THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION CHECKED
In August 1785, shortly after the Algerine attacks on the Maria and Dauphin, John Adams reflected on the state of American independence from his diplomatic post in London. In a letter to John Jay, he confided, "I find the spirit of the times very different from that which you and I saw ... in the months of November and December, 1783"--that is, just after Britain recognized the United States as a sovereign state. Then expectations were high that the two nations would prosper under reciprocal trade agreements. But alas, a very different climate prevailed just two years after the Treaty of Paris. "Now," Adams continued, "the utmost contempt of our commerce is freely expressed in pamphlets, gazettes, coffee-houses, and in common street talk."1 Rather than becoming America's main trading partner, Britain had reinstated and even reinforced trade regulations through navigation acts that blocked the United States from lucrative markets and extorted high tariffs in others. At the same time, Algiers declared war on American shipping. After independence, instead of becoming an equal partner in the Atlantic world, the United States was again a dependent--subjugated by British trade restrictions and defenseless against the Barbary pirates.
Americans viewed the pirates as vestiges of an unenlightened and vanishing time when depredations of the powerful, not the rule of law, dictated the rhythms of trade. American independence promised to usher in a novus ordo seclorum, a new age that wouldtransform the "tribute-demanding" Atlantic into a free-trade zone.2 Thomas Jefferson spoke for many of his countrymen when he envisioned an end to the old mercantilist system. "I would say then to every nation on earth," Jefferson declared just a week before the Algerines captured the Boston schooner Maria, "your people shall trade freely with us, and ours with you, paying no more than the most favoured nation, in order to put an end to the right of individual states acting by fits and starts to interrupt our commerce or to embroil us with any nation."3 Free trade would help everyone, Americans argued, expanding the overall volume of commerce so greatly that an individual country would benefit from even a modest share. Such reasoning made no sense to the Barbary pirates. They too subscribed to the notion of a zero-sum game: there was a fixed amount of trade available, and thus what one country gained was always at the expense of another.
While American merchants and Barbary pirates confronted each other from very different orientations, neither controlled the arena in which they clashed. In the 1780s both parties were on the margins of an Atlantic world dominated by the great European maritime powers. To understand the Barbary Wars, therefore, it is necessary to consider American-Barbary relations within the larger context of the Atlantic world and the aims of those who wished to keep the renegades from North Africa and the upstarts from North America on its fringes. Events need to be viewed from London as well as from Algiers and Philadelphia. One example will suffice. In late 1784 and early 1785, while deploying a naval squadron to patrol the Mediterranean and thereby protect His Majesty's shipping, the British circulated reports that the Algerines had captured an American ship and planned to seize others. Though the reports proved groundless, the damage to American shipping was real and immediate. One Henry Martin explained to Jefferson, "In consequence of these reports, the underwriters at Lloyds will not insure an American Ship to Cadiz or Lisbon for less than 25 percent whereas the customary insurance for English vessels is no more than 1¼ or 1½ percent and therefore no American Ship has anychance of getting freight either to Spain or Portugal."4 America and the Barbary States confronted each other in the shadows of the Union Jack.
While they were still under British rule, American merchants had been expected to operate within a closed colonial system of trade that funneled imperial wealth and profits into the City of London, thereby enhancing the crown's geopolitical power. But during the tumultuous decades leading to England's civil war in the 1640s, colonial commerce received very little attention from Whitehall. Colonial traders took advantage of the upheaval, selling their produce in non-English markets, including those of England's chief Atlantic rivals, Spain and France. With the downfall of the British monarchy in 1649 and the dismantling of the House of Lords, domestic politics, not colonial trade, predominated in Commonwealth England. Scores of factions tried to shape England's future course, from royalists who wished to restore the Stuarts to the throne to radicals who wanted to abolish ancient privileges, thus leveling English society. The Navigation Acts of 1650-51 represented the sole attempt during the Commonwealth period to ensure that the colonies remained "subordinate to Parliament" and that "all colonial trade ... [was] carried in English ships," but inadequate enforcement allowed the colonists to evade the measures. Then, when the royalists triumphed and brought Charles II back from exile in 1660, the cash-strapped monarch was determined to collect all royal revenues, including colonial duties imposed by the Navigation Acts.
Committed to mercantilist doctrines, the Restoration court at Whitehall refocused attention on international trade, including that of the American colonies. While earlier monarchs had granted monopolies to individual companies for the purpose of exploiting trade in a given region of the world, Charles II sought a "total integration of the country's trade based on national monopoly, with the state playing a leading role."5 While in practice the British mercantilistsystem was never as integrated as Charles II wished, it nonetheless circumscribed the markets open to colonial merchants.
That American merchants wished to be freed from imperial trade restraints well before the revolution is evident in their repeated attempts to develop illicit commerce with non-British ports and to smuggle goods past British customs officials. New England traders in particular were notorious violators of the Navigation Acts. After the Restoration, Charles II and his Privy Council observed that Massachusetts Bay officials regarded the colony as a "free State" subject only to laws of their own making. To bring New England into compliance, the Privy Council dispatched agents to gather intelligence on trade violations and to warn perpetrators that His Majesty was determined to enforce commercial regulations. They had their work cut out for them. In his 1676 report to Secretary of State Sir Joseph Williamson, agent Captain John Wynbourne noted that in Boston Harbor ships "dayly arrived from Spain ffrance Holland & Canareys" loaded with goods that were to have been imported only from England. And outgoing American ships carried enumerated commodities to Europe, ignoring provisions in the Navigation Acts to transport colonial crops only to England.6
Agent Edward Randolph's similar dispatch of June 17, 1676, described a colony pursuing independence in religion, governance, and trade. Like Wynbourne, he found Boston Harbor teeming with European ships, "contrary to the late Acts of Parliament for encouraging Navigation and trade." And as they had with Wynbourne, Boston officials struck an independent, if not defiant, tone in explaining their actions. Randolph reported that Governor John Leverett "freely declared to me that the Laws made by Our King and Parlmt obligeth them in nothing but what consists with the Interest of New England."7
For all of their evasion of the Navigation Acts, colonial merchantmen depended on the British for protection against pirates and privateers. Algerine pirates routinely preyed on British andcolonial vessels, capturing ships and their cargoes while enslaving their crews. They then demanded tribute for cessation of future depredations and ransom for release of the captives. English monarchs had long concluded that it was less costly to pay tribute than to fight. Besides, they found the Barbary States useful tools in English commercial policy, as pirates became willing raiders on Britain's trading rivals who did not pay tribute. It meant a constant state of negotiation and threat, with the Barbary powers hoping always to increase tribute payments and the British hoping to strike a balance of economic and diplomatic cost-effectiveness. It was under this largely reliable umbrella that colonial American merchantmen passed safely through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, sometimes escorted by British warships and always carrying the prescribed passes.
