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Atlantic Orientalism: How Language in Jefferson’s America Defeated the Barbary Pirates

by Angela Sutton
20 Dec 2009 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Pirates and Piracy [5] | Article

“In this work, I have most attempted a full description of the many hellish torments and punishments those piratical sea-rovers invent and inflict on the unfortunate Christians who may by chance unhappily fall into their hands…”[1] wrote John Foss, an American sailor captured by pirates off the coast of North Africa and sold into slavery in 1793. Many other captives were not as reserved, describing the pirates’ bloody attacks with colorful, titillating language that provoked outrage in early America. Although often exaggerated or forged, the Orientalist stereotypes perpetuated about the Barbary Pirates by captives such as John Foss would resonate in the minds of early Americans and shape American foreign policy.

The legend of the Barbary pirates[2] is one that even today is shrouded in countless American-centered misnomers.[3] Many of the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans persist. Countless popular books written about the North African corsairs, for example, emphasize the “avowed Islamic” pirates who were part of  “a medieval autocracy whose credo was piracy and terror,” and who “professed to despise Christians.” These works compare the Barbary Powers to modern terrorists, claiming that “while the Barbary War resembles today’s war on terror tactically and strategically, it resonates most deeply in its assertion of free trade, human rights, and freedom from tyranny and terror.”[4] With the rising prevalence and accompanying media coverage of Somali pirate attacks, even more misinformed parallels are drawn between Barbary pirates, Fundamentalist Muslim terrorists, and the Somali pirates: groups of people in separate times, circumstances, and spaces unified in American popular culture only by vague notions of Islamic Otherness.

These first pirate encounters with North Africa set a precedent for how the young nation would engage with belligerent powers in the future. While European superpowers paid tribute and appeased the Barbary nations in order to incapacitate their economic rivals on the seas[5] the American Congress commissioned a naval fleet and prepared for war.

If, as Marwan Obeidat claims, “the ‘Barbary pirates’ affair sums up what Americans knew of the Muslim World until the 1970s,”[6] then understanding what it was that the Americans thought they knew of the Muslim World becomes of utmost importance. Who were the Barbary pirates, and why did America go to war with them? This article offers an in-depth historical analysis of accounts of the pirates to demonstrate how the Orientalist language used in these exaggerated accounts shaped American opinions and policies regarding these fierce corsairs of the Maghreb. It becomes evident that the American public supported the military operations against the Barbary powers in the Tripolitan War of 1801 and the Algerine War of 1815 in part because of the constant, widespread, and inaccurate Orientalist and overtly racist portrayals of the Barbary pirates. The language used in the accounts of the Barbary captives, in the colonial American newspapers, and by the founding fathers demonstrates that the legend of the Barbary pirates shaped American views of the Orient, which led to the acceptance of aggressive foreign policy in the Mediterranean.  In dehumanizing the exotic and terrifying Other, the writers of the Barbary pirate slave narratives convinced the American public of the young nation’s need to assert itself and triumph over a barbarous oppressor, heralding the stirrings of imperialism that had already awakened in the young Republic’s interactions with its own native populations.

I. The Barbary Pirates and their Christian Slaves

The term Barbary pirate was a blanket term invented by Europeans with a poor understanding of the variety of people and cultures present in the North African Mediterranean. These corsairs worked for their respective rulers, (called deys, beys, and bashaws/pashas) selectively and legally incapacitating the vessels of the nations on which their ruler declared war. The corsairs were “operating within the limits of then current international practice, much like their contemporaries in America, Britain, France, Holland, Italy and Malta, among other places,”[7] and were largely tolerated by Europe.

Europe’s refusal to collectively stamp out the Barbary threat can thus be understood within context; while the Barbary pirates were  formidable enemies, they did not devastate Mediterranean trade. In the 1790s, the Barbary pirates captured fewer than thirty ships. During this time France was undergoing its own revolution, and French privateers, by comparison, captured three hundred vessels.[8] During the American Revolution just a few decades before, America relied heavily on privateering to weaken Great Britain and to plunder supplies desperately needed to sustain the war. The Barbary pirates committed similar acts to those of John Paul Jones, for example, America’s celebrated naval hero who was lauded and promoted to admiral. The Barbary pirates, too, had permission from their governments to plunder vessels of those powers with which they warred, and like the American and French privateers, they often gave their governments a predetermined share of the spoils.[9]

For the deys, beys, and pashas in control of the various North African regencies, a tribute system was a fair way to finance nations. Both the United States and the Barbary powers wanted stable economies, and each side operated under their own cultural assumptions to try to achieve this for themselves: Americans through more free trade and commerce, and coastal North Africans through agriculture and wartime spoils.[10] Despite their goals for economic stability, each economy had developed in part through the riches of privateering.

