The Barbary pirates, also called Barbary corsairs or Ottoman corsairs, were pirates who operated off the North African coast. Their hunting grounds consisted of the Mediterranean, the coast of West Africa, South America, and into the North Atlantic as far north as Iceland, but they primarily operated in the western Mediterranean. They seized ships and also raided coastal towns in pursuit of goods and Christian slaves for the Islamic market. After American became a new nation in 1776, the Barbary pirates began attacking our ships until a deal was made in which we paid them an annual ransom which amounted to 20% of United States government annual expenditures in 1800, if they would leave our ships alone. (Hard to believe our great nation ever paid an extortion fee to pirates!)
However by 1804, the pirates were getting the upper hand and Congress sent a modest fleet to quell the recent attacks out of Tripoli. Unfortunately, the US Frigate, Philadelphia ran around and was captured by the pirates and they then turned into one of the most fearsome pirate vessels ever to sail. Now, not only was the US Navy severely depleted, but they had to endure being attacked by their own ship!
But the US wanted their ship back. The problem was it was under guard in the well-fortified Tripoli Harbor. They may not be able to recapture it, but they must ensure the pirates didn’t use it against them anymore.
|Burning of the USS Philadelphia|
by Edward Moran (1897)
Intrepid depicted in foreground
Commander Stephen Decatur was chosen to lead the raid. He had recently captured a small pirate ketch, Intrepid. The plan was to sail into the harbor under the ship’s original pirate colors. Decatur set out from Syracuse on February 3, 1804 and sailed into Tripoli by moonlight on February 16, 1804. With most of the crew hid below, Decatur asked permission to come tie alongside the Philadelphia.. Permission was granted, and before the pirates knew what was happening, Decatur and his men swarmed the decks. The pirates jumped overboard and swam for shore, and in 20 minutes Decatur had set the Philadelphia ablaze. Back on the Intrepid, they rowed out of the harbor as they watched the Philadelphia burn to the waterline.
I hope you found this little piece of our history as fascinating as I did!