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The First Barbary War

Updated on December 15, 2017

Recent history has seen Libya once again front and center in the news of the world, but just over two hundred years ago, the North African coast was front and center in the minds of traders from Europe to the Americas.

White slaves in the Barbary States
White slaves in the Barbary States

The Prelude to the Barbary War

The First Barbary War was a series of battles fought against the pirate states of North Africa from 1801–1805. At the time the United States was still reeling from a series of internal disasters and the failure of the quasi-war with France. The United States lacked a proper navy, having only a few frigates and some coastal patrol boats. With this situation on America’s shores, American merchant vessels began to be attacked in the Mediterranean.

The Barbary States thrived on piracy. Taking ships and slaves was the main source of income for the leaders of states roughly equivalent to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. To protect their trading fleets from attack, the more powerful European states paid tribute to the Barbary States rather than engaging the pirates. This had the effect of keeping smaller powers from trading in the Mediterranean. Much like the America of today, the early American economy relied on trading and the cost of trading with pirate attacks occurring was staggering.

At the time of the First Barbary War Thomas Jefferson was president. It was the president’s belief that the young nation needed a navy to protect overseas trade if it was going to survive. The Barbary War was the perfect excuse to develop the navy and the Jefferson administration jumped on the chance. Jefferson had only to get Congress to authorize construction of the navy to prove the necessity of a navy to the republic.

After exhausting all diplomatic options to end the pirate threat, Jefferson was able to persuade Congress that the cost of building and maintaining a navy would be cheaper than paying tribute to the Barbary States. When the leader of Tripoli attacked an American vessel Jefferson deployed the navy to protect American interests. He did this without a declaration of war, or Congressional authorization. The funding of the navy by Congress gave the president constitutional authority to act in defense of the state.

The burning frigate Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804, by Edward Moran, painted 1897.
The burning frigate Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804, by Edward Moran, painted 1897.

Blockade and Naval battles

American naval forces sent to the Mediterranean acted to contain the pirate threat by blockading Tripoli. In one of the Americans earliest foreign policy activities, the United States aligned with the Kingdom of Naples to combat the threat of piracy in the Mediterranean. Alliances with the small states of Europe would continue to be a hallmark of American policy in regards to the Barbary States throughout the early the 19th century.

American naval forces had some small skirmishes that resulted in naval domination of the Tripolitan coast. A frigate was lost when it ran aground, and was subsequently destroyed by American forces to prevent it's use by the enemy.

Attack on Derna
Attack on Derna

To The Shores of Tripoli

In 1805, American naval forces commanded a force of mercenaries in an attempt to overthrow the government of Tripoli. At the Battle of Derna, the United States Marines won their first victory on foreign soil, and raised the American flag.

With the threat of internal strife, naval blockade, and a coup attempt underway, the Tripolitan government sued for peace, ending the first war of the American navy,

Legacy of War

The end of the First Barbary War saw the American navy return home heroes. The marines and naval squadrons became a hallmark of American foreign policy in regards to the rest of the world.

The lesson of the First Barbary War is to only apply military force with specific purpose when other means fail. American military force had been applied to achieve a specific goal, to end the threat of piracy. This was achieved by focusing on the end goal, a treaty with Tripoli, and utilizing all assets to achieve that goal, while not being entangled in localized conflicts.


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