Pirates: The US and the Scourge of the Seas

Pirates are nothing new to America. Long before the Somali Pirates, the disruption of shipping in the world economy was played out on the high seas since the days of Queen Elizabeth and well before. Ships carrying gold, sugar, and other cargo were targets for the earliest pirates. Later, tobacco, slaves, rums, and guns enamored salty sailors and their lust for booty.

As soon as Columbus returned, Pirating began in the Americas. At the time, most pirates were actually mercenaries hired to disrupt Spanish shipping including the infamous Captain Morgan. The Royal Navy hired privateers as early as the 1600s to disrupt Caribbean shipping routes and to dwindle resources and monies from the Spanish crown. The French too got in on the fracas and the Caribbean became the hotbed for pirates in the Americas.

By the 1700s, the British navy dominated the seas in the Americas. However, pirating did not end. Other pirates came to disrupt colonial shipping along the east coast. The most famous of the pirates was Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. All along the Florida and Carolina coast, Blackbeard and his crew terrorized ships in the sea. At this time, the colonists relied on the British to defend their cargo from the ravages of the high seas. After independence, the newly formed US had to fend for itself.

As Secretary of State under George Washington, Thomas Jefferson was the man dealing with nations that harbored the pirates. The most notorious of these nations were located along the north coast of Africa in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast. When Jefferson became President, he began a new policy of change in dealing with the pirates.

As early as 1784 Congress followed the tradition of the European shipping powers and appropriated $80,000 as tribute to the Barbary states, directing its ministers in Europe, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to begin negotiations with them. Trouble began the next year, in July 1785, when Algerians captured two American ships and the dey of Algiers held their crews of twenty-one people for a ransom of nearly $60,000.

Beginning in 1801, Jefferson refused to pay the tributes. Over the course of the next 15 the US Navy, led by Stephen Decatur, began a series of conflicts known as the Barbary Wars. Jefferson’s refusal to negotiate with the terrorists of the seas began a policy which other nations soon followed. It, however, did not end piracy. European nations continued to pay and pirates found other venues. As the 1800s drew on, piracy did decline in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

On the other side of the world, piracy has never changed. The straits around Indonesia, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf have always been known for their piracy. It easy to attack and escape and the nations along these coasts have long been unstable bastions of anarchy. Somalia is the perfect example of lawlessness and provides a safe haven for pirates to attack. The power of the gun is more important in these nations than is the power of any form of government. As long as there are places of anarchy on the planet, there will always be pirates, be they on land or sea, to disrupt the flow of goods and services around the planet. As the global economy continues to expand, so too will pirates as there will be plenty of booty to be had.

Ed. Note – Quote is from Gerald Gawalt. “America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional Foe“.


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