This is a fairly difficult book for me to review, because I quite enjoyed it but have some serious complaints about not only its content, but the views of its author. The book itself is well researched, and the subject was interesting, being an area and an era with which I’m fairly unfamiliar. The time between the American Revolution and the Civil War, the antebellum years, has always been a bit out of reach for me. I can never really remember which president served at a particular time (though, I remember John Quincy Adams was before Andrew Jackson, and James K Polk was around 1840), and I know there was a lot of stuff going on in the West (especially Texas). But it’s mostly all Indian fighting and conflicts over the expansion of slavery, in my mind.
The Barbary Wars were fought between 1801 and 1815, and served as an introduction for US military power in foreign engagements. It was also a bit of a testing ground for many of the naval heroes of the War of 1812. The Quasi-War with France had occurred between 1798-1800, but it was a relatively small affair, that was more of a consequence of political turmoil in France following their revolution.
For centuries, various provinces of the Ottoman Empire and independent North African states had been ravaging the Mediterranean Sea, capturing ships and either ransoming or enslaving their crews. Over a three hundred year period, it’s been estimated that approximately a million Europeans were enslaved by these Barbary states, or roughly half as many as died aboard European ships en route from Africa to the Americas during its slave trade. But this was a real issue in the Mediterranean for European countries, and their response had largely been to pay tribute to Tripoli (modern Libya), Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis. The Barbary Coast essentially had a protection racket on merchant ships in the region.
Following the American Revolution, the US was in dire need of trade, upon which the government was financially dependent. Needing to pay its debts, and seeking to build a Navy (thanks in large part to Thomas Jefferson), this tribute was an oppressive constraint on the struggling country. The American colonies had been protected from paying first as American colonies and then as allies with France, but upon achieving independence in 1783 the US suddenly found itself adrift and undefended. Thomas Jefferson, as Minister to France in 1786, was able to sign a treaty with Morocco, but the other Barbary states demanded far more ($660,000 each) than US envoys were able to offer ($40,000). It wasn’t until 1795 that any kind of diplomatic headway was attained, when $1 million was paid in tribute to Algiers for the release of 115 captured seamen. This sum was one-sixth the operating budget of the entire American government. These demands, and continued piracy against US merchant vessels, led to the formation of the US Navy in 1798.
Thomas Jefferson had long sought to end this practice of paying for peaceable trade in the Mediterranean, and felt that war was the only recourse with which they could achieve it. His election over John Adams in 1800 made the Barbary Wars inevitable, and it is to his credit that the eventual end of tribute, piracy, and enslavement of US seamen occurred with the cessation of war in 1815. But, under his administration, the war was never adequately funded, and he ultimately resigned his loftier goals (the end of tribute and enslavement) to the more achievable paying of “ransom” for American prisoners in 1807 (ending the First Barbary War). Further, the US abandoned Hamet Karamanli after attempting to depose the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli and put his brother, Hamet, in his place. Wheelan attempts to draw parallels, in this book, to current events (more on that in a minute), but here is a perfect parallel that can be drawn: the abandonment of allies by the US government once their use is no longer required. We did much the same thing in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and thousands suffered.
This was an important war in American history, and it serves as an epilogue on the revolutionary spirit of our founding. Thomas Jefferson broke once again from European tradition and fought a war with established powers for American freedom. Twenty years prior, they were fighting for their independence. In the first decade of the 19th Century, they were fighting not just for the freedom of enslaved seamen, but for the freedom of merchant vessels to trade American goods across the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. The European powers of the day, up to this point, had fallen into a protection racket in the hopes that it would buy them peace, but this peace was only temporary given the need of Barbary pirates to always have an enemy.
Though Thomas Jefferson’s political ideals prevented the kind of strong federal government that could have crushed Barbary corsairs quickly (as opposed to over two wars and 15 years), the US ultimately did achieve its goals, and Europe soon followed, ending the white slave trade in the 1830s with the conquering of region was conquered by France.
The Barbary Wars have taken on a new political relevance recently. Bloggers and promulgators of half-truths and the conservative agenda have taken the events I’ve quickly outlined in an attempt to depict the US as being at war with Islam for over 200 years, and to demonstrate their belief that Islam and terrorism are irrevocably connected. While Wheelan doesn’t necessarily fall into this camp, he sidles close enough to that line to give me pause.
It’s disingenuous to call what the Barbary Coast was doing “terrorism”, at least in the modern sense of the term. The end goals for groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS are worlds apart from the motivations and desires of the Barbary States. Al-Qaeda wanted (and still does, for what it’s worth), largely, to rid the Holy Land of American influence and occupation. ISIS wants to destroy the United States and set up a Caliphate under their control, ridding the Muslim world of anyone who thinks differently than they do. The Barbary States wanted no such thing. In fact, they required the incursion of American and European countries into their region, so that they could then prey upon their vessels for economic gain. To conflate modern Islamic terrorism with the Barbary Coast is to confuse and misrepresent not only the tactics of each, but the motivations.
And this is to say nothing of the perversion of Islam that these bloggers and Conservative propagandists are guilty of. Just as I wouldn’t go to Timothy McVeigh to explain the Constitution, I’m not going to go to Osama bin Laden to explain the Quran. This should be a self-evident truth, and I know it doesn’t need to be explicated here on Cannonball Read.
But I occasionally felt, while reading this book, that Wheelan wasn’t distancing himself from this perspective well enough. For instance, the 36 gun sailing frigate USS Philadelphia was captured in the First Barbary War and its crew was held as prisoners. It served as one of the greater acts of heroism in the war when, in 1804, volunteers under the command of Lt. Stephen Decatur entered the Tripoli harbor, re-captured the ship, and burned it to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Barbary corsairs. While describing the initial looting of the Philadelphia by the corsairs, Wheelan uses this passage, “…to restore order, Muslim officers, with their swords, sliced off the hands of some of their own men.” I’m sorry, but I don’t see the purpose in describing them as “Muslim officers” except to portray Muslims as inherently more brutal than Christians. There are similar passages throughout this book, and all of them, individually, are unexceptional. But I kept getting a feeling throughout the book that Wheelan had a need to separate the sides of this war into “Muslim” and “Christian”, when this wasn’t actually a religious war.
My second complaint about this book was it’s use of white slavery as motivating factor in fighting this war. It’s not that I think this is ahistorical, or that I think Wheelan should’ve have discussed it, but scant attention is paid to the fact that white slavery was a very real fear to Americans who benefited from African chattel slavery, that the US government (which itself was set up to protect the system of African chattel slavery) fought a war to protect merchant seamen from white slavery, and that President Thomas Jefferson (himself a wealthy slave owner) was concerned with Americans falling victim to white slavery. This hypocrisy is barely touched on, and I found that to be a terrible oversight.
All this said, I found this to be a book well-worth your time, provided you’re the kind of person who reads history books for fun. And, given that I’ve written almost 1,500 words on it, I found the book both thoughtful and engaging.
Not previously reviewed for CBR.