Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

America and the Corsairs

The nineteenth century was well in before any resolute attack was made upon the power of the Corsairs. It was fitting that the first blow should be struck by the new land of liberty, the United States of America. Before they became a nation, the Americans had suffered severely from the Corsairs. Many of them lay in captivity in Barbary, and one letter says: "The Turks have so taken our New England ships richly laden homeward bound, that it is very dangerous to go. Many of our neighbours are now in captivity in Algiers, The Lord find out some way for their redemption!" At first the United States paid tribute like the rest. But before long the Americans became restive at the idea of bribing these rascally pirates to leave their shipping alone, and in 1803 an American squadron was despatched against the Corsair city of Tripoli. But while chasing an enemy's vessel one of the American men-of-war, the Philadelphia, ran aground near the city. Out swarmed gun-boats and galleys to attack the stranded ship, and she was taken after a sharp fight. Officers and men were carried ashore and clapped into prison, and the ship was got safely off the reef and towed into the harbour.

This was a terrible blow to the American squadron, but the commander, Preble, resolved that, come what might, the Philadelphia  should not remain in the hands of the rovers. He could not hope to bring her out of the harbour, so he planned to destroy her. He sent in a small vessel, a ketch, manned by seventy stout fellows, and commanded by a gallant young seaman, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur. It was a desperate piece of work which lay before them. The captured ship lay under the guns of many batteries ashore, and near at hand rode three large ships and twenty gunboats and galleys filled with enemies.

But the noble fellows aboard the ketch faced the danger with the utmost coolness and daring. They ran the ketch into the harbour by night, worked it up to the captured frigate, made fast to the latter, and then leapt aboard. Within ten minutes the vessel was theirs and the pirate crew had been driven into the water.

Now the boarding party went to work swiftly and steadily. The ketch was loaded with all sorts of combustibles. These were carried to the Philadelphia, piled here and there in selected places, and set on fire. So quickly and thoroughly was this done, that in a marvellously short space of time the frigate was one mass of flame and the Americans were tumbling at full speed back into the ketch. Amid the confusion and uproar they made a successful escape, and returned to their ships in triumph.

It is strange to think that Nelson with his splendid sea-captains and all-conquering men-of-war, was off this coast about this time, and yet the Barbary rovers continued to flourish and to plunder English ships almost under his very guns. But he was too closely engaged in the great struggle with Napoleon to deal with the Corsairs, and after his death Collingwood did nothing. It is true that Collingwood sent the Dey a watch as a present, but that potentate merely tossed it over to his cook. A few broad-sides, such as those fired at Trafalgar, would have been a more suitable offering.

At last the long French wars were ended at the great battle of Waterloo, and the Peace of Ghent in 1814 gave the world time to breathe freely once more. Now men began to think that this open sore of the Mediterranean had existed long enough, and should be cut out. Again the first to take decisive action were the United States. They had been at war with Great Britain, and the Peace of Ghent set them free to deal with the Corsairs. They sent a squadron to Algiers, where many Americans lay captive, and the Corsairs of Algiers remembered what had happened at Tripoli. Within two days after the arrival of the squadron a treaty was made. The Algerines agreed to forfeit all tribute in future, to restore property wrongly seized, and to liberate all American slaves.

The presence of this squadron in the bay was the innocent cause of terrible suffering to a fresh batch of captives. Some Algerine vessels had been cruising along the shores of Italy and flying British colours. Seeing this friendly flag the inhabitants felt no alarm, and were easily persuaded to go aboard the ships. In this way the Corsairs decoyed about three hundred and fifty people, and kidnapped every one of them. On the return journey the Algerines heard that the American squadron was off the coast. They at once made for land, for they dared not push forward for Algiers lest they should be taken. They put in at Bona, a port about 300 miles east of Algiers, and here they landed their captives, and drove the poor creatures by road to the city. It was a fearful march. Driven on like cattle, the weaker fell until fifty-one had perished on the way. The rest were brought before the Dey, literally naked and almost dead from hunger, fatigue, and brutal treatment: one actually fell and died in the Dey's presence. Mr. Shaler, the American consul, saw them, and he remarked that the horrors of the negro slave trade were tender mercies when compared with the sufferings which were inflicted upon the inhabitants of Italy and Spain by these detestable barbarians.