‘The Piratical Ensigns of Mahomet’

National Review Magazine
Sha’i ben-Tekoa
March 28, 1986

IF HISTORY is any guide, the Reagan Administration’s effort to mobilize support in Europe for a war on terror is doomed to failure. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had the same idea, but it did not work.

The first time Islamic fundamentalists hijacked an American-flag ship was in October 1784, when Morocco captured a Philadelphia merchant big named Betsey and her 11 crewmen. Coming five months after Congress signed the final draft of the peace treaty that ended the Revolution, the attack on the Betsey was the first warlike act against the new nation.

To manage the crisis Congress delegated its three senior diplomats, who were stationed in Paris at the time: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Since Dr. Franklin was old, soon to sail for home and retirement, the burden fell on Adams and Jefferson.

Both men agreed that the hijacking was barbaric. They also agreed that without the collusion of the corrupt European monarchies, the so-called “Barbary Pirates” could not exist. It was no secret that the Old World powers, in order to protect their own commercial fleets from attack, paid tribute to the Mussulmen who claimed sovereignty over the Mediterranean; that they gave “presents”–enormous quantities of money, and the armaments with which the Barbary brigands carried out their savage attacks. The deys, beys, and bashaws of North Africa had to get their weapons somewhere; what they could not hijack they extorted.

John Adams despised what he called “this Africa system.” Above all, this staunch New Englad abolitionist and grandson of Puritans loathed the pirate powers because they were the bases for slave-raiding caravans into the African interior. In high dudgeon, Adams wrote, “Never, never will the slave trade be abolished while Christian princes abase themselves before the piratical ensigns of Mahomet.”

Still, as a practical man, a lawyer and friend to Boston’s merchants, he pressed the business line in his arguments with Jefferson. He counseled appeasement–specifically, meeting the Moroccan emperor’s demand for ransom and tribute. Realistically, America had no money to go to war against him. There was no navy; all armed vessels had been sold off or scrapped when peace came. There was, finally, no sentiment for war. The country was floundering in war debt already, and tribute was cheaper.

Jefferson disagreed. After the Betsey’s capture, he warned Congress against meeting Morocco’s demands, for “an insult unpunished is the parent of others”–a general aphorism he deduced from a prolonged study of Barbary piracy. Jefferson had foreseen trouble in Barbary: He had read histories of the problem, and consulted with other ambassadors in Paris on their countries’ approach to the brigandage. It was his conclusion, a month before he read in a newspaper of the loss of an American vessel, that the only solution for America in the event of hostilities was a navy. He calculated six frigates were needed.

But Adams’s counsel prevailed. To free the 11 hostages, Congress promised the emperor “presents.” Captain Erwin and his ten crewmen were freed after nine months.

Barbary Gratitude

TWO WEEKS later, Jefferson’s aphorism came to horrid life when cruisers from Algiers captured two American ships, taking 21 hostages. Jefferson wrote to Nathanael Greene that the outrage “left the faculties of my mind absolutely suspended between indignation and impotence.”

Again he argued for force. Pointing to European history, he demonstrated that while tribute was cheaper than war in the short term, it was not in the long, for once begun, “extortion” would continue at an ever escalating rate. Above all, he rejected negotiations with the kidnappers because “it is humiliating to treat with these enemies of the human race.”

In 1790, as the first Secretary of State, Jefferson reported to Congress on the situation in the mediterranean, the plight of the hostages now five years in Algiers, and his considered opinion that the United States needed a navy. In 1792, with President Washington’s approval, he wrote to John Paul Jones, still in Europe, to see about hiring a fleet of armed vessels to sail against Algiers. Jones died in Paris two weeks before the letter arrived. A year later, Jefferson had to close out his tenure in office with a report to Congress on a catastrophe: Algiers had struck again, capturing 11 U.S. vessels, with 119 carried into slavery.

In the next session of Congress, debate was intense. The country had been without a navy since independence. Southern interests argued that piracy was a concern of the insurance companies, not the Federal Government. The North threatened secession: Without a navy to guard its ships, it was ruined. James Monroe, Jefferson’s protege, argued on the floor of the House in Philadelphia that “American vessels were beeing kicked and cuffed about the ocean by ships flying the Crescent of the Prophet.”

Finally, six ships were commissioned (Jefferson’s strategic number of a decade before), but before they could be completed and launched against Algiers, the appeasers succeeded in negotiating ransom and tribute with the dey. On July 13, 1796, 85 emaciated Americans staggered out of Algiers’s dungeons, survivors of an original 131, many of whom had died of plague, starvation, and beatings.

The Shores of Tripoli

SOON AFTER their liberation the American Government signed similar treaties of tribute with Tunis and Tripoli. For Algiers, the U.S. Government built, gratis, a fully outfitted frigate, which was shipped to Algiers in the same months Americans were bragging that they would pay “millions for defense but not one cent for tribute” (to France).

Jefferson took office as President in March 1801. Two months later in Tripoli the United States Consulate was sacked by a mob. The reigning bashaw, disgruntled by the size of American tribute and delay in its arrival, declared war. Consul James Cathcart, his wife, and their two small children had to flee for their lives to the Danish Embassy, where they hid for ten days until they could be smuggled from the city.

Now Jefferson had his chance to practice what he had preached for 15 years. The war lasted the four years of his first term. It began badly. A navy ship, Philadelphia, was captured; 307 were taken hostage into Tripoli. The hostages were released and the war ended only when William Eaton of Connecticut–the navy agent to the Barbary States–led a detachment of 11 United States Marines and a thousand mercenary cutthroats (whom Eaton paid with his own money) over six hundred miles of desert to capture the Libyan port of Darna. Eaton’s threat to march on “to the shores of Tripoli” itself so terrified the bashaw that he sued for peace and freed the captives. The United States never had trouble with Tripoli again, at least until recently.

Today, a Europ-cynicism of the kind Jefferson encountered still persists, as does self-abasement before the “piratical ensigns of Mahomet.” In 1980 the European Community, in its Venice Declaration, legitimized the Palestine Liberation Organization, the premier hijacking agency of the 1970s. Is there any reason to think that six years later Europe has changed?

Thomas Jefferson understood the necessity of going it alone. Under his leadership, the United States did.

COPYRIGHT 1986 National Review, Inc.