By the 1760s, however, even loyal colonial merchants were reappraising their position within British mercantilism. Following the expensive French and Indian War, the British Parliament imposed a round of new taxes designed to raise revenue from the colonists and strengthened provisions for enforcing trade regulations. Parliament hoped that the Revenue Act of 1764, often referred to as the Sugar Act, would generate an additional forty thousand pounds sterling by placing duties on a number of foreign goods much demanded by the colonists, including coffee, sugar, and wine. It also contained new regulations concerning the loading and unloading of ships in American ports designed to assist customs collectors in detecting smuggling. Its most controversial feature was the duty on foreign molasses. Under the existing schedule of duties, the rate was six pence per gallon, but colonists routinely evaded its payment by smuggling molasses into the colonies from the French West Indies. By reducing the new rate to three pence per gallon, George Grenville, the king's chief minister and architect of the new tax, hoped the lower rate would make the tax more palatable to colonists and that their greater compliance would result in increased royal revenue. Colonists, however, protested the measure, viewing the lower duty as a bribe aimed at enticingthem to pay the tax and thereby acknowledge Parliament's taxing authority.
Convinced that the act would cripple colonial trade, especially that with the West Indies, the Loyalist merchant and planter James Habersham of Georgia chose to lecture British lawmakers. In a letter to Georgia's agent William Knox, Habersham urged him to work "in concert with any Agent or Agents of the northern provinces" to protest the act, "as particularly affects the Trade of this province." He acknowledged that the act did not harm Georgia "in so great a degree as some of the Northern Colonys," yet he explained that Georgians had long exported lumber, horses, and cattle to the West Indies, a trade that had "principally been the Means, whereby most of the Inhabitants have acquired the little property they possess." Because Georgia planters and merchants owned few vessels, the majority of the exports had been carried on sailing vessels of northern registries that in return brought "a few Negroes and sometimes Cash." Although the Georgia produce often constituted a small portion of the ship's cargo, according to Habersham this "growing commerce promised the greatest advantage to us."8
The following year Parliament proposed the Stamp Act; the new taxes and regulations could not have come at a worse time. Still suffering from the recession that followed the French and Indian War, merchants throughout the colonies protested the measure and all other acts restricting American trade. A group of four hundred Philadelphia merchants complained in a November broadside "that the many difficulties [we] now labour under as a Trading People, are owing to the Restrictions, Prohibitions, and ill advised Regulations, made in the several Acts of Parliament of Great-Britain, lately passed to regulate the Colonies; which have limited the Exportation of some Part of our Country Produce, increased the Cost and Expence of many Articles of our Importation, and cut off from us all Means of supplying ourselves with Specie." This in turn left them unable to pay down their enormous debts to British merchants. Free access to world markets, the protesters argued,would benefit Anglo-American merchants on both sides of the Atlantic.9
But far from granting the colonists more commercial freedom, Parliament in 1767 imposed the Townshend duties on a wide range of colonial imports, further tightening Britain's noose around colonial trade. The incensed Americans responded by waging commercial warfare. Reasoning that Britain was a country whose economic lifeblood was trade and recognizing that the American colonies were Britain's largest single market, the increasingly rebellious colonists decided to deny that market through nonimportation agreements. Beginning in Boston and spreading elsewhere, Americans entered into solemn associations, pledging to import no goods from Britain except a few essentials until Parliament repealed the offending duties.
Propagandists whipped up support by depicting the boycott as consistent with the loftiest republican principles. Borrowed from British political history, republicanism was a set of ideas formulated by opponents of arbitrary power. First expressed in the Commonwealth period following England's civil war, it was revived in the 1720s when England's first prime minister, Robert Walpole, consolidated Parliament's power. Republicans feared centralized power in the hands of placemen, officeholders who did the bidding of others. Such vicious men put private gain above the public good; in consolidating their grip on power, the argument went, they raised taxes to support a swollen court and, the republicans' bête noire, a standing army. Republicans opposed such measures in the name of freedom. Taxes, they argued, threatened property, and property represented the foundation of political independence. If a person owned land or if he operated a profitable mercantile house, his economic independence allowed him to vote his conscience. To protect that sacred status, republicans advocated vigilance and virtue: vigilance to detect any ministerial grab for additional power and virtue to resist the temptation to sacrifice civic good for private gain.10
Nonimportation went against merchants' instincts. They were in business to make profits by importing and exporting goods, and the idea of letting their ships rot alongside quays lined with empty warehouses was difficult to embrace. For those who obeyed the Continental Association, as the boycott was called, forgoing personal gain was an act of patriotism. No one was a greater champion of American overseas commerce than Alexander Hamilton, yet he supported the measure as a means of freeing the colonists from imperial slavery. "We can live without trade of any kind," he wrote, adding, "Food and clothing we have within ourselves."11 Traders unwilling to make the sacrifice found themselves beset by angry republicans who tarred and feathered them for ignoring the boycott of English manufactures.
For many New England merchants, the Tea Act of 1773 represented the culmination of a long chain of trade abuses they suffered at the hands of the mother country. While the three-pence-perpound tax sparked new popular protests of "taxation without representation," the law's provisions represented to American merchants commercial slavery. Aimed at bailing out the East India Company, the bill authorized that company to sell its tea directly to American consumers through agents of its choosing. Moreover, by granting the company drawbacks or refunds of British duties on tea imported from the East Indies, Parliament enabled it to undersell colonial merchants who had purchased tea from high-priced middlemen or had smuggled it from Dutch suppliers.12 With the Tea Act, British restriction of markets reached the colonies themselves; Parliament would determine who could sell the colonists their tea and at what terms. How, asked patriot merchants locked out of a key market at home, could continued dependence on Parliament be termed anything other than slavery?
When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, the delegates identified trade restrictions as the first chains that enslaved the colonists. Addressing Parliament on behalf of the Congress, John Jay cited the new imperial measures enacted since the end of the French and Indian War as the final step in a "plan forenslaving your fellow subjects in America." But even before those odious acts, Jay wrote, Parliament through the Navigation Acts had systematically drawn "from us the wealth produced by our commerce." "You restrained our trade in every way that could conduce to your emolument," he charged Parliament, and "you exercised unbounded sovereignty over the sea. You named the ports and nations to which alone our merchandise should be carried, and with whom alone we should trade."13
Parliament's new imperial measures complicated the colonists' cost-benefit analysis. On the one hand, taxes, imposed at will by a legislature that did not represent the colonists' interests, were rising, even as tighter enforcement mechanisms made smuggling more difficult. On the other hand, the British connection continued to provide protection in a dangerous world. With the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, Americans began to think that British oppression of their rights outweighed the advantages that His Majesty's Navy afforded. In early 1766 the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that "a Bond for a Mediterranean Pass, with an American Stamp to it, was burned at the Coffee-House" in Philadelphia. 14 Clearly the oppressive stamp set too high a price for safe passage in the Mediterranean.
