Post-classical history


The Last Corsair: Colonialism, Conquest, and the End of the Barbary Pirates


On the morning of Saturday, June 17, 1815, a lookout on the U.S.S. Constellation spotted a frigate sailing alone twenty miles off the Spanish coast at Cabo de Gata. She was flying the Union Jack, but the captain of the Constellation, Charles Gordon, suspected she was really an Algerian corsair sailing under false colors. He ordered his crew to break out the flags signaling “Enemy to the South-east” to his commander in the U.S.S. Guerriere, Commodore Stephen Decatur, and the entire American squadron of eight ships turned in pursuit.

The strange frigate held her course. But she was poised for flight, and when an overenthusiastic Captain Gordon raised the Stars and Stripes, the ship took alarm and “was immediately in a cloud of canvas,” in the words of a young midshipman who was watching from the deck of the Guerriere.1 As the Americans gained on her, she altered course and doubled back, amazing them with her seamanship—and with the marksmanship of her snipers, who picked off several sailors from vantage points in the rigging. But she was outnumbered, outgunned, and eventually outmaneuvered. The Constellation came within range and opened fire; then the Guerriere did the same. In less than half an hour she surrendered.

The American prize crew that boarded the crippled frigate took 406 prisoners, many of them wounded. They were sitting quietly on the cabin floor belowdecks, “smoking their long pipes with their accustomed gravity.” 2 About thirty had been killed, including the frigate’s commander, and only then did the Americans realize what they had done. That commander was none other than the legendary Hamidou Raïs, the most distinguished fighter in the Algerian fleet. For years Hamidou had been celebrated all over Barbary as the master of the seas, the champion of the holy war against the infidel. Now he was dead.

The Americans had killed the last of the great corsairs.

In the 130 years which had passed since the treaties of the 1680s, relations between the European powers and the Barbary states had achieved an uneasy equilibrium, in which piracy played an increasingly insignificant role. Britain, France, and Holland, followed by the Danes, the Swedes, and the Venetians, discovered that if the agreement and renewal of articles of peace were accompanied by the giving of presents and hefty cash payments, the corsairs would be more punctilious in their observance of those articles. The sums involved varied, but they were substantial. In the 1780s, Great Britain was paying Algiers around £1,000 a year to maintain the peace, roughly equivalent to £1.2 million today. The Dutch paid about £24,000 and the Spanish a colossal £120,000.

Algiers commanded the biggest bribes, since it still presented the biggest threat to European merchant shipping, but the other states also needed to be paid off. Spain, Austria, Venice, Holland, Sweden, and Denmark all gave large sums to the bey of Tunis. Venice handed over 3,500 ducats a year to Tripoli; Sweden gave 20,000 dollars. An English colonel living in Morocco in the 1780s reported that the sultan had announced his intention to declare war on the Dutch “if their embassy (that is, their presents) does not soon appear. . . . It is a tribute,” admitted the Englishman, “and we are all tributary to him.”3

There were good reasons why the European powers tolerated this rather distasteful system of paying for licenses to trade. It was easier and cheaper than launching punitive expeditions, convoying merchantmen to and from the Levant, and maintaining expensive squadrons on permanent station. And, even less creditably, it ensured that the Barbary corsairs directed their attention toward poorer commercial competitors who couldn’t afford to pay them off. Most telling of all, if one state were to break out from beneath what an American diplomat eloquently described as “the dark cloud of shame which covers the great powers of Europe in their tame submission to the piracies of those unprincipled barbarians,”4 it would immediately place itself at a disadvantage in relation to its rivals.

An act of rebellion on the other side of the Atlantic led, indirectly, to the collapse of this tribute system. When the American colonies declared independence in 1776, Great Britain withdrew the safe-conduct passes which its merchant vessels carried throughout the Mediterranean. New passes were issued—but, understandably in the circumstances, the errant colonists were deleted from the mailing list.

This was a major blow for America. Between eighty and a hundred ships from the thirteen colonies traded in the Mediterranean, exporting wheat, flour, dried fish, timber, and other commodities, and bringing back wine, salt, oil, and Moroccan leather. In one year alone, 1770, the total value of American produce exported to southern Europe and North Africa was £707,000. And every one of the ships carrying this trade relied on being able to show British Admiralty passes if they were intercepted by corsairs.

After the American War of Independence was over, the Continental Congress did its best to obtain protection in the Mediterranean from other friendly states—first from France, and then from Holland. Both were polite; neither was prepared to help. In desperation, the Congress even asked Britain if she might help to negotiate with the Barbary states on its former colony’s behalf. Britain declined.

The United States was left with no alternative but to embark on its own negotiations. In 1786, John Adams, then the U.S. minister to the Court of St. James, held a series of meetings with Abdurrahman, the Tripolitan ambassador in London, who told him a perpetual peace between their two nations was perfectly possible. It would cost a mere 30,000 guineas, and he let it be known he expected the Americans to pay him a commission of £3,000 for arranging it. (The conversation, said Adams, was carried on “in a strange mixture of Italian, Lingua Franca, broken French, and worse English.”5) Abdurrahman went home without his commission, and John Adams went home without his treaty.

