Earlier in the year at the start of lock-down I read a book about one of the USA’s earliest foreign wars: their conflict against the barbary pirates in the first decade of the 1800s. I was interested to learn more about the growth of American imperial power, especially due to covering it on a couple of modules on the History foundation degree at University Centre South Devon. And so when I came across Joseph Wheelan’s Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805 (2003) I licked my lips at the prospect of delving further into the country’s imperial history. And what is more: it proved a fitting entry for the continuing series of the War Zone.
This war – known under various names, such as the First Barbary War or the Triopolitanian War – was a rather drawn out struggle in which the fresh, growing American navy pitted their wits against a couple of the North African Barbary states. The main bone of contention was the power in which these Barbary states held in the Mediterranean: all trading countries of the world – such as Britain and France – paid the rulers of this states a tribute to avoid their ships being plundered. Quite simply put, this was a racketeering on an international level and the countries of the world were extorted: either pay up or face the penalty. It was not a particularly fair system but it was one that had survived for centuries. That was until the Americans took umbrage with the system.
The United States of America became an independent nation as a result of the revolutionary war against Britain, with their sovereignty secured in the 1783 Peace of Paris. I commented on a recent post about the many problems that beset the young republic during the 1780s (in which I outlined the key issues with the Articles of Confederation), but by the turn of the 19th century the nation was well on its way to becoming an influential trading power.
Previously, the Americans paid tribute to the Barbary states, however, this policy decisively shifted with Thomas Jefferson’s election as president at the end of 1800. He despised the actions of these rulers and their continual, inflated demands; these actions included the capture of cargo and also of crews, who were ransomed back to the USA. Jefferson envisioned that if America wanted to grow as a trading power it would need a navy to protect its commerce, and so this led to a vast expansion of a naval fleet. The Barbary War was the conflict in which this navy cut its teeth and earned its stripes, with the state of Tripoli the continuing antagonist throughout the war.
However, despite clear naval superiority, the war dragged on for several years because there was a complete lack of a decisive blow. The American strategy was to blockade the Barbary ports in order to force them to submit, but this was not entirely effective: due in part to the need to spread American ships across the Med, but also due to the ability to the Barbary states to find routes through the blockades. Wheelan’s book (mentioned above) does a fantastic job of providing flesh to the various characters, such as William Eaton and Edward Prebble; however, it is clear that there was frustration in the government with the lack of real decisive gains.
The capture of USS Philadelphia in 1803 was a clear blow to the Americans: the ship ran aground in the harbour of Tripoli, leading to the ship and crew being captured. Despite the humiliation of having one of its main ships being taken, the incident led to one of the more eventful aspects of the war: a handful of months later, Stephen Decatur (who later died in a duel in 1820) led a group of marines into Tripoli’s harbour to set fire to the Philadelphia, thereby thwarting its utility to Tripoli.
Wheelan spends a considerable amount of time (and rightly so) narrating the events that led to the decisive Battle of Derna in 1805. William Eaton – one of the American heroes of the war – helped build a very loose and shaky coalition of forces to march from Egypt to Tripoli in order to attack the Barbary state from land. This army saw a grouping of American marines and mercenaries who marched in the name of removing Tripoli’s ruler Yusuf in place for his brother Hamet. When reading of this alliance my mind was instantly turned to thoughts of Henry Tudor’s rabble of an alliance in 1485 when he invaded the English kingdom (on which I recounted in an earlier post). Both coalitions appeared to doomed, but yet both were ultimately successful in their aims.
The pressure was too much for Tripoli and peace was made. However, this peace settlement was not as honourable as many – such as Eaton – preferred: the USA ended up paying “tribute” to ransom back prisoners whilst Hamet’s cause was completely abandoned. But despite a rather inglorious – and ultimately indecisive – end to the war, the conflict itself did lead to significant military change: the American navy had established a reputation and the marines had become a permanent fixture moving forward. In many ways, this war does highlight the growth of American imperial power, even if that power did remain regional.
Wheelan – writing in the early 2000s during George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” made parallels with this earlier war of the early 1800s, noting how it was America’s ‘first war on terror’. Perhaps that is not such a suitable label: ultimately the United States under Jefferson acted as any other capitalist state has acted – they wanted to grow trade and protect commerce. Overall, Jefferson’s goals were achieved with the First Barbary War. From here onward American imperialism would become unstoppable.