I. U.S. first entanglements with the Maghreb: 1785 --1815

It may come as a surprise that the first American encounter with the Maghreb was not in November 1942, when Allied troops landed on North African shores but could be traced back to the late 18th century when the Barbary States first entered the annals of American history. That episode, mostly forgotten or ignored today, helped forging a sense of nationhood in the nascent American Republic and marked the rise of the United States as a major naval power in the Mediterranean.

At the end of the Revolution, American trade with the Mediterranean was already booming. American merchant ships plied the Mediterranean and traded with the Sultanate of Morocco and the Regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, the last three entities being largely independent states though nominally subject to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. That trade was quite considerable. It employed hundreds of men and involved thousands of tons of shipping. It is deemed that one-sixth of the wheat and flour exported from the United States and about one-fourth of their dried and pickled fish, found their way to Mediterranean ports. As the number of American merchant ships increased, they began to enter the lucrative competition for the Mediterranean carrying trade, so much so that reports from both the British and French consuls at Algiers were expressing concerns over American increasing share of that trade.

Before independence, the American vessels carried British passes entitling them to the full protection of the Royal Navy and the diplomatic power of Great Britain in the Barbary States. The thriving shipping industry and trade of the North American east coast had developed under this double shield. But after 1776, this protection was withdrawn. During the Revolution, a number of American merchant ships had been armed and turned into privateers, but although some sea captains such as John Paul Jones distinguished themselves in sea battles, the American colonies did not possess a navy. Without a naval fleet of their own, the Americans turned for protection to Portugal, a nation with which Algiers, the most powerful of the three Regencies, was then at war. But even that protection vanished, when the British prompted the Portuguese government to sign a truce with the Dey of Algiers to close the Mediterranean to U.S. merchant ships. A similar truce, signed with Spain in 1785, had opened the Straits of Gibraltar to the Algerine cruisers, allowing them to sail out into the Atlantic. In July of that year, two American ships were captured, the schooner Maria off Cape St. Vincent and the Dauphin off Cadiz, and their crew of twenty-one people taken to Algiers where they were held by the Dey. Further attacks took place in the autumn of 1793, following a new truce between Portugal and Algiers, which allowed the Algerine fleet to pass through the Straits, unhampered by the Portuguese blockading squadrons.


As a result, eight Algerine ships sailed out into the Atlantic and within a few weeks, they captured eleven American merchant ships, making over a hundred seamen prisoners. Accounts of these new attacks shocked the nation, provoking the powerful lobby of merchants and ship-owners to petition the newly formed Congress to do something about the situation and, more specifically, urging for a serious debate to take place in the House over the need to build a navy. Although divided on the issue, the House of Representatives finally adopted three major resolutions in January 1794: first, to appropriate additional money for diplomatic expenses; second, to provide a naval force sufficient to protect American commerce from the Algerine corsairs; and third, to establish a committee to determine the size and cost of the naval force. Three months later, on 27 March 1794, Congress signed a bill authorizing the construction of six warships -- four 44-gun and two 20-gun ships -- to protect American commerce, it said, from the “depredations committed by the Algerine corsairs” (1). President Washington signed it the same day, thus giving birth to the United States Navy.

Early negotiations

On the diplomatic front, as early as 1784, a special commission including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson was appointed by Congress to deal with the Barbary issue. Congress also authorized the commissioners to negotiate treaties of friendship and commerce with the Barbary States and to send agents to prepare such treaties.

Preparation for negotiations with Morocco began in 1785. One year earlier, the Boston brig Betsey, en route to the Canary Islands, had been captured by Moroccan rovers. The incident had taken place one year after the American colonies had won their independence in 1783. The Moroccan Sultan, Sidi Mohamed bin Abd Allah (1757-1790) who preferred developing diplomatic and commercial ties with the new nation to the hazardous undertakings of his rovers, decided to release the Betsey and its crew, and announced that he would welcome an envoy from America. In 1785, Thomas Barclays, the consul general of the United States in Paris was appointed by the American commissioners to travel to Morocco with a mission to negotiate and conclude a treaty with the North African state. A first Treaty of Peace and Friendship, also called the Treaty of Marrakech, was eventually signed in 1786 by the Sultan of Morocco who set a precedent by renouncing payments for peace, and tribute annuities by the United States. Signed by Thomas Jefferson in Paris on 1 January 1787, and John Adams in London on 25 January 1787, the Treaty was ratified by Congress on 18 July 1787. The negotiations that led to the Treaty of Marrakech marked the beginning of diplomatic relations between the two nations. It was the very first treaty to be signed between any Muslim, Arab or African State and the United States.

The United States established a consulate in Morocco in 1797. President George Washington had requested funds for the post in a message to Congress on 2 March 1795. James Simpson, the U.S. consul at Gibraltar who was appointed to the new posting, took up residence in Tangier two years later. In 1821, Sidi Mohamed’s successor, Sultan Moulay Suliman (1792-1822) offered the United States one of the most beautiful buildings in Tangier to host the American plenipotentiary (2).


When the treaty concluded in July 1786 expired, Andrew Jackson administration commissioned James Leib, then American consul in Tangier to negotiate a new treaty with the Moroccan authorities. A new treaty was concluded at Meknes on 16 September 1836 for a further period of fifty years, renewable by tacit agreement.

