Thursday, February 22, 2024

Pirates of the Mediterranean: Stephen Decatur and the First Barbary War (Part 1)

By Nick Wieman
HRNM Educator

On February 16, 1804, saboteurs sailing a stolen vessel under a false flag boarded an American warship in Tripoli Harbor and put it to the torch before sailing off into the night under cannon fire. This act of daring sabotage was reportedly called “the most daring act of the age” by Horatio Nelson. The perpetrator was none other than Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, one of America’s first post-Revolution naval heroes.

Commodore Stephen Decatur (NHHC)

Since the early 16th century, the three largest so-called “Barbary states” of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli controlled coastal North Africa. Nominally vassal states of the Ottoman Empire, in practice they were independent military states sustained largely by piracy and slave-raiding throughout the Mediterranean, in some instances raiding as far as the British Isles and Iceland. So widespread and dangerous were the pirates that churches established “slave funds” for ransoming out captured European sailors.

"A Sea Fight with Barbary Pirates," by Laureys a Castro. State-sponsored piracy from the Barbary states of North Africa was a serious hazard for Mediterranean travelers. (Wikipedia)

At independence, America’s navy was virtually nonexistent. Of the over 60 ships that had sailed in the Continental Navy, only 11 had survived the war, with the rest sold off when Congress disbanded the Continental Navy in 1785. While the Constitution adopted in 1789 authorized the creation and maintenance of a navy, its size and scope was one of many sources of disagreement between the major political factions at the time. Democratic-Republicans opposed maintaining a large navy, fearing that it would become a source of political corruption and risked entangling America in foreign engagements. Federalists, on the other hand, supported a navy strong enough to protect trade and provide a deterrent to foreign adversaries.

By virtue of sailing under the British flag, American merchants had long enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy from Barbary piracy. The British government paid tribute to the Barbary states in exchange for protection from piracy, and Sailors could hope for ransom payments on their behalf. With independence came the loss of this protection, and while diplomacy was able to spare American ships from Moroccan pirates, the Barbary States demanded further tribute. In fact, the increasingly brazen actions taken by Barbary pirates against American vessels were the main justification for the Naval Act of 1794, which authorized the construction of the original six frigates for the infant United States Navy.

William Bainbridge in "negotiations" with the Dey of Algiers (Wikimedia Commons)

In September 1800, the frigate USS George Washington arrived in Algiers carrying the customary tribute to the Dey of Algiers to secure American shipping from pirates. Captain William Bainbridge had been given the unenviable task of formally presenting this tribute to the Dey, who not only insisted on further tribute than had been agreed upon, but demanded that Bainbridge ferry the Dey’s own tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. When Bainbridge tried to refuse, the Dey threatened to destroy George Washington in the harbor and reminded Bainbridge: “Pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves. I have a right to order you as I may think proper.” Outgunned and outnumbered, a lone ship in hostile waters without diplomatic protection, Bainbridge was obligated to agree to this errand, sailing to Constantinople under the Algerian Crescent as a reluctant agent of the Dey of Algiers. Sensing possible weakness and looking to extract even greater tribute from the Americans, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States on May 10, 1801, in essence a declaration that it was open season on American shipping.

Beginning in May 1801, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched squadrons tasked with protecting American shipping to the Mediterranean. The first squadron was instructed not to attack any pirates unless fired upon or in coming to the aid of a merchant ship, as it had been dispatched before Jefferson had received word of Tripoli’s declaration of war and returned home after sporadic blockading and skirmishing off Tripoli. The following squadrons had no such limits placed upon them, and were prepared for a long deployment. Stationed out of ports in Sicily, the Mediterranean Squadrons established a blockade around Tripoli that would stand until the end of the war in 1805. Stephen Decatur participated in the blockade, commanding the 12-gun schooner USS Enterprise.

USS Philadelphia captured by Barbary pirates, 1803 (Wikimedia Commons)

On October 31, 1803, while in pursuit of a Tripolitan corsair outside Tripoli Harbor, USS Philadelphia suddenly ran aground on an uncharted reef. Despite the best efforts of the unfortunate Captain William Bainbridge and the crew to lighten the ship, from jettisoning all nonessential loads to sawing off the foremast, they remained stranded on the rocks. Before being taken prisoner by the pirates, they drilled holes into the hull below the waterline in a last-ditch effort to deny Tripoli the prize of an American frigate. Nevertheless, Philadelphia remained seaworthy, and when the tides came in enough to float the ship, the Pasha of Tripoli found himself in possession of a top-of-the-line 36-gun American frigate far outclassing any other ship in his fleet.

Decatur concluded that a recapture of Philadelphia was likely impossible. Moored under Tripolitan shore batteries, any attempt to sail it out of the harbor would likely have been met with fire after the Tripolitans realized what was happening, and even then, it wasn’t known whether or not Philadelphia was capable of getting under way at all. The safest course of option was its destruction.

To undertake the operation, Decatur would need a ship fast enough to outrun Tripolitan shot and small enough that it would not stand out in the harbor. Fortunately, the Tripolitan pirates soon provided one: on December 23, Decatur seized the Tripolitan ketch (small sailboat) Mastico, rechristened it USS Intrepid, and outfitted it in British colors to look the part of a common merchant ship. To gain passage into the harbor, Decatur hired a Sicilian crew, including one man who could speak Arabic, to communicate with harbor personnel while the American crew hid below deck. Finally, Decatur and Intrepid would be supported by USS Syren, which would provide additional crewmen for the operation and cover Intrepid’s escape.

At around seven in the evening, Intrepid drifted into Tripoli Harbor. The Arabic-speaking Sicilian crewman, Salvatore Catalano, called out to harbor personnel that their ship had lost its anchors in a storm and needed to pull in for repairs, and received permission to dock. Moving carefully to avoid attracting suspicion, Intrepid pulled in just close enough to Philadelphia that they could tie themselves to the ship. With a cry of “Board!” Decatur led his men to climb over the side and fell upon the surprised Tripolitan skeleton crew. In a span of ten minutes, twenty Tripolitan sailors had been killed and the rest fled overboard. The only American casualty was one Sailor who received a cut on his finger.

Boarding the Philadelphia, artwork by J.O. Davidson (NHHC)

With the ship secured, Decatur and his men set to work preparing the ship for the blaze. A human chain quickly brought combustible supplies up from Intrepid and onto the deck of Philadelphia, at which point they split into teams of four assigned to the storerooms, gunroom, cockpit, and berth deck, preparing them for ignition. When all was in position, Decatur walked down the spar deck and commanded each team to light their munitions then quickly evacuate. Within minutes, Philadelphia was completely ablaze. Decatur stayed aboard until the last of his men had returned to Intrepid.

USS Philadelphia burning, by Edward Moran (NHHC)

By now, the American attack on Philadelphia was unmistakable, but there was little anyone in the harbor could do about it other than vainly fire on Intrepid as it sailed away. Adding insult to injury, the blaze heated the cannons aboard Philadelphia hot enough that they fired their shot into Tripoli itself, a sort of poetic last shot on the part of Bainbridge and the crew of the Philadelphia still held prisoner by the Pasha.

Stay tuned! This story will be continued in our next blog post.

No comments: