Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Pirates – America’s 200-Year War Against Sea-Going Cutthroats

American sailors led by Stephen Decatur boarding and capturing a pirate ship off North Africa.

American sailors led by Stephen Decatur boarding and capturing a pirate ship off North Africa.

On April 12, 2009, the American destroyer USS Bainbridge made headlines when it was announced that Navy SEAL snipers on board the vessel ended a tense four-day hostage crisis involving Somali pirates and the captain of a civilian container ship.

The sharpshooters were part of a rescue team that had been ordered into the Gulf of Aden to free Richard Phillips, the skipper of the Maersk Alabama. Phillips, an American citizen, had been taken captive on April 8 by four Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen during a failed hijacking. While crewmen managed to resist the boarders, the assailants fled with their hostage aboard one of the Alabama’s lifeboats.

Phillips’ crew reported the incident and within hours the Bainbridge, along with the USS Halyburton and the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer were en route to affect a rescue. A day later, the Bainbridge had closed to within visual range of the lifeboat. Hostage negotiators soon made contact with the pirates and began to bargain for Phillip’s release. Over the next three days, the dialogue reached an impasse. When tempers wore thin and one of the captors fired shots into the water, the SEALs made their move. As soon as three of the four pirates were in the clear, a trio of Navy snipers concealed on the Bainbridge’s flight deck fired a near simultaneous volley instantly killing the gunmen. The fourth pirate surrendered without incident.

While the standoff marked one of the more memorable moments of the seven-year international operation against Somali hijackers, it certainly wasn’t the only occasion the U.S. Navy has tangled with pirates. In fact, American warships have been mixing it up with rogues, freebooters, privateers for more than 200 years. Consider these famous (and not-so-famous) encounters.

The USS Constitution takes on a French privateer during the Quasi War.

The USS Constitution takes on a French privateer during the Quasi War.

America’s first armed conflict after independence wasn’t against the hated British, but rather the Unites States’ closest ally, France. During the 1790s, relations with the French revolutionary government turned sour when Congress sought to normalize trade with Great Britain. After all, French blood and treasure had been spent helping the 13 colonies free themselves from England. Not surprisingly, France was enraged that American merchants were supplying King George’s soldiers and sailors with food and war materiel. By way of retaliation, the French unleashed an armada of privateers against the U.S. east coast in 1794. As many as 2,000 ships fell victim to the raiders. With no permanent navy to speak of, the Adams Administration embarked on a rapid ship-building campaign and by 1798, the United States had both the men and vessels to prosecute a campaign against the French filibustiers. It became known as the Quasi War. Over the next two years, the U.S. Navy managed to capture, burn or sink dozens of enemy ships with only the loss of a single vessel. By 1800, Napoleon was eager to repair the strained relations and ordered the return of American vessels. He stopped short of compensation however. Diplomatic wrangling over the matter continued for the next century, with France finally agreeing to pay damages in 1915.

U.S. Marines storm Tripoli during the First Barbary War.

U.S. Marines storm Tripoli during the First Barbary War.

The smoke had scarcely cleared from the war with France when America was once again locked in battle with pirates — this time the enemy was North African corsairs.

For centuries, Barbary pirates had terrorized the sea-lanes of the Mediterranean and had even at times broken out into the Atlantic to raid the ports and coastal towns of Europe and Great Britain. In addition to plundering vessels, the corsairs were notorious for enslaving their captives or holding them for ransom. While many world powers managed to avoid harassment by simply paying tribute to the Tripolitans, Tunisians and Algerians, the United States had made no such arrangements. In 1801, after trying to extort a quarter of a million dollars from the cash-strapped Jefferson Administration, the Barbary corsairs declared open season on American merchant ships. America responded by sending the USS Argus, USS Chesapeake, USS Constellation, USS Constitution, USS Enterprise, USS Intrepid, USS Philadelphia and USS Syren into the Mediterranean to suppress the raiders. In 1803, the Philadelphia, under the command of William Bainbridge (coincidentally, the namesake of the USS Bainbridge of 2009 Somali pirate fame), was taken with all hands by corsairs after becoming grounded on a sandbar off Tripoli. America retaliated with a series of daring raids on Berber ports and vessels. In one action, a boarding party led by a then obscure Stephen Decatur managed to recapture the Philadelphia. A year later, a force of marines and mercenaries mounted an amazing overland attack on the port city of Derna, after marching across the North African desert from Egypt! By 1805, the corsairs finally had enough of the U.S. Navy and sued for peace. Washington quietly paid a sum of $60,000 to the Barbary States and the pirates released their American captives. Sadly, the peace would be short lived.