If Americans and Moroccans had quickly reached agreement, treaties with the Regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli were to prove much more difficult to obtain. The American commissioners were divided on the issue of Barbary: Jefferson wanted to build a navy and use force to protect American merchant shipping while Adams favoured payment of tribute as the cheapest way to get American commerce back in the Mediterranean. In 1790, Jefferson, who had left Paris and returned to the United States to become the first Secretary of State, urged the new Congress to build a navy to protect its commerce against the Barbary corsairs’ attacks. As Vice-president, Adams continued to argue for purchasing peace by tribute. Eventually, Congress decided to ransom the prisoners, and appropriated the funds in May 1792. In June 1792, President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson signed a commission making a legendary figure of the American Revolution, John Paul Jones an official citizen of the United States, and appointing him American consul to Algiers. But by the time the messenger left Philadelphia with this nomination, the Scottish born American hero had died in Paris where he had retired. His replacement, Thomas Barclay who had been sent on a similar mission to Morocco back in 1786, also died soon after receiving his new commission. In 1793, an irritated Jefferson asked Colonel David Humphreys, Washington’s former aide de camp, then U.S. ambassador to the Court of Portugal at Lisbon to proceed to Algiers. Humphreys set out on the first lap of his mission in the fall of 1793 but word reached him in Gibraltar of the Dey’s refusal to negotiate. By that time Jefferson had resigned as Secretary of State. Lacking support at home, Humphrey returned to the United States leaving behind Joseph Donaldson with a commission naming him United States negotiator with Algiers.

In 1795, Joel Barlow, a Connecticut poet-cum-diplomat, fully conversant with European ways and languages, who lived in Paris and who had been made honorary citizen of his adopted country, was then approached and ordered to sail to Algiers in the capacity of acting consul. While its warships were still being built, it was deemed that the American government had no other choice but to negotiate along the lines previously followed by the old European nations in their dealings with the Barbary States.

Barlow arrived in Algiers in March 1796 to find that a treaty had already been negotiated and signed six months before by Joseph Donaldson. The treaty signed in Algiers on 5 September 1795, made provisions for Mediterranean sea-lanes to be opened to American shipping. The United States received the right to use Algerian seaports and the release of American seamen held in prison or bondage. In return, Algiers would receive a tribute in money of $ 642, 500, plus annual tribute of naval stores and a new completely outfitted 36-gun frigate (3). Money had still to be borrowed to make the primary tribute payment. Barlow enlisted the Dey’s assistance in negotiating similar tribute treaties with the Regencies of Tunis and Tripoli. On 2 March 1796, the Senate ratified the treaty with Algiers with a two-thirds majority. The survivors of the American captives, some of them having been held in Algiers for more than ten years, were released three months later and sailed to Philadelphia where they were greeted by cheering crowds.


Finally, in 1800, Captain William Bainbridge in command of the American frigate George Washington carried the annual tribute called for under the 1795 treaty. When he arrived in Algiers, the Dey requested him to hoist up the flag of the Regency and sail on to Constantinople to deliver his own gifts to the Ottoman sultan. That was the first time an American warship visited Constantinople, in a vessel flying the Algerine colours and carrying the tribute of Algiers’ Dey to the Sublime Porte. Still smarting from the blow to his patriotic pride, Bainbridge addressed a dispatch to Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert in which he wrote: “I hope I may never again be sent to Algiers with tribute, unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannons”. Fifteen years later, the United States could then turn its undivided strength on the Barbary States and dispatch a second squadron to Algiers under the command of now Commodore William Bainbridge to enforce the treaty that Commodore Stephen Decatur had, under the threat of his fleet gunnery, dictated to Algiers’ Dey a few weeks before.

The conflict with Tripoli (1801-1805)

But the troubles of America in Barbary were not over yet. After the Pasha of Tripoli learned that the Dey of Algiers had received an American frigate, he demanded one of his own as well as a review of the terms of the 1796 treaty, with an immediate payment of $ 225, 000 plus an annual payment of $ 25, 000. Thomas Jefferson who had become president in 1801 refused to accede to Tripoli’s demands. Angered by the American refusal, the Pasha ordered the flagpole of the U.S. consulate to be cut down, thus signalling resumption of hostilities against America.

By that time, the newly built naval force was operational and under Jefferson’s newly elected administration, American stance against the Barbary powers took a tougher turn. The first U.S squadron, under the command of Richard Dale, was sent out to impose a naval blockade on the harbour of Tripoli, marking the beginning of American naval presence in the Mediterranean. Hostilities between the United States and Tripoli began in May 1801. A formal declaration of war soon followed, and a prolonged campaign by U.S. warships began in the Mediterranean which was marked by a number of American successes but the U.S. squadron proved too small to effectively control the situation. In 1803, a larger force was sent to the Mediterranean under the command of Commodore Edward Preble. During the blockade of Tripoli, one of his ship, the frigate Philadelphia, ran aground on a shoal while in pursuit of Tripolitan cruisers. Captured by Tripolitan gunboats, it was taken into port where Captain William Bainbridge and the ship’s 307 crew became prisoners of war. In a daring raid on 16 February 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a small band of sailors into the harbour, boarded the Philadelphia and failing to put it to sea, set the ship afire and escaped. But the crew of the Philadelphia remained in prison, and the Pasha was now asking for $ 200, 000 for their release. Preble’s further bombardments of Tripoli’s forts and city, and his attempt to blow up the Pasha’s fleet in the harbour, were of little avail. What Preble did not have at his disposal was ground troops to storm the port city from the rear. His frustration may explain his endorsement of a plan promoted by William Eaton, a former American consul in Tunis between 1799 and 1803, who had returned from the United States with the title of U.S. Navy Agent to the Barbary States.


