Empire of Liberty: The Barbary War

“Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute!”

~ headline in the National Intelligencer


Excerpt from “Bald Eagles in Arabia: A Brief History of the U.S. Middle East”

Even before the Louisiana Alliance between France and the United States, America’s relations with North Africa could best be described as mixed. Morocco was the first country to recognize the young United States and the two powers generally enjoyed good relations [1]. The Ottoman regencies along the North African Coast, often referred to as the Barbary Coast, however, were different problems for Washington and Adams. Nominally, a part of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan had long devolved his control (mostly by force) into the hands of a number of quasi-independent pashas and beys. In addition to mamluk-controlled Egypt, the Barbary Coast comprised the states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. These semi-states conducted their own foreign policy and featured their own militaries. Most notably these regencies exploited the unstable situation in the Mediterranean to exact tribute from European states. If the Europeans failed to regularly pay tribute, the beys and pashas of the region would order their corsairs to harass shipping routes in pursuit of the ships, and sailors, under the flag of delinquent states. Over the centuries there were few things more frightening to Christian sailors (and coastal inhabitants) than the prospect of a Barbary pirate attack, and the enslavement that followed.

After independence, the United States suddenly lacked the protection of the powerful Royal Navy. A combination of warfare, wear and tear, the Great Hurricane of 1780 (and subsequent storms) and peace transfers had eroded the formidable navy the U.S. once boasted/stolen at the start of the revolutionary war. To make matters worse, what naval strength the U.S. had found itself thin patrolling the immense coastline of the new country. The Naval Bonds passed in the Washington Administration funded a formidable navy but construction was painfully slow and the French Revolutionary Wars (and War of the Second Coalition) forced those ships to remain in American waters or overseas to operations in India. This left few ships to operate in European waters. Even if the U.S. had spared a first rate ship-of-the-line for the Mediterranean, diplomacy would have hampered their efforts. After all, the regencies were technically Ottoman and the formidable hand of the Sultan stayed an overwhelming European show of force or invasion. Distracted across too many fronts and necessity dictating diplomacy, both Washington and Adams paid tribute to the various pirate lords rather than risk opening yet another front.

And then Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 and Paris and Washington made peace. Adams was in no position to drastically change the situation between the end of the war, the annexation of Haiti and the subsequent election of Thomas Jefferson. Yet, Jefferson was now in a great position to re-examine American priorities. While the question of Louisiana rightfully took center stage in Jefferson’s foreign policy considerations, the issue of Barbary tribute was not far from his mind. As he said in a letter to James Madison around this time:

“I am an enemy to all of these douceurs, tributes and humiliations. I know nothing will stop the eternal increase from these pirates but the presence of an armed force.”

Politically, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans painted Adams and the Federalists as imperialists more focused on acquiring distant Indian territories than humbling the Barbary pirates, ending the tribute system and avenging American honor. The Mascarenes were a state and Jefferson would not abandon American interests but he would not acquiesce to the Federalist system of tribute and appeasement. It helped that Adams had ended the French threat in the Caribbean and Napoleon had ended the threat of Ottoman retaliation.

The Barbary War hardly began with lofty ambitions. Instead, it began with high-minded rhetoric about American honor and opposition to tribute. A rather polite letter from James Madison to the ruling pirate lords of North Africa sparked the conflict simply with the indication that the U.S. would no longer be paying tribute. Per custom, the pirates captured several American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and the Pasha of Tripoli, the eccentric Yussef Karamanli, dramatically cut down the flagpole at the American consulate.

In June 1802, Jefferson ordered Commodore William Briggs (recently returned to the navy after his stint as Vice President) to the Mediterranean to coordinate blockades and shows of force against the regencies. All Jefferson and Briggs sought were peace treaties that removed tribute status and ended enslavement of American sailors.

The problem with war is that it never goes as expected.

On February 12, 1803, the USS Constellation was on routine patrol of Tripoli Harbor when a fire broke out. The cause of the fire remains mystery to this day but what we know is that it soon burned out of control, allegedly catching the ships stores of oil and tar. Facing immolation, or perhaps even the detonation of the ship’s magazine, Dominican Captain Francois Peltier made the decision to abandon ship. The decision was deeply unpopular as most of the crew believed that enslavement at the hands of the Barbary pirates was worse than death. Yet the evacuation began and hundreds of men made their way into shore boats as the ferrying began. The astonished pirates tried to negotiate a wholesale surrender in a broke mix of French, Italian and Arabic so they could have a chance to capture such a valuable prize. The haphazard negotiations went nowhere as Peltier staunchly refused to allow his crew to become hostages and allow the pirates to take the Constellation as a prize. With roughly 400 men of the 800-man crew ashore, or in boats, a magazine store detonated and blew out the aft portion of the ship. Legend holds that Peltier blew the magazine personally with a Barbary ketch coming along the ship to fight the fire, take prisoners and save the prize but the more likely outcome was that panicked sailors bypassed a magazine store in the chaos as they dumped powder stores into the sea. Regardless of the reason, the Constellation went down with 279 hands, including Peltier, and took 30 pirates and their ketch with them. The frustrated corsairs gathered up the survivors, identified officers, and took over 500 Americans prisoner. Suddenly, the United States was not fighting a casual blockade war with all of the advantages; they were fighting a war and a hostage crisis [2].