In 1794 the United States government set aside $800,000, partly as ransom for a hundred slaves who had been captured by Algerian corsairs since America had lost the protection of Britain in the Mediterranean, and partly as tribute to the dey and his officials in return for agreeing to a peace treaty. Joseph Donaldson, the Philadelphian sent to Algiers to negotiate with the dey, was not an obvious choice for a delicate diplomatic mission. A middle-aged, sour, and rather surly man, his gout was so bad when he arrived in Algiers in September 1795 that he needed a crutch to walk and had to wear a huge velvet slipper on his afflicted foot. Nor was his temper improved by his being made to limp unaided all the way from the harbor to his lodgings, or by the curious crowd which followed him every step of the way, or by the fact that when he finally reached his house he had to climb a long flight of marble steps to reach his apartment. When he got there he collapsed on a couch, threw off his hat, and swore so long and so loudly that one of the Algerians asked in amazement what was happening? What was the infidel saying? “The ambassador is only saying his prayers and giving God thanks for his safe arrival,” he was told. “His devotion is very fervent,” replied the Algerian.6

In spite of this inauspicious start, Donaldson’s negotiations were a success, but it was a hard battle. The dey began by demanding $2,247,000 in cash, plus a pair of thirty-six-gun frigates, an annual donation of naval stores, and “presents” every two years. Donaldson countered with an offer of $543,000; the dey said he would accept $982,000. They finally agreed on a price of $585,000, plus an annuity of naval stores and biennial gifts. It wasn’t much, said the dey, but he agreed “more to pique the British who are your inveterate enemies and are on very bad terms with me, than in consideration of the sum, which I esteem no more than a pinch of snuff.”7


Lord Exmouth’s flag captain on the Charlotte, James Brisbane, discusses peace terms with the dey of Algiers. © Getty Images

It was a big pinch of snuff. The United States treasury estimated the eventual cost of the treaty, including all the expense involved in negotiating it, at nearly one million dollars. When word of the United States’s generosity got out, it made Europe anxious. The $585,000 that Donaldson had agreed on with the dey was twice what the Dutch had just paid Algiers, and, as the European powers feared, the other Barbary states began to wonder if they had been selling their treaties too cheap.

By the end of the eighteenth century, America had secured treaties with Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis, as well as with Algiers, albeit at a much higher rate than the English. The pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, extorted $56,484; and the bey of Tunis, Hammuda ibn Ali, charged $107,000. (The sultan of Morocco held out for an annual tribute, and then had a change of heart and signed articles of peace for nothing.) In addition, Hammuda made it clear he expected some very special presents on the occasion of his ratification of the peace between Tunis and the United States. The long list which the American minister in London, Rufus King, supplied to his government’s secretary of state for approval included a musket mounted with gold and set with diamonds, a gold repeating watch and chain set with diamonds, a diamond ring, a snuffbox of gold set with diamonds, and an enameled dagger which was also, inevitably, set with diamonds. The whole lot was bought in London at a cost to the American government of £7,000.

John Adams, who became president of the United States in 1797, was philosophical about the idea of paying tribute to the Barbary states. His successor and political rival, Thomas Jefferson, was not. Even in the 1780s, when the United States had no navy at all and hence no independent means of defending its interests in the Mediterranean, Jefferson, as vice president, was unhappy at what he saw as a dishonorable course, telling Adams “it would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war.”8 By the time he beat Adams in the election of 1800, America had created a naval force large enough for a squadron to be dispatched to the Mediterranean in response to increasingly exorbitant demands from Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli, who decided he wanted a revised treaty, another quarter of a million dollars, and an annual payment of $20,000. The U.S. squadron, which consisted of three frigates and a sloop, arrived off Gibraltar in July 1801 to find that Yusuf had found himself a place in the history books. He had just become the first head of state to declare war on America.

The war between Tripoli and the United States was characterized on both sides by good luck, bad luck, and expediency, with flashes of discreditable behavior and breathtaking heroism. Yusuf’s corsairs hunted for American shipping, while unarmed American merchant vessels went about their trade in the Mediterranean without regard for their own safety—or the interests of their country, which would be jeopardized if the Tripolitans managed to secure hostages. “One single merchantman’s crew in chains at Tripoli would be of incalculable prejudice to the affairs of the United States,” complained the U.S. consul at Tunis.9

Yusuf’s men did capture one merchantman, the Franklin, in June 1802. She was sold along with her cargo at Algiers, and her nine-man crew was taken back to Tripoli. They were eventually released after the United States paid the pasha $6,500.

Worse was to come for America. A brand-new forty-four-gun frigate, the Philadelphia, was blockading Tripoli when, at nine o’clock on the morning of October 31, 1803, she caught sight of an enemy vessel trying to slip into harbor. After an exchange of fire and a pursuit which lasted for several hours the Philadelphia’s captain, William Bainbridge, realized there was no hope of catching the ship and gave orders to abandon the action—at which point his frigate ran onto a submerged reef and stuck fast.

Bainbridge’s crew did everything possible to float her off. They cut the anchors, threw heavy lumber and even some of the guns overboard, and eventually cut away the foremast and the main-top-gallant mast—all the while taking fire from Tripolitan gunboats whose commanders had seen what was happening and set out to capture her. At four that afternoon Bainbridge surrendered, and the 307 officers and crew of the Philadelphia were taken ashore and imprisoned. Bainbridge’s distress was evident in the report he sent to the U.S. Navy Department the following day; the terms in which it was couched speak volumes about the West’s attitude to Barbary. To strike one’s colors to any foe was mortifying, he said; “but to yield to an uncivilized, barbarous enemy, who were objects of contempt, was humiliating.”10

Not every member of the Philadelphia’s crew shared his contempt. At least five American sailors converted to Islam during their imprisonment. Yusuf reacted to his fighters’ success by raising his price for peace to three million dollars and using his captives as a bargaining chip in negotiations. (He threatened at one point to kill them all if the Americans attacked Tripoli.) The Philadelphia was salvaged and brought into harbor, and over the winter, the Tripolitans went to work trying to repair and rearm her.