Eaton’s elaborate scheme was to take Tripoli from the land and restore to power Hamet Qaramanli who had been ousted in a bloodless coup by his younger brother, the ruling Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli. The idea was to combine a naval bombardment of Tripoli from the sea with an attack from the land. In September 1804, Eaton sailed to Alexandria, Egypt, to meet with Hamet and to launch the most incredible overland operation in U.S. military history. He gathered a motley army of some 400 mercenaries, including Arabs, Turks, and Europeans, mostly Greeks. With the help of a handful of American Marines, Eaton led that small force on a 500 miles’ gruelling march across the desert from Egypt. On 27 April 1805, in a combined operation with the navy, Eaton eventually stormed the Tripolitan seaport of Derna. The assault ended with the Marines hoisting the American flag on the city walls (4). However, as he prepared to set off for Tripoli, more than 800 miles further west, intelligence arrived on 11 June, with the Constellation that Colonel Tobias Lear, U.S. consul general to the Regency of Algiers, had negotiated a peace treaty with the Pasha, thus stopping the whole operation in its tracks.

Anticipating Eaton’s move on his capital, Yusuf Pasha had made overtures to sign a treaty of peace whereby he renounced all claims to tribute and treaty payments and agreed to the American offer of $ 60, 000 for the release of the Philadelphia crew. Eaton denounced the treaty as a sell-out and betrayal of American interests by Tobias Lear. He departed as instructed, taking with him as many European mercenaries as he could but leaving the rest of his troops behind, unpaid, and at the mercy of Yusuf Pasha. Hamet was discarded and escorted back in exile at the demand of his brother, leaving behind his wife and children in the custody of the ruling pasha.

The military fiasco embarrassed President Jefferson who tried to clear his government from responsibility. He charged Eaton for the whole expedition but stopped short of blaming him, putting it on excess of zeal and patriotism. On his return to the United States, Eaton failed to obtain compensation from the government for personal pecuniary losses. The state of Massachusetts, however, was more grateful, awarding him 10, 000 acres of land in the district of Maine in “remembrance of his heroic enterprise“.

War with Algiers

For the next ten years, from 1805 to 1815, the Barbary issue was set aside. Following the peace treaty with Tripoli, the United States ordered its warships in the Mediterranean to return home. Napoleon was on the offensive again in Europe. Tension with England was heating up and finally broke out in the Anglo-American War of 1812. As a result of that conflict, difficulties then arose with Algiers because the United States was late in delivering the two years’ supplies of naval stores stipulated by treaty. When American consul Tobias Lear offered cash instead, the Dey refused it and reopened hostilities against the Americans.

Once peace was established with Great Britain the United States found itself in a much stronger position to deal with the Barbary States, having built additional warships during the War with Great Britain. On 2 March 1815, Congress declared war against the Regency of Algiers. President James Madison ordered two naval squadrons to the Mediterranean under the combined command of Commodores Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge. These were ships and crews fresh from a sea war with the most powerful naval power in the world. The first of the two squadrons consisted of three frigates, Constellation, Guerrière and Macedonian; two ship-sloops-of-war, Epervier and Ontario; and three brigs, Firefly, Spark, and Flambeau.


On its arrival in the Mediterranean, Decatur’s fleet captured the Algerian frigate Mashuda. Outnumbered and outgunned, the frigate was destroyed after a brave resistance. It turned out to be the flagship of the Algerian admiral, Raïs Hamidou who was killed in battle. He had been a remarkable figure and one of the finest captains in the history of corsair Algiers.

Commodore Decatur arrived in the bay of Algiers on 28 June 1815. William Shaler, the American envoy was sent ashore to open negotiations with the Dey. At the mouth of their guns, the American commissioners dictated the terms of a new treaty which stipulated abolition of the annual tribute, unconditional release of all Christian captives and payment of reparations by the Dey (5). Never before, had such concessions been made by the Regency of Algiers to European naval powers. From a military point of view, the treaty marked the end of an era and the death of Rais Hamidou in action was highly symbolic of the passing away of corsair Algiers. More significantly, the treaty undermined the authority of the Dey and encouraged the expedition against Algiers taken by Great Britain the following year. Decatur then proceeded with his squadron to Tunis where he obtained compensations from the Bey for violating treaty stipulations. He next sailed to Tripoli where he exacted similar retributions from the Pasha, forcing him, in addition, to release Neapolitan and Danish captives.

Commodore William Bainbridge arrived in the Mediterranean with his squadron to reinforce Decatur’s gunboat diplomacy and to show the American flag. When he sailed back home in October 1815, he left a small squadron behind, made up of the frigates United States, Constellation, Erie and Ontario to protect American shipping in the Mediterranean and to ensure strict observance of the 1815 treaty. That marked the beginning of a significant American naval presence in the Western Mediterranean, and establishing the United States as a major sea-power to be reckoned with from then onwards.

