Paine, “War Is Better Than Tribute” (The Tripolitan War of 1801–1805)

‘War Is Better Than Tribute’

Naval History 15.3 (2001): 20–25.

The war between the United States and Tripoli from 1801 to 1805 was the longest waged by the United States between the American Revolution and the Vietnam War. It was seven weeks longer than the Civil War and four months longer than U.S. involvement in World War II. Although neither side suffered heavy casualties, and the war was largely one of blockade and inshore action, rather than fleet or even single-ship engagements, this conflict well illustrates the limits and the potential of sea power, the conduct of international relations, and the establishment of national identity.

From a military standpoint, this war highlighted significant strengths and weaknesses in the U.S. Navy. Under able leadership, the officers and men performed as well as or better than their counterparts in other navies. Yet neither the means of conducting the war against Tripoli nor its aims were defined clearly, a fault exacerbated by the discontinuity of command, the great distance between Washington and Tripoli, and the fact that the conflict was fought in the Mediterranean theater of the Napoleonic Wars. Moreover, stripped of hyperbole, the “depredations” of the Barbary corsairs paled in comparison to the threats posed by France and Great Britain. Between 1785 and 1815 corsairs seized 35 ships and 700 passengers and crew. From 1793 to 1812, Britain impressed more than 6,000 sailors out of U.S. ships—including three from a Navy gunboat en route to the Mediterranean in 1805—and the detention of countless U.S. ships by the French and English led to Thomas Jefferson’s ill-conceived embargo of 1807.

The war was the result of long-simmering tensions between the United States and the Barbary regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, nominally subject to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, and independent Morocco. Although the latter was one of the first countries to recognize U.S. independence, the Barbary states had posed a threat to U.S. merchants since 1783, when the Royal Navy withdrew its protection of commerce. The practice of seizing merchant ships and holding their crews for ransom began in the 16th century, when Barbary privateers operated as freely as those from England or France. As European commercial and political power grew, countries began to purchase security routinely from the corsair states, a practice that gave richer, more powerful countries an advantage over poorer ones.

For reasons not well understood, Morocco concluded a Treaty of Amity and Friendship with the United States without payments for peace and with no hostages or annuities. Algiers was the strongest North African power, and the costs of the 1795 treaty were correspondingly onerous: almost one million dollars for the redemption of captives, consular presents, a new frigate, naval stores, and miscellaneous expenses. A treaty with Tripoli the next year cost $56,486, while one with Tunis cost almost twice as much.

Tripoli’s Yusuf Pasha Qaramanli was irritated to realize that he had settled for less than his fellow regents. He also took issue with the fact that when James L. Cathcart arrived to assume his post as U.S. Consul at Tripoli in April 1799, he did not bring the naval stores promised in the treaty three years before. Qaramanli had written already to Richard O’Brien, consul-general at Algiers: “I am at a loss to know the reason the American Nation have so long neglected Tripoli … since the conclusion of our peace.”[1] At this time, Cathcart noted, Qaramanli felt that, as “the Americans had not fulfill’d their contract he did not consider himself obliged to fulfill his.”[2] Ultimately, Cathcart agreed to pay $10,000 in lieu of naval stores, as well as $8,000 for a ship promised to Qaramanli and $5,500 for consular and other gifts.

Qaramanli’s request can be ascribed to more than avarice. The youngest and favorite of Ali Pasha Qaramanli’s three sons, Yusuf had gained his title through a mixture of treachery and determination. In 1790, he murdered his oldest brother but made peace with his surviving brother, Ahmed (or Hamet). The following year, however, he laid siege to Tripoli.

The civil strife was broken only by the appearance of a Turkish corsair named Ali Burghol in July 1793. Armed with a firman (decree) from the Sultan and supported by about 400 Greek and Turkish mercenaries, Ali Burghol took the city without firing a shot. Ali Pasha and Ahmed sought refuge on the Tunisian island of Jerba, while Yusuf maintained his siege, now directed against Ali Burghol, for two months. When Ali Burghol attacked Jerba, the Bey of Tunis raised an army of 20,000 soldiers, which marched on Tripoli with Yusuf and Ahmed at its head. Having looted the city and killed many of the leading citizens, Ali Burghol departed.

