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Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates [Book Review]

“This is the story of how a new nation, saddled with war debt and desperate to establish credibility, was challenged by four Muslim powers. Our merchant ships were captured and the crews enslaved. Despite its youth, America would do what established western powers chose not to do: stand up to intimidation and lawlessness.”

In America’s infancy, there were huge difficulties establishing itself on the global stage; but none more challenging and defining than the war with the Tripoli pirates. Along with providing the reader personal details into Thomas Jefferson’s life, authors Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, also laid out the first foreign conflict in American history – which has determined our political future since.

The war of the Barbary Coast Pirates included four powers: Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli, and Tunisia with a central focus around the Ottomans in Istanbul. The four powers, using the authority of the Quran, attacked and raided merchant ships and enslaved the crew. The part of the Quran used to justify this barbarism reads, “all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.” Any nation who does not pay uncertain tributes to the pirates are at risk of losing trade and citizens. The tribute paid was never a set amount and was always subject to increasing at any time – and furthermore – a tribute to one of the four countries does not guarantee safety with the other countries. The slow communication also proved to complicate things.

Over 1.25 million slaves were taken hostage between the 16th and 18th centuries – and since the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war of independence with Great Britain, American trade was protected by the French. But, come 1800, the aspiring American merchant ships became targets. Once taken, the Barbary Pirates would sell all cargo and parade their victims throughout the streets – their futures unknown. Having a deep sympathy for freedom, Thomas Jefferson – then the ambassador to France – attempted to make peace with the four states. After a few years, the negotiations were ready to begin. Envoys were sent to pay for the release of the American hostages – only to be let down. The Barbary States demanded $660,000 each for free travel through the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the struggling indebted nation only allocated about $40,000 for negotiations.

Jefferson, seeing that negotiations were less than fruitful, convinced Washington and the first Congress to begin building a navy. In the meanwhile, Congressional coffers finally got the hostages released for about $1 million – after a decade of captivity. In negotiations, Americans were reminded who they were dealing with: Tripolitan ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman explains, 

“It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”

In response, Jefferson wrote an all too accurate portrayal of America’s newest enemies, “Money is their god, and Muhammad their prophet” – he understood their motives and was ready for war. When Jefferson became the third president of the United States, the navy was ready for war. His insights into the religious extremist mindset helped prepare Jefferson, and the nation, for war to settle this dispute once and for all. The United States was determined to defeat these pirates in a way none of the Europeans could. In an unusual prediction in regards to confronting Islam, Jefferson noted, “We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever”

The incredible story of American ingenuity and bravery in the face of a stronger and richer enemy, Kilmeade and Yaeger create an easy and enjoyable read. If all history books were written like this, history classes would be far more popular. A final and lesser known fact covered in this forgotten war was the deeply held secular beliefs held by Jefferson and the first Congress. The Treaty of Tripoli was written and ratified by congress that, “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”

This and many more little known facts of America’s foundation are hidden throughout history – and Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is an incredibly orchestrated book that sheds light on this little known part of America’s past. There needs to be more books like this one. This book is recommended to all history lovers as well as those who wish to love history. For one cannot understand the present, without first understanding the past.


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