American envoys and consuls in the Barbary States

The ending 18th century marked the peak and at the same time the beginning of the decline of the Regency of Algiers. Algiers was the most powerful of the three North African Regencies with the major European naval powers maintaining consulates there. Their function was mainly to represent their country’s commercial interests, transact business, negotiate the release of captives, issue passports for ships and guarantee the payment of tribute stipulated by treaties they had with the Regency.

Consulship in Barbary was far from being a political sinecure and could be a dangerous mission but salary was enticing even though the consular charges involved important expenses not mentioning the fact that, due to difficulties of communication, these salaries were very irregularly paid, if at all. So, it was not unusual for consuls to claim considerable debts when they went home at the end of their turn of duty. Given those difficult circumstances, consuls were allowed to conduct private business of their own, a practice which often led to friction and clashes with the local rulers when the expected payments or goods failed to materialize.

Until the early nineteenth century, consuls were rarely professional diplomats. They came from different backgrounds and were in their majority merchants, lawyers or army and navy officers. The majority of the U.S. envoys to Algiers were seamen like Richard O’Brien who was commissioned to serve as consul-general of the United States to Algiers and to all Barbary States in 1797.


O’Brien had been brought captive to Algiers, some twelve years before, when his ship, the Dauphin, was captured by Algerine corsairs off the coast of Portugal. Because of his rank as shipmaster, O’Brien enjoyed greater freedom and a more privileged status than the ordinary seamen. He became what was known in Algiers as a “paga lunar” that is, a captive who, against payment of a monthly tax, was exempted from hard manual labour and from living in the “bagnos”, Algiers captives’ quarters. O’Brien’s skills as a shipmaster were in high demand in the city harbour and they soon attracted the attention of Hassan Basha, then in charge of Algiers admiralty. When Hassan Basha became Dey, he tried to persuade O’Brien to become a citizen of the city state of Algiers and offered him the supreme commandment of the Regency fleet. O’Brien tactfully turned down the Dey’s offer on the ground of his loyalty to his country. Unfortunately, after he returned home, O’Brien was to enter in a long dispute with the Treasury over financial claims for his years of service in Algiers.

During the period of his captivity, Captain O’Brien carried on a copious correspondence with various personalities back home, notably with Thomas Jefferson to whom he addressed long letters giving detailed accounts about Algiers and Algerine affairs. When peace was made in 1795, he was entrusted to convey a copy of the treaty to Lisbon to be countersigned by the American commissioner, David Humphreys. From Lisbon, O’Brien went to London to raise funds to put the treaty into operation. He returned to Algiers the following March and in June sailed to the United States to iron out further difficulties concerning the treaty. In October 1796, he returned to North Africa with a commission to conclude a treaty of peace with Tripoli, which he accomplished in less than a month. In July 1797, he received the senior appointment of consul-general to Algiers and filled the post with distinction until November 1803. Richard O’Brien went to his post on board the “Crescent”, a brand-new 36-gun frigate that had been promised by treaty. The frigate was constructed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Dey received it as a gift offered to his daughter and requested the United States to build him and equip two cruisers at his own expenses.

Like Richard O’Brien, James Leander Cathcart was an Irish-born American sailor. Like him, he was appointed consul-general to Algiers after having been held captive there for ten years. Cathcart had been captured on board of the American schooner Maria in the late summer of 1785. A few weeks before, the eighteen-year-old lad had signed up in Boston as second mate on the schooner, bound for Spain with a cargo of furs, lumber, and dried codfish. On arrival to Algiers, he was put to work first in the Dey’s palace gardens. But the quick-witted young man, who had a good command of Spanish and Portuguese, having learned both these languages with fellow-seamen, was quite determined to make progress even in captivity. He soon became clerk in the office of the High Admiral where his secretarial duties consisted of keeping written records of movement of cargoes in the harbour, guarding the keys of the marine storehouses and looking after the captives labouring in the harbour area. The office paid sufficiently well to allow Cathcart to purchase the lease of a tavern in one of the bagnos of Algiers. The young man’s business flourished. In 1794, the Dey needed to replace his chief Christian secretary. Remembering his former chief clerk of the Marine, he appointed Cathcart to that post. It was a most influential position in the city state. He assisted the Dey in all matters involving Christians and this included everything relating to the Regency prisoners as well as commercial and diplomatic relations with the European nations.


Cathcart, who had learned to speak Turkish and Arabic in the early days of his captivity, acquired an inside knowledge of the financial and diplomatic state of the Regency. He played a key role in persuading Hassan Bashaw to receive Joseph Donaldson and sign the 1795 treaty of peace with the United States.

During his captivity, Cathcart kept a diary devoted to public affairs but also to the role he played in the negotiations between the Dey and the American envoys during his time in Algiers. Cathcart’s journal, the Diplomatic Journal and Letter Book of J. L. Cathcart, 1788-1796, published in the papers of the “Antiquarian Society” in 1954, provides a fascinating eyewitness account on late eighteenth century corsair Algiers (6).

Early in 1796, a new American envoy, Joel Barlow arrived in Algiers to serve in the capacity of acting consul. His instructions were to preserve the treaty of peace concluded by Donaldson a few months before, work out the release of the American captives and keep the Dey patient while the payments and tribute promised by treaty were being organized.

