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Nobody had ever instructed him that a slave-ship, with a procession of expectant sharks in its wake, is a missionary institution, by which closely-packed heathen are brought over to enjoy the light of the Gospel… Harriet Beecher Stowe

Starting as early as 1784 the Barbary pirates’ launched attacks upon American merchant shipping in an attempt to extort ransom for the lives of captured sailors, and ultimately tribute from the United States to avoid further attacks, much like their standard operating procedure with the various European states. Letters and testimonies by captured sailors described their captivity as a form of slavery and most captives were pressed into hard labor in the service of the pirates and struggled under extremely poor conditions that exposed them to vermin and disease.

Spain offered advice to the United States over how to deal with the pirates which  was to offer tribute to prevent further attacks against merchant ships and from 1785 until 1801 a variety of diplomatic overtures were tried and exhausted. Finally, as word of the poor treatment of captured sailors reached the public through freed captives’ narratives or letters, Americans began pushing for direct action by the government to stop the piracy against U.S. ships.

In 1801 Congress passed  legislation that provided for six frigates that in the event of a declaration of war on the United States by the Barbary powers were to, “protect our commerce & chastise their insolence — by sinking, burning or destroying their [the pirate’s] ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them.”

Jefferson, who may have been the last president to understand the muslim mind, had written, “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth…”

Jefferson also had a Southerner’s respect for the Constitution because although he sent a small force to the area to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression, he insisted that he was “unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.” Having exhausted their braggadocio in their original enabling legislation the congress was unable to declare war but they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli “and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify.”

Again the losing side [Tripoli] sued for peace short of their ultimate defeat and unconditional surrender and in the first of too many instances the American administration settled using the equivocation that ransom for sailors was not the same thing as tribute and after all Jefferson is remembered as saying, “Millions for defense, sir, but not one cent for tribute!” Of course that was when our gallant allies, the French, had been seizing American vessels and demanding “loans” as well as a personal bribe for Talleyrand and an apology from then president John Adams.

Despite the heroism of Americans Master Commandant Richard Somers, Lieutenant James Caldwell, James Decatur (brother of Stephen Decatur), Henry Wadsworth, Joseph Israel and John Dorsey; despite the U.S. Marines capture of the Tripolitan ketch, rechristened USS Intrepid, allowing Decatur’s men to storm the battery and overpower the Tripolitan sailors standing guard and with support from American ships setting fire to the battery, denying her use to the enemy –  a feat which the British Admiral Horatio Nelson, no mean judge of naval derring do, is said to have called this “the most bold and daring act of the age.”; and despite William Eaton and US Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon leading a force of  United States Marines on a march across the desert from Alexandria, Egypt to assault and to capture the Tripolitan city of Derna – the first time in history that the United States flag was raised in victory on foreign soil and an action memorialized in the  Marines’ Hymn — “the shores of Tripoli.”: Despite all of these things the first Barbary war may, at best, be called a stalemate.

The stalemate was in no way due to the ability or resolve of the Navy or the Marines – as demonstrated by the fact that in 1815 when Stephen Decatur refused to go ashore in Algiers but convinced the muslims to sign a treaty, “dictated at the mouths of our cannons”, in twenty-four hours – but was solely the bastard child of politicians. Ever since, for over two hundred years, every time the Navy and Marines have been given a clear-cut mission it has been accomplished and every time they have been given missions bound and limited by political rather than military considerations the results have been at best mixed and have too often ended in tragedy for those on the front lines. The Africa Squadron is a history of just such a mission, a twenty year waste of men and resources too far from our shores to be justified as defense and too equivocal in its execution to have been credited with accomplishing anything.

Africa Squadron : the U.S. Navy and the slave trade, 1842-1861    Washington, D.C. : Potomac Books, c 2006  Donald L. Canney Slave trade Africa, West History 19th century, United States. Navy. African Squadron Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xiv, 277 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 263-268) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Donald L. Canney’s study is the first book-length history of the U.S. Navy’s Africa Squadron. Established in 1842 to enforce the ban on importing slaves to the United States, in twenty years’ time the squadron proved ineffective. To officers and enlisted men alike, duty in the squadron was unpopular. The equatorial climate, departmental neglect, and judicial indifference, which allowed slavers back at sea, all contributed to the sailors’ frustration. Later, the most damaging allegation was that the squadron had failed at its mission. Canney investigates how this unit earned a poor reputation and whether it is deserved.

Though U.S. warships seized slave vessels as early as 1800, four decades passed before the Navy established a permanent squadron off the western coast of Africa to interdict U.S. flag vessels participating in this trade. Canney traces the Navy’s role in interdicting the slave trade, Great Britain’s pressure on the U.S. government to curb slave traffic, the creation of the squadron, and how individual politicians, department secretaries, captains, and squadron commanders interpreted the laws and orders from higher authorities, changing squadron operations. While famous ships and captains served on this station, none won distinction in the Africa Squadron.

In the final analysis, the squadron was unsuccessful, even though it was the Navy’s only permanent squadron with a specific, congressionally mandated mission: to maintain a quasi-blockade on a foreign shore. While Canney exonerates southern-born naval captains, who approached their work as diligently as their counterparts from the north, he demonstrates how the secretaries of the Navy — politicians all — neglected the squadron and prevented any chance of success.


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