The eighteenth and nineteenth-century American and North African economies also had a dependence on slave labor in common. Because their families or communities often paid the ransom demanded by North African captors, white Christian slaves were the most profitable cargo for the Barbary pirates.[11] In fact, Christians with status or wealthy families were often bought from the Barbary pirates at the North African slave markets for the specific purpose of holding out for ransom from families or governments. While the Christians waited for their freedom, they were put to work to earn their keep and profit for their masters. They did any number of things: rowing on the galleys, working on a chain gang performing construction work, or using their skills (sailing, literacy, sewing, mathematics, etc.) to do more specialized work. “Barbary economy and society rested on slavery, and slaves could be found in practically every occupation.”[12]

Humphrey Fisher, in his study of slavery in Muslim Africa, found that while the Barbary corsairs took slaves from the ships they preyed on in the Mediterranean or Atlantic, Christian whites were a very small minority of the slaves taken for ransom.[13] Despite this, their experiences comprise the loudest slave voices from North Africa. Their disproportionately represented accounts were reproduced en masse and serve to reveal their experiences, and more importantly, their impressions of the region and its inhabitants[14]

Many of the Christian-American slaves experienced tremendous hunger, and feelings that they were left to “rely on the mercy of sanguinary barbarians.”[15] They were often confined to long hours of harsh, physical labor, and subsisted off of a limited diet of coarse bread, vinegar, and olives. They slept in overcrowded bagnios[16] and were vulnerable to harsh corporal punishment by arbitrary drivers for minor infractions. Because of these conditions, they were the most susceptible to communicable diseases, and many died before returning home.

Other white Christian slaves had better experiences in captivity. Peter Earle found evidence of some slaves that did so well in Barbary that they did not want to return home. They had the option of converting and then were free to live as any North African Muslim would. They could marry, hold titles, and bequeath family fortunes to their Muslim children. The slave who did not wish to convert could succeed in business, pay off his ransom and continue as a free Christian merchant. Some slaves even became Barbary corsairs themselves, opting for the risky yet opportunistic lifestyle. Two captives, Dr. Cowdery and William Ray, both mention a “renegado Scotchman”[17]  by the name of Lysle/Lysh, who converted to Islam, took the Tripolitan name of Murad Rais, married the Bey Jussef Bashaw’s sister and worked as a Barbary corsair for the regency.[18]

Several of the slave narratives mention certain freedoms they held despite their subservient status. If a slave did have the money or leisure, he was free to enjoy the amenities of the city. Dr. Cowdery, for example, was treated reasonably because his medical skills had saved the Bashaw’s son. He enjoyed a varied diet including North African treats like dried fruits and nuts, and was permitted to wander the marketplaces and purchase “figs, watermelons, muskmelons, and cucumbers,” in addition to being “plentifully supplied with squashes and cucumbers” and being treated to food “prepared in the Turkish style” that was “simple and good.”[19]

American sailor James Leander Cathcart, who served on an American privateering vessel during the Revolutionary War, was another slave whose experiences in Barbary were not wholly negative. Cathcart thrived in North Africa, and in his eleven years as a slave in Algiers, he became an entrepreneur. He owned taverns in the bagnios, financed maritime adventures, and obtained the enviable paid position of Chief Christian Secretary to the Algerian dey. In his position, he was able to help resolve diplomatic crises between Algiers and America, and intervene on behalf of the other American slaves. After negotiating his release, Cathcart voluntarily returned to North Africa as the US Consul to Tripoli and Tunis. A similar arrangement had occurred earlier, in 1690, when Rene Lemaire, a French slave in Algiers, was nominated acting consul and acted as a go-between for Dey Cha’ban of Algiers and King Louis XIV.[20]

There are no doubts that most captives taken by the Barbary pirates and enslaved in North Africa yearned for their freedom and homeland. Nevertheless, “…both white and black slaves in North Africa lived more diverse lives, and sometimes much freer lives, than the majority of plantation slaves in the Caribbean or American South.”[21] Slavery in urban North Africa and that under the Anglo-plantation model of the New World cannot be likened at all. Paul Baepler makes the point that “on the surface, the Barbary Captivity narrative appears to invert the situation of the American slave narrative by presenting the testimony of a white slave under African domination rather than a black slave subjugated by a white owner,”[22] but the basis for comparison is spurious at best. North African slavery, while full of hardship and misery, was not institutionalized chattel slavery like in the plantations of the Americas.