Informative as it was on corsair Algiers, Cathcart’s journal lacks that personal, intimate touch that makes Joel Barlow’s Letters so vividly fresh. Apart from the dispatches and reports he sent to the Secretary of State, it is primarily through the letters he wrote to his wife Ruth, who stayed behind in Paris during most of his Algerian mission that we know his impressions of the country, its political dramas and problems. He explored the city and the surrounding countryside, assessing conditions and reflecting on what he saw.

It appears that the acting consul had a rather difficult time in Algiers. He was quite unimpressed by the city which he found less than salubrious. To add to the discomfort, his mission coincided with an outburst of the plague which periodically erupted in the cities around the Mediterranean. Barlow gives a dramatic eyewitness account of the stricken city: the fires burning in the streets and in the entrances of the richer houses; the death processions of the plague victims; the fatalistic attitude of the Muslims who were amused to see the free Christians of the city, fleeing to their countryside houses to avoid the epidemics. Barlow’s letters take a more sombre tone when he reports to his wife that a few American captives have been taken ill. He felt it his duty to give the sick prisoners whatever comfort he could and he must have seriously faced the possibility of contamination and death. Things turned brighter once he shipped the eighty-eight remaining American captives back home, and after O’Brien had arrived in Algiers with the overdue tribute.

Barlow was now on the best of terms with the Dey and was invited by the Minister of the Marine to take part in a hunting party. He joined, together with the English and Swedish consuls, a group of native hunters. The expedition rode to a forest some fifteen miles from Algiers where the hunters pitched camp for three days. For Barlow, it was one of the few exciting experiences in an otherwise difficult posting in Algiers.

On 18 July 1797, Joel Barlow -- who had by now established his reputation among the diplomatic corps in Algiers, earning the title of “Father of all Consuls” -- finally boarded ship for Marseilles. His colleagues in Algiers, the French, Spanish and English consuls, all gave him passports to ensure safe passage to France. The Dey sent him off with a nicer present than usual on such occasion and broke all established local customs by sending also a gift to Ruth. Barlow’s long ordeal was about to end but the now impatient American envoy had to endure forty more days of quarantine, coming from a plague-stricken sea-port, before he could be reunited with his wife.


William Shaler followed Tobias Lear who had filled the post for nine years and who eventually was forced to flee on a waiting ship in 1812 just before the Dey reopened hostilities against American shipping (7). The post had remained vacant for three years until Decatur’s show of force against Algiers.

Appointed by President Madison as chief commissioner, Shaler, a Yankee sea captain, had sailed to Algiers with the first American squadron. The fleet arrived at Algiers on 28 June 1815, preceded by news of the capture of the Admiral ship of the Regency and of the death in action of its celebrated captain. With his squadron’s gunnery in display as evidence of American might and determination, Decatur sent Shaler ashore to dictate to the Dey the terms of a treaty that included the abolition of the annual tribute, the unconditional release of the American captives held at Algiers, and the payment of reparations by the Dey. Failing complete and immediate agreement to all those terms, the United States would take whatever action it thought necessary. Two days later, the treaty was concluded and signed on behalf of the President by both Commodore Decatur and William Shaler who stayed behind, as the United States consul-general at Algiers (8).

To be sure, the demonstration of Decatur’s gunboat diplomacy could hardly please the Royal Navy Admiralty where resentment against the young American navy still rankled. That spurred Britain to press Algiers for most-favoured-nation treatment. Early in 1816, the English squadron appeared before the Algerine city. The Admiral of the fleet sent ashore emissaries to inform the Dey that the Congress of Vienna had decided upon the abolition of slavery and to demand that all Christian captives held by Algiers be freed. Ignoring warning of reprisals, the Dey and his divan rejected Lord Exmouth’s summons. A few months later, news of the massacre by Turkish troops at Bona of two hundred Italian coral fishermen who were under British protection, provided the pretext Britain needed to send Lord Exmouth back to Algiers with a formidable fleet. The Dutch government decided to participate to the expedition, and as a result, the British fleet was joined in Gibraltar by a squadron of five Dutch frigates under the command of Vice-Admiral Baron van Capellen.

On 27 August 1816, the combined Anglo-Dutch fleet bombarded the port and the city of Algiers. During the whole action, William Shaler sat at the window of his house and left an eye-witness account of the whole episode in his Sketches of Algiers (9). The bombardment had been one of the fiercest ever directed against Algiers. For more than ten hours, Exmouth pounded the fortress-city which returned fire with fire. A lull came only when both sides had exhausted their ammunition magazines. Exmouth won the day but only by the narrowest of margins having suffered a higher proportion of casualties than had Nelson at Trafalgar. The casualties in the British fleet were 128 killed and 690 wounded; the Dutch lost 13 men and 52 other were wounded. Exmouth himself was slightly wounded in three places and his telescope had been smashed in his hand. On 28 August, a treaty was concluded. It stipulated peace with England, the Netherlands and the Italian States, release of all Christian captives held in Algiers and the abolition of slavery for Christian prisoners in the event of future wars with any European power. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was to be placed on the same footing as Great Britain and was to enjoy all privileges granted to the latter.

