Barbary Pirates and Thomas Jefferson’s War Against Ransom

At the height of the eighteenth century, Muslim pirates were the terror of the Mediterranean and a large area of the North Atlantic.

Barbary Pirates and Thomas Jefferson's War Against RansomHere is a viral email I received from my cousin, Mary Ell. While looking on the World Wide Web to see if there was any truth to the statement that Thomas Jefferson led America to war against Muslim pirates from North Africa’s Babary Coast, I found some interesting history that I must have forgotten since high school. Either way, it is an interesting read, and an interesting read on a rainy Sunday is not a bad way to spend a few short minutes.

This is the email:

“Here is a little history. Including how the Marine Corps term ‘Leatherneck’ came to be.

Most Americans are unaware of the fact that over two hundred years ago, the United States had declared war on Islam, and Thomas Jefferson led the charge!

At the height of the eighteenth century, Muslim pirates were the terror of the Mediterranean and a large area of the North Atlantic. They attacked every ship in sight, and held the crews for exorbitant ransoms. Those taken hostage were subjected to barbaric treatment and wrote heart breaking letters home, begging their government and family members to pay whatever their Mohammedan captors demanded.

These extortionists of the high seas represented the Islamic nations of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers – collectively referred to as the Barbary Coast – and presented a dangerous and unprovoked threat to the new American Republic.

Before the Revolutionary War, U.S. merchant ships had been under the protection of Great Britain. When the U.S. declared its independence and entered into war, the ships of the United States were protected by France. However, once the war was won, America had to protect its own fleets. Thus, the birth of the U.S. Navy.

Beginning in 1784, seventeen years before he would become president, Thomas Jefferson became America’s Minister to France. That same year, the U.S. Congress sought to appease its Muslim adversaries by following in the footsteps of European nations who paid bribes to the Barbary States, rather than engaging them in war.

In July of 1785, Algerian pirates captured American ships, and the Dey of Algiers demanded an unheard-of ransom of $60,000. It was a plain and simple case of extortion, and Thomas Jefferson was vehemently opposed to any further payments. Instead, he proposed to Congress the formation of a coalition of allied nations who together could force the Islamic states into peace. A disinterested Congress decided to pay the ransom.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with Tripoli’s ambassador to Great Britain to ask by what right his nation attacked American ships and enslaved American citizens, and why Muslims held so much hostility towards America, a nation with which they had no previous contacts.

The two future presidents reported that Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja had answered that Islam “was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Quran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.

Despite this stunning admission of premeditated violence on non-Muslim nations, as well as the objections of many notable American leaders, including George Washington, who warned that caving in was both wrong and would only further embolden the enemy, for the following fifteen years, the American government paid the Muslims millions of dollars for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages. The payments in ransom and tribute amounted to over twenty percent of the United States government annual revenues in 1800.

Jefferson was disgusted. Shortly after his being sworn in as the third President of the United States in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli sent him a note demanding the immediate payment of $225,000 plus $25,000 a year for every year forthcoming. That changed everything.

Jefferson let the Pasha know, in no uncertain terms, what he could do with his demand. The Pasha responded by cutting down the flagpole at the American consulate and declared war on the United States.

Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers immediately followed suit.

Jefferson, until now, had been against America raising a naval force for anything beyond coastal defense, but having watched his nation be cowed by Islamic thuggery for long enough, decided that it was finally time to meet force with force.

He dispatched a squadron of frigates to the Mediterranean and taught the Muslim nations of the Barbary Coast a lesson he hoped they would never forget. Congress authorized Jefferson to empower U.S. ships to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli and to “cause to be done all other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war would justify”.

When Algiers and Tunis, who were both accustomed to American cowardice and acquiescence, saw the newly independent United States had both the will and the might to strike back, they quickly abandoned their allegiance to Tripoli.

The war with Tripoli lasted for four more years, and raged up again in 1815. The bravery of the U.S. Marine Corps in these wars led to the line “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn, They would forever be known as “leathernecks” for the leather collars of their uniforms.