The Qaramanli dynasty was restored, although the ailing Ali abdicated in favor of Ahmed. On 11 June 1794, while his brother was out of the city, Yusuf closed the gates and declared himself pasha. Ahmed found no support for his cause, while Yusuf, thanks to his stand against Ali Burghol, had widespread support from “his subjects, who love him almost to adoration.”[3]

Yusuf Pasha’s priority was to rebuild the economy, which meant pacifying the interior to restart the trans-Saharan caravans of gold, slaves, and ivory, welcoming merchants who had fled Ali Burghol’s violent rule, and reactivating his corsairs, to which end he recruited Spanish shipwrights to rebuild Tripoli’s small fleet.[4] It was probably his immediate need for cash that enabled the United States to purchase peace for so little. He was also chagrined to realize that the Americans considered Tripoli dependent on Algiers: a firman from the Sultan had put his regency on an equal footing with Tunis and Algiers.

If the situation in Tripoli was unsettling to Cathcart, it was overshadowed by events elsewhere. In 1800, the USS George Washington had carried tribute to the Dey of Algiers, who then forced Captain William Bainbridge to carry Algiers’s tribute to the Sultan. Apart from the humiliation of the assignment, the voyage is noteworthy as the first by a U.S. Navy ship to Constantinople. The passengers and cargo must rate among the most fantastic ever carried by a U.S. warship: by one account, “20 gentlemen, 100 negro Turks, 60 Turkish women, 2 lions, 2 tygers, 4 horses, 200 sheep, besides jewels and money.”[5] All this traveled in a 108-foot, 32-gun frigate with a complement of 132 crewmen.

When news of this incident reached Washington following Bainbridge’s return in April 1801, the government was moved to action. Jefferson long had advocated the use of military force against the Barbary states. As early as 1784, he wrote James Monroe: “We ought to begin a naval power, if we mean to carry on our own commerce. Can we begin it on a more honourable occasion or with a weaker foe?”[6] The debate over whether to establish a standing navy was one of the issues that divided the Federalists and Republicans. But a decade later, the preamble to the 1794 Act to Provide a Naval Armament echoed Jefferson’s sentiment: “Whereas the depredations committed by the Algerine corsairs on the commerce of the United States render it necessary that a naval force should be provided for its protection. . . .”[7]

Work on three of the six frigates so authorized was suspended after the treaty with Algiers, but they were completed, and additional vessels were acquired, during the Quasi War with France. In response to the situation in Algiers, Jefferson divided the U.S. Navy’s 14 ships into two squadrons, one domestic and the other for Mediterranean service. With orders to show the flag at ports of call in the Barbary states or, if circumstances warranted, “to chastise their insolence—by sinking, burning or destroying their ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them,” Commodore Richard Dale’s squadron sailed on 2 June, and by 1 July his four ships were at Gibraltar, gateway to the Mediterranean and the North African coast.[8]

This preemptive deployment was well timed, for two weeks before Dale sailed, Qaramanli had declared war on the United States. In a lengthy “Journal of occurrences” addressed to Secretary of State James Madison, Cathcart described the events of 14 May 1801, when “our Flagstaff was chop’d down six feet from the ground & left reclining on the Terrace” of the American House.[9] Qaramanli had been pressuring Cathcart to abide by the terms of the existing treaty, and to negotiate a new one on terms more favorable to Tripoli, but Cathcart’s government all but ignored him. By the time news of the declaration of war reached Washington, 4,200 miles to the west, Commodore Dale already had reached the British anchorage at Gibraltar. There he found the Tripolitan cruisers Mashuda and another (unnamed) under the command of Murad Rais, originally Peter Lyle, a Scottish “renegade” who had deserted HMS Hampden and was serving as admiral of the Tripolitan fleet.[10]

Leaving the Philadelphia to watch these vessels at Gibraltar, Dale proceeded to Tripoli. There, from 24 July, he maintained a loose blockade with the President and Enterprise. En route to Malta for water, the Enterprise overwhelmed the 14-gun polacca Tripoli in a three-hour battle. Her crew failed to secure adequate supplies, however, and Dale lifted the blockade on 3 September.

