The Beginnings of Barbary Warfare

The Barbary “pirates” started to capture European ships and enslave the crews in the fifteenth century, especially following Spain’s expulsion of Muslims.  Conflicts with the United States began in 1784, when a Moroccan corsair captured the U.S. merchant ship Betsey off the coast of Spain.

The Betsey incident underscored the vulnerability of the United States in the Mediterranean–no longer could it depend upon Great Britain for protection.  The United States would have to make treaties with Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis in order to get passports that ensured safe travel for merchant ships.  See below for an 1803 passport issued to the New Hampshire brigantine Little Cherub.

Thankfully for the United States, peace was soon made with Morocco.  The emperor had a personal fascination with the United States’ rebellion against Britain and wanted to formally recognize the new country.  Upset that his letters had been ignored (American policymakers had been preoccupied with the Revolutionary War!), he had the Betsey captured in order to expedite the treaty-making process.  The 1787 treaty is the longest unbroken treaty in United States history–see below for a stamp issued by the U.S. Post Office to commemorate the bicentennial.




Why do I use quotation marks around “pirates”?  The Barbary “pirates” weren’t pirates in today’s sense of the word.  The governments of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis sponsored the raiding of European and American ships and the enslavement of the crews.  Gaining money from making treaties (known as “tribute”) and from selling captives back to their home country generated an enormous amount of revenue for these countries.  European and American diplomats dealt directly with the monarchs and their government officials when making treaties and ransoming captives.  One scholar has estimated that the Barbary States captured and enslaved 1 million to 1.25 million European Christians from 1530 to 1780.[1]   Essentially, the Barbary “pirates” were businessmen who specialized in hostage-taking.

Were the Barbary “pirates” motivated by religion?  Yes and no.  Obviously, the (Muslim) Barbary States targeted ships from (Christian) Europe and America.  However, the North Africans did not consider attacks on European and American ships as a sort of holy war (or jihad) in the modern sense.  They readily made peace with European countries and the United States when these countries paid a sufficient amount (the cost ranged from tens of thousands of dollars to millions).  Also, the Barbary States did not want to kill captives, but to turn a profit by selling them back to their home countries.

Moreover, Americans did not consider Barbary piracy as religiously motivated—the overwhelming number of sources from the late 1700s and early 1800s depict the North Africans as motivated by greed.  A Tunisian diplomat even visited the United States for ten months during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and no one ever referred to him as a religious terrorist.  Some people actually liked him and vied for the opportunity to host him at parties!

[1] Robert Davis, Chrisian Slaves, Muslim Masters:  White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 23.

© New Content and Website 2011, 2015.

  • Don Alberto

    In March 1785, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman (or Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja). When they enquired “concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury”, the ambassador replied:
    It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave;
    and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. … other sources report this quotation with slight differences in wording.

    Not religiously motivated???

    • jasonthebarbarypirate

      Yes, that ambassador did invoke the Koran in that conversation. But he also provided a non-religious rationale. He told John Adams that the North Africans deemed themselves the “sovereigns of the Mediterranean; and that no nation could navigate that sea without a treaty of peace with them.” Having read a wealth of primary sources pertaining to the U.S.-Barbary conflicts over the past few years, I have been surprised at how rarely Americans and North Africans broached religious issues. The Barbary pirates seldom cited the Koran as justification for their “piracy.” Instead, they provided pragmatic reasons. Also, the North Africans made little effort to convert European and American captives to Islam and did not seek to kill them in the name of jihad. They were business-minded entrepreneurs who excelled at profiting from hostage-taking and happily made peace treaties with predominantly Christian countries. For their part, Americans did not believe that they were the victims of jihad. They considered the Barbary pirates avaricious pests under despotic governments that needed to be chastised by force.

  • John

    But it says that the Betsy’s crew were enslaved and some of them released only
    after they converted to islam.

    • jasonthebarbarypirate

      Hi there. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but the emperor of Morocco actually treated the crew of the Betsey well. He didn’t enslave them and none of them converted to Islam. A few sailors of the Philadelphia ostensibly converted to Islam in order to avoid enslavement in Tripoli from 1803-1805.