Senior officers of the American navy in the Mediterranean considered attempting to rescue the Philadelphia, but decided it would be impossible to get her away from under the guns of the Tripolitan shore batteries. There was a chance, however, that a raiding party might fire her, and this would at least prevent her from being used by Yusuf against them.

The mission was given to a young naval lieutenant from Maryland, Stephen Decatur—the same Stephen Decatur who as commodore in command of the American squadron in the Mediterranean would kill Hamidou Raïs eleven years later. With a crew of volunteers and a Sicilian pilot, Decatur sailed a captured ketch renamed the Intrepid into Tripoli harbor on the night of February 16, 1804. He pretended to be a European merchant and, claiming he had lost his anchors, requested permission to tie up alongside the Philadelphia.

Dr. Jonathan Cowdery, the Philadelphia’s surgeon, was being held with the other officers in the American consul’s ex-residence. He described what happened next:

About 11, at night, we were alarmed by a most hideous yelling and screaming from one end of the town to the other, and a firing of cannon from the castle. On getting up and opening the window which faced the harbor, we saw the frigate Philadelphia in flames.11

Decatur’s men had been found out as they approached the frigate. They stormed aboard, set fire to the ship, and rowed out of the harbor and into the American history books. Decatur became a national hero, “the first ornament of the American Navy” whose “gallant and romantic achievement” was memorialized in countless pamphlets, poems, and paintings.12

The burning of the Philadelphia was an enormously courageous act, though it made little difference to the war. Yusuf remained determined to extract more money from the Americans, while they in turn were just as determined to break him—and to remove him from power.

A cornerstone of the American strategy was a scheme to use Yusuf’s exiled brother, Ahmad Karamanli, as a focus for dissent—and, ultimately, to set him up in Tripoli as a puppet pasha. Unfortunately Ahmad was none too keen on the idea. William Eaton, the U.S. consul in Tunis, tracked him down in Egypt and, after promising that American support would extend to the two men either triumphing within the walls of Tripoli or dying together before them, he persuaded Ahmad to join his motley expeditionary force of ten American marines, 300 Arabs, thirty-eight Greeks, and about fifty other soldiers of various nationalities.

This ragtag army marched nearly 500 miles across the Libyan desert from Egypt to Darna, a Tripolitan outpost to the east of Cyrene. They saw “neither house nor tree, nor hardly anything green . . . not a trace of a human being.”13 The Arabs and Christians argued with each other. They had no water for days on end. Their horses had no food. At one point Ahmad went back to Egypt, then changed his mind and rejoined the party. Nevertheless, they reached Darna on April 27, 1805. And when they got there, they took it.

This was a remarkable achievement. But if Eaton had hoped that Ahmad would inspire a rebel force to go on and capture Tripoli, he was disappointed. No one joined the rebel army, while Eaton’s men struggled for six weeks to fight off combined attacks by Arab tribesmen and forces sent by Yusuf to relieve the town. Nevertheless, Eaton himself continued to believe, on very slender evidence, that it was only a matter of time before the countryside rose up and joined Ahmad’s cause.

He never had the chance to test that conviction. On June 11, the U.S.S. Constellation arrived off Darna with the news that Yusuf had suddenly caved in and made peace with America. There was no need to foment a general uprising. In one of the less creditable episodes of the war, Eaton, Ahmad, the marines, and most of the Greeks sneaked aboard the Constellation and left their beleaguered Arab army to fend for itself.

The terms of the peace agreed between Yusuf and the U.S. consul general, Tobias Lear, were that America should pay nothing for a new treaty, and that all prisoners would be exchanged man for man. The capture of the crew of the Philadelphia meant the Tripolitans currently held about 200 more prisoners than the Americans held, so Lear agreed to acknowledge the imbalance by paying Yusuf $60,000, or $300 a prisoner.

The treaty was formally ratified in Tripoli on June 10, 1805. On finally meeting his former adversary, Lear commented with some surprise that Yusuf was “a man of very good presence, manly and dignified, and has not, in his appearance, so much of the tyrant as he had been represented to be.”14 Abstract notions of the Other as barbarian are hard to sustain when you come face-to-face with the reality.

Considering that at one stage the pasha had demanded three million dollars, the treaty was an awfully good outcome for America. Nevertheless, it didn’t sit well with Eaton, who was furious at being prevented from marching on Tripoli and was still convinced that a show of force would have toppled Yusuf; nor did it sit well with sections of the American press back home, which were uncomfortable with the cost, with the loss of honor, and with the way Ahmad Karamanli had been used and then discarded. A plaintive letter from Ahmad, now in exile, to the people of the United States of America pointed out that Eaton had agreed on their behalf to place him on the throne of Tripoli and that America had reneged on that agreement. (The reality was that Eaton had exceeded his authority in the promises he made to Ahmad.) What the public still didn’t know was that although Lear had begun by insisting that Yusuf must immediately hand over members of Ahmad’s family who were being held hostage in Tripoli, he modified this demand and agreed to give Yusuf four years to comply.

