Are the Somali Pirates Like the Barbary Pirates?

News Abroad

Mr. Peskin is Associate Professor of History, Morgan State University, and the author of the new book, Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785--1816 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

At a recent press confrence, Secretary of State Clinton pointed out that piracy in Africa is not a new problem for the United States.  In a similar vein, the New York Times noted that the recent capture of the  Maersk-Alabama off the coast of Somalia was the first time an American ship had been captured by pirates in 200 years.  While the math was slightly inaccurate, the connection between the turn-of-the-19th century Barbary Piracy crisis and this turn-of-the-21st century crisis bears examination.

            There are a number of obvious similarities, beginning with geography.  Barbary pirates captured American vessels off the shores of North Africa, ultimately holding well over 400 American prisoners between 1785 and 1816.  Another similarity is that both the Barbary pirates and today’s East African pirates came from Islamic regions at a time when portions of the Islamic world pronounced Jihad against the West.  Despite such pronouncements, however, both the Barbary pirates and today’s Somalis held prisoners more from motives of profit than ideology. 

            In both cases the American captives were able to use modern technologies to notify their homeland and the worldwide media.  Today’s captives have managed to do so using cell phones.  The earlier group did so through assiduous letter writing.  Their missives usually arrived in the United States two to four months after their capture and were frequently front page news.  Many of the captives wrote tell-all books about their experiences and one, Captain Richard O’Brien, became a minor celebrity, even making a cameo appearance in Royall Tyler’s popular novel, The Algerine Captive.

            But these two captivity crises, separated by roughly two centuries, also differed from each other in important ways.  While the Somali pirates do not appear to be associated with any state, the Barbary pirates were fully sanctioned by North African city states such as Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis.  As such, they were technically more privateers than pirates.  Furthermore the North African rulers who sponsored them remained affiliated with and technically subordinate to the still important Ottoman Empire.

            These relatively powerful city-states had long captured ships and their crews as a means of raising revenue.  Europeans had paid good money to redeem captives for centuries and had even created a network of intermediaries, most famously the brothers of the Mathurin religious order who helped to free the Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes when he was captured in 1575.  European nations traditionally agreed to pay annual tribute to the North African states in order to prevent further captures, creating a more reliable profit source for the Barbary rulers.

            The fact that Barbary piracy was sanctioned by North African states meant that in order to free its captives, the United States needed either to negotiate a treaty with the relevant Barbary states or to force them to free American prisoners through warfare.  The latter option was initially  impossible.  When the first American ships were captured, the newly independent nation did not have a navy and was, therefore, incapable of waging warfare against Barbary.

            The new nation also found that it was unable to pay the ransom demanded by the Barbary powers for the captives. This national impotence  was one factor prompting Americans to ratify a new Constitution that would create a stronger central government.  Once that government was in place, a second round of captures by Barbary pirates prompted the new U.S. Congress to begin to create a navy.  By 1805 that navy was strong enough to defeat the ruling Bashaw of Tripoli, who held 307 American sailors captive for nearly two years.  This incident on the “shores of Tripoli” would be enshrined in public consciousness by the Marines’ Hymn.

            Finally, in 1815-16, following a lackluster performance against Great Britain in the War of 1812, the United States demonstrated its naval strength in a devastating attack against Algiers, which had captured a small American ship in 1812 and held its captain and mate in captivity ever since.  After this impressive show of strength the United States forced all the North African powers to sign treaties in which they agreed to stop capturing American ships.

            The new nation’s successful fight against state-sanctioned African piracy marked its first real success in fighting a foreign war and arguably started it down the road toward the near-limitless military power and frequent worldwide intervention that marked the 20th century as the American century.  What makes the  recent incident off Somalia so interesting is that, despite this overwhelming power, the United States seemed unable to stop the pirates from attacking.  In the midst of the crisis the New York Times wondered if the capture revealed the limits of American power.  The successful and quick resolution would seem to suggest a negative answer to that question, but whether future historians will view this episode as one of the indicators of the end of American dominance or as merely a trivial example of the limits of power remains to be seen.