Those who pride themselves of being knowledgeable in American history are often mistaken when asked what the first declared war was by the United States of America. The popular response is the War of 1812, which is a good answer, but unfortunately wrong.
The first war declared by the United States was actually the First Barbary War, fought from 1801-1805 against the four Barbary States of North Africa – Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. These four Barbary States were quasi-independent entities belonging to the Ottoman Empire.
For centuries the Barbary States sponsored piracy in the Mediterranean. They seized ships, raided coastal towns, held crews and citizens for ransom or sold them into slavery and demanded tribute from European powers in exchange for safe passage for shipping. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the power and effectiveness of the Barbary pirates had deteriorated, but by reputation alone they were able to continue their hold on the European maritime powers and demand tribute to ensure safe passage of shipping through the Mediterranean waters.
Prior to their independence, American ships were afforded safe passage because they fell under the protection of the British Empire and France gave them protection for a brief time during the Revolutionary War. But by 1783, the United States was responsible for protecting its own shipping and the Barbary pirates immediately began attacking the ships of this new country. From the start, the United States policy was to pay tribute to the Barbary States and paid up to one million dollars per year for the next 15 years. By 1800, 20 percent of the annual budget of the United States government went to pay tribute to the Barbary States.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson, who had always opposed paying tribute to the Barbary States, immediately put an end to the practice when he became president. Thus began the First Barbary War and Jefferson dispatched the fledgling U.S. Navy to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping and interests in the region. In 1803, the USS Philadelphia was captured intact by the Barbary pirates of Tripoli and all the crew members were held hostage including Capt. William Bainbridge.
The response by the United States was not to pay ransom for the captured crew, but instead to lay a Naval Blockade on the city of Tripoli and commission former Army Capt. William Eaton to organize an attack on Tripoli by land. William Eaton, who declared himself a general during the expedition, along with eight U.S. Marines organized and led a small army of Muslim and Christian mercenaries out of Egypt and marched towards Tripoli.
In April of 1805, Eaton captured the town of Derna, which played an instrumental role towards a negotiated peace with Tripoli and the release of the crew of the USS Philadelphia. This is why the United States Marine Corps song includes the words “…to the shores of Tripoli” which immortalize the exploits of William Eaton and those eight Marines.
When we fast forward to the 21st century and our own present War on Terrorism, the Barbary Wars offer interesting insights and parallels to our policies and the way we deal with terrorists and negotiate with countries that sponsor terrorism today. The terms “pirate” and “terrorist” are almost synonymous and the way we dealt with the 19th century pirates and the success and failures of our past policies in the Barbary Wars can offer us a unique perspective to our present struggle with 21st century terrorism. The Barbary Wars may not be a perfect comparison to our present War on Terrorism. However, there is enough common ground shared between the two that I would highly recommend to anyone to study the United States’ first official foreign conflict to better understand our present foreign conflict.
Perhaps a study of the Barbary Wars may put a healthy perspective to our present worldwide struggles that we face as a nation. The obstacles we face today may seem overwhelming and impossible to overcome, but what must it have been like for our young nation 200 hundred years ago as it stood up to 19th century terrorism with a fragile government not yet 20 years old? In addition to having a standing Army or Navy that was next to nothing and no real allies in the world to assist us. While the rest of the world powers of the day paid tribute to the Barbary States to appease the pirates and maintain an unstable peace, the United States alone stood their ground. This truly was an overwhelming obstacle. Yet the United States prevailed and with similar determination can prevail again in its current War on Terrorism. William Eaton and those eight Marines made history during very uncertain times and those of us in the military today continue to make history.
While we struggle against the evils of this world and wonder what the future has in store for us as a nation, let us take comfort in the one who controls history. As it is written in Isaiah 40:15, 18 “For all the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket. They are nothing more than dust on the scales. He picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand….To whom can you compare God?”