“Day and night they go around her upon her walls, and iniquity and mischief are in her midst.” —Psalm 55:10
The Battle of Derna and the ‘Shores of Tripoli’, April 27, 1805
t the beginning of the 19th Century, the most dangerous maritime area in the world lay between Gibraltar and the shores of North Africa, at the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. The Muslim states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripoli formally promoted some of the most successful and brutal incidents of piracy in that era. The Tripolitan pirates became a by-word for the regular destruction of European, Mediterranean, and American shipping in the region. Within a year of independence, American merchants were seized by corsairs of the “Barbary Coast” with demands for ransom of the crews. For the next thirty-three years and every presidency from Washington to Madison, American shipping fell prey to piracy, not just from the Muslim robbers of North Africa but from the three real powers in that part of the world—Britain, France, and Spain. As one historian has rightly written:
“The Moroccan and Algerine captures in the 1780s exposed the United States as a weak confederation of minor, jealous states that had neither the will nor the power nor the treasury to protect its merchant ships.”
Within twenty-five years, retaliation by the United States reached its tipping point with the capture by Marines of the Pirate city of Derna.
Barbary Coast of North Africa
With his election to the presidency in 1800, Thomas Jefferson hoped to end the Federalist policy of paying off the bashaws of North Africa in order to trade in the Mediterranean. Now that the country possessed a fleet of frigates with sailors experienced and battle-hardened from the “Quasi-War” with France, Jefferson’s Secretary of State James Madison notified the American diplomats in North Africa that the U.S. would no longer pay tributes for trade privileges. Tripoli declared war on the United States.