Wednesday, February 15, 2006
USS Philadelphia Burns In Tripoli Harbor, February 16, 1804
Today in 1804, US Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and a force of sailors and marines sailed into Tripoli harbor and burned the captured USS Philadelphia. Their bold mission made Decatur a national hero and gave the young nation hope against a group of tyrants who were, in many ways, a 19th century version of terrorists.
Beginning as far back as the 1600’s, the states in control of North Africa increased their national treasures by resorting to piracy, kidnapping and extortion. Technically, these kingdoms were ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but this oversight was nominal at best. Some modern historians refer to these states as kleptocracies because they were, essentially, criminal organizations masquerading as nations.
European nations such as Britain and France found it easier to pay tribute to the pirates than to keep large naval forces in the area. Tribute came in the form of money, and lots of it. Scheduled payments arrived every year from the national treasuries; in exchange, French and British ships were able to sail unmolested in the Mediterranean. Since the future United States was a British colony until 1776, American ships were protected by the tribute and by the guns of the Royal Navy when all else failed. During the War for Independence, France promised protection to US vessels as part of the Treaty of Alliance.
These arrangements ended when the United States became a independent nation in 1783. The young nation had no navy and the weak federal government was not given the authority under the Articles of Confederation to build one. Thus, it became necessary to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates for safe passage. The payments were enormous when compared to annual federal revenues. For example, the tribute paid in 1800 amounted to 20% of the federal budget.
Thomas Jefferson, who was ambassador to France when the first tribute payment was made in 1785, argued against the practice because he believed that it would encourage other nations to adopt piracy as well. In 1794, the United States, with a new constitution, began building its first true navy. The giant was growing teeth.
Thomas Jefferson was sworn into office in 1801 as the nation’s third President. When news of the change of power reached North Africa, the pasha of Tripoli demanded a tribute of $225,000. Jefferson said no. The pasha declared war on the US by cutting down the flagstaff in front of the US consulate. Jefferson went to Congress, not for a declaration of war, but to request permission to send the US Navy’s new frigates to the region. War was never declared but Congress authorized a blockade of the Bay of Tripoli and anything else “the state of war will justify”.
With Tripoli and Morocco allied in their war against the United States, a fight on the seas was expected, but none was forthcoming. Jefferson kept the pressure on the region by continuing to send ships in 1802 and 1803 to enforce the blockade. In October 1803, one of the blockade ships, the USS Philadelphia, ran aground while in Tripoli Harbor. The crew tried to float the vessel again, but they soon found themselves taking fire from nearby shore batteries. The ship’s captain, William Bainbridge, and her crew were held as hostages.
Washington was in a jam over the Philadelphia. The ship had been captured intact and could easily be used as a raider by the pirates. She was a modern, fast and heavily-armed vessel capable of besting anything else in the American fleet. Out of desperation, a decision was taken: the ship would have to be destroyed.
And so it was that Stephen Decatur and his crew found themselves sneaking into Tripoli harbor on board a small ketch. They and their vessel were disguised to look like they were Maltese in origin so as to not attract the attention of the shore batteries. They snuck aboard the frigate, overtook the crew guarding her and set the ship ablaze. Decatur and his entire crew escaped uninjured and sailed away as the Philadelphia’s powder magazines detonated and the ship exploded in a mighty fireball. British Admiral Nelson called the mission “the most daring and bold act of the age.”
The conflict which came to be known as the First Barbary War ended in 1805 with an American victory. As the war’s name implies, the US Navy and marines would once again do battle with the pirates, but for now, Decatur was hero and the young nation across the sea had proven herself as a military power.