Dale’s tour of duty was not an overwhelming success. But by dividing his four ships between Gibraltar and Tripoli, 1,100 miles apart, he had contained two Tripolitan ships at Gibraltar, shown the flag at Tunis and Algiers, destroyed a corsair, and for six weeks maintained a porous but visible blockade of Tripoli. His successor in 1802 was the grossly inept Commodore Richard Morris, who commanded six ships but kept three frigates at Gibraltar until August, when he sailed for Leghorn and Malta. The only U.S. ships to reach Tripoli in 1802 were the Boston (which was not part of Morris’s squadron) and the Constellation. The captain of the latter, Alexander Murray, blockaded the port in company with a Swedish squadron, and later by himself.

In January 1803, Morris stirred himself to action, but winter storms forced his squadron to Tunis. After a meeting with the Bey, he, Captain John Rodgers, and Cathcart were detained over a debt contracted by Consul William Eaton. The Americans were released upon payment of $22,000, but the Bey also demanded the removal of Eaton, who returned to Washington.

Rather than head for Tripoli, Morris continued to Algiers—where O’Brien resigned his consulship—and then to Gibraltar. In April, Morris decided to sail for Tripoli, but he was delayed by an explosion and fire on board his flagship, the New York. After repairs at Malta, he finally reached Tripoli, where Rodgers recently had captured the Mashuda, then sailing under the Moroccan flag but with a cargo of contraband. Between 22 May and 26 June, the Americans bombarded the port, landed a small party near Tripoli in an effort to burn some grain ships that had run ashore, and engaged a Tripolitan cruiser that blew up. Morris also negotiated directly with Qaramanli, although his offer of $15,000 over ten years could not match Qaramanli’s request for $200,000 for a treaty, a $20,000 annuity, and reparations.

Word of Morris’s lackluster efforts had reached Washington in spring 1803, and in September he was succeeded by Edward Preble, a veteran of the Revolution and the Quasi War and the most able commander of the young Navy.[11] Though he could not know it, the list of officers assigned to his squadron was a who’s who of the early U.S. Navy. “Preble’s Boys,” as they came to be known, included William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull, Charles Stewart, Richard Somers, and Stephen Decatur Jr. In addition to the seven ships under his command, Preble was authorized to hire smaller vessels for inshore operations, and to establish a supply depot at Malta, only 200 miles north of Tripoli. (Because of tensions with the British, Preble preferred Syracuse on the island of Sicily.) Accompanying Preble was Tobias Lear, formerly George Washington’s personal secretary, who was being posted to Algiers as consul-general.

Preble’s command got off to a vigorous start with the detention of two Moroccan ships, one with an American prize, the Celia, in August. In search of an explanation for Morocco’s hostility, Preble sailed to Tangier with the frigates Constitution, New York, and Adams, a brig, and a schooner. This show of force helped smooth the way for a renewal of the treaty of 1786 in October, although Muley Suleiman noted that the Celia’s capture had been in retaliation for the seizure of the Mashuda. Like Qaramanli, he wondered why he had heard nothing from the U.S. government.

In the meantime, Bainbridge established a blockade of Tripoli with the Philadelphia and Vixen on 7 October. Three weeks later, while the Vixen was off station, Bainbridge chased a corsair into Tripoli Harbor. While working into deep water, the Philadelphia grounded on an uncharted reef. Unable to free the ship or to train the guns because of “the very great angle of heel the ship had,” Bainbridge was compelled to surrender.[12] The loss of a 36-gun frigate, with her 300 officers and crew imprisoned, was a stunning loss and emboldened Qaramanli to seek a three-million-dollar peace treaty. Winter gales prevented Preble from maintaining a blockade, although the Constitution and Enterprise captured the ketch Mastico off Tripoli. Commissioned as the USS Intrepid, this became the platform for the most successful action of the war.

