The Third Barbary War

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Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat, by Dennis Malone Carter. Naval History and Heritage Command.


Pundits have, in recent days, sought to explain our latest war by analogy, debating whether Libya most closely resembles Iraq and Afghanistan, Darfur, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, the Ivory Coast, or none of the above. Others have reached back to earlier fights on the shores of Tripoli. In the First and Second Barbary Wars, waged intermittently from 1801 until 1815, we defended our commerce, our citizens, and our national pride. But in the run up to this, our Third Barbary War, the case for intervention was mounted most enthusiastically by Britain and France, and couched in terms of universal human rights. So if we must have a historical analogy, the most appropriate precedent may be the Anglo-Dutch expedition of 1816, when a European armada employed overwhelming firepower to achieve humanitarian aims.

At issue then was piracy by the city states of the Barbary Coast -- Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli --  plundering ships, enslaving their crews and passengers, and extorting tribute in exchange for safe passage. During the long Napoleonic Wars, the British largely subordinated their concerns to strategic considerations, preferring to use the North African ports to resupply their Mediterranean fleet and contain Bonaparte's ambitions. With peace came renewed attention to the free flow of commerce.

Even more important, however, were humanitarian concerns. At the Congress of Vienna, Britain pressed the other powers to bar the trade in slaves but achieved only a commitment in principle to its eventual abolition. Those profiting from slavery mocked the hypocrisy of British concern for African slaves while His Majesty's own subjects languished in involuntary servitude along the Barbary Coast. The taunts stung.

Then a British naval officer, Commander Walter Croker, visited Algiers. He wrote an incendiary letter decrying the "cruelties practiced on Christians of every nation, and of indiscriminate slaughter, involving our own countrymen." When sending the letter to a government minister failed to produce the desired effect, he published it, touching off a media firestorm. Parliament demanded action. William Wilberforce, an inveterate critic of slavery, condemned "the evils...which had been so long tolerated," and called for "cannon balls" instead of the payment of any ransom.

Admiral Lord Exmouth, the British commander in the Mediterranean, was dispatched to secure a solution. In Tripoli, he ransomed 468 slaves and secured a commitment to end the practice. Tunis, too, capitulated, ransoming some slaves, releasing others, and pledging at least to treat future captives as prisoners. Algiers, however, proved more defiant, and Exmouth retired to England in frustration.

The slaughter of some 200 fishermen from the Italian states provided a fresh impetus for action. Exmouth returned at the head of a powerful fleet. In Gibraltar, he met up with a squadron of Dutch frigates, and its commander pledged his support. They sailed, together, for Algiers and delivered their ultimatum. Receiving no response, they proceeded to bombard the fortifications, leveling half the city in the process. Exmouth demanded the Dey's surrender, distinguishing between the ruler and his populace by adding that as "England does not war for the destruction of cities, I am unwilling to visit your personal cruelties upon the unoffending inhabitants of the country." (It was a fine sentiment, but perhaps one that the inhabitants of the rubble of Algiers, slaves included, were poorly disposed to appreciate.) More than three thousand captives were released.

Back in Britain, Parliament congratulated Exmouth on a victory "most favourable to the interests of humanity," and the Duke of Clarence declared that British action had been "actuated by a pure feeling of humanity towards the rest of the world." Plays and pamphlets celebrated the triumph, and Britain engaged in an extended bout of self-congratulation.

Over the longer term, though, the results of the expedition proved more equivocal. The offending rulers were not deposed. Piracy and slavery declined, but neither immediately disappeared. European intervention in North Africa would only escalate in the decades that followed.  

There are lessons here for those of every persuasion. Interventionists might look back two centuries, and cite the success of international action in freeing thousands of slaves. Realists could point to the sharply circumscribed goals of the coalition, which remained offshore and forced a negotiated settlement. Skeptics of intervention might note that slavery and piracy persisted. And those wary of escalating commitments would find evidence for their fears in the fact that the each of the Barbary States was ultimately deprived of its sovereignty by external powers, as the French conquered first Algeria and then Tunisia, and the Sublime Porte reasserted direct control over Tripoli.

Selectively mining the past to defend our present rectitude, however, misses the point. If there is something in the narrative of Lord Exmouth's expedition to support every perspective, there are many other aspects that ought to give pause to advocates of each position. The same holds equally true of the other analogies invoked in recent days as if their lessons were self-evident. When pundits assign complex events a purely retrospective clarity, they rob them of their utility. After all, the real value of historical precedents lies in their ability to unsettle assumptions and upend expectations.


Presented by

Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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