Islam, and what its Barbary followers justified doing in the name of their prophet and their god, disturbed Jefferson quite deeply. America had a tradition of religious tolerance, the fact that Jefferson, himself, had co-authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, but fundamentalist Islam was like no other religion the world had ever seen. A religion based on supremacism, whose holy book not only condoned but mandated violence against unbelievers was unacceptable to him. His greatest fear was that someday this brand of Islam would return and pose an even greater threat to the United States.

This should bother every American. That the Islams have brought about women-only classes and swimming times at taxpayer-funded universities (Washington State University has a “Women’s Only Swim” on their website.) and public pools; that Christians, Jews, and Hindus have been banned from serving on juries where Muslim defendants are being judged, Piggy banks and Porky Pig tissue dispensers have been banned from workplaces because they offend Islamist sensibilities. Ice cream has been discontinued at certain Burger King locations because the picture on the wrapper looks similar to the Arabic script for Allah, public schools are pulling pork from their menus, on and on in the news papers.

It’s death by a thousand cuts, or inch-by-inch as some refer to it, and most Americans have no idea that this battle is being waged every day across America. By not fighting back, by allowing groups to obfuscate what is really happening, and not insisting that the Islamists adapt to our own culture, the United States is cutting its own throat with a politically correct knife, and helping to further the Islamists agenda.

Sadly, it appears that today’s America would rather be politically correct than victorious.

Any doubts, just Google Thomas Jefferson vs the Muslim World.”

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1 Comment

  1. Han Ramakers

    Hi Judie. Good article of history but as often with historical sketching, it is kind of one sided. Piracy is about the loot, nothing else. The Street of Gibraltar with Tangiers on the African side, is small and was (and still is) mostly under-protected. The North African landmass is extremely poor and before oil and tourism arrived, only the Berber (Barbary) tribes roamed the desert. The idea of piracy in the Mediterranean came however from European privateers out of a job.
    Contrary to popular belief, many of the most notorious and successful Barbary pirates began their lives as European sailors who found their fortunes among the pirates of the Barbary Coast. Nearly all of these expatriated pirates converted to Islam, preferring to prey on the ships of their former countries under the auspices of Muslim sultans and potentates. And this is important: These converted Christians were often the most despised, the most feared, and the most ruthless of the Barbary pirates, and were known as the renegados, where we got our word ‘renegade’ from.
    The piracy in that area had been going on for hundreds of years and I sadly have to admit that one of the most notorious pirates was a Dutch expat who named himself Suleyman Reis De Veenboer and became the admiral of the Turkish Ottoman Navy. Holland and England were in constant war, so Dutch pirates like De Veenboer rarely made it to the Caribbean. They stayed closer to home. Power and fortune were this man’s motivation.
    In addition, ignorance on the side of the western merchant ships and their owners made them easy targets. The Mediterranean waters are relatively calm and foreign merchant vessels were primarily powered by wind, while the pirate’s small ‘corsairs” were oar powered (20-30 men on oars). They could dash from zero to 20 in seconds. The merchant vessels were never a match, because the pirates only came out from behind under ideal circumstances. Over the next two centuries, the notoriety of the Babary Coast Pirates grew, yet in reality was often not of their doing. Many pirate’s nests on the Italian coast (Sperlonga, Amalfi etc) and the Adriatic Dalmatian coast did their fare share of plundering and afterwards often donating the vessels to the Ottoman Empire for protection. The Barbary Coast pirates however got all the credit.
    It was all about the money and power.

    However it is true that from a Melting Pot society, we have now turned into a Salad Bowl society, allowing alien influences to dictate the laws of the land, rather than demanding from them to seamlessly melt into this society. They’re allowed to keep their cultural and religious idiosyncrasies and no one has to adjust anymore to the societal rules of choice, but can actually legitimately pressure these rules to change. And that is wrong and that is far too premature for a country like the US to adjust to while still in the process of growing from a teenager into an adult society.

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