Amidst all the condemnations in the press, it was left to the Washington-based, pro-government newspaper the National Intelligencer to defend the new treaty. The Intelligencer poured scorn on the critics and insisted that the payment of $60,000 to Yusuf was entirely justifiable under the circumstances. Since the United States was dealing with “barbarians . . . who made a practice of vending prisoners,” it declared, “the price demanded for our countrymen is very small. It amounts to about 233 dollars for each individual. This is not the value of a stout healthy negro.”15

And not a hint of irony in sight.

The U.S.-Tripoli conflict had come close to destabilizing the entire Barbary Coast. Algiers threatened war with America because the annual tribute of naval stores was late in coming. Tunis threatened war because American vessels blockading Tripoli harbor persisted in stopping Tunisians and confiscating Tunisian goods. Morocco actually opened hostilities and detained two American merchantmen before the sultan thought better of it.

Of the European powers with interests in the Mediterranean, the Danes and the Swedes did their best to mediate between the two sides, and France promised that its consul in Tripoli would try to free the crew of the Philadelphia. The British consul, on the other hand, worked hard to maintain Yusuf’s hostility toward America—or so the Americans believed. But war between Britain and France broke out in May 1803; and Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor of France the following year. Europe had more pressing matters to worry about than relations with North Africa. “God preserve Bonaparte!” exclaimed one corsair. “As long as other nations have him to contend with, they won’t worry us.”16

That corsair was Hamidou Raïs. Hamidou belonged to a group of corsair captains whose careers flourished in a little renaissance of Algerian privateering around the turn of the nineteenth century. It included Ham-man, said by some sources to be Hamidou’s brother; Tchelbi, with whom he sailed in the late 1790s; Mustafa “the Maltese”; and Ali Tatar. Although the taifat al-raïs was no longer the maker and breaker of deys that it had been in the seventeenth century, individual captains still commanded a great deal of respect in Algerian society. They lived in fine mansions with large households. Their exploits were celebrated in songs and poems.

Hamidou was a native Algerian, the son of a tailor. He went to sea as a boy in the 1780s, and by 1797 he had his own ship, a small, fast three-masted xebec. That year, he and Tchelbi Raïs sailed into Tunis with four valuable prizes, a Genoese, a Venetian, and two Neapolitans; and when Algiers declared war on France in 1798 he captured the French factory at El Kala near the Tunisian border, and then sailed north to raid along the coast of Provence. Over the next two years his men took at least fourteen prizes worth half a million francs.

Algiers made peace with Napoleon at the end of 1801, by which time Hamidou had become one of his nation’s most profitable corsairs. As a reward, he was moved to the brand-new forty-four-gun Mashouda, one of two frigates which the dey commissioned specially from a Spanish naval architect, Maestro Antonio. (The other went to Ali Tatar.) The Mashouda remained his flagship for the rest of his life. In 1805 he took several Neapolitans, an American schooner with a crew of fifty-eight, and, after a fierce battle, a forty-four-gun Portuguese frigate, the Swan. The Swan’s 282 survivors were brought back to Algiers, and the poets sang of how Hamidou’s heart was full of joy at overcoming the infidels, and how he arrived at the dey’s palace trailing behind him enslaved Christians and Negroes.

Amid the stylized Algerian encomiums that celebrated Hamidou’s successes, there is the occasional more prosaic glimpse into the character of this charismatic man. He was of medium height, with blond hair and blue eyes (not as unusual as one might think among native-born Algerians), and clean-shaven except for long drooping mustaches. Elizabeth Blanckley, the young daughter of the British consul general in Algiers, was clearly smitten: years later she wrote that the raïs, who when he wasn’t hunting Christians lived next door to the consulate, “was one of the finest-looking men I ever saw, and was as bold as one of his native lions.”17 She also recalled that Hamidou was “not the most rigid observer of the Alcoran,” since he used to drop round for a glass or two of Madeira with her father. “His house and garden were kept up in the greatest order and beauty,” she said.18

Hamidou’s domestic arrangements are unknown, although when Algiers was briefly at war with Tunis in 1810 and the Mashouda captured a Tunisian ship with four Negro women aboard, one was reserved for his use. Presumably the young Elizabeth was unaware of what went on behind the walls of Dar Hamidou.

The Tuscan poet Filippo Pananti, who was taken when the Mashouda captured the Sicilian merchant ship in which he was a passenger, left a vignette of Hamidou at work. His description of the capture is vivid: one of the Sicilian sailors, who had already been enslaved once, had to be restrained from stabbing himself to death. Another seized a firebrand and tried to blow up the ship’s powder magazine before the corsairs could board. When they did board, passengers and crew were petrified:

[The pirates] appear on deck in swarms, with haggard looks, and naked scimitars, prepared for boarding; this is preceded by a gun, the sound of which was like the harbinger of death to the trembling captives, all of whom expected to be instantly sunk; it was the signal for a good prize: a second gun announced the capture, and immediately after they sprang on board, in great numbers. Their first movements were confined to a menacing display of their bright sabres and attaghans [long knives]; with an order for us, to make no resistance, and surrender . . . and this ceremony being ended, our new visitors assumed a less austere tone, crying out in their lingua franca, No pauro! No pauro! Don’t be afraid.19

To Pananti’s surprise, Hamidou’s men were kind and deferential toward the women captives, and enchanted with their children. “It was only necessary to send Luigina [one of the little girls] round amongst the Turks, and she was sure to return with her little apron full of dried figs and other fruits.”20 Hamidou himself comes across as ingenious, arrogant—and amiable. He would sit cross-legged on deck for three or four hours each day, giving orders to his men, smoking and smoothing his long mustache. But he also invited the Italians into his cabin, “where an Arab tale was recited, and what was still better, a cup of good Yemen coffee was handed round, followed by a small glass of rum.”21