In his bestselling Common Sense (1776), the radical revolutionary Thomas Paine made a compelling case for the connection between independence and free trade. Aimed at fence-sitters, the widely read pamphlet argued that if the colonies severed their ties with Britain, American overseas trade would flourish. To those who feared that the loss of British military protection would encourage European powers to attack American shipping that crossed the Atlantic unescorted, Paine answered, "Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port." To those who maintained that American trade would suffer if the colonies left the British Empire and its guaranteed markets, Paine replied, "Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for,buy them where we will." An independent America would have all of Europe as its proper market for trade, a far larger field of opportunity than the highly restricted markets to which dependent America was confined under British rule. 15
In drafting the Declaration of Independence six months later, Thomas Jefferson recast the free-trade argument in the language of natural rights. All persons, he argued in the rhetoric of political economist John Locke, had certain rights that no government could take from them, including the right to own property and to dispose of it at will. By restricting the colonists' ability to sell their goods under terms of their choosing, Parliament had violated those rights; Americans, by dissolving all connections with Britain, could reclaim them. 16
With the Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of war, Americans lost all protection against piratical predations in the Mediterranean. Worse, the British navy shifted its role from defending colonial trade to interdicting it and blockading American ports. Recognizing that the fledgling United States lacked an adequate navy, Congress sought help from abroad. In a letter dated December 21, 1776, the Committee of Secret Correspondence instructed Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, commissioners representing the revolutionary states in Paris, to draw France into the conflict by whatever means necessary. Not only was it "all-important" for America's military operations "that France should enter the war as soon as may be," there was also an economic motive. With its war debts mounting, the United States needed revenue from overseas trade, and as the committee noted, "the British recall of their Mediterranean passes is an object of great consequence." Without a naval escort, U.S. ships were vulnerable to the Barbary pirates; consequently the commissioners were instructed to intercede with the court of France "to prevent the mischiefs that may be derived to American commerce therefrom." 17 In the resulting Treaty of Amity and Commerce (1778), France pledged to provide for the "Safety of the said United States ... against all ... Depredations on the Part of the ... States of Barbary." 18
With the military assistance of the French, in 1781 the United States defeated the British at Yorktown in what proved to be the last major conflict in the war. As optimism rose that independence would become a reality, Americans began to think about their place in the postwar world. Some, most notably New England merchants, believed that the United States must recognize world trade as it was, which meant that America had to protect its commercial interests with laws of navigation and import duties as did every other nation. Rejecting this status quo, other commercial and political leaders envisioned a world of free trade.
John Adams and Benjamin Franklin represented the two views in an exchange of letters in 1781. Adams suggested that duties on American exports were necessary for generating revenues to pay the interest on war debts. Franklin reminded him that "England raised indeed a great revenue by duties on tobacco, but it was by virtue of a prohibition of foreign tobaccos, and thereby obliging the internal consumer to pay those duties." He feared that the imposition of duties would only lead to trade wars. Franklin asked, "If America were to lay a duty of 5 pence sterling p. lb. on the exportation of her tobacco, would any European nation buy it?" He thought not, suggesting that the colonies of Spain and Portugal as well as Ukraine would "furnish it much cheaper." Besides, Franklin believed that the costs of levying and collecting duties outweighed the benefits, particularly those expenses necessary to "guard our long coast against the smuggling of tobacco."19 "I find myself rather inclined to adopt that modern [opinion]," Franklin concluded, "which supposes it best for every country to leave its trade entirely free from all incumbrances."20
American merchants sided with Franklin. In their view, the War of Independence was as much about guaranteeing commercial freedom as it was about securing natural rights. And indeed, they pointed out that without a vigorous overseas trade, American libertyat home would be an empty shell. One 1781 article, signed by "Leonidas," summarized the arguments for the importance of overseas commerce to the republic. First appearing in the Pennsylvania Gazette and reprinted in Boston's Independent Chronicle and Universal Advertiser, the piece noted that 1776 had brought a declaration of commercial as well as political independence.
The whole world (Britain excepted) is open to the productions and demands of his country. Commerce has become therefore not only inoffensive, but useful; nay more, It has become absolutely necessary to the happiness of America.21
In contrast to Britain's antiquated and unenlightened mercantilism, which promoted jealousy, competition, and war, free commerce among nations would one day usher in "universal peace and benevolence."22 Through trade, the author exulted, the United States will receive "all the improvements in arts and sciences of countries, where men are maintained by societies for the sole purpose of adding by their discoveries to the pleasures and conveniences of life." Commerce, he wrote, would bind the globe together in one common system of interests and benevolence."23 George Washington echoed Leonidas's sentiments in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette: "I cannot avoid reflecting with pleasure on the probable influence that commerce may hereafter have on human manners and society in general." He dreamed of a time when "the benefits of a liberal and free commerce will ... succeed to the devastations and horrors of war."24
But America's place in the world after 1783 was a far cry from the one Americans had hoped would follow independence. Disunited and weak at home and beset by foreign predators abroad, the United States was hardly the vanguard of a new world order. While recognizing American sovereignty on the one hand, Britain continued to treat the new republic as a commercial colony on the other. Instead of entering into a reciprocal trade agreement between two independent states, Britain continued to subject U.S.commerce to the restrictions of the old Navigation Acts without extending the benefits of free access to British markets. And rather than restraining the Barbary pirates, the British let them loose to prey upon American merchantmen.
At home, the postwar Confederation showed little national unity. Writing from Paris in late 1783, John Jay lamented what he called the lack of "a national spirit in America."25 He declared that "the spirit of enterprise and adventure runs high in our young country," but there was an absence of a "vigorous and wise government" to support enterprising citizens. Contrary to terms of the Treaty of Paris, Britain continued to maintain garrisons at frontier posts they had promised to abandon, and the Barbary States, Jay wrote, have "alarmed us" by regarding American vessels as fair game.26 Lacking a strong central government to devise and direct a coherent foreign trade policy, the states pursued separate courses. More interested in commerce than navigation, southern states opposed trade restrictions on foreign imports because they feared retaliation against their exports, and they were content to ship their produce in foreign bottoms. Concerned primarily with protecting their shipping interests, northern states insisted on the right to ship American goods in American vessels and advocated navigation acts that would retaliate in kind against foreign powers that restricted American trade.
