Corsairs, privateers, and pirates : a reconsideration of the Barbary Wars, c.1780-1805

Gibbons, Patrick Joseph, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Clancy-Smith, Julia, University of Virginia

When the United States was created at the end of the eighteenth century, it was consciously intended as a break with the established governing patterns of Europe. Representative democracy was a novel means of regulating and protecting the collective interests of the political community that was embodied in the nation. In order to legitimize and to unite this new group, traditions were created as required to demonstrate the group's historical legitimacy. One of these traditions was the myth of the Barbary War of 1801. According to the myth, at the end of the eighteenth century the United States was confronted with North African corsair raiding that had plagued the European Powers for centuries in the Mediterranean. However, rather than acquiesce to or be intimidated by these sea-marauders, the new American government sent a fleet of warships to the Mediterranean in 1801. Despite setbacks, such as the capture and destruction of the Philadelphia and tensions with the other Barbary powers, the heroically led squadron succeeded in cowing the barbaric pasha of Tripoli in 1805, and in doing so established precedents of determination and daring for succeeding generations of sailors and Marines to emulate. That, anyway, is the myth.

The reality of the Barbary War is far more mundane, but at the same time, far more heroic. The United States entered into the Barbary War because its leaders misunderstood the relationships among the Maghribi states, and the nature of trade and warfare in the Mediterranean as a whole. The corsairs against whom the Navy was sent to fight were just one example of the long-established Mediterranean system of forced commerce. The Barbary War was a process of coming to terms with the practices of the Mediterranean on the levels of both high policy and operational tactics.

The Barbary War was a process of learning about and adapting to Mediterranean realities rather than an imposition of order and justice upon an outlaw state. By a careful re-examination of both primary sources and secondary accounts, I will reconstruct the Barbary War, proving that the period from 1801 to 1805 was one in which the United States came to terms with the customs of the Middle Sea. Its leaders in Washington struggled to adapt a useful policy and its warriors on the scene grappled with an enemy whose tactics and intentions were wholly foreign. These two strands of development came together in 1805 with the negotiated treaty of peace and friendship between the U.S. and Tripoli. The growth of an understanding of the Mediterranean and its highly-developed, delicately-balanced system of war and exchange constitutes the true story of heroism for all participants, Christian or Muslim, whatever the invented historical traditions maintain.

MA (Master of Arts)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:34:59.

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