By 1815, Algiers was at war with Portugal, Spain, several Italian states, Holland, Prussia, Denmark, and Russia. The dey’s prize registries for the thirty months from July 1812 to January 1815 show that Hamidou and the Mashouda brought home twenty-two prizes with cargoes worth nearly two million francs. There was brandy, cocoa, coffee and sugar, wine and cloth and timber. The corsairs were generally careful to avoid direct attacks on shipping belonging to France and Great Britain, both of whom had navies powerful enough to deter any acts of aggression. But the smaller, weaker nations were fair game, and Hamidou’s victims included Danes, Swedes, Greeks—and Americans. The dey of Algiers took the occasion of the War of 1812 to renege on his treaty obligations with the United States; and although corsairs had a hard time finding American ships that hadn’t already been captured by the British navy, one U.S. brig, the Edwin, was taken off the southern coast of Spain in the summer of 1812, while on her way home from Malta, and brought into Algiers, where her ten-man crew was imprisoned. Her captor was a frigate armed with two rows of cannon on each side—she may well have been the Mashouda.

Britain and the United States signed a peace treaty on Christmas Eve 1814. The following spring, outrage at the continuing detention of the Edwin and her crew led the administration in Washington to decide it had had enough of the corsairs. President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe co-signed an uncompromising letter to the dey, Hadji Ali:

Your Highness having declared war against the United States of America, and made captives of some of their citizens, and done them other injuries without cause, the Congress of the United States at its last session authorised by a deliberate and solemn act, hostilities against your government and people. A squadron of our ships of war is sent into the Mediterranean sea, to give effect to this declaration. It will carry with it the alternative of peace or war. It rests with your government to choose between them.22

Madison made good his threat, dispatching two squadrons of warships to deliver his letter. One of these squadrons, commanded by Commodore Stephen Decatur in the Guerriere and carrying the American consul general for the Barbary states, William Shaler, encountered Hamidou Raïs and theMashouda at Cabo de Gata on Saturday, June 17, 1815.

Hamidou had been cruising off the Spanish coast that week, in company with a twenty-two-gun brig, the Estedio, which had been taken from the Portuguese some years before. He had just sent the Estedio to reconnoiter farther along the coast (she was run aground near Valencia by the Americans and captured the next afternoon), leaving the Mashouda alone to watch the merchant shipping passing on its way to and from the Straits.

Hamidou initially thought the American warships were British (and hence friendly), even though they were obviously changing course to close the distance between the Mashouda and them. Only when Captain Gordon of the Constellation raised the Stars and Stripes so rashly did the corsair realize what was happening. Immediately he ordered his men to crowd on sail and take evasive action. If the Mashouda could once get clear of the American guns she could give them a run for their money. There was a westerly wind, and Algiers lay 300 miles due east. He could reach home in two days.

The Americans, though eager, were inexperienced. Even before Gordon’s gaffe with the colors, the captain of the squadron’s flagship, the Guerriere, who had never commanded a ship in battle before, broke out the wrong signal, ordering the other ships to “tack and form into line of battle.” If they had obeyed the signal, the Mashouda would have gotten away while they slowly maneuvered into line. They didn’t. On the deck of the Mashouda, Hamidou told his lieutenant that if he died, “you will have me thrown into the sea. I don’t want infidels to have my corpse.”23

Hamidou managed to leave the Constellation behind him, but the Guerriere gained fast, forcing him to change course and double back on himself. In doing so he brought the Mashouda within range of the Constellation’s guns and Gordon opened fire, hitting the Algerian’s upper deck. One of the flying splinters of wood struck Hamidou, hurting him badly, but he refused requests to go below and instead ordered a chair to be placed for him on the upper deck. There he sat, in pain and in plain view, urging his men on.

The Mashouda changed course again and an American sloop, the U.S.S. Ontario, passed her on the port beam and fired a broadside before sailing straight past her, the captain having misjudged his own ship’s momentum. Minutes later the Guerriere maneuvered alongside and fired a broadside from a distance of barely thirty yards. It tore into the Algerian’s upper deck, and Hamidou, who was still shouting orders and encouragement to his men, was killed outright.

Even in the heat of battle, his men obeyed his wishes before surrendering. The last corsair’s broken body was thrown into the sea to save it from being defiled by the infidels.

The American warships arrived in the Bay of Algiers on June 28, 1815, to find that the dey, the devout and authoritarian Hadji Ali, had been murdered by his own Janissaries. So had his successor, Mohammed Khaznadj. (He’d lasted just sixteen days.) The current dey, Omar, was, understandably, feeling insecure, and the presence of a very hostile American squadron didn’t help. Nor did the news that his finest naval commander had just been killed in battle by a hostile foreign power. Commodore Decatur and Consul General William Shaler managed to make Omar’s life even more difficult. They delivered President Madison’s letter—and then presented a series of unprecedented demands. There were to be no more payments to the dey. On the contrary, the Algerian government was expected to pay $10,000 to America as indemnification for the seizure of the Edwin. All American prisoners were to be released immediately. All American property in Algiers was to be restored to its owners. If America and Algiers ever went to war again, captives were to be treated as prisoners of war rather than slaves. In return, Decatur would hand over the Mashouda and the Estedio and their crews. But there was no time for prevarication or retrenchment or even diplomacy. America demanded an immediate response.

