Are the Somali Pirates Like the Barbary Pirates?

News Abroad

Mr. Peskin is Associate Professor of History, Morgan State University, and the author of the new book, Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785--1816 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

At a recent press confrence, Secretary of State Clinton pointed out that piracy in Africa is not a new problem for the United States.  In a similar vein, the New York Times noted that the recent capture of the  Maersk-Alabama off the coast of Somalia was the first time an American ship had been captured by pirates in 200 years.  While the math was slightly inaccurate, the connection between the turn-of-the-19th century Barbary Piracy crisis and this turn-of-the-21st century crisis bears examination.

            There are a number of obvious similarities, beginning with geography.  Barbary pirates captured American vessels off the shores of North Africa, ultimately holding well over 400 American prisoners between 1785 and 1816.  Another similarity is that both the Barbary pirates and today’s East African pirates came from Islamic regions at a time when portions of the Islamic world pronounced Jihad against the West.  Despite such pronouncements, however, both the Barbary pirates and today’s Somalis held prisoners more from motives of profit than ideology. 

            In both cases the American captives were able to use modern technologies to notify their homeland and the worldwide media.  Today’s captives have managed to do so using cell phones.  The earlier group did so through assiduous letter writing.  Their missives usually arrived in the United States two to four months after their capture and were frequently front page news.  Many of the captives wrote tell-all books about their experiences and one, Captain Richard O’Brien, became a minor celebrity, even making a cameo appearance in Royall Tyler’s popular novel, The Algerine Captive.

            But these two captivity crises, separated by roughly two centuries, also differed from each other in important ways.  While the Somali pirates do not appear to be associated with any state, the Barbary pirates were fully sanctioned by North African city states such as Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis.  As such, they were technically more privateers than pirates.  Furthermore the North African rulers who sponsored them remained affiliated with and technically subordinate to the still important Ottoman Empire.

            These relatively powerful city-states had long captured ships and their crews as a means of raising revenue.  Europeans had paid good money to redeem captives for centuries and had even created a network of intermediaries, most famously the brothers of the Mathurin religious order who helped to free the Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes when he was captured in 1575.  European nations traditionally agreed to pay annual tribute to the North African states in order to prevent further captures, creating a more reliable profit source for the Barbary rulers.

            The fact that Barbary piracy was sanctioned by North African states meant that in order to free its captives, the United States needed either to negotiate a treaty with the relevant Barbary states or to force them to free American prisoners through warfare.  The latter option was initially  impossible.  When the first American ships were captured, the newly independent nation did not have a navy and was, therefore, incapable of waging warfare against Barbary.

            The new nation also found that it was unable to pay the ransom demanded by the Barbary powers for the captives. This national impotence  was one factor prompting Americans to ratify a new Constitution that would create a stronger central government.  Once that government was in place, a second round of captures by Barbary pirates prompted the new U.S. Congress to begin to create a navy.  By 1805 that navy was strong enough to defeat the ruling Bashaw of Tripoli, who held 307 American sailors captive for nearly two years.  This incident on the “shores of Tripoli” would be enshrined in public consciousness by the Marines’ Hymn.

            Finally, in 1815-16, following a lackluster performance against Great Britain in the War of 1812, the United States demonstrated its naval strength in a devastating attack against Algiers, which had captured a small American ship in 1812 and held its captain and mate in captivity ever since.  After this impressive show of strength the United States forced all the North African powers to sign treaties in which they agreed to stop capturing American ships.

            The new nation’s successful fight against state-sanctioned African piracy marked its first real success in fighting a foreign war and arguably started it down the road toward the near-limitless military power and frequent worldwide intervention that marked the 20th century as the American century.  What makes the  recent incident off Somalia so interesting is that, despite this overwhelming power, the United States seemed unable to stop the pirates from attacking.  In the midst of the crisis the New York Times wondered if the capture revealed the limits of American power.  The successful and quick resolution would seem to suggest a negative answer to that question, but whether future historians will view this episode as one of the indicators of the end of American dominance or as merely a trivial example of the limits of power remains to be seen.


