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History repeats itself

Opinion: Piracy and the need for the US Navy to defend corporate interests against it has a long history.

Crew from the German navy frigate Rheinland-Pfalz detains pirates in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia's coast on March 3, 2009. This scene of the German navy arresting nine men after they tried to attack a German merchant ship is similar to the standoff between the U.S. warship which is alongside a small lifeboat with four Somali pirates who are holding an American captain hostage. (Bundeswehr/Reuters)

BOSTON — Almost within shouting distance of GlobalPost’s offices rests the oldest commissioned warship in the American navy, the USS Constitution.

She is the last remaining relic of the heroic days of sail. Except for an annual turnaround, “Old Ironsides,” as she is affectionately called, never goes to sea anymore. But that was not always so.

Now that Somali pirates have attacked an American flagged ship in the Indian Ocean, capturing its captain (read Tristan McConnell's update here), one may recall that the American navy was reconstituted in the late 18th century as a response to pirates then operating off the north coast of Africa. 

The Continental Navy that helped win independence from Britain went out of business when the last warship, the 32 gun frigate “Alliance,” was sold off as a cost-cutting measure in 1785. As it was after every war, Congress wanted a peace dividend. 

But within weeks the schooner “Maria,” out of Boston, and then the “Dauphin” out of Philadelphia, were captured on the high seas by Barbary pirates operating from Algiers. 

“The Algerine depredations,” as these outrages were called at the time, continued with more and more hostages taken and ransoms paid. Finally, Congress was spurred to allocate money for a proper navy. George Washington signed “an act to provide a naval armament” and ax men were hired to fell trees from New England to Georgia. 

Up to 100 American merchantmen were plying the Mediterranean at any time in those days, and when Thomas Jefferson was elected the U.S. was paying one-fifth of its annual revenue in ransoms and to guarantee safe passage to Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.

Tribute went beyond mere money. The United Sates built a warship for the Barbary pirates, named “Crescent,” which was launched in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, while Old Ironsides was still being built. 

The U.S. tried treaties with the Barbary states of North Africa, but they didn’t solve the problem. Finally, Jefferson lost patience and sent the Constitution as flagship of a new American fleet to put an end to the matter.