The Barbary States and US hostages

AMERICAN hostages in the Middle East numbered 119 in 1793, the year George Washington began his second term as President. Held in Algiers -- one of the Barbary States that also included Tunis, Morocco, and Tripoli -- the prisoners were joined by several hundred others representing European nations whose commercial ships had been the victims of piracy in the Mediterranean. To be sure, it was not the first such crisis involving the Barbary nations; previous policy of the victimized nations, including America, was to pay ransoms as well as tributes or protection money to ward off subsequent raids. American policy by 1794 vacillated between the short-range objective of securing the release of captives and the long-term goal of building a navy. Both strategies had to be put on the back burner, however, as frictions developed with the French over commercial issues. In the meantime, 14 Americans died in Algiers between January and August 1794, after illnesses. Not until June 1796 were the remaining captives released, and only after the payment of a sizable ransom by the United States.

The matter did not end, however, and outright war ensued with Tripoli in 1801 as a result of American reluctance to pay an annual tribute. The US emerged the victor in 1805, but only against one of the four Barbary nations. The others continued to ply their piratical trade, with the most serious incident occurring while the US was at war with Britain in 1812. Twelve Americans were captured in the summer by Algerian pirates, forcing US leaders to turn a diplomatic ear to the Middle East.

Specifically, government officials worked to find an independent agent to negotiate a ransom with the Algerian ruler. By January 1814, an American agent by the name of Richard R. Keene was selected and given instructions from the US consul in Tunis.

Keene followed his instructions -- but the Algerian ruler indicated that ransom money was unacceptable unless tendered by an official American commissioner. ``. . . my policy and my views,'' the ruler continued, ``are to increase, not to diminish, the number of American slaves; and that not for a million dollars would I release them.'' Keene was able to obtain the release of two hostages, but further negotiations proved futile.

When the war with the British came to an end in 1815, the US directed its military and diplomatic attention to Algiers. Commodore Stephen Decatur, a leading figure in the earlier Tripolitan War, led a squadron of 10 vessels to the Mediterranean. Decatur successfully engaged two Algerian ships, effected a blockade, and went on to negotiate a treaty with Algiers abolishing the tribute system, releasing American prisoners, and providing for compensation for property seized by Algiers. Afterward, he ventured to Tunis and Tripoli and made similar treaties.

Decatur returned home a hero, and except for some minor problems, the US encountered no further incursions from the Barbary States. In 1816 President Madison got the last word on the matter: The Algerian ruler, he said, ``must distinctly understand that tho' we prefer peace we are prepared for war, and will make no change in the late treaty, nor concessions of any sort to avoid it.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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