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Lawrence A. Peskin - 4/16/2009

I appreciate the broad context that Andrew Todd adds to this discussion and do not disagree with his formulation that the Barbary states were "nominally subject to the Ottoman Empire" which was "not able to control them." I do think that this nominal connection gave them a bit more prestige than they might have otherwise had. I also agree on the importance of the context of the Napoleonic wars. However, I do sharply disagree with his portrayal of Britain's role, which is based on Frederick W. Marks' old scholarship. My position, discussed at some length in my new book, is that, while Americans at the time frequently blamed the allegedly perfidious British for their troubles in Barbary, in fact there is no evidence that Britain ever set the pirates on American shipping.

Just one example to illustrate the point (again much more is in the book). In 1793 Algerian corsairs captured 11 American ships in the Atlantic, taking more than 100 American captives. The Algerians were able to capture these ships because of a brief truce with Portugal, which usually prevented Barbary corsairs from leaving the Mediterranean. Turns out this truce was engineered by the British. The American press screamed that the British had let loose their "step-children," the Algerians, to punish the Americans (and to prevent them from moving closer to the French). I have found no evidence to prove or even convincingly suggest that this was the case. Instead, Britain was interested in utilizing Portuguese sea power in their global war against France – the captures of American ships by Algerians were merely a trivial byproduct of this strategy from the British perspective. In general, the Americans had a very elevated sense of their importance to Britain during this period of Anglo-French warfare, seeing Barbary piracy as something of a British-led plot against them, along with Indian attacks in the Northwest (some of which WERE instigated by Britain) and impressment on the high seas. While there are many, many condemnations of Britain in the contemporary documents, I have not found one convincing piece of evidence to show that Britain was ever attempting to manipulate the North Africans to get at the Americans. I would be very interested if anyone out there knows of any such evidence.

Finally, on convoys. They do work, and after Americans became aware of the threat in 1794 they used them to good advantage. However, even then ships would occasionally stray away from the convoy and get captured.

Andrew D. Todd - 4/15/2009

Lawrence A. Peskin is on extremely dubious ground in representing the Barbary States at the time of the Early Republic as extensions of the Ottoman Empire, and he totally distorts the reality of the Napoleonic Wars. Turkish expansionism at sea in the Mediterranean had burned itself out by the end of the sixteenth century, with the Battle of Lepanto, and the Siege of Malta, and on land, by the end of the seventeenth century, with the Siege of Vienna. Turkey had developed alliances with the Protestant nations of Northern Europe. It had a commercial treaty with England by 1580, and in Hakluyt's Voyages, the official history of the sixteenth-century English Navy, there is an interesting letter from Elizabeth I, apologizing to the Sultan for an English pirate who was apparently preying on Levantine Greeks. Presumably, if the pirate avoided being hanged by either the English or the Turks, he would have wound up in Algiers.

Sir George Norman Clark, in his _War and Society in the Seventeenth Century_ comments about the Barbary Pirates in their seventeenth-century heyday, to the effect that the Barbary states were a sort of Ile of Tortuga of the Mediterranean. Oddly enough, many of the Corsairs were Europeans. The situation was that they were nominally subject to the Ottoman Empire, which, however, was not able to control them. The Ottoman Emperors tried all manner of administrative reforms, but the fact remained that in these ports, the real locus of power was with the janissaries (who shipped on the corsairs), and the corporations of pirate captains. Both were economically committed to piracy. Governors were either ineffective and short lived, or they were front men for the pirates. However the Turks understandably felt that with the balance of power, and so on, they could not afford to simply abandon the Barbary Coast to the French and Spanish. Thus, the persistence of brigandage was a direct result of the incompleteness of the concert of Europe.

