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Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History

Richard B. Parker

This book tells the story of America’s first hostage crisis, which began in 1785 with the capture of two American ships off the coast of Portugal, and provides the intriguing details of the diplomacy mobilized to address the crisis. The incident constituted America’s first challenge from the Muslim world and led to the creation of the U.S. Navy and to an American naval presence in the Mediterranean, which has continued intermittently to the present.

The Algerine corsairs (also known as the Barbary pirates), who seized the American seamen, played by the strange set of rules that operated 200 years ago along the Barbary Coast. Interested in booty and ransom money, they routinely extorted "tribute" from merchant ships that were not protected by treaty or navies. With no navy of its own and no longer covered by British treaties after the Revolutionary War, the United States eventually had to buy its way to peace with the Barbary powers. By the time the episode was resolved in 1796, American seamen had spent eleven years as prisoners in Algiers and the U.S. had paid close to a million dollars in cash and kind to ransom 103 surviving captives from 13 ships. However, from 1801 to 1805, the U.S. was again at war with Tripoli over the tribute demanded--the struggle celebrated in the opening lines of the Marine Corps Hymn. Although the popular slogan at the time was "Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute," the U.S. eventually paid $60,000 for a treaty with Tripoli.

Uncle Sam in Barbary is based on dispatches, personal papers, and the official communications of those involved, including unpublished Italian and Tunisian documents. Richard Parker puts flesh on the bare bones of the standard narrative of this crisis, bringing to life the fate and identity of the American captives as well as the leaders in Algiers and clarifying for the first time the unhelpful roles played by the British and French.

This history offers insights for today about the roles of diplomacy and military force in international relations. A major episode in the foreign affairs of the early Republic, the events involved a roll call of American founding fathers--including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, James Monroe, and Alexander Hamilton.

Richard B. Parker, former ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon, and Morocco, has taught at the University of Virginia, Lawrence University, and Johns Hopkins University.

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