By demanding the full measure of independence at home, the American states undermined the independence of America in the Atlantic world. Under the Confederation, only the individual states had taxing authority, making Congress dependent on them for the means to advance and protect American interests abroad. Merchants engaged in overseas shipping knew that without national resolve and power, commercial independence would elude them. Leonidas stated the case simply: "With vain do we amuse ourselves with these prospects of the blessings of commerce to the world, while Britain maintains the sovereignty of the ocean."27
The means of checking British naval power was an American navy. Knowing that his readers would be skeptical that a new countrycould mount an effective opposition to the world's greatest maritime power, Leonidas noted that the British could deploy only a small number of ships along the American coast. He called on Congress to require each state to build one or two armed vessels as the nucleus of a naval fleet. A modest land tax would defray the cost. Americans would gladly pay such a levy, Leonidas hopefully predicted, if officials could "assure the farmer, that the only design of it was to create a demand for, and to increase the price of his grain. The merchant could not object to this tax when he reflected that the first advantages arriving from it would center in his compting-house."28
While Leonidas was correct about the need for a navy to protect commerce, he was wrong about the immediate threat to American shipping: it wasn't the British Royal Navy but rather the Barbary pirates. When the Sallee Rovers captured the Betsey barely a year after the Treaty of Paris recognized the United States as an independent state, the dreams of free trade faded. Then when the Algerine corsairs enslaved the crews of the Maria and the Dauphin in 1785, it became clear that any power, including the "petty tyrants" of Barbary, could intercept American shipping at will. And the new national government provided no remedy. Fearful of replacing British despotism with a tyrannical state of their own, the revolutionaries in the Continental Congress had insisted that power reside within the individual states. Thus under the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, the central government consisted of a single body--a congress with representatives from each state--with limited powers. It had no power to tax, and it could not regulate commerce. Moreover, the federal government had no executive branch to enforce its laws; nor did it possess a judicial branch to interpret them. And while it did have the authority to establish and maintain a Continental army and a Continental navy, Congress depended on the individual states to staff, provision, and pay for both.
During the War of Independence, the states had been willing to underwrite the enormous cost of the Continental Navy. The limitedfleet authorized by Congress on October 13, 1775, played an important, though hardly decisive, role in winning the war. Its primary mission was to disrupt British supply vessels supporting His Majesty's troops and to protect merchant ships transporting much-needed war matériel. With the exception of John Paul Jones's operations in the North Sea and his raids on the British coasts, this "cruiser navy"--consisting of "small ships--frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners," assembled through new construction, purchase, and conversion of merchantmen--rarely challenged the superior Royal Navy.29 It was the French fleet that proved to be decisive in the Battle of Yorktown, driving off the Royal Navy and thereby preventing the Redcoats' escape to the sea. Nonetheless, the Continental Navy succeeded in capturing hundreds of British merchant vessels during the war while managing to maintain a transatlantic supply lane of its own.
The Continental Congress began dismantling the navy even as the fighting wound down and peace negotiations began. The navy represented perhaps the most expensive single item in the national budget, and to republicans a standing navy, as well as a standing army, represented a threat to liberty. Thus while some ships under construction were completed as a precaution against renewed hostilities, progress toward a treaty rendered them superfluous. The Bourbon was launched at Middletown, Connecticut, on July 31, 1783, and was advertised for sale in September, about a year before the Moroccan pirates boarded the Betsey.30 Within two years Congress had sold the Alliance, and the Continental Navy ceased to exist.
After the War of Independence, Thomas Jefferson charted the course of American trade in the Mediterranean. He reported that before the war "about one-sixth of the wheat and flour exported from the United States, and about one-fourth in value of their dried and pickled fish, and some rice, found their best markets in the Mediterranean ports." He estimated that the commerce "loaded outwards [totaled] from eighty to one hundred ships annually, of twenty thousand tons, navigated by about twelve hundred seamen."But, Jefferson noted, the Mediterranean trade "was abandoned early in the war," and "after the peace which ensued, it was obvious to our merchants, that their adventures into that sea would be exposed to the depredations of the piratical States on the coast of Barbary."31 The American dream of free trade faded when small bands of pirates brought commerce to a standstill. And the meaning of American independence was brought into question.
Like the Americans, the Barbary pirates had fought for their independence and knew it to be tenuous. The Barbary States had been founded in the sixteenth century as regencies of the Ottoman Empire, and like the British American colonies, they operated under imperial policies that emanated from a distant metropolitan center. Just as Americans had once heeded instructions from Whitehall in London, the Barbary pirates took their orders from the grand seigneur or emperor of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. Similarities in their origins, however, cannot mask significant differences in their development over time. While the United States flourished under the prosperity and protection of a powerful, expanding imperial center, the Barbary States languished under an empire that had already reached its zenith and was in decline.
Arabs had conquered North Africa in the seventh century when Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula embarked on a period of expansion to the east and west. They raced across North Africa and moved into Europe through the Iberian Peninsula. But while they managed to plant Islamic institutions deep into Spain, their North African possessions were fragmented, small, and weak and thus vulnerable to the machinations of more powerful states in the region. 32 For eight hundred years, traders along the Barbary Coast plied their goods on the fringes of the Mediterranean world.
Events in the second half of the fifteenth century transformed Algiers and the other Barbary powers, squeezed by aggressive powers from the eastern and western Mediterranean, from commercialto pirate states. In 1453 the Ottomans captured Constantinople and sought to make the Barbary States their tributaries in the fight against the Holy Roman Empire. Then in 1492 Spain expelled the last Moors from Granada and pursued them into North Africa in search of land and power. These two events "altered beyond redemption" the "trading equilibrium of Muslim and Christian in the western Mediterranean." More specifically, though they were tributaries of Constantinople, the Barbary powers enjoyed little protection or benefit from their alliance with the Muslim power. The Ottoman Turks were too far removed and preoccupied with consolidating their continental territories. Thus the Barbary States faced Spanish power alone. Unable to match Spain's military might, Algiers became a tributary of Ferdinand the Catholic under terms of a 1510 treaty. The following year Ferdinand imposed a 50 percent surtax on Algiers's woolen imports in order to generate revenue to pay for Spain's North African expeditions.33 Relegated to tributary status under a harsh commercial regime, Algiers sought to bolster its economy through piracy. If Spain insisted on extorting Algiers's profits through exorbitant taxation, the Algerines reasoned, then they could recoup their losses by any means.
The Barbary States did not set out to make piracy the centerpiece of their economies. Their preference was to profit from trade with the rich Mediterranean markets, and indeed by the fourteenth century they had established a lucrative niche. Because of North Africa's shortage of native timber, their leading import was European raw and finished wood. Other commodities in high demand included copper, precious metals, fine silks, woolens, and cotton cloth. In turn Algiers and the other Barbary States exported to Europe black slaves, Barbary horses, salted fish, leather hides, salt, wax, grain, olive oil, and dates. Commerce between Algiers and Europe's Mediterranean powers grew so extensive that Venetian and Florentine merchant ships made regular calls at the Maghrebi port. During the later 1400s the Barbary powers secured a place in the Mediterranean commercial network, adhering to a strictly enforcedset of trade regulations and customs payments.34 The clash of the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires resulting in Spain's harsh treaty of 1510 brought this situation to an end.