As Shaler wrote in his report to Washington, the city had suffered an immense amount of damage with losses of lives which he estimated at no less than 2,000. Considering the extensive destruction, the capacity of the Algerines to rebound seemed astonishing as it appears in a further report to Washington only six months later, on 2 March 1817, in which Shaler stated that repairs to the defensive works of the city were now completed and that the Dey was making a most determined effort to restore Algiers defensive capacities.


Nonetheless, the demise of corsair Algiers was clearly written on the wall of history. Whilst its capabilities matched those of the European nations, naval action against Algiers had always been a hazardous affair. But the early nineteenth century had seen the development of technical progress and with it, the supremacy of the industrial nations. Like all the other Barbary States, Algiers was no longer capable to stand against the industrial powers’ new weaponry and modern naval warfare. The North African Regencies resisted for another fifteen years, but the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, of which they were an integral part was imminent, while the great powers of Europe started positioning themselves to claim the spoils of the crumbling empire. France invaded Algeria in 1830 and sought to maintain her presence in Tunisia in 1881, while Italy took Libya in 1911.

In his Sketches of Algiers, William Shaler indicated that he favoured a British colonisation of Algeria and envisaged “the establishment of a nation of Englishmen in Numidia (10)” on the model of the American colonies but Britain’s plans were otherwise. The control of the land and sea routes to South East Asia made Egypt and the Suez Canal strategically more important for her. So it was Egypt, still nominally a Turkish province, which Britain decided to take in 1881, relinquishing Algeria and “its barren sands to the French cockerel to scratch” (11).

The Barbary wars which had led to the creation of the U.S. Navy and had seen the first American naval expedition overseas, allowed the United States to establish the foundation for a permanent U.S. naval force in the Western Mediterranean. Naval actions which included blockading of harbours, offshore bombardments, pursuit of Barbary cruisers, commando actions inside enemy base, proved a tough, formative school for American officers and seamen. The Barbary crisis also put to test the negotiating skills of the U.S. emissaries who had to operate far from home, in a complicated system based on the balance of warfare and peacemaking, fuelled by commercial and military rivalries among the major European seafaring nations. As long as the fledging American republic did not have a navy of its own, it accommodated itself with the old European powers’ practice of purchasing peace from the Barbary States. But as soon as it had built a capable naval force, it emerged with the power and the will to break with those practices and impose, through force, a way of dealing with foreign powers founded on the overriding imperative of the United States’ national interest and security. A fundamental principle of American foreign policy was established, and the pattern was there to stay.

The Barbary theme in early American literature

Although largely forgotten to-day, or treated as a minor episode in the history of the American nation, the protracted conflict with the Barbary States left a permanent mark on the American collective imagination. It stirred a wave of patriotic fervour across the nation that helped forge a sense of national identity in the young republic and establish American character both at home and overseas. That sense of national consciousness was a distinct and dominant feature of the earliest poems, plays and stories in American literature. The capture of the Maria and the Dauphin fired the anger of one of the very first American poets, epitomizing the hurt pride and indignation of the young American nation.

See what dark prospect interrupts our joy!
What arm presumptuous dares our trade annoy?
Great God! The rovers who infest the waves
Have seiz’d our ships, and made our freemen slaves. (12)

In a significant way also, national outrage at the “enslavement” of Americans in Barbary had an impact on debate over the issue of slavery in the United States. Barbary provided the abolitionists with a strong symbol and new ammunitions to mobilize American citizenry against the order of slavery at home. Barbary also earned a place as an anti-slavery symbol in “The Columbiad” (13), the American epic poem in ten volumes Joel Barlow published in 1807, after he returned to America. Book Eight’s long and harrowing description of the sufferings of the captives held in Barbary was clearly meant as a severe denunciation of slavery in the American slave states as well.

The same theme was also developed at length by Royall Tyler in The Algerine Captive: or, The Life and Adventures of Doctor Updike Underhill (14), one of the earliest works of fiction in American literature. The story was a picaresque adventure providing an ironic commentary on American life. In the first part of the story, Dr Underhill, a native of New England describes slavery as he experienced it in the Southern states and denounces the appalling way in which the African slaves were captured and transported to America. As a surgeon on board a slave ship bound for Africa, Dr Underhill is captured by privateers and taken to Algiers where he is sold in servitude. The second part of the story is an account of his seven year’s captivity in Barbary. Tyler’s fictitious narrative, mostly derived from accounts of travellers and ransomed captives, was meant to be a strong, though oblique indictment of the slave system in the United States.

Superimposed on that theme, which reflected a major preoccupation of the early American writers, there was a patriotic vein celebrating the virtues of the young American Republic. Peter Markoe’s The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania (15) -- an epistolary novel in the manner of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721) -- uses the common eighteenth century device of the foreign observer to exalt the virtues of democracy, and the superiority of the moral and political principles of the American governmental system. The same theme was also developed in Susannah H. Rowson’s Slaves in Algiers (16), a comedy that was very popular in the early period of American drama. The play was made to express abolitionist feelings in an America where slavery was still countenanced, while showing how Americans fought for freedom wherever they found themselves the victims of tyranny.