Excerpt from William Ray’s “Horrors of Slavery, or The American Tars in Tripoli”. Troy, NY 1808; reprinted in Magazine of History, 1911.

“At the beach stood a row of armed men on each side of us, who passed us along to the castle gate. It opened and we ascended a winding, narrow, dismal passage, which led to a paved avenue, lined with terrific janissaries, armed with glittering sabres, muskets, pistols, and tomahawks. Several of them spit on us as we passed. We were hurried forward through various turnings and flights of stairs, until we found ourselves in the dreadful presence of his exalted majesty, the puissant Bashaw of Tripoli.

The throne on which he was seated, was raised about four feet from the surface, inlaid with mosaic, covered with a cushion of the richest velvet, fringed with cloth of gold, bespangled with brilliants [jewels]. The floor of the hall was variegated marble, spread with carpets of the most beautiful kind. The walls were of porcelain, fantastically enameled but too finical to be called elegant. The bashaw made a very splendid and tawdry appearance. His vestige was a long robe of cerulean silk, embroidered with gold and glittering tinsel. His broad belt was ornamented with diamonds, and held two gold mounted pistols, and a sabre with a golden hilt, chain and scabbard. On his head, he wore a large white turban decorated with ribbons. His dark beard swept his breast. He is about five feet ten inches in height, rather corpulent, and of a manly majestic deportment. When he had satiated his pride and curiosity be gazing on us with complacent triumph, we were ordered to follow a guard.”


Excerpt from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s “The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Vol. II”, Harvard University Press, 1934.

A brief civil war over Tripoli had occurred in the mid-1790’s. Yussef Karamanli, the ruler of Tripoli in 1803, had murdered his youngest brother and attempted to murder his oldest brother, Hamet, who also happened to be the heir to the throne. Shortly after this scandalous event, the Ottoman Sultan, Selim III, dispatched a rival pasha to Tripoli to take control. Hamet and Yussef fled to the desert to rally support while the usurper established himself in Tripoli. His reign of terror lasted roughly a year before the French invasion of Egypt cut off Turkish support and the population revolted. Hamet expected the crown but Yussef usurped his brother and “offered” him governance of the rich provinces of Cyrenaica. Fearing assassination, Hamet fled to Tunis and then to Egypt where he found allies amongst exiled Tripolitanian Bedouin tribes and the reeling mamluks. This left the eccentric and fearsome Yussef in sole control of Tripoli.

Unlike his brother, Yussef Karamanli was a ruthless leader who epitomized a “pirate lord” much better than a regional Turkish commander. Fearless, bejeweled and superstitious to a fault, Yussef rose to power as he ruled, through bluster, trickery utilizing what means would be necessary to achieve his end. We should remember that Yussef had his motivations around this time and was a desperate man. With a depleted treasury, unruly countryside, and constant threat of European invasion, Yussef would do anything to strengthen his position and ward off challenge. An example according to the Dutch consul to Tripoli regarding Yussef utilizing a local holy man to negotiate a truce with Gharian, an inland city that threatened revolt:

“With the sacred promise of the divine marabout [holy man], the chief of the rebels was conducted before Yussef, garotted, ties at the neck by a piece of rope, a sign of his desire to repent. The Bashaw granted him immunity…but overwhelmed more by a desire for vengeance than respect for his own parole, he secretly ordered three loyal citizens of Gharian to murder the rebel chief. The marabout negotiator, informed of this assassination, knew immediately that no one other than the Bashaw would have dared attack a person whom the dervish has protected.

The dervish rushes to the Bashaw and predicted all kinds of calamities and he uttered the most extreme threats and swore never again to see him…The next day, the three loyal citizens arrived to receive their reward for their mission. The Bashaw, always afraid of the holy man’s threats, thought that their deaths would somehow appease him and decided these three loyal followers should be hanged; his orders were immediately executed.

