paying ransom to pirates -- 4/1/14

Today's selection -- from American Statecraft by J. Robert Moskin. In America's early years, its government repeatedly was forced to pay ransoms to Mediterranean pirates and corsairs to free American citizens. The first such instance was in 1786:

"The Revolution cost the Americans the protection of the British Navy. By 1785, pirates sailing out of Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco were seizing American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and enslaving their crews. These pirates worked under avaricious local sheikhs along the Barbary Coast of North Africa and might more accurately be called corsairs because they were freelance operatives.

"In Paris, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams agreed that negotiation was impossible. They pleaded with Congress to take action against those small states that had long lived off piracy and were holding European and American seamen for ransom. Jefferson reacted to the pirates with what he called a combination of 'indignation and impotence.'

"The United States had neither a navy to protect its ships nor money to buy back prisoners. At first, Jefferson opposed paying ransoms; he proposed building a half dozen frigates, giving their command to naval hero Commodore John Paul Jones, and rescuing the captured seamen. He then changed his mind, recommending instead that a fleet of the European powers clean up the piracy. Adams thought that paying ransoms would be less expensive.

"Among the Barbary rulers, only Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdullah of Morocco made peaceful overtures to the Americans. Starting as early as December 1777, he allowed American ships to enter Moroccan ports; he was interested in increasing his nation's overseas trade. The Americans, however, ignored him and sent the sultan no reply for three years. Finally, on May 7, 1784, Congress authorized the commissioners in Paris to negotiate treaties.

"Progress was so slow that when, on October 11, 1784, the sultan's corsairs captured the American merchant ship Betsey and brought it and its crew into Tangier, the sultan announced he would hold the ship, cargo, and crew until he had a treaty with the United States. That finally won the Americans' attention.

"The following spring, Congress gave the commissioners in Paris $80,000 (almost $2 million in 2010 dollars) to buy peace in Barbary. Since no American consuls were stationed there, Thomas Barclay, the consul general in Paris, was sent to Morocco, and John Lamb, a knowledgeable merchantship captain, went to Algiers, the most militant of the Barbary states.

"In June 1786, Barclay concluded a Treaty of Friendship and Amity. Under this Treaty of Marrakesh, the sultan freed his prisoners for $30,000 (about $712,000 in 2010 dollars) and promised to protect American shipping and encourage commerce between the two countries. Barclay insisted that there would be no annual tribute. Ratified by Congress on July 18, 1787, this was the first treaty between the United States and an African, Arab, or Muslim nation."


J. Robert Moskin


American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service


Thomas Dunne Books a imprint of St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2013 by J. Tobert Moskin


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