The fortifications at Algiers were in a state of disrepair, and the dey’s navy wasn’t strong enough to take on the heavily armed American warships. So Omar had no choice but to cave in. The official Algerian report on the encounter was painfully brief. “Eight American warships met and seized an Algerian frigate and a brig. They then came to Algiers, and when the news of the event spread, peace was concluded.”24

On the surface this was a tremendous victory for the United States. Decatur and Shaler had succeeded where the greatest powers in Europe had failed; and Decatur seized the moment. Acting on his own responsibility, he sailed straight to Tunis, where he demanded and received similar terms and an indemnity of $46,000 from the bey; and then to Tripoli, where Yusuf Pasha agreed to release Christian slaves and to hand over $25,000, which was, he claimed, all the ready money he had. In England, the radical polemicist William Cobbett applauded the United States for its strong action and sneered at Europe’s moral cowardice. “The extirpation of the royal nest of African pirates,” he declared, “is an act which will be recorded in the pages of history to the eternal honor of the American people, while the long endurance of this haughty and barbarous race will for ever reflect disgrace on the nations of Europe.”25

But America underestimated its adversaries. The deys of Algiers had always known how to pick their battles, how to yield when it suited them, and how to fight when they could win. While the American warships sailed for home and a hero’s welcome, Omar began to have second thoughts. When another American squadron arrived off Algiers in March 1816 carrying the treaty, which had now been ratified by the Senate and proclaimed by President Madison, the crew found the Algerians extremely restive and looking for excuses to reopen negotiations on more favorable terms. They considered it “disgraceful to the faithful to humble themselves before Christian dogs,” wrote Oliver Perry, the captain of the U.S.S. Java, the frigate that actually brought the ratified treaty across the Atlantic.26

Omar found his excuse to suspend the new treaty in what he described as America’s breach of faith in failing to return the Estedio as Decatur had promised. The battered Mashouda had been allowed home almost immediately, but the Spanish, who were holding the Algerian brig, showed a marked reluctance to give it up, arguing that it had been captured in Spanish waters. When a Spanish squadron eventually turned up at Algiers with the Estedio in the spring of 1816, Omar promptly announced that it was too late; the United States had broken faith and there was nothing for it but to return to the treaty that the gout-ridden Joseph Donaldson had negotiated back in 1795, complete with its system of annual gifts and payments.

While the United States pondered this awkward turn of events, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli were caught in a greater struggle. In 1807 the British government had abolished the trade in slaves (although not the institution of slavery) throughout the British Empire, and in the years that followed, it brought pressure to bear on other slave-trading nations to follow suit. Abolitionists and antiabolitionists alike were quick to point out the hypocrisy of Britain’s position—how could it be so eager to put a stop to the traffic in black slaves, while it turned a blind eye to the enslavement of white Christians on the Barbary Coast? Even slave-owning nations like the United States voiced their criticism, oblivious to the inconsistencies of their own position; as far as slave owners like U.S. president Madison were concerned, there was simply no equivalence between the situation of their own black Africans and that of white Christians who were being held by heathens. In May 1816, John Quincy Adams, then the U.S. minister in London, assured the First Lord of the Admiralty, Viscount Melville, that if America had but one-third of Britain’s naval power, “the Christian world should never more hear of tribute, ransom, or slavery to the African barbarians.”27

As it happened, only a few moments after Adams made this remark he was called in to see Viscount Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, who informed him that a naval force commanded by Admiral Lord Exmouth was at that very moment anchored off Algiers. Exmouth’s instructions were to negotiate a peace on behalf of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and Sardinia (which now also controlled Genoa); to point out that the Ionian Islands now belonged to Britain, which put them off-limits to corsairs; and to advise Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli “of the rising indignation of Europe against their mode of warfare, and to advise them to abandon it and to resort to more creditable resources for the support of their Government.”28

Exmouth’s expedition was a partial success. Tunis and Tripoli were both persuaded to abolish Christian slavery completely and, in the event of a future war with Christian states, to treat captives as prisoners of war. Between them, both cities agreed to free around a thousand Neapolitans and Sicilians, although the admiral had to pay for them. He was given a further 400 Sardinians and Genoese at no extra charge.

His experience at Algiers was less happy. Omar agreed to hand over forty Sardinian subjects at a price of 500 Spanish dollars a head, and a thousand Neapolitans at 1,000 dollars a head. He also agreed to pay a ransom of 500 Spanish dollars a head for eight Algerian slaves being held at Genoa. (Let’s not forget that the Barbary states were the victims of slaving raids as well as the perpetrators.) But slavery was still vital to the Algerian economy, and Omar refused point-blank to end the enslavement of Christians. Exmouth and his aides were jostled by an angry mob on his way back to the harbor; the British consul general was arrested with his wife, daughter, and sister-in-law; and the consulate was overrun and occupied by armed men.

After a standoff in which both sides prepared to fight, Exmouth decided he couldn’t commence hostilities against Algiers without authority from his government. Finally Omar agreed to send ambassadors to London and to Istanbul to discuss the British demands, and Exmouth and his fleet went home.