By the 1620s, the Barbary captivity narrative had begun to establish itself as a recognizable genre in Europe. The genre gained height of popularity in the colonies during the American Revolution and were soon thereafter compared with black American slave narratives, such as that of Frederick Douglass.[23] They were usually published in broadsides, pamphlets, almanacs or as short novels and plays, but the occasional poem or newspaper article also brought the Barbary captivity narratives to an American audience. In the Pennsylvania Gazette, the most prominent newspaper of early America, there are several instances of books about the Barbary pirates or the North African regencies and kingdoms, printed in Britain, for sale in the colonies.[24]

II. Orientalism and the Barbary Captivity Narratives

Many of the captivity accounts were published multiple times in different places and formats. In total, tales of American captives would eventually appear in over one hundred editions and in several languages, and the majority of early Americans were aware of and outraged by the actions of the Barbary pirates. The citizens as a whole eagerly followed news of their captured countrymen and celebrated their returns.[25]

Slaves that made it back to America were usually left destitute from paying their ransom, so “one of the ways in which they could restore their fortunes was to publish their tales, in the hope of earning a few shillings.”[26] Although labelled as eyewitness accounts, these stories invariably sold better if embellished for the audience.  Baepler points out that most writers of these fantastic tales referred to previous captivity narratives and what had already been written about Africa for advice on how to construct their accounts.[27]

Due to this new-found popularity, several fictional captivity narratives began to surface, and some, like that of Maria Martin, were passed off as nonfiction at the time of their publication and dissemination in the hopes of forthcoming profitability. As Baepler advocates, “if the fictional was sometimes read as true, then fiction helped to shape history, and we need to view these narratives side by side.”[28] Both are equally useful in describing the impact the Barbary pirates had on the American psyche. Whether fiction or forged, the accounts have much to tell us about how the American public conceived of the Barbary pirates, and of North Africans. Furthermore, the presence of fictional accounts attests to the demand for the Barbary captivity narratives, and demonstrates that the American audience was hungry for more details of the exotic Other.

The labels of debauched and cruel pirates are repeated, in one form or another, throughout all of the captivity narratives. In fact, this repetition of stereotypes and likening of pirates with American Indians is the one thing the varied narratives all have in common. The accounts “were never simply stories about individuals under stress, but commentaries on, and by-products of changing power relations over time.”[29] When read in order, the narratives build upon one another, and function as reactionary compasses of American attitudes.

The narratives also served as some of America’s first impressions of Islamic Africa. They were riddled with certain myths that reinforced the negative Orientalist[30] stereotypes. In his significant work, Edward Said mentions the Barbary pirates as part of the limited American experience of the Orient.[31] The Orient itself, he argues, was almost a European invention, and had been “since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”[32] European and early-American culture managed and produced the Orient and gained in strength by defining itself in opposition to it.[33]  This is why the Barbary narratives of European and American captives say more about early-modern Europe and America and Western intentions regarding the Orient than they do about the actual Barbary pirates and their cultures.

In this instance, Orientalism functions as the exchange between the individual writers of the texts about the Orient (i.e., the authors of the captive narratives) and the political concerns shaped by the “three great empires” (Britain, France, and America).[34] These concerns were largely imperial and determined by Western expansion in search of markets, resources and colonies. In the denunciations of Barbary, Americans could see the North African cultures in terms of backwardness and immorality. By projecting this divide between East and West, or between themselves and North Africa, it became justifiable to invade and dominate. Mary Louise Pratt agrees that accounts by Westerners about non-European parts of the world created the domestic subjects of imperialism, as types of writings later similarly legitimized the Western aspirations of economic expansion and empire.[35]

Colonial and early Americans were already aggressively expanding borders and fighting Indians in bloody territorial skirmishes. They had inherited primarily British ideas and attitudes towards non-Europeans and non-whites. Everything Americans wrote or read of the Orient, or the Barbary Coast in this example, was written from this viewpoint. It caused the American and European writers to generalize, stereotype, and denigrate the Orient and its people in their accounts. This phenomenon of Western writings about the Barbary pirates and powers reinforced the stereotypes Americans believed about North Africa and the Muslim corsairs of the Barbary Coast. The public acceptance of these Orientalist stereotypes led to the dehumanization of these people in the American mind, and to public acceptance of the Tripolitan and the Algerian wars.

Frank Lambert points out that Americans tried to make sense of North Africa by exploring the differences between the United States and the Barbary Pirates. In the captivity narratives, American ideals were often pitted against the stereotypical views of the people of the Barbary Coast: lawless versus lawful, freedom versus despotic oppression, and Protestantism versus Islam. These narratives “singled out the most despicable pirate behavior and compared it with the loftiest American ideals… the United States was locked in a struggle of liberty versus tyranny and good versus evil.”[36] Therefore, the same types of ideas and language crop up in nearly all of the captivity narratives.

