Friday, April 20, 2012

The Shores of Tripoli, Jefferson in London and the Birth of the US Navy

Jefferson by the late Hitchens, 2005

Christopher Hitchens wrote a short book entitled, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, published in 2005.  (http:/  Please allow me to quote at some length...

"Between the years 1530 and 1780, it has been calculated by the historian, Robert Davis, as many as a million and a quarter Europeans were kidnapped and enslaved by Muslim autocracies on the the northwest coast of Africa.  this trade, which combined piracy, ransom, and enforced servitude, was not the equal of the infamous Middle Passage in which so many bartered black Africans lost their lives, nor was it as organised and commercialised as the "triangular" trade ins laves that flourished between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.  But it did in some ways result from that trade, too, in that European interlopers had disrupted an earlier North African Arab involvement in a north-south transport of African slaves.  Many well-authenticated chronicles of the period tell of "Barbary" raids on coastal towns as far away as England and Ireland, as well as numberless abductions from, and of, vessels in the Mediterranean and other seaways.  It appears, for example, that practically every inhabitant of the Irish village of Baltimore was carried off in 1631.  Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe both allude to the trade in their writings, Robinson Crusoe himself spending hard time as a captured slave.  James Thomson's famous 1740 popular song "Rule Britannia," with its refrain about Britons "never, never, never" being slaves, was composed with the Barbary terror in mind.

It was the general policy of European powers to make their separate peaces with the rulers of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis...

The new United States could hardly approach this with equanimity.  It did not have a navy with which to protect its commercial ships, or with which to threaten retaliation.  Its trade had declined, in fact, as result of having lost such protection from the British Empire...

During the time that he and John Adams were, respectively, the ministers to Paris and London, Thomas Jefferson conceived a great loathing for this state of affairs.  In 1784 the American ship Betsey, with a crew of ten, had been then captured by a Moroccan corsair while sailing with a cargo of salt from Cadiz, in southern Spain, to Philadelphia...

Seeking clarification, Adams invited Jefferson to London for a private meeting with the Ambassador of Tripoli.  On this occasion, Ambassador Abdrahaman mentioned some startlingly high tariffs for ransom of hostages, for cheap terms of "perpetual peace," not forgetting to add his own personal commission on the negotiation.  Since the United States had not offended the Muslim powers in any way -- it had not taken part in the Crusades, for example, or the Spanish monarchy's reconquest of Andalusia -- Adams and Jefferson asked to know by what right this levy was being exacted.  As Jefferson later wrote, to Jay and to Congress, on March 28, 1786:

'The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered 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.'

It is hard to imagine a better summary of all that Jefferson disliked, both about monarchy and religion, but he did not dilate on this point, preferring to recommend to the administration that it refuse all payment of tribute, and prepare at once to outfit an American naval squadron to visit the Mediterranean (Commander Kelly's italics).  In the longer run, he wrote, what was needed was an international concert of powers (A Coalition of the willing?, asks Commander Kelly), composed of all those nations whose shipping was being subjected to predatory raids.  'Justice and Honor favour this course," he wrote, not omitting to add that it would also save money in the end.

John Adams was not at all of the same opinion.  He agreed that "Avarice and Fear are the only agents at Algiers." and that "it would be a good occasion to begin a navy," but he was certain that Congress would never appropriate the money of a punitive expedition, and meanwhile the United States had no navy to speak of.  'From these premises I conclude it would be wisest for us to negotiate and pay the necessary sums without loss of time.'  As for the piratical Islamic powers, 'We ought not to to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever."  In my view, Jefferson's opinion of Adams began to decline from that point."  Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Christopher Hitchens, 2005. http:/

And so it was that the second and third Presidents of the United States learned about the vital need for creating a Navy and Marine corps while representing their nation in London (See earlier post, Jefferson in London, 2/5/12).  Thomas Jefferson purchased a copy of a Koran from a London bookseller during his brief stay not merely out of theological curiosity, but also in order to "learn more about the enemy."  It looks like Jefferson might even have approved of Russian Justice (see earlier post, Russian Justice on the High Seas 4/6/12)!

On February 23, 1815, shortly after the treaty of Ghent was signed ending the War of 1812, President Madison, Jefferson's disciple, asked Congress to declare war on Algeria and soon thereafter dispatched two powerful squadrons to the Mediterranean.  The squadron led by Commodore Stephen Decatur arrived in Tripoli on August 5, 1815 and effected the release of ten Christian slaves. Source: 1812: The Navy's War George C. Daughan, 2011 http:/

For another interesting take on Pirates old and new check out this by Seattle author, William Dietrich...

Commander Kelly says, "Plus ├ža change, plus c'est la meme chose!"

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades or on

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Arabs, you can rent one but you can`t buy one.