Algerian Captivity Crisis

Published in “Narrative of a Residence in Algiers,” London, 1818.

Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, Algiers presented the biggest threat to U.S. commerce in the Mediterranean.  The Algerian navy took about 130 American sailors hostage through capturing two U.S. ships in 1785 and eleven more in 1793.  Some of the sailors, in 1787, even wrote a letter to King George III of Britain asking him to free them!  The King declined their request.  40 of these American captives died in captivity, while the others were freed in 1796 when the United States begrudgingly agreed to pay just under $1 million in ransom and tribute.

The slave market at Algiers, early 17th century.

Since the United States had abolished the Continental Navy after the Revolutionary War, it could not adequately defend its merchant fleet.  For a while, American ships relied upon the Portuguese navy to provide convoy.  Why not build a navy?  Many Americans (particularly Democratic-Republicans) opposed recreating a navy, arguing that it would cost too much money. In 1794, Congress finally passed legislation that authorized the construction of six ships.   Although the ships were not completed in time to use against Algiers, this new navy would prove vital to fighting France from 1797 to 1800 and Tripoli from 1801 to 1805.

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