Spain effectively controlled the Maghreb from Morocco in the west to Tripoli in the east. In the early sixteenth century the Ottomans launched their offensive to bring North Africa under their control and thereby secure its ports as bases for protecting Turkish shipping routes in the Mediterranean. Leading the expedition to reclaim the Mahgreb were two brothers, the best known of whom was Khayr ad-Din, or Barbarossa, who seized Algiers in 1516 and by 1529 had brought the entire region, except for Tunis, under Turkish lordship. In recognition of Barbarossa's great service to the empire, the grand seigneur named Khayr ad-Din high admiral of the sultan's navy, and in 1534 Barbarossa captured Tunis and annexed it to the Ottoman Empire. He had reversed the retreat and secured Barbary for the Turks, thereby reclaiming important ports from which Turkish sea power could be extended throughout the southern Mediterranean.35
The Ottomans' reconquest did not go unchallenged. Fearing Turkish dominance of the Mediterranean, Holy Roman emperor Charles V called for a "virtual crusade" to check Ottoman aspirations. A coalition of nearly all the European powers with ports on the Mediterranean drove Barbarossa from Barbary in 1536, thereby returning Tunis and Tripoli to Spanish rule. The French, however, pursued an independent and contrary course and concluded a treaty with the Turks, providing Barbarossa with safe haven in Nice. This crack in European unanimity offered the pirates a strategic option they would prove adept at exercising on numerous future occasions: exploiting one European power's desire to seek advantage over another by making separate deals. In this instance, France's Francis I enlisted Barbarossa's assistance in defeating the Duke of Savoy and annexing his lands. In exchange, the French permitted the Turks to use Toulon to winter in, turning the port into "a sort of second Istanboul."36
The Barbary States were caught in the middle of the strugglebetween the Turks and the Europeans for control of the Mediterranean, but their status remained the same: tributaries, first to the Spanish and then to the Ottomans. In 1571 the Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires fought a climactic naval battle that left the Barbary regencies with a great deal of autonomy but also little protection. In the Battle of Lepanto, with about two hundred ships arrayed against one another in the Gulf of Patras off the Ionian Sea, the two powers clashed: the "Christian fleet," under the command of Don John of Austria, defeated the Turks. The battle redefined the Mediterranean. The Ottomans and the Spanish recognized each other's spheres of power, the former relegated to the eastern Mediterranean and the latter to the western.
Located in the Spanish sphere but locked out of European markets and operating without major naval support from Constantinople, the Barbary powers turned to piracy in earnest. At the center were Algiers, the base that Barbarossa had established in 1529, and Tripoli, a corsair port modeled after Algiers by Barbarossa's successor, Dragut. A prolonged war of piracy ensued throughout the sixteenth century, as Barbary pirates raided Christian shipping, and Christian pirates, most notably from Malta, attacked Muslim trade. Pirates on both sides captured prizes, confiscated cargoes, and enslaved crews. From the First Crusade in the late eleventh century, Christians and Muslims alike justified their marauding on religious grounds while accusing the other of piracy and depredations. It is fairer to say that both parties were engaged in similar activity, sending out privateers under their respective flags to raid each other's shipping.37 For the Barbary regencies, piracy, however, soon became more than forays against the "infidels"; it became the center of their economic and political life.
The apogee of Barbary power came in the first half of the seventeenth century. By 1640 an estimated 150 corsair vessels operated from the North African ports, two-thirds of them from Algerine ports. Moreover the pirates no longer relied upon oar-powered galleys, having developed swift, maneuverable sailing ships well adapted to the shallow waters around their well-protected portsand equally suited for raids on passing commercial vessels. In part fueled by piratical successes, Algiers grew into one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean with a population of around a hundred thousand, bigger than Genoa, Marseilles, Barcelona, or Leghorn. Ever opportunistic, the pirates took advantage of renewed conflicts among the Christian states, such as the resumption of the Spanish war against the Dutch in 1621 and Spain's war with France that began in 1635.38 One belligerent was always all too willing for the Barbary pirates to raid its enemy's shipping.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the Barbary regencies suffered a reversal of fortune. The English and the Dutch sent powerful fleets into the Mediterranean to reduce the pirates' threat to commercial vessels. British admiral Robert Blake's squadron subdued the corsairs in an attack from which the Barbary forces never recovered.39 By the end of the century the Algerine naval force had been reduced by 75 percent. By the time they raided American shipping in the late eighteenth century, the Barbary powers had been diminished to petty states, none of them able to launch more than a dozen corsairs.
Before the 1784 capture of the Betsey, most Americans knew little of the Barbary pirates beyond what they read in fictionalized accounts of bloodthirsty marauders. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, introduced Anglo-American readers to the Sallee Rovers. Sailing on a trader to the Canary Islands, Crusoe's ship is "surprised" by pirates in a fast-moving corsair, who overtake the English vessel and fasten the two ships together with a grappling iron. Scores of fierce-looking Moors swarm aboard. The survivors are taken into the port of Salé, where they become "miserable slaves." By including both "American" and "Pyrates" in its full title (which was an impressive sixty-five words long), Robinson Crusoe attracted the attention of American colonists, especially New Englanders, for whom shipping was prominent. Though they had access to the many editions printed in London, American readers demanded more, and colonial printers accommodated them. At least as early as 1774 an American edition appeared,and thereafter at least a dozen more before the Algiers Treaty was signed in 1795. New England presses in particular, including those in Portland, Maine, Windham, Connecticut, and Worcester, Massachusetts, published the hair-raising tale of imperiled seamen, whose real-life counterparts faced all-too-real dangers in Barbary.40
Periodic newspaper reports of actual pirate captures reinforced Crusoe's tale. For example, a 1759 Pennsylvania Gazette report told of the Sallee Rovers in "some piratical Vessels" sweeping down on the British warship Litchfield and boarding with a "croud of men." They then "stript them," took them into the port of Salé, and forced them to work as slaves.41 For Americans, the enduring image of the Barbary pirates was that of lawless sea robbers who sought ill-gotten gains with no regard for their victims.
After the captures of the 1780s, some Americans attempted to render a more accurate and balanced portrayal of the Barbary pirates. One such effort was Mathew Carey's Short Account of Algiers (1794). Drawing primarily on descriptions penned by Western consuls and captives, the republican newspaper publisher wrote a historical sketch that attempted to explain rather than condemn cultural differences, especially religious beliefs and practices. He was, however, less charitable in his assessment of the government of Algiers. While Algiers bore the "title of a kingdom," Carey observed, "it is however a military republic." At the head of the state was the dey, who was elected by a divan or council made up of senior army officers. These elections, in Carey's telling, were hardly republican affairs; rather, the dey "seldom secure [d] his office, without tumult and bloodshed." And violence was commonplace. Carey quotes one British consul who reported that the dey enjoyed having "the heads of his subjects to be struck off in his presence."42 Algerine deys gained and kept power by means that struck Europeans and Americans as barbaric and brutal.