Frederick W. Marks III, in his _Independence on Trial: Foreign Affairs and the Making of the Constitution_ notes that before the revolution, the American economy had functioned within the British trading sphere, stressing commerce with the British West Indies and Britain itself, commerce which had always been denied to non-British-Empire traders. Additionally, American ships had traded into the Mediterranean under the protection of the British flag. Naturally, on independence, trading privileges in British territory were withdrawn, to the infuriation of Americans who had taken for granted that it was their right (under the gospel of free trade) to trade to the various British possessions. What was worse, the British government took pains to give the Barbary Pirates a free hand with American shipping, making sure that the corsairs understood that American ships were not under British protection. Americans assumed that the Barbary Pirates were such manifest international outlaws that all civilized nations would naturally suppress them without delay. In short, they had taken as natural universal rights what the European powers conceived to be the earned privileges of a great power. Of course, it was also British policy to disrupt the United States by such means as were possible, short of war. One might understandably feel that the Barbary Pirates were acting as mercenaries in British employ.

The reality is that by the time American naval forced got involved with the Barbary Pirates, Britain and France had fought both the Battle of the Nile, and the Battle of the Pyramids, both in 1798, on what was ostensibly Turkish territory. Immediately thereafter, England had acquired a permanent base in Malta, well placed to seal off the Eastern Mediterranean from the Western Mediterranean. Turkey was in decline. Austria had re-occupied considerable sections of the Danubian region nearly a hundred years before, in the early eighteenth century; and under the Russian Empress Catherine II, Prince Potemkin had just secured a lodgment on the Black Sea. In 1805, of course, Britain won the decisive battle of Trafalgar, winning half a century or more of unchallenged worldwide naval supremacy. However, it still required the cooperation of the Barbary states as sources of supply for the British fleets maintaining the close blockade necessary to keep the French navy bottled up in its harbors and deny it the actual experience at sea necessary to rebuild. In 1816, when the Napoleonic Wars were over, and the Barbary Pirates' services were no longer required, the British Navy went in to burn them out. The forces employed in these naval battles were many times the total size of the United States Navy. It is hard to say whether merely burning out the pirate ports would have been a lasting solution. As events turned out, France invaded and conquered Algeria a few years later, setting up a colonial society with a ruling class of White settlers.

The Algerian pirates operated out of a kind of political no-mans-land, where none of the contending great powers could afford to dislodge them, for fear of giving an advantage to the other great powers. To the extent that any sizable power was behind the Algerian attacks on American shipping, it was Great Britain, and indeed, Naval Impressment was one of the major causes of the War of 1812. When England got around to destroying the pirates, it was at about the same time that England was compelling the substantial destruction of Spain's overseas empire, and the elimination of Spain as a significant naval power. Both fell under the heading of consolidating Britain's new maritime hegemony.

Piracy per se largely vanished in the age of the steamship. Steamships were fast enough that they could not be easily intercepted, save by other steamships. Even official commerce raiders ceased to be privateers. During the American Civil War, the Confederate Raider Alabama generally burned its captures at sea, rather than attempting to get them to ports where their contents could be sold. Of course, the Alabama was built in England, and its crew was predominantly British, with Confederate officers. The Alabama's depredations favored the British Merchant Marine at the expense of the American Merchant Marine. One can question the extent to which the Alabama's operations were actually covert operations by Britain against the United States. Henry Adams, then a junior American diplomat in London, was always in doubt about the point.

The Civil War was the swan song of Anglo-American hostility. After that, Anglo-American relations tended to improve, and there was less tendency to covert war through proxies.

The trend of the Alabama was carried further during the World Wars, by the German camouflaged cruisers, such as the Atlantis, which generally refrained from sinking captured ships only when they were needed to put the accumulated prisoners-of-war ashore. The pattern of the naval wars was that Germany and its European allies tended to lose their overseas colonies very quickly, as American-British sea superiority allowed overwhelming invasion forces to be concentrated against each colony in turn, then moved on to the next colony. Consequently German raiders rapidly found themselves operating without bases, ten thousand miles from home, and separated by the British blockade lines. With the sinking of the Atlantis, commerce-raiding became almost exclusively the province of submarines and occasionally airplanes.