By 1815, the U.S. Navy sent a fleet back into the Mediterranean to punish the Arab raiders for a series of fresh attacks undertaken against American and European shipping. With its attention focused on its two and a half year war with Britain, the United States had few vessels in the Mediterranean to protect its merchant fleets. It was a heyday for the corsairs. After making peace with England, America was ready to pursue a new war against the Barbary pirates. Between March and July, a squadron of 10 vessels under the command of Bainbridge and Decatur captured a number of Algerian ships. Soon the Barbary States were once more at the peace table promising to return all Americans being held as well as a number of Europeans. They also compensated Washington to the tune of $10,000.

While piracy in the West Indies is most commonly associated with 16th Century Buccaneers like Henry Morgan or 18th cutthroats like Blackbeard, Calico Jack or Bartholomew Roberts, the 1820s saw a brief pirate renaissance. With wars for independence erupting against Spanish rule throughout the Americas, many of the rebellious new states began commissioning privateers. Scores of ships and crews from Cuba and Puerto Rico flocked to places like Venezuela for letters of marque. Once received, these vessels began raiding merchant fleets. While their official target was Spanish shipping, the privateers weren’t too choosy about whom they chose to plunder. As such, dozens of American ships fell prey to the marauders. Adding to the mayhem were Spain’s own privateers who were charged with seeking out and attacking rebel ships. By 1821, with more and more American merchant vessels being taken and their crews and passengers robbed, tortured or murdered, the United States struck back. Washington ordered a massive fleet of more than a dozen warships and 1,500 sailors into the Caribbean to hunt down and destroy the raiders. Together with ships from the British Royal Navy, over the next five years, the combined forces would pursue, capture and kill scores of pirates in and around Cuba and throughout the West Indies. By 1825, piracy was effectively (and finally) destroyed in the Caribbean.

It was also in 1825 that Washington dispatched a fleet to the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey to suppress yet another pirate scourge. While the Hellenic rebellion against Ottoman rule was officially welcomed by the United States (Boston shipyards even provided the rebels with fighting vessels), the Greek civil war that followed independence threatened American shipping interests in the region. With the Aegean teaming with warring factions, America ordered a squadron of seven frigates, sloops and schooners into those waters to protect its merchant convoys. During the two-year campaign, U.S. navy ships engaged and destroyed more than seven pirate vessels and rescued passengers and crews from both British and Austrian merchantmen. By 1827, the Americans were joined in their anti-piracy sweeps by ships from Britain, Russia and France. A year later, a joint European mission wiped out a pirate stronghold at Carabusa, ending the scourge once and for all.

Before serving the U.S. Civil War the American warship Powhatan fought Chinese pirates.

Before serving the U.S. Civil War, the American warship Powhatan fought Chinese pirates.

While western pirates had faded into history by the mid 19th Century, lawlessness was rampant in the Far East. In 1855, when a group of raiders operating out of Hong Kong snatched four merchant ships away from the protection of the British warship HMS Eaglet, the Admiralty turned to the U.S. Navy for help. On Aug. 4, HMS Rattler, together with the frigate USS Powhatan, three small gunboats and a combined detachment of marines sailed into Ty Ho Bay to free the captured vessels. The pirates opened fire on the approaching flotilla with little effect; the Anglo American squadron replied with a withering fire. In the ensuing melee, marines and sailors managed to free seven captured merchant ships and destroy 14 pirate junks, killing 500 of their crew and capturing twice as many of the cutthroats. The Americans and British lost five and four sailors respectively.

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