Europeans and Americans learned about Barbary politics primarily through the prism of Western diplomats, who no doubt emphasized its violent nature as a means of justifying military actionagainst the regimes. Despite the bias, the reports provide a reliable account of the structure of power and the prominence of the Barbary ruler. The dey stood atop a military regime filled with aspirants to the throne. Accordingly, the ruler took steps to ensure the structure's stability and to check the ambitions of potential challengers. Just beneath the dey in dignity and power was the aga of the janissaries, a position of so much potential threat that, Carey wrote, the aga "enjoys his post but two months, and then retires upon a pension." Other important officers included a secretary of state, twenty colonels, eight hundred captains, and four hundred lieutenants. "Among these officers," Carey wrote, "the right of seniority is strictly observed. A breach of this point would be expected to produce a revolt among the soldiers, and might perhaps cost the dey his life." Even so, private soldiers sometimes attempted to assassinate the leader, "as any private soldier who has the courage to murder him, stands an equal chance of becoming his successor."43
While the dey protected himself from those beneath him, he paid tribute to his overlord, the grand seigneur at Constantinople, as did the heads of the other Barbary States. Tribute was the coin of piracy. Just as the dey paid off Constantinople, he, and the other heads of Barbary States, sought tribute from the European capitals. By demanding presents such as precious metals, Spanish dollars, and military equipment, the dey could meet his obligations to his nominal overlord while strengthening his own power base. In a strategy that added insult to injury, the dey also exacted tribute in the form of armaments that could be used to extort yet more tribute. 44 In 1785, for example, the Spanish agreed to provide the Algerines 25 brass artillery pieces, 25 iron cannons, 4 mortars, 4,000 bombs, 10,000 balls, 2,000 quintals (a quintal equals 100 kilograms) of gunpowder, and 5,000 quintals of musketballs. All of that was in addition to a payment of 1 million pieces of eight.45
Algiers was no Islamic republic; religious leaders did not run the state. Indeed, Muslim clerics occupied a separate and subordinaterole to that of the dey and his janissaries. At the top of the religious hierarchy was the mufti or high priest, followed by the cadi, the "supreme judge in ecclesiastical causes, and in such civil matters as the civil power does not interpose in," and the grand marabout, the chief of an order of hermits. Distinguished by the "largeness of their turbans," these officials occupied a place in the divan, occupying seats "below the dey, on his right hand." About two thousand Turkish officers and soldiers dominated the council.46
The Algerine rulers governed through fear, reinforced by swift, brutal, and public punishment of offenses against society. While some European and American observers emphasized the dey's harsh treatment of Christian slaves, he was equally ruthless toward his own Islamic subjects. Christians were sometimes "roasted alive" or hung from walls by hooks; sufferers were known to "hang thus for several days, alive, and in the most exquisite torture." But Muslims fared no better. "A Moor convicted of house-breaking," Carey reported, "hath his right hand cut off and fastened to his neck." Those convicted of treason were "placed between two boards, and sawed asunder." And adulterous women were "fixed by their necks to a pole, and held under water till they are suffocated." 47
Carey reminded his readers, however, that the pirates were not the only slave masters who treated humans as commodities. He noted,
For this practice of buying and selling slaves, we are not entitled to charge the Algerines with any exclusive degree of barbarity. The Christians of Europe and America carry on this commerce an hundred times more extensively than the Algerines.48
Pirating in the Barbary States was a capitalist enterprise. Entrepreneurs invested in building and furnishing a raiding ship, sometimes selling shares to armadores, usually small shopkeepers.49
The principal investor hired a reis or captain to command the vessel, who then put together a crew and enlisted the services of soldiers. Completing the complement of men was a scrivener, a government official whose task was to record the booty to ensure that the dey as well as the investors received their agreed-upon portions. It was a high-risk, high-reward business.
A reis's success depended on leadership, courage, and knowledge as opposed to ethnic and religious identity. One of Algiers's richest captains of the seventeenth century was Ali Bitchnin, an Italian named Piccinio who arrived in Algiers as the commander of a pirate ship that had operated in the Adriatic. Seeing an opportunity to capture more lucrative prizes by raiding European vessels from Algiers, he converted to Islam and soon rose to prominence as a daring, courageous raider who amassed a fortune. With his own flotilla of cruisers, Bitchnin rivaled the dey in power and prestige. Sometimes a great reis rose to power through the ranks. Such was the eighteenth century's most notable Algerine captain, Hamidou Reis. While most successful corsairs were either European renegades or Turks, Hamidou was the son of a Moorish tailor who began life aboard pirate cruisers as a cabin boy and by initiative and courage worked his way up to being a captain. By the 1790s he was named admiral of the Algerine fleet and became America's nemesis. 50
The pirate fleets were small, built for raiding commerce rather than trading it. One of the American captives in Algiers, Richard O'Brien, provided in 1786 an eyewitness account of the Algerine force, noting that Algiers possessed no merchant ships except for a few coasting vessels that transported wheat from port to port. The French were the principal carriers of the modest trade that Algiers carried on with other Mediterranean powers. Piracy, not trade, was the primary occupation of the Algerine fleet, which numbered nine vessels with a total of 188 guns of various calibers. Of the corsairs, O'Brien wrote, "the vessels are small to the metal they carry."51 The marine forces of Tunis and Tripoli were of comparable size. Rarely were the pirate cruisers of Barbary manufacture. For themost part, they were refitted prizes captured from Europeans and, after 1785, Americans, or they were new ships built by their tributaries as part of the price of peace. In addition, European merchants competed for the privilege of supplying the Barbary States with naval supplies and ordnance.
The pirates who manned the cruisers were a cosmopolitan lot. Many if not most were Christian captives who provided the hard labor, rowing the galliots that were continued in use throughout the eighteenth century and managing the rigging and sails of the fast, sleek caravelles, xebecs, and frigates.52 Crews numbered between 300 and 450 men, depending upon the size of the ship and the number of guns, and comprised both sailors and marines. It was the responsibility of the sailors to close with the enemy. Then the marines, who constituted a majority of the crew, would spring into action.53
A pirate raid usually began with deception and ended with fury. The Barbary vessel would fly a foreign flag in order to "lure the unsuspecting victim within striking distance." Then gunners perched on the rigging would "ply the shot with unabated rapidity," raking the victim's deck. Meanwhile "the fighting men stand ready, their arms bared, muskets primed, and scimitars flashing, waiting for the order to board." When the reis gave the signal, the pirates leaped aboard the prize. According to one description, "their war-cry was appalling; and the fury of the onslaught was such as to strike panic into the stoutest heart." After overcoming the crew, the pirates chained survivors, who would become hostages for ransom or slaves for sale, manned the captured ship, and proceeded to their home port.54
The arrival of a successful corsair was the occasion for celebration in Algiers or any of the other ports along the Barbary Coast. The dey received from one-eighth to one-fifth of the cargo plus the captured vessel. The owners and reis received half the remaining cargo as their share, with the other half going to the crew and soldiers. 55 A particularly rich prize resulted in liberal spending by the direct benefactors, which had a multiplier effect as shopkeepersand vendors of all kinds participated in the bounty. Moreover, for the dey the prize was the means of exacting tribute from the nation whose ship was taken as well as ransom for the enslaved crew.
