalate thus a need to build a navy that would tackle the issue of pirates directly[2]. Thus, after he became president he decided to take up arms against the Barbary pirates who were becoming vicious by the day when Pasha of Tripoli declared war. Alone Pasha was not strong enough to threaten the United States but there was the fear of the other Barbary nations joining forces with Pasha against America. The United States sent the first military squadron out into the when the war began in May 1801. The motto of the mission was to use millions of dollars in defense and not pay out even a single sent to the pirates in terms of tribute to be accorded safety in the sea”[3]. Edward Preble together with Richard Dale led the squadron.

President Jefferson informed the congress of the decision to send the navy to Tripoli. There was no formal approval of war by the congress, but gave the president the authority to instruct the leaders of the squadron to seize Pasha’s vessels together with goods. In addition, the navy could take all measures necessary as necessitated by the war. On August 1, the same year the war began, the American USS Enterprise won over the Tripolitan Corsair following a fierce battle. Later, the president requested more authority to be able to deal with the pirates decisively and the congress enacted an act in 1802 for “the Protection of Commerce and seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan cruisers”[4]. Through the act, the president had the authority to send American vessels to Mediterranean Sea to safeguard the American crews from attacks by the pirates even in other international waters. Throughout 1802, the American navy did not face any challenges at the seas but President Jefferson continued to increase the pressure for a stronger military force and better naval ships to be deployed to the troubled seas.

Consequently, more vessels were sent to the Mediterranean Sea such as USS Constitution, USS Argus and USS Philadelphia among others. Edward Preble organized campaigns against the pirates’ fleets to stop them from attacking American merchant ships. He also cordoned off the Barbary ports.

Battle of Tripoli

Unfortunately, the USS Philadelphia was taken into captivity in October 1803 when it beached patrolling the Tripolitan harbor.

The Americans tried to float but their efforts were in vain and all the crewmembers captured. The captors in the harbor anchored the Philadelphia instead. Following this attack lieutenant Stephen Decatur together with a small marine contingent attempted to rescue the vessel on February 1804. The marine boarded the captured vessel and defeated the Tripolitan sailors. Eventually the marines set the Philadelphia ablaze rather than have the enemies use it. The brave action by Decatur earned him a place in America’s history and was the first military hero after the revolution[5].

Preble attacked Tripoli in July 1804 but the series of battles were unsuccessful. The USS Intrepid led by Captain Robert Somers was unlucky in its mission to destroy the Tripoli harbor with the explosives it carried on board when it was destroyed by the enemies and it exploded killing all members on aboard

The battle of Derna

The battle of Derna was the turning point in the first Barbary war between April and May 1805. Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and General William Eaton led an assault against Tripoli consisting of marines from eight American states, Greek, Berber and Arab mercenaries. This attack was a success and America won for the first time outside its borders. The then ruler of Tripoli Yussif Karamani became weary of the attacks, blockade in Tripoli, and signed a peace treaty on June 4, 1805.


The United States military reputation improved after the victory in the first Barbary war. The military was tested and passed the test.

The victory showed that America was capable of handling a war away from home competently. The fact that the eight states won the war by working together was a good example of how the United States should work together for a greater common good. Furthermore, the navy and the Marines became part of the United States history as well as a significant component of the American government. More importantly, this war set out a precedent that America has followed ever since of fighting wars abroad to date.

Reference List

Breverton, Terry.

The pirate dictionary. New Orleans: Pelican Publishing Company, 2004. Gawalt, Gerald.

America and the Barbary pirates: An international battle against an unconventional Foe.(n.d.

) content/uploads/2009/10/America-and-the-Barbary-Pirates.pdf(accessed November 15, 2010 ). Keynes, Edwards. Undecided war. Pennsylvania : Pennsylvania State Press, 2004. Pike, John.

Barbary States. (April 27, 2005). (accessed November 15, 2010) Tucker, Spencer. Stephen Decatur: a life most bold and daring.

Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005. Terry Breverton. The pirate dictionary. (Pelican Publishing Company, 2004), 11. Gerald Gawalt.

America and the Barbary pirates: An international battle against an unconventional Foe. (n.d.) (accessed November 15, 2010).

John Pike. Barbary States. (April 27, 2005). (accessed November 15, 2010) Edwards Keynes. Undecided war. (Pennsylvania : Pennsylvania State Press, 2004 ), 191.

Spencer Tucker. Stephen Decatur: a life most bold and daring. (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005), ix.


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