Barbary Wars Have Lessons For Today's Libya

Adrian Tinniswood, author of The Barbary Pirates, talks to Ari Shapiro about the first U.S. military engagements with Tripoli and the early 19th century Barbary Coast nations.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The place where America first engaged in war overseas has some relevance today. Before we tell you where we're talking about, here's a hint.

(Soundbite of song, "Marines Hymn")

Unidentified Men: (Singing) From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.

SHAPIRO: That song refers to the Barbary Wars of the early 1800s. Now the shores of Tripoli are seeing conflict once again. And Adrian Tinniswood argues that the U.S. can apply lessons from those clashes 200 years ago to the conflict in Libya today. Tinniswood is the author of "Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean." He joins us from Bath in England.

Good morning.

Mr. ADRIAN TINNISWOOD (Author): Nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: Can you just give us a quick primer on how the U.S. became militarily involved in North Africa in the 1800s.

Mr. TINNISWOOD: All the states of Barbary depended on piracy. In the 18th century, the British managed to sort of negotiate a whole series of treaties with Algiers and Tunis and Tripoli. And they got sort of safe conduct passes for all their shipping.

And that, of course, until 1776, that meant for American shipping as well. Something like 100 American merchantmen were sailing up and down the Mediterranean trading with the Levant.

SHAPIRO: So as soon as the United States was independent, it had to pay its own bills?

Mr. TINNISWOOD: It made life a little bit trickier. When the war was over, they had to negotiate directly with the Barbary states. I mean, we can call it negotiating. We can call it treaties, which is what they did. It was actually paying tribute.

SHAPIRO: Paying bribes, paying ransom for free passage.

Mr. TINNISWOOD: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: How does this turn into a war?

Mr. TINNISWOOD: Because the Tripolitans got a little bit greedy. They...

SHAPIRO: The Tripolitans, the people of Tripoli, and what we know today as Libya.

Mr. TINNISWOOD: Of Tripoli. Yeah. They originally did a deal for half a million dollars, which was a lot in the late 18th century.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

Mr. TINNISWOOD: And then they wanted to renegotiate the treaty. They wanted a little bit more, a little bit more. And Jefferson said no. That's enough. We're not paying tribute. We'd rather fight. And by that time, of course, the U.S. had got a Navy it could fight with. Until then, there wasn't really much he could do.

SHAPIRO: So take us into the war. What's actually happening?

Mr. TINNISWOOD: The American Navy starts to try and hunt down Tripolitan pirate vessels. It doesn't go all that well, I've got to say. America, this time, has a big, bright, new, shiny 44-gun frigate called the Philadelphia. The Philadelphia is busy blockading Tripoli harbor when it's captain makes a wrong turn and it runs aground and the Tripolitans capture the Philadelphia. They capture 300-odd crewmen and take them as hostages - as slaves, in fact - into Tripoli, and they set about rearming the Philadelphia. They're going to use it against the American Navy.

SHAPIRO: Was this war strictly about trade and economics, or were there religious or imperialistic overtones?

Mr. TINNISWOOD: Historically, the Mediterranean and Barbary, that North African coast, is the kind of front line between Christendom and Islam, and it has been since the 1500s. So Barbary pirates, some of them were just robbers. Some of them were just bad guys. Some of them, even in the 16th and 17th centuries, referred to themselves as mujahedeen. They were warriors for God. They talked about being on jihad. They talked about a sea jihad against the infidel, and they saw the West as kind of pushing into the Dar al-Islam, the lands of Islam, and they saw their job as keeping the West away, keeping Islam safe. This, if you want contemporary resonance, is - you got them there Ari, I tell you.

SHAPIRO: Well, I was going to say, this was 200 years ago.

Mr. TINNISWOOD: Yes.

SHAPIRO: How much of this applies today?

Mr. TINNISWOOD: I mean, a great deal more, I think. There's so much sort of fear and misunderstanding there. And the saddest thing about what's happening today is that it was happening two, 300 years ago, and we haven't learned anything from it. And this - I'm speaking personally, now. The big lesson for me is to stay out.

SHAPIRO: Why do you say that?

Mr. TINNISWOOD: Don't mess with a foreign country, because usually what history tells is we cause more problems than we solve, I think.

SHAPIRO: Are the Libyan people aware of this history? Is this in the forefront of their minds more than it might be in American's minds?

Mr. TINNISWOOD: That's hard to say. They're certainly aware of it. And they certainly - I mean, my knowledge of the Libyan people is that they're very proud people, and they treasure their role on the front line of this battle between Christendom and Islam. I mean, they're proud of that. Even the rebels are very anxious not to have intervention by the West - not to have direct intervention. They want help and they'll take munitions. They'll take guns from us. They don't want, you know, a military invasion force on their territory. That's humiliating.

SHAPIRO: Adrian Tinniswood is the author of "Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean."

Thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. TINNISWOOD: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.