The Bashaw learned he has not at all assuaged the dervish; he grew convinced that he would lose his throne. Along with his family and his entourage, he traveled half days march into the desert to find the dervish. Many black sheep were sacrificed to expiate his crimes. Two long hours elapsed before the Bashaw was allowed into the presence of the holy man. Finally he was permitted to see him in a room; the holy man was completely naked, his hair like snakes, making the leaps and gestures of a maniac. He delivered to him the following rude speech: ‘The Bashaw must respect promises made to an apostle of the Prophet, who alone is able to dethrone him and if he allows him to rule, it is because for the time he knows of no other person more fit to rule.’ The Bashaw kissed the hand of the dervish and returned a bit more tranquil.

To prove his remorse, he said he wanted no more to do with the province of Gharian, and he abandoned all rights and revenues to the dervish who from now on could dispose of it as he liked.”


Excerpt from Caitlin Manchester’s “The Peculiar Institution”, Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Unlike the colonial plantations of the Europeans and Americans, slavery in the Muslim world was a much more diverse, and far more ancient, affair. The fleshmarkets of Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Baghdad and Constantinople seemed like something out of Virgil than the 19th century. White male Christians from across the Mediterranean were sold in outdoor auctions alongside black Africans and brown skinned Indians for all manner of toils ranging from fieldwork to the random tasks of a local bey or pasha. The American colonial preacher, Cotton Mather, described Barbary as a place where slaves lived in dank pits covered by iron bars. Freed galley slaves brought back gruesome tales of rowing ten-hour days chained together and naked, in sweltering heat; sometimes given little more than a wine-soaked rag in a given day for “hydration”. John Foss survived captivity in Algiers in the 1790’s and his account of the common punishment, the bastinado, sparked fear in imaginations from Montreal to Montserrat:

“The person is laid upon his face, with his hands in irons behind him and his legs lashed together with a rope. One taskmaster holds down his head and another his legs, while two others indflict the punishment upon his breech [buttocks] with sticks, somewhat larger than an ox goad. After he has received one half in this manner, they lash the ankles to a pole, and two Turks lift the pole up and hold it in such a manner , as brings the soles of his feet upward, and the remainder of his punishment, he receives on the soles of his feet.”

Female slaves could expect their own hellish fates. Unlike the auction houses of Kingston or Charleston, the lustful intents of male buyers were hardly discreet. Female slaves were sold in private stalls but could anticipate a thorough examination by older matrons who could raise or lower their price. Virgin slaves fetched a premium and a local bey’s captivity of a virgin, white, Christian, noblewoman had started warfare on multiple occasions through the centuries.

Indeed, in September of 1798 while Europe stood distracted with the start of the War of the Second Coalition, a small fleet of Tunisian corsairs sacked the Sardinian town of San Pietro and captured 950 people, mostly women and children. Among the newly enslaved was a 12-year old girl, Anna Maria Porcile, the granddaughter of the Count of Sant-Antioco, the Admiral of the Navy of Sardinia. Unfortunately for Anna, the admiral of the Tunisian fleet, Rais Muhammed Rumelli “fixed his desire on her” and announced that he intended Anna to become his concubine unless someone would buy her for 16,000 piasters, or roughly $5,000, an astonishing sum in those days.

A Tuscan merchant agreed to loan Anna’s family the money but Anna herself now became collateral. Unable to raise the funds in the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars, Anna’s debt (and thus Anna herself) passed from the merchant to a Muslim minister and finally to the Bey of Tunis himself who demanded immediate payment. With no options and the clock ticking, Anna’s family desperately sought the mercy of the various consulates located in Tunis, including the consulate of the United States of America.

The local consul, a hardheaded, Dartmouth educated, zealously patriotic man named William Eaton, answered their call, took on the debt, and freed Anna.

“I ransomed your daughter, because being in my house, both the honor of my flag and my own sensibility dictated it.”

While Eaton had saved Anna, he now placed the target on his back. With no way of paying the $5,000, the debt soon ballooned to $22,000 at the instance of the Bey and through dubious financing through Unis ben Unis, a local Tunisian merchant. When Commodore Richard Morris visited the port on a standard flag-flying mission, he found himself imprisoned and held responsible for the consul’s debts. An enraged Morris paid the debt and both Morris and the Bey agreed that Eaton should be replaced. Disgraced, Eaton sailed across the Atlantic financially ruined.

Yet, his story in North Africa was not finished [3].