Algerine attitudes toward slaves reflected similarities to and differences from those of American slaveholders. Like southern planters, pirates considered slaves to be an invaluable source of labor, especially hard manual labor. Barbary slaves provided much of the manpower for the pirate fleet and supplied intellect, skill, and leadership in designing and building new vessels. So valuable were slaves that at times of peak demand for labor, the dey refused to redeem some of them at any price. There were, however, major dissimilarities between slavery in Barbary and in the American South. First, American slavery existed on a much larger scale: in 1790 there were 697,624 slaves in America as compared to about 3,000 in Algiers.56 Second, while manumission was rare in the United States, it was not only possible for most slaves in Algiers but likely. Indeed, one of the primary purposes for taking slaves was to seek ransom money for their release. Some slaves even rose to the command of corsairs. A third difference was ethnicity and religion of slaves. In the United States, slavery was defined by race: all slaves were either Africans or Native Americans. In Barbary, slaves were a mixed lot: European Christians, North African Moors, and sub-Saharan Negroes.
While the dey relied on privateers and their slave crews to raid ships and bring in prizes, he assumed responsibility for defending Algiers from enemy attacks. On numerous occasions from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, a European power or alliance would attempt to reduce or eliminate the pirate threat by waging war against the Algerines. Most often the strategy was simple: position a massive fleet at the entrance to the harbor at Algiers, bombard the city's defenses, sink the small navy guarding the walls, and land soldiers to occupy the dey's capital. It never worked. Europeans tended to underestimate the Algerines' resources and resolve. The English consul at Algiers in 1785, having seen the Algerines repulse an assault by a Spanish-led coalition in 1784,watched the pirates prepare for what promised to be a more massive attack the following year. He doubted that a force three times the one then sailing for Algiers could prevail. He noted the "formidable" artillery of the castle, to which the Algerines had recently added a new battery that they called the "Devil's Battery." If the invaders managed to take out the artillery, they then faced a "most numerous and warlike enemy," whose army was battle hardened and better disciplined. The consul advised Europeans to pay the demanded tribute. Only gold, "that seducing metal," would succeed "against a place so well fortified."57
Organized, ensconced, and opportunistic, the Barbary pirates played foe against foe, power against power. Britain, fearing the loss of the carrying trade to the Americans, turned to the Barbary States for assistance. Rather than ordering the Royal Navy to attack American shipping, Carey explained, England "adopted the miserable expedient of turning loose the Algerines, that these execrable ruffians might plunder our property, and plunge our fellow-citizens into slavery."58
In May 1784 the U.S. Congress instructed its commissioners in Paris--Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson--to negotiate bilateral "treaties of amity and commerce with the Commercial powers of Europe." The resolution enumerated the cities and countries that it would be "advantageous" to have as trading partners, including Russia, Vienna, Prussia, Denmark, Saxony, Hamburg, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Genoa, Tuscany, Rome, Naples, Venice, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Porte. Additionally, Congress resolved that "treaties of amity, or of amity and commerce, be entered into with Morocco, and the regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoly, to continue for the same term of ten years, or for a term as much longer as can be procured." The terms of the treaties to be negotiated embraced the American principles of equality and reciprocity. The proposed wording called for commercial exchanges consistent with "the most perfect reciprocity." Parties would be allowed totransport their goods in their own ships to each other's ports freely, paying only those duties required of the most favored nation.59 If the United States could obtain those terms with the European and Barbary powers, then American merchants could enjoy the profitable trade they had long anticipated.
But alas, the Barbary pirates' capture of American vessels and enslavement of their crews underscored the gap between American rhetoric on free trade and the realities of Atlantic commerce. Though small, weak, and relatively insignificant, the Barbary States were part of a tribute-demanding system endorsed by Europe's major powers and designed to restrict trade competition. Colonial American merchants, operating under British protection, had once been part of that mercantilist structure, sailing freely to British ports and enjoying a monopoly in certain enumerated commodities. Now flying the U.S. flag, merchant vessels were unwelcome newcomers who threatened to take market share from the established maritime powers. British merchants were particularly concerned about American ships reducing His Majesty's dominance in the carrying trade. Thus, while signing the treaty recognizing American independence in 1783, Parliament refused to enter into a treaty of amity and commerce.
While Americans viewed free trade as a natural outgrowth of their revolution, Europeans had a different perspective. One letter from Europe, reprinted in American newspapers, noted America's desire "to trade with all the world upon the most liberal and extensive plan." As colonial dependencies subject to British trade regulations, they had been part of the mercantilist scheme; as independent states embracing the free-trade doctrine, they "must necessarily create a new influence [in the Atlantic world], and occasion new points to be discussed, respecting the general system of commerce." 60 In short, the new republic and its insistence on new ways of international trade threatened Europe's delicate balance of power that had been worked out over the centuries, often with much bloodshed.61
Britain's goal was to continue to regulate American trade by restrictingits access to markets. Fearing the United States as a commercial competitor, Parliament refused to negotiate a commercial treaty that was favorable to the new republic and instead excluded Americans from the lucrative West Indian trade. Britain was not alone among the maritime powers in restricting American commerce by imposing navigation restrictions and expensive duties that reduced the competitiveness of American goods in the Atlantic market. Spain also refused to enter into a commercial treaty and, perhaps more devastating to the struggling postwar American economy, denied Americans free navigation of the Mississippi River. By blocking the means of shipping produce downriver to New Orleans, Spain rendered farmers' produce noncompetitive in the Atlantic market because of high transportation costs. In a letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson summed up the sentiments of many Americans when he bemoaned "our vital agonies by our exclusion from the West Indies, by late embarrassments in Spain and Portugal, and by the dangers of the Mediterranean trade."62 Jefferson knew that commerce was the lifeblood of independent citizens in the new republic. Indeed, the young nation's political survival depended on its commercial success. If farmers and planters could not export their produce, they would lose their economic independence, and the loss of economic independence could mean the loss of political independence.
To Adams, Britain had little reason to behave differently. First, the British were confident that they would, under any circumstances, continue to dominate the American trade. "Even in the case of war," Adams noted, British manufacturers expected to feed America's insatiable appetite for British goods. Second, Britain was confident that "the American States are not, and cannot be united. The landed interest will never join with the commercial interest, nor the southern States with the northern in any measure of retaliation, or expressions of resentment." Based on those two assumptions, the British had already begun what Adams termed "commercial hostilities," so called "because their direct object is not so much the increase of their own wealth, ships, or sailors, asthe diminution of ours." Adams called on Congress to "enter into this commercial war," despite the risk it might escalate into a "military war."63
While Americans likely found British attitudes toward American trade predictable, many were taken aback by French reactions. An American in Paris reported with disappointment that "a nation that has so essentially supported our independence" was now expressing "the difficulties attending a free trade with America." The merchants of France, the writer noted, readily grasped that American free trade would not only injure their own private interests but greatly diminish France's current high level of importation from her American dependencies. "Besides," the commentator added in his characterization of French concerns, "if France granted free trade to America, her other trading partners would demand the same."64 In short, American merchants increasingly confronted the sobering reality of world markets that were closed to them, even by their allies.
