History repeats itself

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.

The Bashaw of Tripoli, as its ruler was then called, captured one of the American ships, the “Philadelphia,” which had run aground. A young American lieutenant named Stephen Decatur entered history by sneaking into Tripoli harbor with his men to board and burn the Philadelphia to keep her out of pirate hands. 

American blockades and bombardments followed. Then, what historian Samuel Eliot Morison called a “motley expeditionary force” of 16 Marines and sailors, 40 Greeks, a squadron of Arab cavalry, 100 “nondescripts and a fleet of camels,” made an end run to attack the pirates by land. The Marine Corp hymn commemorates that feat with the words “to the shores of Tripoli.” 

Today, piracy has moved around the corner to the horn of Africa. The Somali pirates are nowhere near as formidable as were the Barbary pirates of yore, but they are a considerable nuisance and may yet force an important part of the world’s commerce to forgo the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. It is estimated that this would add 20 to 25 percent on to fuel bills and a week to the passage to America. Even then ships might not be safe as pirates are moving farther and farther out into the Indian Ocean. 

“Somali pirates are in the process of closing down perhaps one of the most important sea trade routes in the world,” said Soren Skou of the giant Danish shipping company, Maersk. 

“This is not something the shipping industry can handle on its own. We need international solutions, enough navy assets, cooperation between fleets,” he added. 

These words were said some months ago before Maersk almost lost its American-flagged container ship “Alabama.” 

There are numerous navy ships operating in the Gulf of Aden flying many flags. But no country has the naval resources of the United States, and, as it was in Jefferson’s time, the U.S. Navy may have to be the one to solve the problem. 

I have heard people say that the real cause is poverty and the breakdown of order in the failed state of Somalia. That maybe so, but an end to piracy cannot wait for that to be solved. 

If convoys could be organized to defeat the U-boat menace in the North Atlantic during World Wars I and II, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to guard ships against pirates in outboard motor boats. Perhaps some sort of convoy system could be organized, and it may take another, hopefully less motley, expeditionary force as well. Then the Gulf of Aden could pick up the old motto of the once pirate-infested Bahamas: "Expulsis Piratis, Restituta Commercia."

More Dispatches on piracy:

Somali pirates hold US Navy at bay

Somalia's pirates