III. Common Themes in the Christian Slaves’ Accounts

One of the first popular myths that can be found throughout the captivity narratives is that all non-European or non-Americans are “barbaric,” and that all “Barbarians” are the same. Take, for example, an excerpt from John Foss, the American sailor mentioned earlier:

The turks are a well built robust people, their complexion not unlike Americans, tho’ somewhat larger, but their dress, and long beards, make them appear more like monsters than human beings.[37]

Foss was captured off the coast of Algiers. Undoubtedly, there were some ethnically Turkish people of the Ottoman Empire present, but Foss referred to everyone in the area as Turkish, indicating that he knew little of the ethnic makeup of the region and was unable to tell apart the various peoples residing in Algiers. From the extract, it is also apparent that his criteria for what qualifies as a “human being” is decidedly Anglo-centric, and those that do not conform are portrayed as monsters. The dehumanization of the Algerians due to Orientalist ideas is strongly evident. Thomas Pellow’s earlier account from the 1730s is similar. He wrote: “The enemy seemed to me as monstrous ravenous creatures, which made me cry out ‘Oh Master! I am afraid they will kill us and eat us!’”[38]

The fear and accusation of cannibalism is one that is echoed numerous times with regard to Native Americans as well as Barbary pirates, and the presence of constant derogatory comparisons between various North Africans and American Indians are another indicator of American captives’ belief that non-Westerners were barbaric and homogenous. Dr. Cowdery, for example, wrote:

Marriages are proclaimed in Tripoli, by one or two old women, who run through the streets, making a most hideous yelling, and frequently clapping their hands to their mouths, similar to the American Indians in their pow wows.[39]

William Ray was onboard the same ship as Dr. Cowdery when captured by the Barbary pirates. He makes a similar disparaging comparison to a woman he encountered in his captivity:

In the morning, about eight o’clock, an old sorceress came to see us. She had the complexion of a squaw, bent with age, ugly by nature, and rendered frightfully by art.[40]

This rhetoric evokes the same types of derogatory language as that surrounding the Indian Wars. America at this time was expanding borders and commercial realms across the continent, and Christopher Castiglia’s analysis of Native American captivity narratives reveals that this assertion of Native American inferiority suggested an excuse for their routine extermination.[41] Early Americans developed a similar idea in their comparisons of the Barbary powers with the Native Americans; in denigrating the Other, they could justify the wars that Europe was unwilling to fight.

Another theme that most of the captivity narratives share is the portrayal of the Barbary pirates as capricious, childlike, and cruel. In Maria Martin’s account, she describes the pirates as “barbarians” who “began their favorite work, cutting maming [sic] and literally butchering, all that they found on deck.”[42] Dr. Cowdery describes the pirates’ actions:

After the flat of the Philadelphia was struck, and the officers and crew were awaiting the pleasure of their new masters, the Tripolitan chiefs collected their favourites, and, with drawn sabers, fell to cutting and slashing their own men, who were stripping the Americans and plundering the ship. The cut off the hands of some, and it is believed several were killed. After this battle amongst themselves was a little over, we were ordered into the boats to be carried on the shore.[43]

Cowdery’s crewmate William Ray, however, denies Cowdery’s accusations of death and amputation during the corsairs’ infighting:

It is true there was a sort of mutiny and clashing of arms amongst them; but for my part I never saw any hands amputated, nor do I believe there were any lives lost.[44]

Dr. Cowdery made many such accusations about the Barbary pirates and the North Africans in Tripoli. Interestingly, another excerpt of his journal demonstrates that he was as capable as they of cruelty:

August 5. The American squadron anchored off Tripoli. I was ordered to dress the wound of a Mameluke, who had his hand shattered by a bursting of a blunderbuss. I amputated all his fingers but one, with a dull knife, and dressed them in a bungling manner, in hopes of losing my credit as a surgeon in this part of the country, for I expected to have my hands full of wounded Turks in consequence of the exploits of my brave countrymen.[45]

Dr. Cowdery’s matter-of-fact tone at this action connotes underlying sadism. The act of purposely using his reputation as a doctor to harm instead of heal is on par with the most striking acts of brutality in all of the readily available captivity narratives.

The varied slave narratives also share the impression that Islam itself is antiquated, barbaric, backward, or somehow the reason for the Barbary pirates’ plundering behaviors. William Ray’s surprise at the kindness of the religious figures (“Mahometan saints of Anchorites,”) who “offered me a piece of bread in the name of the prophet, pitied my situation, and really appeared to possess philanthropy,”[46] demonstrates early Americans’ negative assumption of Muslims and Islam. Antagonism is more apparent in the narrative of Francis Brooks, an Englishman held captive in Morocco whose account was reprinted in Boston for the colonial American public. He wrote about his “confinement among those barbarous savages…whose Religion was composed of cruelty, whose customs were extravagant, and whose usages almost intolerable…”[47] These quotes shed light on the American views of Islam and the corsairs, rather than on the religion itself. Later in the formal struggle against the Barbary powers, American leaders made a larger point to denounce religious and civil oppression. They equated Islam to Catholicism as tyrannical, and in opposition to the Protestant American values of freedom.[48]

While there was an antagonism between Christianity and Islam centuries before and during the Crusades and again during the Reconquista when Muslims and Christians were in more direct competition,[49] by the late eighteenth century, riches became more important than religious fervor in the antagonism between the two religions. “One American captive concluded in the 1790s that money was the Algerine god, that the pirates were far more interested in taking prizes than in waging holy war.”[50]

Islamic zeal actually had very little to do with the Barbary pirates’ actions. They plundered Christian ships and took Christian slaves not because of holy war (jihad), but because according to Qur’anic law, other Muslims could not be enslaved in this way. The pointed aversion within the captivity narratives to all things Islamic contributed to the gradual Orientalist dehumanization of the Barbary powers and their corsairs.

