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USS Constitution and the Barbary Wars

Friday, September 2, 2011

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History today witnesses the beginning of the 19th century as the beginning of the foundations of the world as we know it today. Europe was exiting the Napoleonic Wars, the final devastating war in which Europeans fought each other during the 19th century. It was also the birth of a relatively new and proud nation, which today we know as the United States. It was also the end of the Barbary domination of the Mediterranean Sea.

During the 16th century, Admiral Barbarossa of the Ottoman Empire helped establish the Barbary States as the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean Sea. His naval tactics relied on capturing and looting of naval targets, as opposed to destroying them. This was much attributed to his early days of piracy before formally joining the Ottoman navy. His tactics were carried on by his successors even as the influence of the Ottoman Empire faded from North Africa. By the mid-17th century, this created a vacuum, which led to the semi-independent states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli (present day capital of Libya), which were collectively known as Barbary States. These states continued to attack European targets in exchange for ransom and tribute. Over the years, European nations became accustomed to the notion of paying tribute to the Barbary States in exchange for safe passage in the Mediterranean Sea. This allowed European nations to concentrate higher priority political agenda such as battling each other over the immense treasures of the New World.

Throughout the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, Europe was engulfed in the wars as a result of the French revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The only Western nation that was at relative peace was the newly born nation of America. After the War of Independence in 1776, American merchant ships were no longer protected by the tribute paid by the English to the Barbary States. In July 25, 1785, Algiers attacked the first American merchant ship. Several other ships were captured and finally released a decade later after America agreed to pay $1million to Algiers as ransom for the release of the captured sailors, a sum which amounted to 20% of the US revenue at that time.

This was used as a major push by George Washington and others to finally institute a navy in 1794. A total of 6 frigates were built, one being the USS Constitution. The USS Constitution was launched in March 1, 1794 at a cost of over $300,000. It is a 44-gun frigate weighing roughly 1500 tons. After refusing to pay a new tribute of the sum of $225,000 demanded by Tripoli, Tripoli declared war on the US in May 10, 1801. The US promptly sent in eight of its best ships, including the USS Constitution. The US fleet proceeded with a siege of the Tripoli harbor. In October 1803, the USS Philadelphia ran aground at the harbor and became an easy prey for Tripoli`s corsairs as they boarded and captured the ship. The USS Constitution served as backup firepower and avoided getting too close to the shore to avoid running aground as well. The USS Intrepid, a fire ship packed with explosives, sailed into Tripoli`s harbor in an attempt to knock out the bulk of the city`s fleet. Before reaching the harbor, however, it was fired on by the city`s defenses and exploded killing its captain and crew.

Realizing that a naval blockade alone would not be sufficient, the US recruited 500 mercenaries of Greek, Arab, and Berber origins from Alexandria, Egypt (at the time under French occupation) in 1805. The mercenary army, under the leadership of eight US generals, occupied Derna (present day eastern Libya). The US also promised support of Tripoli`s recently deposed leader. Under threat of naval and land invasion and the threat of an internal struggle that can replace himself as the Sultan of Tripoli, the sultan finally agreed to a peace treaty with America. All hostilities ended in June 10, 1805.

The Second Barbary War in 1815 also resulted in a peace treaty with the remaining Barbary States. With the invention of the steam engine and the relative peace in Europe for nearly a hundred years (1815 1914), the Barbary States dominance over the Mediterranean Sea waned.

As for the USS Constitution, it played an even bigger role in the War of 1812 with Britain. In its engagement with the British HMS Guerriere, one sailor noticed that the British 18-pound cannon balls bounced off the USS Constitution`s hull, as opposed to piercing it. He yelled `Huzza! Her sides are made of iron`. From that point onwards, the USS Constitution was nicknamed Old Ironsides. Today it is believed the 25-inch oak hull material that was indigenous to the United States was responsible for the ship`s hull superior durability. Today, the USS Constitution is the only surviving ship of the original 6 frigates built as part of the US navy. It is docked in Boston, Massachusetts, but is still operable and periodically sails to sea.


  • [1] Lambert, Frank, The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.
  • [2] Toll, Ian W., Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, W. W. Norton, 2006.
  • [3] Whipple, A. B. C., To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines, Bluejacket Books, 1991.

  • Keywords: Barbarossa, USS Constitution, United States, Tripoli, America

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