Europe's great maritime powers viewed the Barbary pirates as nettlesome yet useful. On the one hand, they saw them as outlaws who raided legitimate commerce and extorted tribute. That perspective fueled the impulse to subdue the pirates by force. On the other hand, Britain, France, and Spain considered the Barbary pirates useful allies in their mercantilist struggles for commercial supremacy. Regardless, Europeans found the pirates to be independent opportunists who pursued their own objectives. Sometimes the Barbary States would make a treaty and then threaten to violate the terms unless the tributary agreed to even more generous "presents." At other times they would fight instead of treating with a particular power. And though no match for European navies in the Atlantic, the pirates were worthy adversaries inside the Strait of Gibraltar.
On occasion the European powers, acting either singly or in concert, attempted to subdue the pirates by making a direct assault on their homelands. One such initiative occurred on the eve ofthe Algerine attacks on the two American vessels. While rumors swirled in London of pirate attacks, official pronouncements from Madrid in July 1784 gave Americans hope. The Spanish and French announced that they were combining forces to eliminate the Algerine scourge from the Mediterranean. While Britain refused to join the alliance, the Royal Navy ordered a "Squadron of five Line of Battle Ships, and four Frigates ... on a Cruise of Observation into the Mediterranean." On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans were delighted to learn that the Europeans were "going in Conjunction, with a very great naval Force against Algiers." 65
With no navy of their own, Americans could only hope that the French and Spanish coalition would subdue the Barbary pirates and clear the Mediterranean for legitimate trade. American newspaper readers followed the action from the sidelines, dependent on more powerful nations to rid them of a dreaded enemy. Previously, they had read of the growing pirate menace. Reports indicated that the Algerines had sent out on raids more ships and more men than they had in years, and that they carried with them "very heavy metal." Americans were consequently heartened by reports from Spain detailing the allies' preparations and resolve. The commander of the fleet, Don Antonio Barcelo, had developed new, deadly weapons armed with gunpowder that had twice the explosive power of that currently used. Perhaps of more interest to Americans than the new technology was the bold war aim. Unlike the half measures of the past, this attack on Algiers promised "not only ... to bombard the place, but to land, and be at once in good earnest revenged of the Algerines for their insults to the European nations."66
In October intelligence arrived of the "compleat destruction of the city of Algiers, which was set on fire in six or seven different places, ... and all the public buildings burnt to the ground." The newspaper account claimed that "a prodigious number of people are slain." Don Barcelo, it was claimed, had kept his forces in thebay facing Algiers "to compleat the total destruction of the city, that if possible, no vestige might remain to cause any trouble in future to any of the European powers."67 The Mediterranean, Americans surmised, was now secure for commerce.
Initial reports proved overly optimistic. What the Algerines lacked in firepower, they made up in surprise tactics. When the allies began the engagement on September 21 with a ten-hour bombardment of Algiers, they expected the Algerine gunboats to come out and fight. Instead, the crafty pirates kept their maneuverable boats deep inside the harbor, forcing the heavy warships to come after them. The strategy worked. While the bombardment destroyed a few gunboats and damaged the city's fortifications, the pirates withstood the assault and repulsed the European force inside the harbor, where the corsairs had the advantage.68
The hoped-for demise of the Algerines proved premature. To Americans, the implications were disturbing. A letter from a merchant in Cádiz to a gentleman at Beverly, Massachusetts, dated August 25, 1785, gave a chilling account of renewed pirate activity that would have a profound impact on American shipping in the Mediterranean. Instead of defeating the Algerines, the Spanish negotiated a treaty with them. "This high and mighty nation," the merchant said of Spain, "who threatened to annihilate Algiers and all thereto belonging, now are to pay an immense sum of money, for what? Why, to have the honour of letting the pirates pursue their old business unmolested."69
Ships' captains arriving in American ports brought a steady stream of ominous correspondence. European countries had begun providing naval escorts for their merchant fleets in the Mediterranean; the United States having no navy, American merchantmen entered the region unescorted. Moreover, Europeans expressed a new respect for the pirates, noting that any attack on the corsairs would likely result in a "very smart engagement." Just months earlier Americans had believed that the scourge of Barbary was about to be removed. Now the mood had turned to dread and fear. Playing on that fear, the commodore of the Algerine pirates begansailing under an ensign that boldly displayed a death's-head and a battle-ax. 70
After independence, American merchant ships faced hostilities from the pirates and their European co-conspirators, especially the British. The British Parliament was divided over trade policy with the United States. Some members, like William Pitt, were sympathetic to America's desire for free trade, arguing that it was in Britain's best interest to cultivate commerce with a growing nation that represented an expanding market for British goods. Opposing such leniency toward a potential trade rival, Lord Sheffield urged members of Parliament to consider the threat America posed to Britain if the United States were allowed the freedom to trade that it wished. Great Britain, he wrote, "has not found itself in a more interested and critical situation than it is at present. It is now to be decided whether we are to be ruined by the independence of America, or not." By comparison, "the peace ... was a trifling object." A mercantilist to the core, he argued that American trade must be thwarted at every point, because the new republic's gains would result in Britain's loss.71 For Sheffield, the Barbary pirates were the key to keeping the United States out of the Mediterranean : "It is not probable the American states will have a very free trade in the Mediterranean; it will not be the interest of any of the great maritime powers to protect them there from the Barbary States."72 Lord Sheffield merely echoed the sentiments attributed to France's Louis XIV: "if there was no Algiers he would build one."73 Like the Sun King, George III and Parliament determined to deny the upstart Americans free navigation in the Mediterranean by encouraging Algerine depredations on their shipping.
In spring 1785 Americans grew ever more suspicious that the British were behind Barbary threats on U.S. shipping. Amid warnings from Americans in southern Europe that the Algerines were targeting vessels sailing under "American colours" came increased evidence of British involvement. British underwriters of maritime insurance refused to write policies for any American vessel sailing to the Mediterranean "without a pass and British colors," and onewriter observed that the British gave Algerine corsairs the run of the English coast in order to capture American merchantmen departing from British ports. 74
One of the most damaging reports of British assistance to the pirates arrived in the United States just three months before the Algerines captured the Dauphin and the Maria in July. An American writing from London indicated that the Algerine fleet was being fitted out at Gibraltar, a British possession. To the reporter, and no doubt to all Americans who believed in a British conspiracy against U.S. commerce, the message was clear: "those Barbarians are countenanced in their Depredations upon our Commerce by the British Court." Americans should heed the warning and prepare for war. While the pirates were on cruise to take prizes, the British had bigger aims: "Above all, it seems utterly to extirpate the Commerce of their States in their own Vessels in the European Seas, and of course to establish the favourite System of Lord Sheffield, of the British becoming Carriers of all the Property imported and exported between Britain and America."75 For Americans already aroused by Parliament's refusal to sign a treaty of commerce with the United States, the reference to Lord Sheffield was proof enough that Britain and the Barbary pirates were allies in forcing Americans to pay tribute for the right to trade and to consign the carrying trade to the British.