IV. Orientalist Language Surfaces in American Newspapers

The antagonistic language used to describe the Barbary pirates and regencies/kingdoms in the captivity narratives also surfaces in early American newspapers such as the Pennsylvania Gazette. In the 1750s (with the Tripolitan and Algerine Wars fifty or more years in the future) the language concerning the Barbary pirates is predominately neutral, and the corsairs are mentioned with impartiality. The tone of the articles implies the purpose of imparting news, and little more. As the conflicts with the corsairs escalate, and more Americans become aware of the incidents between their kinsmen and the North African pirates, the language begins to mimic that of the slave narratives.

From 1750 to 1785, the Pennsylvania Gazette is filled with reports of the Barbary corsairs and their regencies. The Christmas edition of 1758, for example, mentions that the last letters from Barbary reported two English vessels being taken by the corsairs off the coast of Sale (Sallee). The current letter is written to inform the American colonies that

the Emperor… is greatly incensed at the taking these Vessels, and that he had sent an Alcayde, with a Party of Horse, to bring in Chains the two Captains of the Cruizers [sic] who took them; that he intended to write a Letter to Lord Hume… assuring him that these Captures were contrary to his Orders, and that he will chastise his Captains; for that he is perfectly inclined to keep Peace and Friendship with us.[51]

Another letter published in 1763 mentions the corsairs engaged in plunder. Still, the language is decidedly neutral:

Captain Shearman Clarke, arrived here last Week from Teneriffe, in 35 Days Passage, and advises, That the Trade there has been for some Time much infested by three Barbary Corsairs, viz. Two Chebecks and a Galley, who had made many Captures, and continued to take all Vessels they met with, that were not provided with a Mediterranean Pass.[52]

These examples demonstrate objectivity with the sole purpose of conveying news. There is a distinct lack of value judgments placed on the corsairs’ activities in the Mediterranean. The very choice in language—the use of “corsairs” instead of “pirates” implies an understanding of these men as working under an authority, and in the first example, the authority figure in question is perceived as someone that America can maintain friendship with, implying an inherent equality in status.

In the mid-1780s, however, the letters and articles in the Pennsylvania Gazette begin to reflect the type of language found in the captivity narratives. The July 26 edition of 1786 marks the first time the sea-rovers off the coast of North Africa are referred to in the newspaper as “pirates” instead of “corsairs.”[53] After 1786, the term “Barbary pirate” appears with regularity. This marks a change in the American perception of these men. Corsair implies a legal, state-sanctioned status, while pirate draws parallels between the cutthroat outlaws of the Caribbean who could be hung at will by sheer virtue of being a pirate. The shift in terminology reflected a transformation in the Americans’ view of the Barbary pirates, from men that had to be treated honorably to men that could be violently terminated.

Another comparison from the captivity narratives that made its way into the early American newspapers was that between the Barbary corsairs and the Native Americans. In numerous instances the Barbary corsairs are compared to the “savages of the frontier”, implying that non-Europeans/Americans are all barbarous, all similar, and all deserve the same bloody fate. A March 22, 1786 entry in the Pennsylvania Gazette reads:

…and rescue it from the predatory invasions of the Barbary states. The hostile conduct of the savages on our frontiers – the unexampled behaviour of our late enemy, in holding our posts contrary to the treaty, bridling the country, and depriving us of the advantages which would otherwise arise from it; and above all, that due and sacred regard which a nation ought ever to pay to her engagements…[54]

One might wonder, given America’s history of broken treaties with its native populations, if the irony of this statement occurred to contemporary readers.

Another entry from 1794 makes a similar comparison: “Our savage enemies in the Western Territory, and on the coasts of Barbary, are evils of the most painful nature…”[55]

Again the Barbary pirates are perceived as the same type of impediment to American progress as the Native Americans.