On the night of 16 February 1804, Decatur and a volunteer crew of 74 sailed the Intrepid into Tripoli with Sicilian pilot Salvatore Catalano at the helm. Claiming to have lost his anchors in a gale that had in fact delayed their arrival by a week, Catalano asked for permission to raft alongside the Philadelphia, which had been refloated in November. The ruse was discovered too late, and the skeleton crew on board the Philadelphia was overwhelmed. As Midshipman Ralph Izard wrote to his mother: “We set fire to her & in less than 15 minutes from the time we first boarded her the flames were bursting out of her ports. It is astonishing that not one of our men was the least hurt.”[13] News of this feat made Decatur the toast of Washington. Among the many tributes was a song written by Baltimore lawyer Francis Scott Key and set to the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven.” The verses would be all but forgotten were it not for the fact that following the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, Baltimore, nine years later, Key rewrote the words as the “Star Spangled Banner.”[14]

The grounding of the Philadelphia emphasized the difficulty of attacking Tripoli with ships. If Nelson lamented his “want of frigates” in his campaigns against the French, Preble wanted shallow-draft gunboats for close action against Tripoli. In May 1804, he negotiated the loan of six gunboats and two bomb vessels from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples).

On 25 July, Preble lay off Tripoli with the largest U.S. force ever marshaled in the Mediterranean: the Constitution, three brigs, three schooners, and the eight Sicilians—a total of 156 guns and 1,060 officers and crew. Between 3 August and 3 September, Preble launched five attacks that cost the Americans 30 dead and 24 wounded but did little to weaken Qaramanli’s position. Frustrated by his lack of success, Preble decided to use a fireship against the Tripolitan fleet. Lieutenant Richard Somers volunteered to lead the mission, which entailed loading the Intrepid with about 100 barrels of gunpowder, 150 fixed shells, and other combustibles, sailing her into the anchorage, and lighting a fuse before making their escape.

On the night of 4 September, the Intrepid sailed into the dark harbor. At 2147, the port was illuminated by a brilliant flash of light, followed by a terrific explosion. The fleet waited in vain for Somers and his companions to return, but they died with the ship. Preble supposed that the Intrepid was boarded and that the crew “determined, at once, to prefer death and the destruction of the enemy to captivity and torturing slavery,” lit the fuses and “terminated their existence.”[15] The premature explosion may have been accidental, but it is impossible to say with certainty what happened.

Preble’s calculated risk may have owed something to the news he received early in August that he was to be replaced by Samuel Barron, and also that he would be subordinate to John Rodgers. This “supersedure” was more than he could stomach, and he decided to return to the United States.[16] (Barron was severely ill and spent most of the next nine months ashore in Malta.)

Preble’s frustration at being removed “at the moment of Victory” may also explain his endorsement of a wildly impractical idea promoted by William Eaton, who had returned from the United States with the curious title of Navy Agent of the United States for the Several Barbary Regencies. A veteran of the Continental Army and campaigns in the Northwest Territory, Eaton was a courageous and energetic campaigner and enormously persuasive. His plan, first suggested by Cathcart in 1801, was to restore Ahmed Qaramanli to power in Tripoli. It is difficult to see the scheme’s appeal. The weak and ineffectual Ahmed had been ousted in a bloodless coup, and Yusuf was confident enough of his brother’s impotence to make him governor of Darnah, although initially Ahmed preferred exile in Tunis, where he met Eaton. From 1802 to 1803, Ahmed did serve in Darnah, but he fled to join the Mamluk rebellion against Ottoman rule in Egypt. Eaton went to Cairo, where he persuaded the Turkish Viceroy of the legitimacy of his (and Ahmed’s) undertaking by explaining, among other things, “the affinity of principle between Islam and the American religion.”[17]

Having secured safe passage across enemy lines for Ahmed and his followers, Eaton recruited about 70 Christian mercenaries and 7 Marines from Isaac Hull’s Argus. On 6 March this polyglot force of about 400 soldiers and more than 100 camels set out to cross 520 miles of some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. Dissension was rife, and Ahmed vacillated between optimism and despair. When money to pay off Ahmed’s mutinous supporters was depleted, only Eaton’s sheer force of will kept the party from disintegrating.

After a grueling seven-week march, the mercenary army, which had doubled in size when a Bedouin tribe decided to join, arrived at Darnah. With the help of gunnery from the Argus and the Hornet, Eaton and Ahmed took the town and repulsed an attack by troops from Tripoli. The question of whether these unlikely allies could have succeeded in taking Tripoli, 820 miles farther west, was never answered. On 11 June, the Constellation arrived with news that Lear had negotiated a peace treaty a week before. Ordered to withdraw, Eaton boarded the frigate secretly with the Christian mercenaries and Ahmed, who realized that his aspirations to leadership depended entirely on Eaton’s personality and not his own. Ahmed’s Muslim supporters were abandoned.