They found the British public up in arms. While Exmouth was still in Algiers and the tension between him and the dey was at its height, Omar had sent orders to arrest two communities of Italian coral fishermen who lived on the coast at Bona, near the Tunisian border, and at Oran, 200 miles west of Algiers. Both groups were technically under British protection. Omar had second thoughts and countermanded the orders, but his new orders arrived too late for the group at Bona, who were celebrating an Ascension Day Mass on the shore when the Janissaries arrived. They tried to resist arrest and in the ensuing fight a hundred were hacked to death and as many more were wounded.

The Bona massacre outraged public opinion in Britain, galvanized the British government into action, and sealed Algiers’s fate. On August 26, 1816, Lord Exmouth was back in the Bay of Algiers at the head of a formidable fleet of battleships, frigates, and bomb-ketches, reinforced by a Dutch squadron that had asked to take part in a joint operation. “The whole western horizon,” wrote William Shaler, who was watching from the U.S. consulate, “is covered with vessels of war.”29 The Algerians were ready for them: Omar had 40,000 soldiers manning the shore batteries and waiting to board any ship that came close enough, and there was a fleet of thirty-seven gunboats just inside the mole, waiting to attack.

The next morning at eleven o’clock one of Exmouth’s officers handed an ultimatum to the Algerian captain of the port, demanding the release of all Christian slaves, the abolition of Christian slavery, and the repayment of the ransom money that had been paid over in May. The captain was told that Omar had three hours to respond and no more. At two o’clock the officer returned. No answer had been received.

This was the signal for Exmouth’s flagship, the 108-gun Queen Charlotte , to move slowly toward the shore, closer and closer, until she was barely a hundred yards from the mole, which was crowded with Algerian troops. The other battleships followed her in. Exmouth’s pilot steered theCharlotte into position with her starboard broadside facing the shore batteries. She anchored by the stern and the crew gave three loud cheers. It was three o’clock.

For a moment there was nothing but silence and the sound of timbers creaking and water lapping. Then a flash from one of the shore batteries, followed by a loud crack and the whiz of a shot sailing past the Charlotte. “Stand by!” called Exmouth. A second shot rang out. He gave the order to fire, and the walls of Algiers shook at the sound of hell breaking loose. The Algerians fought back, and they fought hard. The British 104-gun Impregnable, which was slightly out of position and exposed to fire from the heaviest batteries, was hit 233 times, and fifty of its crew were killed. And soon after the bombardment began, the Algerian gunboats sped out from the smoke that lay over the mole and made straight for the Queen Charlotte and the frigate Leander, which was nearby. “With a daring which deserved a better fate,”30 the boat crews intended to board them both. Before they could come close enough, the Leander directed its guns downward and fired on them to terrible effect. Thirty of the thirty-seven gunboats were sunk.

By nightfall the Anglo-Dutch fleet had poured 50,000 shots into Algiers, more than 500 tons of iron. The bomb-ketches, stationed right out to sea, lobbed 960 shells over the ramparts and into the city. William Shaler, whose consulate was blown to pieces around him, described the scene:

The spectacle at this moment [it was now midnight] is peculiarly grand and sublime. A black thunderstorm is rising, probably an effect of the long cannonade; its vivid lightning discovers the hostile fleets retiring with the land breeze, and paints them in strong relief on the deep obscurity of the horizon.31

Shells and rockets streamed across the horizon, and there was still the desultory thud of cannon fire from those ships within range, answered by shots from what remained of the Algerian shore batteries.

Taking stock that night, the fleet’s surgeons counted 141 men killed and 742 wounded. Lord Exmouth had the skirt of his coat torn off by a passing cannonball and received cuts to his face, hand, and thigh. The Algerians initially reckoned their losses at about 600 dead and wounded, a figure later revised to 2,000.

As the bomb-ketches moved into position at dawn the next day to resume their bombardment, it became obvious that Algiers couldn’t take much more. Her navy was destroyed: in addition to the thirty gunboats that the Leander had sunk, Exmouth noted that his ships had sunk or burned four large frigates, five large corvettes, and several merchant brigs and schooners. On the quays and around the city, walls had been breached or completely destroyed, houses were smashed to pieces, batteries were out of commission. “Every part of the town appears to have suffered from shot and shells,” wrote Shaler. “Lord Exmouth holds the fate of Algiers in his hands.”32

Before resuming operations Exmouth sent another letter to Omar under a flag of truce. It was uncompromising:


For your atrocities at Bona, on defenseless Christians, and your unbecoming disregard of the demands I made yesterday, in the name of the Prince Regent of England, the fleet under my orders has given you a signal chastisement, by the total destruction of your navy, storehouses, and arsenal, with half your batteries.

As England does not war for the destruction of cities, I am unwilling to visit your personal cruelties upon the inoffensive inhabitants of the country, and therefore offer you the same terms of peace which I conveyed to you yesterday in my sovereign’s name. Without the acceptance of these terms, you can have no peace with England.33

Omar surrendered later that day.

Exmouth’s bombardment marked the beginning of the end for piracy on the Barbary Coast. Unable to defend itself, Algeria ratified the disputed treaty with the United States in December 1816, although Omar insisted that the Americans should provide him with a certificate stating he had signed under compulsion. He struggled to maintain his authority in Algiers for another eight months, but an outbreak of plague added to a general feeling that he was somehow cursed, and in the summer of 1817 his Janissaries confirmed it by strangling him.

At the 1818 Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, the European powers debated ways of stamping out the corsairs completely; although they couldn’t agree on a resolution, Prince Metternich of Austria and the other heads of state did agree that Britain and France should send a joint squadron to warn the Barbary states “that the unavoidable consequence of their perseverance in a system hostile to peaceful commerce, would be a general league among the powers of Europe . . . which might eventually affect their very existence.”34

As it turned out, their very existence was more profoundly affected by the greed and ambition of Europe.

