America and the Barbary States

As we watch events unfolding in Libya, and still hear regular news of Somali piracy, it seems like a good opportunity to have a look back at America’s historic relationship with North Africa.

From the earliest days of the United States, the Barbary States represented a thorn in the sides of American government and commerce.  As a fledgling democracy without an established navy, American ships and their crews were vulnerable to capture by pirates from Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, who would in turn demand obscene ransoms.  The United States was thus forced into the only viable option of paying extortionate tributes to ensure the safe passage of its ships.  These sums consumed a sizable portion of the cash-strapped American budget; under a 1795 treaty with Algiers, the US would pay $1 million, one sixth of the entire budget.

“A note of presents demanded by the Bey of Tunis as condition of the peace with the United States,” [1800].  Rufus King Papers (MS 1660)

The document shown above, entitled “A note of presents demanded by the Bey of Tunis as condition of the peace with the United States” is a fascinating piece of this transaction.  It records the absurdly lavish presents to be given to the bey and his family members, including “1 pair pistols mounted with gold set with diamonds” and similarly decadent watches, rings, chains and fabrics. (For a transcription, see below)

Appeasing the competing whims of the three Barbary rulers became increasingly costly and the United States ended its cooperative approach soon after the arrival of Thomas Jefferson to office.  This change in policy further soured relations, paving the way for the first of the two Barbary Wars beginning in 1801.

“The attack made on Tripoli on the 3d August 1804, by the American Squadron under Commodore Edward Preble.”  Irving S. Olds Collection of Naval Prints  (PR 047)

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A.          A note of presents demanded by the Bey of Tunis as a condition of the peace with the United States ―

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For the Bey.

1 fusee 6 feet long mounted with gold set with diamonds

4 do – - – - – - – - – mounted with gold – - – - – - – - – - -

1 pair pistols mounted with gold set with diamonds

4 do – - – - – - – - -  mounted with gold set with diamonds

4 do – - – - – - – - -  mounted with gold ―

1 poiniard [sic] enameled set with diamonds ―

1 diamond ring ―

1 gold watch set with diamonds chain the same

1 gold do set with diamonds chain the same ―

1 gold snuffbox set with diamonds ―

6 pieces brocade ―

6 do sattin [sic] ―

30 pieces cloth of different colors ―

For the Bey’s son

1 gold mounted fusee ―

1 do ———- pair pistols ―

1 gold watch set with diamonds ―

For the brothers and the cousins of the Bey ―

4 repeating watches and chains of gold ―

For the Bey’s wife

1 diamond watch

1 —- “ ——- ring ―

For his two sisters ―

1 diamond watch each ―

Creative: Tronvig Group