The terms of the Treaty of Peace and Amity included an exchange of prisoners, with the United States paying $60,000, because Tripoli held more prisoners than the Americans. This payment was not a major concession on Lear’s part, because the war was not fought for the elimination of tribute, per se. In January 1804, Preble had no objection to offering $150,000, and eight months later, he had offered as much as $110,000. During the course of the war, tribute continued to go to Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco in fulfillment of treaty obligations.[18] Moreover, in a written agreement drafted by Eaton, Ahmed agreed to pay off any debts incurred during their joint expedition by transferring and consigning to the United States all the tribute owed Tripoli by Denmark, Sweden, and Holland, notwithstanding the fact that the Danes, especially, had represented U.S. interests freely throughout the conflict.[19]

The treaty with Tripoli did not mark the end of U.S. troubles in North Africa. Although the Mediterranean effectively was closed to U.S. merchants by the embargo of 1807 and again by the War of 1812, Algiers declared war in 1812, when the United States failed to deliver tribute. Three years later, backed by a 10-ship squadron, Stephen Decatur negotiated a treaty abolishing tribute and presents. Using the loss of the original draft as a pretext for delay, the Dey tried to renew the Treaty of 1795. In response, President James Madison wrote to him: “It is a principle incorporated into the settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute.”[20]

It had taken more than three decades of politicking at home and fighting abroad to establish this policy. In the meantime, the Tripolitan War proved a tough school for seamen who learned the skills of sea fighter, logistician, and diplomat, and one in which the U.S. government proved itself a willing and capable adversary.


[1] Qaramanli to O’Brien, 7 Sept. 1798, in U.S. Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939–45; hereafter BP), volume 1, pp. 255–56.

[2] Cathcart Journal, in BP, volume 1, p. 307.

[3] British Consul Simon Lucas, quoted in Seton Dearden, A Nest of Corsairs: The Fighting Karamanlis of Tripoli (London: John Murray, 1976), p. 142.

[4] See Kola Folayan, Tripoli During the Reign of Yusuf Pasha Qaramanli (Ife-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1979), chapter 2.

[5] From the letter of “An officer aboard,” in BP, volume 1, p. 381.

[6] Jefferson to Monroe, 11 Nov. 1784, in Julian P. Boyd, ed. Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) volume 7.

[7] U.S. Statutes at Large. 3rd Congress. Sess. 1, 27 Mar. 1794.

[8] Samuel Smith to Capt. Richard Dale, 20 May 1801, in BP, volume 1, p. 467.

[9] Cathcart Journal, in BP, volume 1, p. 459.

[10] Lyle (also Lisle or Leslie; aka Murad Reis) was one of many foreigners, Muslim and “renegade Christian,” in Tripoli. Qaramanli’s Grand Kheya, Muhammad d’Ghies, is variously identified as Greek or Russian. Court titles were a mixture of Arabic, Turkish and Italian, and Italian served as the lingua franca. See Dearden, Nest of Corsairs, pp. 143, 323.

[11] Morris’s behavior probably was influenced by the presence of his wife; she gave birth to a son at Malta in June 1803 only days before he abandoned his blockade at Tripoli.

[12] Court of Inquiry on the Conduct of Captain William Bainbridge, 29 Sept. 1805, in BP, volume 3, p. 193.

[13] Midshipman Ralph Izard to Mrs. Ralph Izard, Sr., 20 Feb. 1804, in BP, volume 3, p. 417.

[14] See Robert J. Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States & The Muslim World 1776–1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 205–206.

[15] Preble to Secretary of Navy, 18 Sept. 1804, in BP, volume 4, p. 306.

[16] Quoted in Christopher McKee, Edward Preble: A Naval Biography, 1761–1807 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1972), p. 282.

[17] Quoted in Glenn Tucker, Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), p. 359.

[18] See, for example, BP, volume 4, pp. 185, 398, 495.

[19] “Eaton-Hamet Convention, 23 February 1805,” in J. C. Hurewitz, comp., The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record. vol. 1: European Expansion, 1535–1914, 2d ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 157.

[20] “Madison to the Dey of Algiers,” 21 Aug. 1816. Quoted in Gardner Weld Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (1905; reprint, Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1965), p. 339.