Why are the Barbary Wars forgotten?

What about it makes it seem pivotal to you? I’ve read the Toll’s book and others that reference it but have seen nothing to distinguish it more than many other minor “forgotten” conflicts.

In terms military conflicts they are trivial. They are a fairly interesting footnote to US history as the earliest US foreign conflict, but totally insignificant considering what else was going at the time. They involved a handful of marines and a few foreign mercenaries, compared to say Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt which involved 10s or 100s of thousands of combatants.

It seems like it started the very American idea of creating a totally overpowered force, like the navy at the time, to deal with conflicts abroad. The US was apparently the first country to have the bright idea to do this.

Abandoning local allies to slaughter once the conflict is over and installing a friendly puppet government are policies the US has repeated way down the line.

I think failure would have shaped a very different nation.

Do you really think the U.S. was the first country to do that?

Do you think the U.S. consistently did those things in conflicts abroad and also was the first country to sometimes/always do those things?

Or am I being a bit whooshed?

I never said the USA was the first or only country to do any of those things, I just said the experience seemed to be formative for the young nation.

Notice that other nations took a very different strategy to dealing with the issue, and advised the US to follow their lead, the US decided to take a new approach and was successful which seemed to have influended the course of military decicions for years.

It was just another minor colonial conflict. Britain and France must have fought several hundred of those during the 19th Century alone.

What the bloody fuck does Islamism have to do with Barbary Pirates? Half of them were European renegades out for a buck under the Ottoman flag (although I guess the “incorrect lessons” goes to decline in teaching history point).

The conflicts are cited as important in establishing our fledgling navy but our force was hardly overpowered. The American squadrons controlled the sea because the Barbary states weren’t really sea powers. They had few ships. The piracy was nearly always accomplished in large boats launching from and returning quickly to shore. Our naval forces could halt these tactics only by keeping ships on station offshore, a difficult and expensive proposition. Both conflicts were settled at the negotiating table and in both cases the USA paid money to settle.

Neither of these conflicts were characterized by this sort of thing. The major allies of the USA were fellow Christian nations who were also in conflict with the Barbary States. Mainly Sweden and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The nature of their aid left no one to be left behind. There was the ragtag army put together to attack the Bashaw of Tripoli. It wasn’t slaughtered after the conflict nor was any puppet installed. He kept on being the Bashaw. The American-backed contender (the previous Bashaw) was given the governorship of Derna as a consolation prize. Though later ousted he lived on in exile.

It’s hard to say what might have happened. But from what we know did happen, it’s hard to see how these could be considered major conflicts.

And I never said they were major conflicts or the most important war in US history, I was simply surprised no one had heard of them and that they were not mentioned in the media coverage of the recent marine raid into Somalia to rescue US citizens held hostage by pirates.

I learned about Stephen Decatur in 3rd grade, but that was one of the benefits of attending Stephen Decatur Elementary School.

The wars have some contemprary relevance. It was as a result of the extortions of the Barbary states that the US drew up a treaty in which it was expressly stated that the US was not in any sense an enemy of Islam - a treaty quoted by President Obama.


[Of course the context - that the treaty was intended to butter up an extorting pirate leader who just happened to be Muslim, by paying him danegeld and disassociating the US from Christianity, thus presumably weedling for a smaller payment - and that the US subsequently repudiated the payment system in favour of force - wasn’t mentioned. :wink: ]

The Barbary Wars aren’t “forgotten,” they just aren’t given a LOT of time or attention in standard elementary school and high school American History textbooks.

We definitely learned about Stephen Decatur and “millions for defense, but not one penny for tribute,” but those things were only covered in passing.

A teacher only has so much time to cover a LOT of history, so some things are bound to fal lthrough the cracks. This affair was (correctly) deemed less important than a large number of other occurrences.

The Barabray Wars were really a brief series of engagements. The issue had to do with institutionalized piracy-the Dey of Algiers collected bribes-in return, the ships (of the nations that paid the bribes) were not attacked/seized.
The US Government decided not to keep paying bribes-hence the war.
It was all pretty clearcut-as opposed to the mess we are in in Afghanistan. Nobody is sure what we are doing, are we:
-building a nation
-propping up a dictator
-fighting terrorism?
In the case of the Barabary Wars, it was simple-stop the piracy.

That’s rather an American exceptionalism view of it and unsupported by history.

It’s rather more accurate to say that American couldn’t afford to pay the ransoms. We DID end up paying some of them off. That was another issue - each group of pirates had to be paid off separately.

It was no problem while the going rate was low, but Algiers demanded much more than the US could possibly afford (IIRC a significant fraction of the entire US budget). The cheaper solution was to build the US Navy into a larger force.

Do you really want to bring up THAT history when covering stories about Somalia? That we paid off the pirates until it became cheaper to go to war with them?

“Millions for defense, but not one penny for tribute” was a nice slogan, but that’s all it was. Pragmatism, rather than innovative strategy, carried the day back then.

I think you could make the case that it is not taught because it exposes hypocrisy in American foreign policy. Why was it wrong for the Barbary states to be raiding shipping and seizing sailors, but it wasn’t wrong for the US to have legalized slavery?


We were taught a bit about the Barbary Wars in my long-ago public education. Just one of those obscure occurrences between the Revolution & the Civil War. Have others not been taught or did they not pay attention or did they just forget? I learned long ago not to worry about the ignorance of others. Unless they are politicians…

Not so long ago, I read Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Pirate Utopias. He’s an original thinker & some of his conclusions might be taken with a grain of salt. (If you don’t have any 'shrooms handy.) But there were some real, fascinating tales to read.

Well, it would appear that the USA then had a problem with enslavement on an equal opportunity basis, rather than just blacks.

Of course we could add further that the Ottoman power (powers?) were hardly third world in the late 18th century, I would say more like the old communist bloc in the 1960s maybe, in terms of falling behind but still competitive.

And I suppose we add to that there is no American exceptionalism involved - as I read the history, it was the engagement of the Royal Navy, not some sad American frigates, that finally scared off the Ottoman beys from indiscriminate piracy.

But I would agree it thelabdude’s rendition is good argument for poor history education.

My meaning was that it was never declared, and that was well before undeclared wars became the norm.

It’s much like General Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa – a small skirmish, but not a major event in US history.

As for the comparison with the UK, I doubt they teach much about the Ashanti war in UK history, either, or delve on too much about the second Afghan war or the First Boer War.

I remeber William Shatner starred in “The Barbay Coast”.
Does that count?


Compared to other conflicts the Barbary Coast wars were pretty small scale. The first Barbary War had less than 100 American casualties. Would you be upset that people had never heard of the far bloodier Battle of Westport?
Plus how many American wars do you hear about in everyday life? Most people’s knowledge of the American Revolution is pretty weak, and even such important conflicts as the War of 1812 and Mexican War have left a pretty weak imprint on the collective memory.