Recently, the President of the United States was discovered to have secretly organized a shipment of $440 million to Iran which happened to coincide with the release of four American prisoners held in Tehran. It was paid in foreign currency, ostensibly because it is illegal to pay U.S. Dollars to Iran. At least two more Americans have since been arrested. Was it a ransom or a tribute to Iran?
For a thousand years (from the 9th to the 19th centuries) the four nation states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, were known as the Barbary states. During this period, they were widely feared by anyone travelling by sea throughout the Western Mediterranean. From the cliffs above their ports, they would identify passing ships from miles away and ambush them with as many as 80 corsairs to kill, steal their cargo, crew and passengers and either hold them captive for ransom or sell them into slavery. They would, of course, pay a pre-negotiated sum to the State’s leader, and divide the rest amongst themselves, keeping the healthy and killing the rest. From the 16th to 19th centuries, Barbary Pirates sold as many as 1.25 million souls into slavery, raiding Italy and Spain so often that coastal villages there were considered too dangerous. At various times, their attacks reached as far as Iceland and Ireland. Algiers alone was said to have had as many as 20,000 captives at one time. Prisoners of wealth might secure their freedom through ransom but those less fortunate were doomed to a life of slavery. The more powerful European nations eventually negotiated treaties which required them to pay annual bribes (referred to as tributes) to enable their ships to be left alone. Periodically, the Barbary Pirates would break the treaties as an effective means of negotiating more money. But since the smaller nations were unable to afford the bribes, their ships were regular targets, which effectively reduced competition, driving up the value of the wealthier nations’ goods. It was simply the cost of doing business. Benjamin Franklin is said to have heard London merchants say, “if there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.”
By the early 18th century, Great Britain’s Royal Navy had become so powerful; they could negotiate more modest tributes. If the pirates didn’t like it, England would sink enough of their ships or shell their ports until they agreed on a price. Up until the American War for Independence, America benefited from this arrangement as a British Colony. During the War, she was protected as an Ally of France under their treaties with the pirates. Afterwards, the Treaty of Paris officially ended America’s war with England, and then it was a very different story.
In 1777, Morocco was the first nation to publicly recognize the United States and in 1784, it became the first Barbary state to seize an American vessel and its crew. While in England, having been commissioned by Congress to seek commercial treaties with that nation and Portugal, John Adams met the envoy from Tripoli. He said at the time that the man was either a saint or the devil himself but didn’t know which. American merchantmen in the Mediterranean were regularly murdered and sold into slavery but the envoy told Adams that “his only interest in life was to do good and make other people happy”, assuring him that Americans would be free to travel by sea unharmed for a million dollars or so. Adams would have preferred war over tribute, but knew that Congress neither had a Navy for war nor money for tribute. The then Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, successfully negotiated a treaty with Morocco arranging for the return of the captured merchant ship Betesy and its crew. However, the treaty included an expensive tribute amounting to 1.5 million dollars, or 10% of the U.S. Federal Government’s annual expenditures each year for the next 15 years. The other three Barbary states saw an opportunity and attempted to extort exorbitant sums from the new republic through treaties which proved to be too expensive. In 1785 Algerian pirates captured the schooner Maria and Dauphin, demanding $600,000 each for the return of the ships and their crews. In 1786, when Jefferson and Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, they asked him why his people were making war with a nation that had done them no harm. Jefferson later wrote of the ambassador’s response as, “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.”
The two crews languished in prison for over a decade. Jefferson advised Congress against paying tributes as he believed it would only lead to more attacks. Writing to his friend John Jay, Secretary of State to the Continental Congress, Jefferson said, “Weakness provokes insult and injury, while a condition to punish it often prevents it. This reasoning leads to the necessity of some naval force, that being the only weapon with which we can reach an enemy. I think it to our interest to punish the first insult: because an insult unpunished is the parent of many others. We are not at this moment in a condition to do it, but we should put ourselves into it as soon as possible.” Adams’ experience with the envoy from Tripoli directly lead to the creation of the U.S. Navy in 1794 with 6 frigates and it’s continued funding when he was elected the second President. And while Thomas Jefferson, the third President, did not share Adam’s commitment to expanding the expensive Navy, Adams had had the foresight to create a Navy which was now at Jefferson’s disposal. So on Jefferson’s inauguration when the Pasha of Tripoli demanded $225,000 up-front from Jefferson’s new administration, and an additional $50,000 per year, Jefferson refused. He would not allow the United States to sacrifice its honor by paying bribes, no matter what it was called or however old a tradition it was for European nations. The Pasha declared war.
In 1801, the American schooner Enterprise, commanded by Lieutenant Andrew Sterret defeated the much larger 14-gun Tripolitan corsair Tripoli in a three-hour battle without a single American casualty. In 1802 Jefferson sent America’s best ships as part of a larger force to the region and ordered that all prisoners be treated humanely. In 1803, Commodore Edward Preble blockaded the Barbary ports and sent a small detachment of U.S. Marines to burn the captured U.S. Philadelphia which had run aground and been set up against them as a gun ship. British admiral, Horatio Nelson, purportedly referred to the episode as “the most bold and daring act of the age.” The American naval force attacked the Tripoli harbor while 8 Marines led by 1st Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, with an army of 500 mercenaries, captured the city of Derna after a march from Alexandria across the desert. The pirates soon requested peace and $60,000 for the return of the American prisoners. This allowed Jefferson to make the distinction between paying ransom for prisoners and tribute as a bribe.
In the early 1800s our young Republic had only 6 frigates, a small force of Marines and no standing Army. What they accomplished would be unbelievable had it not actually happened. But then, that is often the case when Americans are motivated by honor. Today, the United States have the most powerful military in human history but our allies don’t trust us and our enemies don’t fear us. Our current President announces a line and our enemies promptly cross it. When he negotiates with them, it emboldens them just as it did when our young nation naively paid tribute to the Barbary Pirates. Whether our President’s recent payment to Iran was a tribute or a ransom is irrelevant. The distinction no longer matters. The United States are in a far different position than we were in the early 1800s. Both are dishonorable.
As Jefferson so wisely stated, “an insult unpunished is the parent of many others.”