≡ Menu

United States versus Pirates

For many years these pirates had attacked any vessel they met in the Mediterranean. Generally it was only to demand a certain sum of money, but if the captain either could not or would not pay it, they often sank the vessel after robbing it, or towed it into one of their harbors, where they sold the crew into captivity.

The people of northern Africa were Muslims, and for that reason hated all Christians. Captive sailors were therefore often treated with the greatest cruelty. European countries, wishing to trade in the Mediterranean, had learned to fear these pirates so greatly that they actually paid the Barbary rulers large sums for leaving their ships alone. As we have seen, our government followed their example in the treaty made with Algiers in 1795.

In 1800, one of our brave naval officers, William Bainbridge, was sent to carry the agreed tribute to the dey of Algiers. While he was in the harbor, directly under the guns of the fortress, the dey suddenly ordered him to carry an ambassador to Constantinople, flying the Algerian flag at his masthead. Bainbridge refused, saying that the Americans were not the dey’s slaves. But the pirate haughtily answered: “You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves, and therefore I have a right to order you as I think proper.”

As the guns of the fort were pointed straight at him, and resistance would bring about the destruction of his ship and slavery for his crew, Bainbridge had no choice but to obey. But as soon as he was out of gunshot, and long before he had lost sight of Algiers, he ordered the dey’s flag hauled down and again hoisted our stars and stripes.

Of course, Bainbridge was very indignant at the way his country had been treated, and complained to the sultan at Constantinople. The sultan did not approve of what the dey had done, and gave Bainbridge full power to force the dey to give up all his American prisoners without asking any ransom in exchange. While still in Constantinople, Bainbridge wrote home, saying: “I hope I shall never again be sent to Algiers with tribute unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannon.”

The insulting and treacherous behavior of Algiers and the other Barbary States roused the anger of our countrymen. But Jefferson once remarked that what had happened proved the truth of Franklin’s famous words: “If you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you,” and declared that no more tribute should be paid.