George Davis and William Watts stood shivering on the gallows at Execution Dock. Crime and punishment had led them both to the other side of the world and back. Now they were about to leave that world forever.

Watts had been transported to Tasmania in 1817 for stealing the bedding from a lodging house in Islington. Davis followed him three years later, after being convicted at the Old Bailey of grand larceny. (He stole a spoon worth ten shillings from the kitchen of a house.) The harsh conditions of the penal settlement at Hobart (on the southern coast of the island) didn’t persuade either man to the paths of righteousness, and in 1829, after reoffending several times, they were put aboard the brig Cyprus with sixteen other convicts and dispatched to the remote penal station of Macquarie Harbor on the west coast of Tasmania, where the worst of the worst ended up. En route to Macquarie the convicts overpowered their guards and seized control of the ship, which they sailed, via Tahiti and Japan, to China. From there Davis and Watts made their way back to England—only to be recognized, arrested, and brought before the Admiralty Sessions in London on a charge of “piratically and feloniously carrying away by force of arms” the Cyprus.

There was little doubt as to their guilt, and when the verdict was announced, Sir Christopher Robinson, judge of the High Court of Admiralty, duly put on his black cap, informed the unfortunate pair that piracy was “considered by the law of the land as a crime of the greatest magnitude,” 35 and sentenced them to hang. On the morning of Thursday, December 16, 1830, they were taken from their cells at Newgate Prison, put in a carriage, and driven the three miles to Execution Dock, where, as the Times of London reported succinctly the next day, they “underwent the awful sentence of the law.”36

The deaths of George Davis and William Watts were less barbaric than those of the seventeen men who sought the fellowship of the angels at Execution Dock back in 1609: the gallows was now equipped with a trap, making death by slow strangulation less likely; and the practice of leaving corpses until three tides washed over them had been discontinued at the end of the eighteenth century. But an Admiralty official still led the procession on horseback, carrying his silver oar; the crowds still jeered; the prison chaplain still led prayers; and the men still died. What made these particular executions noteworthy was that Davis and Watts were the last pirates to hang by British law at Wapping.

Piracy was on the decline in the nineteenth century, not only among British subjects but everywhere, as well-armed professional navies grew more effective at enforcing the rule of law on the high seas and the immensely powerful British navy pursued a vigorous antislavery policy. In 1856 the majority of maritime nations, including the Ottoman Empire, signed the Declaration of Paris, which outlawed privateering and the issuing of letters of marque and which brought to an end 350 years of quasi-legal Mediterranean piracy.

As the naval power of Algiers and the other Barbary states weakened and their ability to play off one European nation against another declined, the history of North Africa entered a new phase. On June 14, 1830, six months before Davis and Watts died at Execution Dock, a French force of 34,000 soldiers under the command of Marshal Louis-Auguste-Victor, Count de Ghaisnes de Bourmont, landed at Sidi Ferruch, on the Algerian coast, fifteen miles west of Algiers. The pretext for the French invasion was the famous affaire de l’éventail (“the fan affair”) of 1827, in which Hasan, the dey of Algiers, lost his temper with the arrogant French consul, Pierre Deval, and hit him across the face with his fly-whisk in front of dozens of dignitaries and diplomats at a public feast to mark the end of Ramadan. The real reason for the invasion was to prop up the unpopular government of the French king, Charles X—a vain effort, since news of the French victory had scarcely reached Paris when Charles was deposed in the July Revolution. But by then it was too late for Algiers. French withdrawal would have meant an embarrassing loss of face, and the invasion force stayed. Within twenty years the whole of Algeria was under French control.

In 1881, as a newly unified Italy cast a longing gaze at Tunis, the French used raids into Algiers by Tunisian tribesmen as an excuse to extend their influence eastward. An army of 30,000 crossed the border into Tunisia on April 8, 1881, entering the capital sixteen days later without meeting any real resistance, and Tunis was formally declared a French protectorate in June 1883. Morocco and Tripoli held on to their independence for a little longer, but by 1914, Morocco had been split between France and Spain, and Tripoli had been ceded to Italy by the Ottoman Empire, along with the rest of what is now Libya.

There’s an obvious irony here. Fear of European conquest had turned the Barbary states into pirate kingdoms in the first place, motivating the Barbarossa brothers and their sixteenth-century corsairs to set out on their sea-jihad. Without that fear of conquest, Barbary’s socialized piracy would never have grown into the scourge of Christendom; its followers would not have become the shock troops on the front line of the defense of the Islamic world. And ultimately the only way Europe could find to deal with the scourge was to conquer Barbary, sweeping away the corsairs in a tidal wave of colonialism.

At the end of Byron’s problematic poem The Corsair (1814), Conrad, the hero corsair of the title, disappears into the night after he loses the love of his life. His crew scours caves and grottoes, searches shore and sea, calling his name “till echo waxeth weak,” but they never find him. He has vanished into the air, leaving nothing behind but Byron’s epigram:

He left a Corsair’s name to other times,

Link’d with one virtue, and a thousand crimes.

The equally problematic pirates of Barbary left a thousand crimes behind them. Their one virtue, whether they were renegade Christian fugitives or devout Muslim warriors for God, was courage. Deplore the crimes, by all means.

But remember the courage.

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