In Slaves in Algiers, Muley Moloc, the Dey of Algiers, filled with remorse after hearing American captives praises the virtues of democracy, frees the slaves and declare his country a republic. The implicit contrast drawn between the despotic forms of an Islamic government and those of an enlightened Christian nation announced an enduring notion whereby the fundamental source of conflict between the West and the Muslim world was not primarily economic or ideological but was based on cultural identities and religious allegiances. That line of thought persisted long into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when calls for jihad or holy war became a defence mechanism for resisting British, French and Russian expansionism into the Muslim world. It re-surfaced in periods of tension or conflict during the present era. In the last thirty years, U.S. confrontation with the Islamic world in the Near East and the Persian Gulf has seen journalists and political observers drawing parallels with the American nation’s first violent encounters with the Barbary States. The 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the Lebanon hostage crisis in the mid-1980s generated widespread comparisons that brought back to the nation’s collective memory, the all but forgotten episode of the U.S. entanglements with the Muslim Barbary States.

More recently, in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, the Barbary issue aroused a wave of renewed interest marked by the publication of several books and a series of articles by historians, scholars and journalists whose common purpose was to bring back to light again that little known episode of America’s first confrontation with the Islamic world. The Barbary wars were again in the public limelight because of the parallel they invited with Islamist terrorism. The idea behind the majority of these works was to show how the American treatment of nineteenth century “Barbary piracy” could serve as an example of how to deal with present-day terrorism. In a characteristic example of this kind of developments, author Joseph Wheelan subtitled his book on Jefferson’s war against the Barbary States, “America’s First War on Terror”, drawing a clear parallel on America’s ongoing struggles with the Muslim world (17). The point was made again still more directly by Joshua E. London in his book, Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation (18). He gave a concentrate of his theory in a lecture he delivered to the “Heritage Foundation” (19) in which he argued that there were history lessons to be learnt from the nineteenth century American war with the Barbary Muslim States, and that there was much in it of direct relevance to the twenty-first century American global war on terrorism. The message he conveyed in his lecture was crystal clear: Middle Eastern despotic states today just as the North African pirate states which preceded them, will only change their views when they are confronted with overwhelming force.

Less politically prejudiced, Frank Lambert’s book, The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World focused on the “political and economic” history of the United States’ interaction with the North African States rather than confrontation between the world of Christianity and the world of Islam. The thesis of its author, a professor at Purdue and an expert on Barbary naval forces was that economics rather than religion was the real issue, or as he puts it, " The Barbary Wars were primarily about trade not theology, and rather than being holy wars, they were an extension of America’s War of Independence ". (20)


Assimilating the Barbary States to “rogue states” and their activities to state-sponsored terrorism does not make a great deal of historical sense. The Barbary coasts were not a zone of lawlessness and unbridled piratical activity. Neither could the Barbary corsairs be described as terrorists as the term is understood today. They were not involved in indiscriminate killings, bombings or mass murders to achieve political or ideological objectives. The Barbary corsairs were not uncontrolled pirates but privateers, operating openly under the instructions of their own states or authorities which acted upon treaties or alliances they had with other foreign states. These treaties, normally negotiated by plenipotentiaries on behalf of their governments, were commonly based on the tribute system which was a form of tax, paid in monies, or in naval stores for the right of free passage and trade in the western Mediterranean. The major European naval powers complied at the time with the tribute system, and so did the fledging, young republic until Commodore Decatur was able to force peace on American terms, “dictated at the mouth of our cannons”, as he later said.

As Richard Parker, former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco, and one of the most respected experts on North Africa and the Middle East wrote quite sensibly in the preface to his book, Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. :
It was diplomacy, not force that eventually resolved our major crises with the Barbary States. Naval force was instrumental in imposing a new peace treaty on Algiers in 1815, but that peace was kept intact through diplomacy. There are lessons to be learned from the Barbary experience, but they are not what the commentators seem to think. They are lessons about the utility of force as an adjunct of diplomacy, not as a substitute for it. (21)


(1) “Whereas the depredations committed by the Algerine corsairs on the commerce of the United States render it necessary that a naval force should be provided for its protection”.
U.S. Statutes at large. 3rd Congress, Session I, 27 March 1794.

(2) The Legation, an eighteenth century Moorish-style building of stuccoed masonry was the first property acquired abroad by the United States Government. It served as the seat of the principal U.S. representative to Morocco until 1956. After the diplomatic capital moved to Rabat when the country gained its independence, the Legation was abandoned as a diplomatic building. Neglected and having fallen into disrepair over the years, the building was threatened with demolition. In 1976, a group of American citizens established a public, non-profit organization to save it. Rehabilitated and renamed the Tangier American Legation Museum Society, it serves today as a cultural centre for the study of Morocco and a museum on Moroccan-American relations.

(3) The original of this treaty was in Turkish, not in Arabic as stated in the proclamation of its ratification dated 7 March 1796. The articles of the treaty in English of the original document signed by Joseph Donaldson were a translation.

(4) The opening words of the U.S. Marine Hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”, refer to the Tripolitan expedition, which was the first engagement of U.S. land forces in North Africa.

(5) The original of the Treaty of Peace signed at Algiers on 30 June and 3 July 1815 was in English. Submitted to the Senate on 6 December 1815, it was ratified by the United States on 26 December 1815.
The text of the treaty was first given by J.C. Hurewitz in his collection of documents, The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1975, Vol. I, pp. 203-209.
It appeared later in the Avalon Project Document Collection, The Barbary Treaties 1786- 1816, edited by Hunter Miller.
[ century/bar1815t.asp]

(6) Cathcart’s journal and letters were used as the basis of a long autobiographical narrative which was published by his own daughter, Jane B. Newkirk who took great liberties in editing and revising her father’s diary so that it is difficult to tell how much of the additional material in The Captives (La Porte, Indiana: 1899) is really genuine. She also compiled a volume of her father’s correspondence, Tripoli: Letter-Book by James Leander Cathcart. La Porte, Indiana: 1901.

