We often forget that centuries ago our nation was menaced with the cruel capture and enslavement of Americans in Muslim nations. According to historian Christopher Hitchens, between the years 1530 and 1780, as many as 1,250,000 Europeans were kidnapped by Muslim “Barbary” nations. This involved piracy, ransom and enforced slavery. Most European powers made peace with the rulers of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli and Tunis, by paying “tribute” in exchange for redeemed captives. In 1784, Barbary pirates began seizing American ships and capturing their crews and passengers, as the new United States did not have a navy to protect its commercial ships. Secretary of State John Jay instructed his two American envoys in Europe, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to make treaties with the abductors and pay the tribute.
Jefferson and Adams met with the Ambassador of Tripoli and received his “outrageous demand for the release of the American hostages.” On March 28, 1786, Jefferson wrote to Congress and Jay:
“The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners.”
The hostages were treated “appallingly cruel” and “with sexual practices too revolting to describe.” Adams, recognizing that it was time to build a navy, thought it wisest to temporarily pay the ransom “without delay.” By the time Jefferson became president in 1801, he was in command of a new navy, as well as the United States Marines. Both were created under Thomas Jefferson, who originally opposed a standing army or navy, who now sent his warships to the Barbary Coast and effectively controlled the area, except for Tripoli, whose pirates captured the USS Philadelphia in 1803. In February 1804, Captain Stephen Decatur sailed right into Tripoli Harbor, “boarded the captured Philadelphia and put the torch to it rather than let it remain in Barbary hands.” A few months later, Decatur returned, “Bombarded the fortified town and rescued the Philadelphia’s crew from a gruesome imprisonment.” The following year, American Marines landed and captured the second city of Tripoli (now in Libya). The raising of the American flag preserved forever the opening line of the Marine anthem, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” Not long thereafter, the “Barbary nations signed treaties with the United States, renouncing piracy and kidnapping.”