The most formidable commerce raiders during the Second World War were the German U-Boat "Wolf Packs," groups of submarines controlled from shore by radio, and supplied with intelligence by long-range reconnaissance aircraft. The Allies response was the convoy, a group of ships of similar speed, going to the same destination, with a substantial naval escort. The idea was not to defend the whole ocean, but merely the immediate vicinity of the convoy. It was soon discovered that certain types of cargo ships did not necessarily require much in the way of deck access, and could be converted to auxiliary aircraft carriers. This meant that a convoy could have its own small air force, good enough to find and sink U-boats at a considerable distance (ten or twenty miles) from the convoy.

The Cunard Queens were another case. Hull physics favors big ships. The Cunard Queens were both big and fast. Their "vital statistics" approximated those of the Japanese battleship Yamato, or a modern aircraft carrier, viz, 80,000 tons, 160,000 hp, 30+ knots. They were much faster than a submarine, and their speed even compared favorably to that of torpedoes over extended ranges. So the queens were given a cruiser or so for escort, and sent off by themselves. They had some fairly strange adventures during the war. The Queen Elizabeth encountered a freak wave which flooded the bridge-- but the ship survived, and the Queen Mary collided with its escorting cruiser-- fatally for cruiser, but not for the Queen Mary. However, both proved immune to U-Boats.

During the 1967 Middle East war, and afterwards, the Suez canal was closed off by virtue of having become the front line of an active war zone. The oil shippers responded by building bigger tankers, and going the long way around, via the Cape of Good Hope, a distance of about 11,000 nautical miles instead of 7000. The greater size and economy of the bigger ships made up for the longer distance, and indeed, when the Suez canal was finally re-opened, it had to be dredged out to accommodate the big ships. In the mean time, the big ships got bigger, so that they still could not go through the canal. In a related process, the major oil-producing nations sought to develop land pipelines leading to the Mediterranean. Let us carry this a step further. Let us consider the merits of hauling those kinds of low-value goods which still travel by sea, the long way around from East Asia to Europe. All distances which follow are in nautical miles:

Southampton, UK-Cape Town-Melbourne, Australia, via Cape of Good Hope: ~11,900
(roughly comparable distance to Singapore or India)
Liverpool, UK-Manila, Philippines, via Panama: ~14,000
(about the same distance to Shanghai)
Liverpool, UK-Hong Kong, via Quebec and Vancouver (rail portage across Canada): 8620 sea + ~2500 railroad.

These are routes which keep one thousands of miles from any hostile party.

The Suez Route:
London, UK-Singapore: 8300
London, UK-Hong Kong, via South China Sea: 9754
London, UK-Melbourne, Aus, via Indian Ocean: 11,053

The distances to Singapore or China via the Cape, or Panama are greater, but they are not insuperably greater. One can compensate by building a bigger and faster ship.

By the 1960's, maritime commerce became a relatively limited aspect of international trade. Passengers travel by air, unless the process of travel is their objects, as in the case of cruise ships. In 1960, the economical way to get from the United States to Europe, for purposes of tourism or graduate study, was still by an ocean liner, such as one of the Cunard Queens. By 1972, the economical traveler flew in one of Icelandic Airlines' DC-8 jets, landing in Luxembourg, one of the few European airports which was outside of the international airline cartel's price-fixing arrangements.

Due to the tariff barriers which were a legacy of the Great Depression, it was some time before international trade in finished goods got going again. A serious oceanic trade in objects of common consumption only really started in the 1980's, with Reaganomics. This brings us to the present economic configuration. Under the current dispensation, the really valuable goods, such as microprocessors, pharmaceuticals, etc., travel by air, not by sea. There are mail-order operations which assemble orders in China, and send them to the United States by air freight because it is cheaper than running warehouses with American labor. The next tier of goods down are cargoes which get moved in containerships, that is, cargoes of a type where a mere twenty tons is worth enough for special handling. Here we are talking about goods destined for Wal-Mart, whose low value is mostly because they have not yet found a buyer, and may very well have to be thrown out. Containerships are rapidly reaching the size and speed of the old Cunard Queens. The same logic of square-cube law applies to them, just as it applies to an ocean liner. I think that boarding an 80,000 ton ship hacking down thirty knots in the middle of the ocean is easier said than done.