In reflecting the language of the captivity narratives, the articles in the Pennsylvania Gazette draw parallels between the Barbary corsairs and the pirates of the Caribbean as well as the Native Americans. They intimate that the corsairs of the North African Mediterranean could be treated as actual pirates or as Native Americans, rather than as the naval forces of established regencies. “In viewing the pirates as barbarians, Americans evoked dark images from antiquity that they reserved for their worst enemies.”[56] The implications of this are sinister: in the American mind, the corsairs no longer belonged to states that could be diplomatically reasoned with, but to a menace to be exterminated through warfare in the name of American freedoms.[57]

V. Jefferson’s and Adams’ Use of Orientalist Language in the Prelude to War

The Orientalist stereotypes perpetuated first by the captivity narratives and later reproduced in early American newspapers was replicated by the American Founding Fathers as they contemplated war. Although Thomas Jefferson had a republican reputation for noninterventionism and pacifism as president, he believed that a naval squadron in the Mediterranean would be a more cost efficient means to protect American shipping in the area. At the beginning of the war, his message was clear: “Unlike tribute-paying Europeans, freedom-loving Americans would rid themselves of the piratical pestilence.”[58]

Thomas Jefferson’s language linked the imprisonment of the captives to that of the nation.[59] He provided six reasons for going to war. Firstly, justice demanded that the captors of American citizens be punished. Secondly, America’s honor as a free nation required defense. Jefferson was also adamant that going to war would cost less than paying tribute and that war was at least “equally effectual” as negotiation in the short term, but with a higher long-term potential. Furthermore, going to war would centralize and therefore strengthen the federal government by providing it with “the instruments of coercion over its delinquent members.” By fighting Algiers the United States would earn respect in Europe, which would lend an advantage in future economic dealings with the current European superpowers.[60] One might ask: would these expansionist objectives have seemed plausible in justifying war with a European nation?

John Adams, who ardently opposed warring with the Barbary powers, nevertheless looked upon North Africa through Orientalist eyes as well, presuming that “If we could even send a force sufficient to burn a town[61] …their unfeeling governors would only insult and deride.”[62]  Thomas Jefferson’s reply to such ideas was that it would be humiliating to the United States to treat with “such enemies of the human race,”[63] as if the Barbary pirates or their regencies/kingdoms were not a part of that race.

Thus the bellicose words of the founders, as well as those in the Pennsylvania Gazette, echo the Orientalist concepts of the captivity narratives. In their use of language, the founding fathers implied that the rulers of the Barbary Coast were cruel, even regarding their own citizens, and that they were subhuman. These ideas function as a justification for retribution and military action, and made Jefferson’s commerce and status-oriented reasons for declaring war more palatable to an American public that was accustomed to the North Africans being depicted as backward savages from reports of the very first encounters.

VI. Conclusion

“By constructing North Africa as monstrous and by combating this so-called ‘barbarity’, Anglo-America and later the U.S. were able to portray their country as just and honorable.”[64] This type of dichotomy is precisely what the captivity narratives and the Pennsylvania Gazette created with their language. The principle of Orientalism and Orientalist language is that the other is constructed in opposition to the self. The way in which American viewed the Barbary powers, therefore, allowed the young republic to construct itself as a free and commerce-based nation. The idea of the American identity as superior to that of the Barbary States allowed for America to invoke principles in its proto-imperialistic wars with North Africa. Although America did not go on to colonize North Africa, it did inherit the European mentality of imperial expansion, and the Barbary Wars were one of the early manifestations of this mindset.

It is important not to underestimate the power of words. “The horrid proceedings of these merciless barbarians,”[65] elicits a profoundly different set of assumptions and emotions than a more neutral phrase would. The captivity narratives titillated and enraged readers, and shaped their condescending views of North Africa, leaving “a lasting impression on the American psyche.”[66] These views can be traced in the evolution of their mimicry in the Pennsylvania Gazette, and in the language used by the policymakers throughout the course of the Barbary conflicts. This in turn helps to explain why the revolutionary American foreign policy did not face tremendous opposition from the public.

“The Tripolitan War (1803-1805) marked the first prolonged engagement of the new U.S. Navy and demonstrated the nation’s ability to exert its will across the Atlantic.”[67] Lambert agrees; he understands the conflicts between America and Barbary as a struggle for the fledgling country’s prominence in the Atlantic World. It “pitted two marginal players in the Atlantic World against each other as each sought to better its position vis-à-vis Europe’s maritime powers.”[68] The American captures and enslavements of the late eighteenth century exposed the United States as weak and disjointed ex-colonies of Britain. The outcome of the wars demonstrated the young nation’s viability and would earn it the recognition it craved on the international stage. This recognition, however, came at a price: Americans came to rely on the employment of Orientalist tropes to justify violent and reactionary responses towards a vaguely defined Islamic Other that continues into the present day.


