For centuries, the Barbary Pirates terrorized the Mediterranean and beyond. They were not the romantic buccaneers merrily drinking rum and singing sea shanties. They were brutal, ruthless and were responsible for the enslavement of up to three million Europeans and Americans from the 14th to early 19th century.They would prey on European and American shipping and conduct slave raids on countries as far away as Ireland, England and even Iceland*.
In 1805 the United States sent an expeditionary force to the coast of the “Barbary states” – the series of kingdoms along the northern African coast which today is comprised of Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco. The mission was put an end to the harassment of American merchant vessels by the pirates. Among the officers and crew was a young Lieutenant, Stephen Decatur.
It did not get off to a good start for the Americans, one of the frigates, the USS Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef near Tripoli’s harbor, and was seized by the Barbary pirates.
Decatur immediately volunteered for a dangerous and risky mission – leading a small crew to board and burn the American frigate. Under the cover of night the quietly approached her in a small craft, boarded her and set her on fire. This daring act caught the attention of another great sea officer, Admiral Nelson, who called it “the most bold and daring act of the Age. “.
Over the next few weeks an cat and mouse game ensued, the Americans patrolled the harbor looking for corsair vessels to pick off. Then Commodore Preble launched a gunboat assault on the Tripolitan fleet with Decatur in command of the second division of gunboats.
The Tripolitans were prepared and the Americans met with fierce resistance, but soon the battle turned in the their favor. A gun boat commanded by Decatur’s brother, James, captured a small Tripolitans gunboat. The pirates lowered their flag, a symbol of surrender and truce, and American officers boarded her, including Decatur’s brother. The pirates quickly raised the flag again, taking the Americans by surprise ,and killed the American officers who had boarded, including James. The galley then slipped away, escaping capture.
At sea there are certain ‘rules’ of war – particularly concerning surrender – and this act was far outside the pale even for pirates. If the act of ‘surrender’ could no longer be trusted, the only alternative was a fight to the death.
Decatur had just captured another Tripolitan gunboat when he heard the news. He and nine volunteers made straight for the gunboat and bordered her, with Decatur leading the charge. They were outnumbered five to one but fought ferociously. Decatur found the burly Muslim captain who killed his brother, and immediately confronted him.
The Muslim captain thrust at him with a boarding pike, which Decatur deflected with his cutlass. That saved his life, but his cutlass broke at the hilt. The captain had the upper hand on Decatur, who was smaller – and he tried attempted to kill him with his long knife. Decatur managed to deflect the blow and drew his pistol and fired it point blank into the captain’s chest, killing him immediately. The Americans were not terribly enthusiastic to take any prisoners; when the fighting was over there were only three Tripolians alive and twenty one dead. The painting to the left depicts shows Decatur in combat with the corsair captain.
The Americans eventually negotiated a treaty that included paying ‘tribute’ to Bey of Algiers. After the War of 1812, America with new found confidence in her navy, dispatched Decatur to again attack the pirates, and let them know the only tribute they would receive would be from ‘the cannon’s mouth’
Wikipedia on Decatur.
Recommened reading: Jack Tars and Commodores: American Navy, 1735-1815 Lively account of the formative years of the American Navy, including the Barbary wars and Stephen Decatur.
Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival Riveting true life account of Americans shipwrecked off the coast of Morocco and enslaved by a band of Muslim nomads.*The harem filled with beautiful captive women is not a Victorian fairy tale (or nightmare) Muslim pirates particularly prized fair skinned European women, and would conduct raids on with the express purpose of capturing young women for the slave market. Sadly, this practice still continues in some forms today. Tags: 19th century, Americans, navy, stephen decatur