For that matter, pressures to reduce delivery times are likely to lead to container ships being replaced by faster means of transportation. Where railroads are available, they tend to supersede container ships, because a well-run railroad can move goods at 60-70 mph. Significantly, China is building railroad connections towards Central Asia and the Himalayas, with a view to strengthening its rail links to Europe, and rendering them more competitive. Coastal China is becoming overcrowded in any case, and, once rail links are in place, there are substantial advantages to moving selected manufacturing operations to Szechuan or Shensi, only about 4000-5000 miles from European markets, or perhaps 80-100 hours travel time, at a cost of ten cents per pound or less. To remain competitive, merchant shippers would probably have to adopt surface-effect ships, and one has some difficulty in seeing how a surface-effect ship could be intercepted by anything slower than an aircraft. The types of ships which seem to be really vulnerable to piracy are comparatively small, slow, obsolete merchant ships hauling low-value raw material for short distances.

Now we come to the Somali Pirates. Most of the ships the Somalis have captured seem to be either small ships, or bulk carriers with very little freeboard. Chemical tankers fall into both categories. This little Turkish chemical tanker (MV Karagöl) of 5000-6000 tons, seems to have only three feet of freeboard. Judging from link cited in the bibliography below, it looks like the seagoing equivalent of an English tank locomotive. However, a cruise ship, capable of twenty knots or so, generally seems to be able to just outrun the pirates. Such ships have much higher sides than a bulk carrier, or even a containership. They can generally come up with a couple of hundred stewards to man the sides in any case.

Convoys work. They are the proven technique against commerce raiding. They worked against the German U-boat "wolf packs." One can arrange meets at sea, about a thousand miles from the Horn of Africa. Ships regulate their speed to arrive at the designated coordinates at the designated time, and then they all proceed together to Suez. The Egyptians collect tolls on ships going through the Suez canal. They are the obvious ones to be worrying about the security of the Suez canal approaches, and I don't see why they shouldn't provide the necessary naval escort. I expect they could use something like the old American Asheville class corvettes, or the Russian Stenka, ships of about two hundred tons with a maximum speed of forty knots and a single three or four inch gun, plus 20 mm or 40 mm cannon. Those kind of little ships don't cost too much to operate, but the gun has a fire director, and it can engage targets at thousands of yards.

What concerns one is the extent to which Egypt's essentially internal problems are being presented as a fundamental international crisis. If the cost of going through Suez increases, other routes will substitute themselves.

This bibliography is not intended to be definitive. It is merely the product of a hasty rummaging through my own shelves and the internet.

The Algerian Pirates and the Napoleonic Wars:

Frederick W. Marks III, Independence on Trial: Foreign Affairs and the Making of the Constitution, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1973.

Sir George Norman Clark, War and Society in the Seventeenth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1958.

Irwin R. Blacker, ed., The [Viking] Portable Hakluyt's Voyages, 1965, see esp. ch 24 and ch. 25.

[Captain] Frederick Marryat _Peter Simple_, 1834. A quasi-autobiographical novel, gives a good sense of the flavor of Nelson's navy. Think of Marryat as the original source for C. . Forester's Hornblower books.

Michael Lewis, The History of the British Navy, 1957. Background.


Alabama and Atlantis:

Captain Bernhard Rogge and Wolfgang Frank, The German Raider Atlantis, 1956. Memoirs of the captain.


The War of the U-Boats:

Admiral Karl Doenitz, Memoirs: A Documentary of the Nazi Twilight, 1959, 1961, abridged translation of Zehn Jahre und Zwanzig Tage, 1958. The closest thing to an official history from the German side, given that they lost the war.

Herbert A. Werner, Iron Coffins, 1969. Memoir of a U-Boat captain.

Fictionalized memoirs. A lot of men seemed to need psychological distance to talk about it relatively soon after the events:

Wolfgang Ott, Sharks and Little Fish, 1957, 1958. From the point of view of a U-boat officer.

Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea, 1951. From the point of view of the Royal Navy.

Jan de Hartog, The Captain, 1966. Merchant Navy.