1. John D. Foss. “Together with some account of the treatment of Christian Slaves When Sick: — and Observations on the Manners and Customs of the Algerines.” (Newburyport, MA: A. March 1798) in Paul Baepler, ed. White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 73. [↑]

2. Both the terms “Barbary” and “pirate” in this context require explanations. Barbary was the accepted British and American all-purpose term used for the entirety of the North African region, excluding Egypt. Ann Thompson in Barbary and Enlightenment: European Attitudes Towards the Maghreb in the 18th Century, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1987) p. 6 maintains that “…it is possible to discern a set of attitudes and reactions concerning Barbary in general. It was felt to possess a certain unity, despite the differences which were seen to exist between the different Regencies…” The term does not acknowledge the diverse people of this broad region: Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Moriscoes, expatriate Europeans, Levantines, Turkish/Ottoman soldiers, and other various tribal people. Despite the problematic nature of the term, it is used often in both the primary and secondary sources, and so I use it as well to avoid confusion. The term “pirate” in this context is also controversial. Pirates of all sorts had been pillaging ships and making slaves of the crew and passengers onboard for as long as people have sailed on the Mediterranean. The Barbary corsairs were a fraction of the various people making their fortunes through plunder rather than through trade, and also served as merchants, privateers and various North African Naval forces. [↑]

3. Richard Parker’s Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History (Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 2004) accuses the bibliography of the Barbary pirates relations with the United States of being severely Americocentric in his forward, p.xvi. [↑]

4. Joseph Wheelan. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805. (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003), xxiv, xxvi [↑]

5. Stephen Clissold. The Barbary Slaves. (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977), 150, [↑]

6. Marwan M. Obeidat. “Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive and the Barbary Orient: An Example of America’s Early Literary Awareness of the Near East,” in The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Vol.5, Issue 2, 1998, 256. [↑]

7. Parker, 6 [↑]

8. Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 95 [↑]

9. Earle explains the institutionalized rules of plunder. According to the Qur’an, one-fifth of income should go to God, or to God’s representative on earth: the head of state. Other proportions of the loot went for the upkeep of the port. After this, half of it went to the owners of the ship (which could be again the state, or a private owner, or occasionally a Barbary pirate who had invested well), and the other half was divided among the crew according to an agreement that was satisfactory to all involved in obtaining the spoils.  See Earle, 72-75. [↑]

10. Lambert 100-115 [↑]

11. Earle 12, 76 [↑]

12. Ibid., 77-82 [↑]

13. Humphrey J. Fisher. Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa. (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 317-335.  [↑]

14. For a detailed analysis of the dispersal of these captivity narratives and news from the Barbary states, see Lawerence Peskin’s new release titled Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785-1816, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). [↑]

15. William Ray. Horrors of Slavery, or the American Tars in Tripoli. (Troy, NY: Olivery Lyon, 1808) edited by Hester Blum (New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2008), 62. [↑]

16. The bagnio was the slave prison where slaves that were not kept with their owners at night could sleep and store their belongings. Reports of the bagnios range from reasonable but sparse accommodation, to filthy holes in the ground, and in all likelihood, the conditions varied from bagnio to bagnio. [↑]

17. Jonathan Cowdery. “American Captives in Tripoli; or, Dr. Cowdery’s Journal in Miniature. Kept During his Late Captivity in Tripoli. 2nd ed.” (Boston: Belcher and Armstrong, 1806) in Baepler, White Slaves, African Masters, 166. [↑]

18. For exploration of a similar story, see Margo Todd, “Puritans, Pirates, and the Drama of Reconciliation,” in The Seventeenth Century, 11 (1997), 37-56. [↑]

19. Cowdery, 170 [↑]

20. Clissold, 51-52 [↑]

21. Colley, 59 [↑]

22. Baepler, White Slavery in Africa, 86. [↑]

23. Baepler, White Slaves, African Masters, 25-29. [↑]

24. For example, see the May 30, 1751 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, entitled “Just Imported in the Wandsworth, Capt. Smith, and to be Sold.” [↑]

25. Peskin, 7-23 and Baepler, White Slaves in Africa, 45. [↑]

26. Milton, 7. [↑]

27. Baepler, White Slaves, African Masters, 36. [↑]

28. Ibid., 12. [↑]

29. Colley, 98 [↑]

30. Edward Said’s theories on Orientalism remain some of the most influential ideas regarding Western dialogue about the Middle East. His main point is that the imperialistic and colonizing behaviors of Europe and later, the United States, can be explained through the ways these deep-seated assumptions and stereotypes were made to justify imperial expansion. In other words, Europeans and Americans remained ignorant regarding the Middle East and Islamic Culture (which they have traditionally grouped together as simply “the Orient”), and based their assumptions on a series of stereotypes which later helped them to justify the brutalities of empire-building. [↑]

31. Edward Said. Orientalism. (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 290 [↑]

32. Ibid, 1. [↑]

33. Marwan Obeidat agrees that “in their perception of the Barbary Wars, American writers generally relied on traditional European views and stereotypes…” in Obeidat, 257. [↑]

34. Said, 15. [↑]

35. Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. (London: Routledge, 1992), 4-5 [↑]