Excerpt from “Bald Eagles in Arabia: A Brief History of the U.S. Middle East”

The sinking of the Constellation and imprisonment of her crew was a scandal and became a great embarrassment for the Jefferson Administration. While Jefferson could have ransomed the prisoners, the price would have been exorbitant, and politically unfeasible. After all, Jefferson had started the war and now he needed to finish it.

Briggs considered a mass attack on Tripoli but feared retaliation and execution of the American prisoners. He had good reason. A letter to Briggs from the Danish consul relayed a tirade and ominous quote from the pasha who believed an American landing and assault imminent:

“Now, it is a war over my personal safety. I [would] therefore act in a manner that the feelings of the U. States [should] be hurt in the most tender part it is in my power to hurt.”

Whether or not the pasha intended to go through with such threats is unknown [4]. Slaves and hostages had more value alive than dead but value would be meaningless if the United States intended to take the crisis and launch an all-out war on Tripoli. History and precedent seemed to favor the United States as well; such a massacre of prisoners was unheard of in all the long years of the Barbary Coast. Lastly, letters from the Dutch consul seem to indicate that the pasha’s threats were “pantomimes”, or “empty gestures”.

In addition, such a bold attack would have necessitated a reorganization of American fleet movements in the region as well: the navy was also blockading Algiers and Tunis and supporting French operations against the Ottomans. Combining the fleet to attack Tripoli would risk Tunis and Algiers outmaneuvering the United States. Cherry picking the ports would not work because the pirates would simply retreat inland or move from one city to the other in a prolonged game of cat and mouse. Simply put, the United States could control the seas all it wanted but it wouldn’t create a lasting solution without a viable land option.

A more unorthodox approach was necessary.


Excerpt from the Minutes of Order Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Montpelier, Virginia; June 7, 1803.

Mr. Jefferson spoke of a man who came to his office and proposed a daring plan to rescue the Constellation prisoners. A Mr. William Eaton, our former consul to Tunis, proposed a raid to recover the rightful ruler of Tripoly, Mr. Hamed Caramane, and place him on the throne with a treaty to the benefit of the United States. Apparently, the current Basha [Yussef] took the throne from his brothers thanks to intrigue and dishonor some years ago. The Ottoman Sultan dispatched a new basha to take control of the city in 1798 but Yussef and Hamed ousted him and then Hamed installed himself and exiled his brother. Eaton says that Hamed went to Tunis, where he first met him, before going to Egypt and he knows not his current whereabouts. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Clinton though, we have tracked Hamed to a mamluk camp in Upper Egypt.

After several votes the membership determined that Mr. Jefferson should, quietly, endorse Mr. Eaton’s proposal and we will ensure that funding and information reveals itself as needed in the pursuit of his mission. The membership agreed that any efforts to install Hamed as ruler should occur in conjunction with a long term plan to impose republicanism onto the populace and bring Tripoly into the United States as soon as realistically feasible.

It does appear that Mr. Eaton is one to indulge his passions and he does appear to be a consummate debtor. President Briggs urged oversight and caution in our pursuit of this mission [5].


——— Author’s Notes ——–

[0]: All of these quotes are from our timeline and I have repurposed them for this timeline’s purposes.

[1]: Morocco was the first country to officially recognize the United States in our timeline as well.

[2]: Yes this is basically a mirror of the USS Philadelphia running aground in our timeline.

[3]: Eaton’s role in the San Pietro incident played a crucial early role in starting the U.S.-Tripoli War in our timeline as well.

[4]: In our timeline, Yussef only hinted as executing the Philadelphia prisoners once Eaton captured Derne and a real revolt seemed imminent. In this timeline, the additional military might of the United States, the presence of the French in Egypt (thus no Ottoman help), and their more dedicated wartime focus means Yussef is more willing to threaten this move to prevent an outright assault on Tripoli.

[5]: Eaton proposed this same plan to Jefferson in our timeline and narrowly received support and it was never enthusiastic. In this timeline, Jefferson and Madison have ulterior motives for their actions and a replicator which makes financial responsibility less of a constraint.


Baepler, Paul. White Slaves, African Masters. Chicago, 1999.

Ellis, Joseph. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Pg. 241. Knopf, 1996.

Naval Documents related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers. Washington D.C., 1939-1944), Vol. VI.

Ray, William. Horrors of Slavery, or The American Tars in Tripoli. Troy, NY, 1808.

Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast. Hyperion, 2005.

Zuchet, Antoine. Letters of Antoine Zuchet, consul in Tripoli for Batavian Republique to Department of Foreign Affairs. Translation from French by Richard Zacks. Nationaal Archief. The Hague. Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, 1796-1810. Access number 2.01.08. inv. Nr. 356.

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