After the horrific events of September 11, Americans must confront a new age of terror. But as Ecclesiastes notes, there is nothing new under the sun. For centuries, the Barbary States in North Africa--Tripoli, Tunisia and Algeria--engaged in piracy, an early and highly profitable form of terrorism. Britain paid tribute to protect its trade, but after the American Revolution, ships flying the Stars and Stripes were fair game. The pirates seized American ships and enslaved their crews. Maria Martin spent six years as "a slave in Algiers: two of which she was confined in a dark and dismal dungeon, loaded with irons."
Reluctantly, Congress began building a navy in 1794, but three years later the United States agreed to pay $10 million in tribute over twelve years. By 1800, twenty percent of federal revenue went to North Africa to buy protection for American ships. When the pasha of Tripoli tried to extort additional tribute and declared war on the United States, Thomas Jefferson saw the light. "Millions for defense," said Colonel Charles Pinckney, "but not one cent for tribute." Jefferson sent the American Navy to blockade Tripoli. For years, diplomats tried to negotiate an unsuccessful settlement. Americans even considered resuming tribute payments.
A remarkable sailor named Edward Preble stiffened American resolve. As U.S. naval commander in the Mediterranean, Preble tightened the blockade and bombarded Tripoli, but the frigate Philadelphia ran aground and the pirates captured the ship and its crew. This was an immense disaster, comparable to Saddam Hussein seizing an American aircraft carrier.
A dashing twenty-four-year-old Greek-American commanding the USS Enterprise, Lt. Stephen Decatur, had captured a Tripolitan corsair and renamed it the Intrepid. On the night of February 16, 1804, Decatur led seventy-four volunteers into Tripoli harbor under cover of darkness. The Intrepid lay alongside the Philadelphia and set it afire. Decatur did not lose a man in the operation. English sea dog Lord Horatio Nelson called the raid "the most daring act of the age." Decatur became the youngest naval captain in U.S. history. One brilliant victory, however, did not end the war. Captain Richard Somers was killed when the Intrepid exploded. Decatur's brother James was "shot through the Head & Mortally wounded" attacking Tripoli. On land, diplomat William Eaton led Marines and Greek volunteers on an arduous march from Egypt to the shores of Tripoli and captured the port of Derna.
On the verge of victory, treacherous domestic politics compelled Jefferson to make peace. Despite his exploits, Preble was relieved of command. Commodore John Rodgers ransomed the crew of the Philadelphia and extracted Tripoli's pledge to stop raiding American ships. Disappointed with the capitulation, Decatur expressed his feelings in this toast: "In matters of foreign affairs, my country may she ever be right. But right or wrong, my country, my country."
Naturally, the pirates violated the treaty. By 1815, even Europeans had had enough and six nations declared war. Congress authorized naval action against Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Now a commodore and hero of the War of 1812, Decatur led ten warships to the Mediterranean. Under Decatur's guns, the Dey of Algiers agreed to stop demanding tribute, pay reparations and release American prisoners without ransom. Decatur extracted similar promises from Tunis and Tripoli. The North Africans soon repudiated the treaties, but in 1816 an Anglo-Dutch fleet bombed Algiers for nine hours and put the pirates out of business. It was a long, hard war, marked by heroism, suffering and sacrifice, but the struggle with such evil is not over yet.