History today, especially that generated by “evil, imperialistic white males,” is denigrated by the ‘regressive’ left. (The left isn’t “progressive,” since their regressive ideology yearns for darker periods of authoritarian or dictatorial rule.)
Even in better times, when the study of American history, unburdened by the trash thinking of regressive ideology, was encouraged in our schools, the war against the Barbary Pirates was often overlooked. The war occurred shortly after the 1788 ratification of our Constitution and was remembered mostly by our Navy and Marine Corps. It was especially noted in the Marine Corps as it not only inspired part of the Marine Corp’s Hymn – “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.” Another reminder for U.S. Marines is the officer’s ceremonial sword modeled after the Mameluke sword used in that conflict.
Brian Kilmeade, host of Fox News Radio and co-host of the early morning TV program “Fox & Friends” has penned a book with Don Yaeger that sheds much needed light on this conflict so early in America’s history that sets the tone for the young nation’s path in the world.
The Barbary pirates, operating from the North African Muslim area running east to west of current-day Libya – called Tripoli in Jefferson’s day – Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, preyed on merchant shipping that was forced to pass through the narrow – nine miles wide – Strait of Gibraltar. This passage was necessary for shipping to enter the Mediterranean Sea en route to ports. (The Suez Canal hadn’t been built, so all shipping from any part of the world destined for southern European ports had to follow this route into the Mediterranean Sea.) The pirates would seize the ships, looting their cargo, and holding the crews for ransom. If the ransom wasn’t paid, the crews became slaves of the ruler from where the pirates operated. When America was a British colony, their ships were protected by the Royal Navy and pretty much left alone. As a newly independent nation, that protection vanished and the United States’ merchant vessels, without naval protection, became fair game and choice targets for the pirates. These Muslim pirates knew the U.S. was poor and virtually defenseless and took advantage of the situation, seizing or enslaving as many American ships and seamen as they could get their hands on – effectively an act of war.
This caused great economic loss to the new nation’s commerce as their ships and cargos had to pay ever-increasing insurance rates, threatening their economic survival. The situation narrowed the solution to two choices: a diplomatic agreement with the Islamic pirate states, or pay the ransom. The diplomatic solution fell apart when the ambassador to one of the pirate host states pointed out that “all states which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, when it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.” So much for diplomacy.
This sounds similar to today’s Islamic attitude as justification for their foul action. Nothing has changed in the years since the Barbary Wars of 1801-1815.
The other option – paying ransom – floundered as the pirates set sky high ransom demands, which far exceeded the impoverished nation’s ability to pay. On May 11, 1801, the emissary of the Bashaw of Tripoli delivered his message to the American consulate in Tripoli. “The Bashaw has sent me to inform you that he has declared war against the United States and will take down your flagstaff on Thursday the 14th.”
Jefferson turned to the remaining option – military action. He persuaded Congress to fund the construction of frigates and dispatched the existing tiny U.S. Navy and a detachment of Marines to blockade the major Barbary pirate state – Tripoli. The first Barbary War was launched.
The ensuing war is clearly documented in Kilmeade’s timely book. It reads like a thrilling, hard to put down novel, but it is, in fact, a true depiction of America’s early days as a nation describing the heroic exploits of both Navy seamen and U.S. Marines who eventually proved to the world and the pirates: not to mess with the United States.
Kilmead’s thriller describes the actions taken by those who became American legends to this day, such as, to name only a few:
- Navy Lt. Andrew Sterett’s destruction of the pirate ship Tripoli;
- Navy Lt. Stephen Decator’s night raid to destroy an American naval vessel – the Philadelphia – which had run aground and been captured by the pirates;
- William Eaton who led a small detachment of 8 Marines, under the command of Lt. Persley O’Bannon, and a rag-tag army of 400 Arabs and mercenaries, on a journey of several hundred miles over the coastal desert, their destination being the Tripoli port of Derne.
The remnants of the rag-tag army led by O’Bannon and his Marines assaulted and captured the port. That victory was the first one where an American flag was planted on foreign soil. O’Bannon and his Marines also entered the permanent USMC hall of fame – celebrated even today in spite of regressive’s attempt to ignore American history.
Even when history formed a higher stature than today, the Barbary War was seldom mentioned. This was a shame but Kilmeade’s book, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History, magnificently remedies that oversight. His easily readable book, replete with pictures, etchings and maps, should be required reading in our high schools and of interest to all who value America’s past achievements. It would make an excellent gift for all occasions to be read by those seeking to preserve and honor America’s history.
Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.