(7) Tobias Lear who had filled the post since 1803, was forced to flee on a waiting ship in 1812, just before the Dey declared war to the United States. Lear had played an important part in the negotiations that led to the release of the Philadelphia’s prisoners against ransom and to the Treaty of Tripoli in 1805. He returned home to face a political controversy surrounding the Tripolitan treaty, which ended his diplomatic career.


(8) Shaler served eight years as U.S. consul-general in Algiers, from 1815 to 1823.

(9) William Shaler, Sketches of Algiers, Political, Historical, and Civil, Boston: 1826. A French translation, Esquisse de l’Etat d’Alger, was published in Paris in 1830, reprint, Editions Bouchene, Paris, Saint-Denis: 2001.

(10) The name Numidia was used by Roman historians to designate the ancient region west of Carthage (Tunisia) including the entire north of present-day Algeria as far as the Mulaya river (Morocco), about 100 miles west of Oran. In Roman Africa, the boundaries of Numidia corresponded roughly to those of modern Algeria.

(11) The expression was attributed to Chancellor of Germany Otto von Bismarck in relation with the rivalries between European powers over annexation of African territories in the early 1880s.

(12) David Humphreys, “A Poem on the Future Glory of the United States”, in Miscellaneous Works, New York: 1804, p. 51, lines 23-26.

(13) Joel Barlow, Works, Gainesville, Florida.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1970.

(14) Royall Tyler, The Algerine Captive, or The Life and Adventures of Doctor Updike Underhill, six years a prisoner among the Algerines, Gainesville, Florida: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1967 (First published in 1797).

(15) Peter Markoe, The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Pritchard & Hall, 1787.

(16) Susannah H. Rowson, Slaves in Algiers, Philadelphia: Wrigley and Berriman, 1794.

(17) Joseph Wheelan, Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805, New York: Carrol & Graf, 2003.

(18) Joshua E. London, Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, Hobocken, NJ: J.W. Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2005.

(19) _______________, “Victory in Tripoli: Lessons for the War on Terrorism”. A Lecture on National Security and Defence, The Heritage Foundation, published on 4 May, 2006.
[ Terrorism].


(20) Frank Lambert, The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, New York: Hill and Wang, 2005, p. 8.

(21) Richard B. Parker, Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004, Preface, p. xv.


Allen, Gardner W. Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs, Chicago, Houghton, Mifflin and Co: 1905; reed. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1965.

Allison, Robert J. The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Baepler, Paul. White Slaves, African Masters: an Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Barnby, Henry G. The Prisoners of Algiers: an Account of the Forgotten American-Algerian war, 1785-1797. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Dupuy, Emile. Américains & Barbaresques, 1776-1824. Paris : éditions R. Roger et F. Chernoviz, 1910.

Field, James A. America and the Mediterranean World, 1776-1882. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Irwin, Ray W. The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers, 1776-1816. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1931.

Knox Dudley, W. ed., Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, (1785-1807), 6 vol. Washington, D.C., 1939-1944.

Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.

Leiner, Frederick C. The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War against the Pirates of North Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

London, Joshua E. Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation. Hobocken, NJ: J.W. Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2005.

Parker, Richard B. Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Perkins, Roger and Captain Kenneth J. Douglas-Morris, Gunfire in Barbary. Homewell, Havant, Hampshire: Kenneth Mason, 1982.

Peskin, Lawrence A. Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785-1816. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.


Tucker, Glenn. Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the United States Navy. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill and Co., 1963.

Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.

Whipple, A.B.C. To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Marines. Bluejacket Books, 1991,( reprint., 2001).

Narratives and journals of Americans held captive in the Barbary States:

Cathcart, James Leander. The Captives, Eleven Years in Algiers,(compiled by his daughter, J.B. Newkirk). La Porte, Indiana: 1899.

Cowdery, Jonathan. American Captives in Tripoli. A journal, 2 nd ed. Boston: Belcher and Armstrong, 1806.

Foss, John D. A Journal of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss; Several Years a Prisoner in Algiers. Newburyport: Angier, 1798.

Website resources

The Avalon Project


Barbary treaties 1786-1816

The Barbary Treaties contains the full text of most of the treaties concluded by the United States and the Barbary nations of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, between 1786 and 1816.

The text of these treaties , taken from volume 2 of “Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America” are given with an introduction and notes by Hunter Miller. The information is provided as part of the Avalon project at Yale University Law School.

James Leander Cathcart, The Captives, Eleven Years in Algiers.

[ 00cathrich]

James L. Cathcart Papers.


Documents to illustrate this part:

1. Full text of 1st Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Morocco.

2. 1815 Treaty of Peace with Algiers

3. Period portraits of main protagonists:

-- Portraits of Sultan Mohamed III and Sultan Abderrahman.

-- Portraits of Cathcart, O’Brien, Barlow.

4. Scenes of battles:

-- The taking of Derna.

-- Burning of the frigate Philadelphia in the harbour of Tripoli.