06 September 2011

Barbary Pirates and a US Treaty: Religions in Dialog?

Written by 
18th century Barbary Coast 18th century Barbary Coast http://www.semp.us/publications/biot_reader.php?BiotID=220

[Thanks to my colleague Dan Varisco, anthropologist at Hofstra University, who posted a blog about this treaty on July 4, 2011 ]

I’m writing here about 1797, when the third American treaty with a foreign nation was signed by President John Adams with the Dey of Algiers (officially, a regent of the Ottoman Empire; in practice, a warlord making his fortune in piracy). My main point in what follows is that states can make or break treaties, declare war or make peace. Interreligious dialog takes place between people of good will, but beware: politics will always muddy the waters.

First, a digression. I lived nine years in Algiers, a place dear to my heart. It’s a gorgeous city built around a hilly bay on the Mediterranean, with majestic French buildings reminding one of Paris, yet all painted in white. “Alger la Blanche,” they called it. That’s where I learned Arabic, both the local dialect (which other Arabs from Egypt eastward completely disown!) and the modern standard or classical Arabic, both of which were taught by the Catholic White Fathers just five minutes’ walk from the Anglican church where I lived and served.

Algiers is where I learned first hand about . . .


  • colonialism (the French version was more brutal than most)
  • postcolonial realities (a one-party system kept a small elite in power and in control of unspeakable fossil-fuel riches – oil and natural gas – and they’re still in power!)
  • and the politics of religion and ethnicities (the Berber question was especially thorny, but now mostly resolved).


Now back to pirates. Perhaps you thought that our current troubles with Somali piracy were a new phenomenon. Not so. They are truly small fry: the three Ottoman regencies of North Africa in the 18th century gave all the European nations a run for their money – literally! So powerful were these small kingdoms that they exacted steep sums of money from these larger powers, sometimes for the ransom of sailors, more often as a tribute for future non-aggression.

These were the famous Barbary pirates – Barbary being the North African coast, so-called by the Europeans because of its majority Berber population (and also, because Europeans considered them "barbaric").

I remember a plaque in the Holy Trinity Church of Algiers (Anglican) where I served for four years, which commemorated the release of a whole village in Ireland that had been enslaved by the Barbary corsairs, people who obviously ventured into the Mediterranean to do “business”! Now I only wish I could remember the exact date and location of the village!

American colony ships in the Mediterranean were of course protected by British ships and treasury, but came under French protection during the war of independence. By 1784 this shield wore thin and the Moroccan pirates seized an American vessel. Luckily, Spain was able to intervene and negotiate a treaty between the US and the Moroccan state so that both cargo and crew were saved.

Things became more complicated with the Algerian regency. In July 1785, two ships were seized and the crews enslaved. Their captivity lasted over a decade. Let it be said that “white slavery” in this case was more benign than the “black slavery” we (and many others) were inflicting at the time. They could often acquire property and work their way up the social ladder. Still, scores of mournful tales of captivity tugged at the hearts of Americans in the early 1800s. In the end, citizen pressure forced Washington to build a navy and fight two “Barbary Wars,” the first against Tripoli and the second against Algiers, which resulted in the release of 1,083 Christian slaves (presumably of several nationalities) in September of 1816.

Now for the treaty. Since you know the end of the story, you might be tempted to say, “what’s a few promises on paper, which were easily discarded when the Dey of Algiers, seeing the Americans busily fighting the British (leading up to the War of 1812), seized the opportunity and attacked US vessels once again?” Well, there is more here than meets the eye.

About this 1797 treaty, let’s focus on three points, and then close with a couple of conclusions.


First, this is “a treaty of peace and friendship” between the USA, the Dey of Tripoli (that was signed the year before) and the Bey of Algiers. So all the mutual protection clauses are present: goods sail through their waters untouched and protected from other enemies when possible; if the other’s sailors or citizens or goods are found on a captured enemy vessel, they will be returned to them; passports will be issued and respected by both sides; consuls with all necessary protocol will be exchanged, as with other “most favored nations.”


Second, there is a glaring hitch: Article 10 stipulates that “The money and presents demanded by the Bey of Tripoli as a full and satisfactory consideration on his part and on the part of his subjects for this treaty of perpetual peace and friendship are acknowledged to have been received by him previous to his signing the same.” It goes on to say that this is a one-time payment. No further tribute will be paid by either party. Still, this is no reciprocal treaty, as it only involves: a) US ships in the Mediterranean, largely under Barbary control; and b) a large sum of money paid by the USA. Piracy is what it’s all about.

Thomas Jefferson, then US ambassador to Europe, opposed President Adams in the payment of tribute. He would have preferred that stories of captivity and brutality would force military action. Unsurprisingly, the First Barbary War with Tripoli happened under his direction as Commander in Chief. By then, Adams had built the US navy from scratch and founded the Marines who, in America’s first war overseas, landed on the shores of Tripoli (the tune should come to you!).

Several recent books deal with the Barbary Wars, and with Jefferson in particular, especially in light of a post-9/11 American experience and two wars being fought with Muslim countries. Maybe it’s déjà vu in retrospect . . . See an informative (if biased – Hitchens strongly defended the Iraq War from the start) piece on this by British-American journalist and author, Christopher Hitchens (yes, the guiding star of the New Atheists).


Third, religion comes into play, but in a surprising way. The US is a newcomer to trade in the Mediterranean, and its recent struggle with Britain, combined with many of its founders’ overt sympathy with the French revolutionaries, suggested to the Barbary regents that it was not a “Christian” nation. Read for yourself:


(ARTICLE 11) “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries” (see full text).


So in essence, the Barbary Muslims can enter into a treaty with the a-religious Americans, because, by implication, Christians and Muslims inevitably clash and collide. The clash of civilizations theory has been around for a long time (see my first blog). So no, this is no interreligious dialog.

Yet Jefferson as ambassador accompanying his president, John Adams, did meet with Tripoli’s ambassador in London in 1785, and as it is reported now in many sources, the Barbary envoy told them,


“it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”


Nothing unusual about this in terms of theology and law (see my two blogs on jihad); just sad to see how religion so easily becomes the tool of dictators, the better to achieve their selfish ends – and here a lucrative racket of terror, extortion and slavery.

What might this treaty and its context tell us about interreligious dialog? First, it seems to me, that in our globalized, interconnected world of the Internet and social media, in which people as never before dream of – and often succeed in – bringing down dictators, we should no longer be fettered to past paradigms of clashes and conflicts. Muslim-majority countries are not banding together to conquer the world, nor are Muslims and a secular west on an inevitable collision course. Today as never before, people of faith are drawing from the ample spiritual resources of their respective faith traditions to create more peace and mutual respect.

Second, and finally, we can learn from history. This treaty can teach us about human nature, especially from the angle of the powerful. This treaty didn’t stop the Dey of Algiers from attacking American ships when the opportunity arose. Pirates will be pirates. True, America’s first overseas war brought down oppressive, greedy tyrants. But our success set us on a path of no return. Our overseas military adventures have only become more gigantic, more numerous, and more costly over time. Is this sustainable? Is it morally defensible? Can people of faith weigh in, as the prophets of old announced God’s judgment on tyrannic nations oppressing weaker ones, and on greedy leaders exploiting the poor for their own gain?

That is one of the tasks I believe people taking on the mantle of “trustees of the earth” must tackle together. Speaking truth to power in the name of justice, human dignity and a more peaceable earth is part of our calling, Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths and no faith..