Bjorn Landstrom, _The Ship: An Illustrated History_, 1961, p. 282


Noel Mostert, Supership, 1974, 1975. A narrative, with commentary, of a voyage from Europe to the Persian Gulf aboard a British supertanker, P&O Lines' SS Ardshiel.






Corey D Schmitz - 4/15/2009

Hi, interesting comparison, it made me pull out that Six Frigates book that deals alot with the Barbary Pirates. One nerdy history question I had was in regards to the naval battles of the war of 1812. I was always under the impression that the U.S. somewhat held their own with their fledgling navy, becoming the only other navy in the world to have gunnery as fast as the British, and accumulating a pretty decent battle record. Is my perception not terribly accurate?

N. Friedman - 4/14/2009

Professor Peskin,

The receipt of money can be its own reward. On the other hand, one can have a very clean conscience about receiving ransom/tribute payments when one finds religious justification for such payments and the entire enterprise directed to obtaining such payments. So, it seems to me that there has to be a mixture here of pecuniary and religious motivation for the activities of the Barbary Pirates.

It is worth noting that such people framed their issues different than you or I might. In this regard, I note the justification Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman gave Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, in answer to their question as to why American ships were being attacked at all when, in fact, the US had no dispute with the Barbary states. Jefferson reported that Abdrahaman said:

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 Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.

I recall that Michael Oren noted in his book that the religious justification was seen by, I believe, Adams as a pretext to extort money. That, of course, is how the matter would look to a Christian of that era. On the other hand, Islam includes specific religious laws that, in fact, allow - in fact, advocate for - the very activities in question: namely, jihad against infidels directed towards payment of tribute, with the payment of tribute being an acceptable exchange for forgoing pursuit of Jihad warfare. So, it is not so easy to dismiss religion as a motive, especially when religion mixes nicely with economic interest.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 4/13/2009

Somalis are very adroit at exploiting pastoralist resource niches in their own rangeland economy.

They also have traditions that extend back to the mid-19th century of traveling abroad to exploit workplace opportunities as seamen in Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere.

Given the collapse of the Somali state in 1991 and the unlikely possibility of its being restored anytime soon, some desperate Somalis view the international shipping lanes as tempting and lucrative resources.

These Somali "resource wars" or brigandage have little or nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with physical survival amidst political mayhem and an economy of death.

Lawrence A. Peskin - 4/13/2009

Elliot Green raises a very interesting point. In the case of the United States Jihad certainly played a secondary role. Barbary States argued that they were able to capture American ships because they were technically at war with the United States -- war that was made legitimate by Jihad. However, they were more than willing to end such wars -- meaning no more attacks on a nation's shipping -- if paid a generous annual tribute. The United States made some fairly minor and unsuccessful efforts to show they were not a Christian nation, and therefore not subject to Jihad. However, the issue of religion and/or Jihad is basically absent from any of the diplomatic discussions, which are mostly endless discussions about money. The bottom line, at least in US-Barbary relations 1785-1816, seems to have been the bottom line; the North African rulers were always trying to squeeze as much profit out of the situation as they could.
It is possible that the situation with France may have been different, given the longer history of French-North African conflict and the more overtly Christian orientation of France, at least before 1789.

Elliott Aron Green - 4/13/2009

Prof Peskin presents interesting similarities between the Barbary Pirates, circa 1800, and today's Somali pirates. He then argues that in both cases the pirates were more motivated by profit than by ideology, which would seem here to mean the jihad ideology. However, the French diplomat and historian, Cesar Famin, writing in 1853, suggests that Barbary piracy had a strong religious motivation [ie, jihad]. He goes on to praise his own country's occupation of Algeria as a service to other European states by having ended piracy from Algeria.

Of course, Prof Peskin does not rule out the religious jihad motive. He simply makes it secondary to the lust for gain. Now, it is not easy to accurately or precisely measure how much of the pirates' motivation in both cases was greed for profit as against how much was jihad as an Islamic religious imperative. Yet it seems that the jihad motive was also significant, especially in the Somali case as we know of the struggle of extreme Muslim jihadists in that country. Famin saw the jihad motive as a powerful, perhaps principal, one in the Barbary case. Could Prof. Peskin respond?