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American Crime Case #65: The First Barbary War, 1801-1805

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.


In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched the Navy and Marines to blockade and then invade Tripoli (then part of the Ottoman empire, now known as Libya), launching the First Barbary War that culminated in 1805 in the brutal Battle of Derne. Jefferson did so in the name of combating “piracy” and fostering “free commerce,” after Tripoli’s Muslim ruler, Yusuf Karamanli, renounced his 1797 treaty with the U.S. and demanded a lump-sum payment of $225,000 plus $20,000 each year for allowing U.S. ships to transit waters off the coast and deliver and pick up cargo at Tripoli’s port.



“Attack on Derna” by Charles Waterhouse   

Jefferson declared America’s response to Tripoli’s ruler was “sent by squadron, ”dispatching war ships to the northern coast of Africa to blockade the port of Tripoli, where naval battles between U.S. and Tripolitan ships ensued. In 1803, after the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground while chasing a Tripolitan ship and the crew of 307 was taken hostage, Jefferson sent five frigates, including the USS Constitution along with the Marines to “subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, goods, and effects” in Tripoli.

In 1804, the U.S. tried to remove Karamanli from power and put his brother Hamet, then exiled in Egypt, on the throne. U.S. warships bombarded Tripoli. U.S. Army Lieutenant William Eaton led a small force of Marines along with 500 Arab and Greek mercenaries to march across the desert from Alexandria, Egypt, to the port city of Derne (now known as Derna, Libya), the second largest city in Libya.

The Battle of Derne was brutal and vicious. The American-led mercenary force killed 800and wounded 1,200, while suffering a handful of casualties in taking the fortress at Derne—and hoisting an American flag in triumph—and then holding it in a fierce battle with Karamanli’s troops.

Eaton’s forces then started marching on the port of Tripoli, threatening even greater casualties. Yusuf Karamanli agreed to a new treaty ending hostilities against the U.S. and returning all U.S. citizens he held captive in return for a U.S. payment of $60,000.

This was the first time an American flag was planted on soil across the Atlantic Ocean, the first war for the U.S. outside the Americas, and was the first U.S.-military enforced political change in that part of the world. This First Barbary War has been hailed ever since as a just and heroic action, enshrined in the Marine Hymn “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli,” and deeply embedded in the military ethos of the U.S.




The main criminal was U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who was the commander in chief in this war. Jefferson expanded the U.S. Navy and Marines for this war, dispatching ships to Tripoli declaring that “peace” in the Middle East was attainable solely “through the medium of war.”

Other criminals were Samuel Barron, the U.S. Commodore in the Mediterranean, who led the naval blockade of Tripoli; U.S. Navy Captain Edward Preble, who commanded the expanded U.S. Navy and Marine force; and U.S. Army Lieutenant William Eaton and U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon who led the murderous attack in the battle at Derna.

THE ALIBI: Thomas Jefferson called Tripoli’s renunciation of the 1797 treaty and its demand for payment “groundless and insolent,” and that he was deploying the U.S. Navy and Marines to stop piracy against American merchant ships along the Barbary Coast (Northern Africa, in particular: Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis), and to protect American economic interests and those manning the American merchant ships.

The Barbary War of1801-1805 and the Battle of Derne were hailed in the press as great American victories. The Louisville Courier-Journal would later write about America’s new hero, William Eaton, “Kentucky Officer First to Carry Stars and Stripes to Victory in Foreign Country.”


Jefferson called Tripoli’s demands “groundless and insolent.” In reality, piracy for ransom or tribute had been taking place along the Barbary Coast of Northern Africa (Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli) since the 1500s, and in the 18th century, the rulers of the Barbary countries began to demand payments from countries wishing to send cargo ships through their waters as a way to levy tariffs for goods being brought into these countries and the Ottoman Empire they were part of.

For years, American shipping was safe because Britain regularly made these payments. However, after the American Revolution, American vessels were no longer protected by British payments. At that time, the U.S. government agreed to take over the payments and then began to negotiate treaties with the Barbary countries. As part of the treaty agreements, the U.S. promised to make tribute payments to these countries. In 1797 the U.S. and Yusuf Karamanli agreed on the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, which was negotiated by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Karamanli believed he was owed $6,000 from the U.S. for agreeing to the treaty.

But it was the U.S. which apparently didn’t uphold its end of the bargain, and by 1801the U.S. still hadn’t paid the $6,000. This and other considerations prompted Karamanli to repudiate the 1797 treaty and demand a lump sum of $225,000 plus $20,000 a year.

Jefferson seized upon the incident to move aggressively and wage war outside the Americas for the first time for a number of reasons.

1798-1808 was a period of tremendous economic growth in the U.S., sparked in large part by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the expansion of slavery. This brought a huge increase in U.S. exports, particularly cotton and wheat, to other parts of the world that were carried there by merchant ships. Between 1793 and 1801 there was an almost a five-fold increase in the value of U.S. exports and in earnings from the trade in goods and slaves internationally. By 1807, the value of U.S. exports had risen to over $108 million, over five times higher than in 1790.

U.S. trade in the Mediterranean was significant enough that pirates and the Barbary states were considered “a major annoyance,” according to one scholar. For example, payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20 percent of U.S. government annual expenditures in1800. In weighing whether to pay tributes or go to war, Jefferson saw this as a challenge to U.S. trade and commerce around the world: “If we wish our commerce to be free and uninsulated, we must let these nations see that we have an energy, which at present they disbelieve.” (In 1784, when he was minister to France, Jefferson was already contemplating building a navy, including for use in North Africa. “Why not begin a navy...and decide on war?” he said. “We cannot begin in a better cause nor against a weaker foe.”)

This First Barbary War was part of enshrining America’s self-proclaimed “right” to flex its military power in every part of the world—with devastating consequences for humanity.



American invasions, Canada to Afghanistan 1775 to 2014, Dr. Rocky M. Mirza, iUniverse, 2010

“Battle of Derne, Wikipedia

First Barbary War(1801-1805), adapted from The American Heritage Encyclopedia of American History, by John Mack F. Faragher, Henry Holt and Co., 1998

HIGH CRIMES ANDMISDEMEANORS: Avast! How the US Built a Navy, Sent In the Marines, and Faced Down the Barbary Pirates, by Christopher L. Miller

Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies, by Bruce A. Elleman, Andrew Forbes and David Rosenberg, Naval War College Press, 2010;see Thomas F Turner’s chapter on “President Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates.”

The Economic Growth of the U.S., 1790-1860, by Douglas C. North, Prentice Hall, 1961

The First Barbary War,

War and Commercial Independence, 1790-1815 (Overview), Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, Thomson Gale publisher, 1999

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