36. Lambert, 105-106 [↑]

37. Foss, 92. [↑]

38. Thomas Pellow as cited in Milton, 58 [↑]

39. Cowdery, 184 [↑]

40. Ray, 190. [↑]

41. Christopher Castiglia. Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2.  [↑]

42. Maria Martin. History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Maria Martin, Who was Six Years a Slave in Algiers: Two of Which She Was Confined in a Dark and Dismal Dungeon, Loaded With Irons: To Which is Annexed a History of Algiers, a Description of the Country, the Manners and Customs of the Natives-Their Treatment to Their Slaves-Their Laws and Religion &c, &c. (Boston: W. Crary, 1807) in Baepler, 149. [↑]

43. Cowdery, 161. [↑]

44. Ray, 188 [↑]

45. Cowdery, 171 [↑]

46. Ray, 201 [↑]

47. Francis Brooks. Barbarish Truth Being A True History of the [unintelligible] Condition of the [unintelligible] under the Tyranny of Ithmael Emperor of Morocco and King of Fez and [unintelligible] Barbary. In Which is Likewise Given a Particular Account of His Late Wars with the Algerines. The Manner of His Pirates Taking the Christians and Others. His Breach of Faith With Christian Princes. A Description of his Castles and Guards, and the Places Where He Keeps His Women, His Slaves and Negroes. With a Particular Relation of the Dangerous Escape of the Author, and Two English Men More From Thence, After a Miserable Slavery of Ten Years. (Boston: S. Phillips, 1700), 6. [↑]

48. Lambert, 112-120. It is important to note here that the stereotype of Catholicism as oppressive was inherited from the British perpetuations of the Black Legend. This perpetuation was responsible for a large part of the anti-Catholic sentiment in early America and functioned as justification for British and later American encroachment onto Spanish territory. [↑]

49. For more information about the Crusades and the Reconquista, see Jonathan  Riley-Smith.  The Oxford History of the Crusades (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), or Joseph O’Callaghan. Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). [↑]

50. As cited in Lambert, 8. [↑]

51. Extract of a Letter from Gibraltar, Aug 16,” Pennsylvania Gazette, December 25, 1758.  [↑]

52. “Newport, August 15,” Pennsylvania Gazette, August 25, 1763. [↑]

53. Pennsylvania Gazette, July 26, 1786. [↑]

54. “Philadelphia, March 22,” Pennsylvania Gazette, March 22, 1786 [↑]

55. “No. 1 The Farmer’s and Improver’s Friend,” Pennsylvania Gazette, July 9, 1794. [↑]

56. Lambert, 119 [↑]

57. For more information regarding the ways in which Native Americans were perceived and treated by Americans while Americans were in conflict with the Barbary Pirates, see the collection of essays edited by Richmond Brown entitled Coastal Encounters: Confrontations, Accomodations, and Transformations in the Eighteenth-Century Gulf South. (University of Nebraska Press, 2006). [↑]

58. Lambert, 129 [↑]

59. Baepler, White Slavery in Africa, 52 [↑]

60. Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 11, 1786 in Naval Documents Related to the United States War with the Barbary Powers, Volume I. (Washington, D.C., 1939), 10. [↑]

61. The United States frequently burned Native American settlements and tribal lands under a “scorched-earth policy” as part of the routine ways of dealing with Native American resistance to Anglo-American expansion, and I believe this is what John Adams is referring to here. [↑]

62. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. Vol 8 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1856), 218. [↑]

63. Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Ibid, 218. [↑]

64. Baepler, White Slavery in Africa, 67 [↑]

65. Thomas Nicholson. An Affecting Narrative of the Captivity and Suffering of Thomas Nicholson [A Native of New Jersey] Who Has Been Six Year A Prisoner Among the Algerines, And From Whome He Fortunately Made His Escape A Few Months Previous To Commodore Dacatur’s Late Expedition. To White Is Added A Concise Description of Algiers Of the Customs, Manners &c of The Natives- and Some Particulars of Commodore Decatur’s Late Expedition, Against the Barbary Powers. (Boston: G. Walker, 1816), 9. [↑]

66. Jennifer Costello Brezina, “A Nation in Chains: Barbary Captives and American Identity,” in Captivating Subjects: Writing Confinement, Citizenship, and Nationhoood in the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Jason Harlam  and Julia M. Wright. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 201. [↑]

67. Baepler, White Slavery in Africa, 111. [↑]

68. Lambert, 200. [↑]

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Angela Sutton is working on her PhD in Atlantic History at Vanderbilt University. In her doctoral dissertation, she uses 17th century Dutch, English, and German sources to investigate piracy and the culture of lawlessness surrounding the Atlantic slave trade in Africa and the Americas. Angela has recently joined the editorial team of History Compass Exchanges. Her articles are available online at
All posts by: Angela Sutton | Email | Website

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