On this day in 1804 Stephen Decatur, a Penn alumnus, led a contingent of U. S. Marines in a successful raid on Tripoli harbor where they burned the "USS Philadelphia" which had been previously captured by pirates. This was a spectacular act of daring, one that impressed even British naval hero Horatio Nelson who called it "the most bold and daring naval act of the age".
The circumstances leading up to Decatur's raid are interesting. Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Muslim states in North Africa regularly preyed upon European peoples and commerce. Slavers and pirates struck as far north as Iceland and an estimated one and a half million Europeans were taken into slavery in Africa. Powerful European states like England and France paid tribute to the Barbary Pirates in order to keep them from attacking their coasts and ships.
Prior to the 1780s American ships were protected by these treaties. In 1783, however, that protection was withdrawn and protection of American commerce became the responsibility of the American government. In 1784 Congress authorized John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to negotiate tribute payments with Tripoli. When asked why his country was capturing American ships and enslaving Americans the Muslim 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 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....The ambassador then demanded tribute above and beyond the amount authorized by Congress.
Faced with Muslim intransigence Congress caved, authorizing annual payments to the Barbary Pirates. This policy continued under the Federal Constitution and through the Washington and Adams administrations. By 1800 tribute and ransom payments to the pirate amounted to 20 percent of federal government revenues. By that date, however, due to the policies of the Adams administration, the United States had a small but state of the art navy and was in a position to confront the pirates.
In 1801 newly elected President Thomas Jefferson refused payment to the Pasha of Tripoli. In response Tripoli declared war on the United States and began capturing American ships. Jefferson then sent a fleet of frigates to the Mediterranean to protect American commerce. This was the beginning of the First Barbary War. One of these frigates was the USS Philadelphia, commanded by William Bainbridge. During one of its patrols the Philadelphia ran aground and was captured by Tripolitan pirates who converted it into a gun battery for defense of their harbor. Decatur's raid several months later destroyed the ship and ended its usefulness to the pirates.
For more than two years after Decatur's raid the war continued inconclusively until finally the Pasha agreed to ransom the Americans he had captured. Piracy continued, however, for several years thereafter and was not ended until the Second Barbary War of 1815 during which Decatur further distinguished himself. But that is a story for another day.
The Heritage Foundation has a nice piece on the First Barbary War and its implications for today here. Check it out.