Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History

By Naylor, Phillip C. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History


Naylor, Phillip C., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. By Richard B. Parker. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. Pp. xxviii, 285; 1 map; 14 illustrations. $59.95.

It may come as a surprise to readers that North Africa, specifically the "Barbary Coast" of the Maghrib stretching from Tripolitania to Morocco, played a crucial formative role in the development of American diplomacy and the United States Navy. In a meticulously researched book, distinguished by the use of American, European, and Maghribi archives and sources, Ambassador Richard B. Parker presents a remarkable diplomatic history, which examines the period from 1785 to 1815. Although the fledgling American republic's principal diplomatic interests were in Europe, Parker recounts an array of international challenges posed by the Barbary states, which included hostage seizures, tribute negotiations, and wars. According to the author, "North Africa was a field of pioneering endeavor for American diplomacy" (p. 162). Furthermore, his last chapter argues that the Barbary experience has significant contemporary relevance.

A brilliant constellation of historical stars appears in the book, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, James Madison, and James Monroe, who were deeply involved in Barbary relations. As Parker points out, Jefferson was concerned with North African affairs for twenty years. Renowned for his suspicion of a standing military, Jefferson was one of the earliest advocates for the construction of a navy to reinforce diplomacy with the Barbary states.

After the Preface, which also serves as an introduction, Parker describes the Algiers Regency and its policies, which is very valuable since this veritable Ottoman state has received scant historiographical attention. Its notorious "pirates" were actually "privateers," authorized by the state to seize ships and cargo. Hostages were also prized as a source of labor. Tributes to prevent prédations and ransoms were significant sources of income for the Barbary states. James Cathcart, one of the first Americans to be seized in 1785, eventually served as the Christian secretary of the dey of Algiers. Fellow hostages were less fortunate, however, enduring hard labor and often succumbing from epidemics. Initial efforts to redeem the hostages by Jefferson and Adams, while they served as diplomatic representatives in Europe, revealed their lack of understanding of Maghribi political, cultural, and economic realities. Furthermore, American representatives such as John Lamb and Joseph Donaldson, Jr., who directly negotiated for the hostages' release with the Regency, are assessed as "men of limited imagination" (p. 32). Diplomatic failures also signaled American political weakness, economic parsimony, and military vulnerability. Although Donaldson achieved a peace treaty with Algiers in 1795, it was Joel Barlow who evinced rare sensibilities in perceiving the political nature of the dey and his government and managed to secure the release of the hostages in 1796, with the assistance of Swedish diplomats and local Jewish merchants.

The book principally concentrates on Washington-Algiers affairs, but relations with Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco are also concisely covered. In 1800, the arrival of American warships, to patrol the Mediterranean and to protect American commerce, did not deter Barbary crises and clashes. From 1801 to 1805, Tripoli and the United States were at war. The conflict featured a stout Tripolitanian defense against American blockade and bombardment, a daring raid led by Stephen Decatur that destroyed the captured U.S. frigate Philadelphia, and a courageous if somewhat quixotic campaign by William Eaton and his 400-man army, including U.S. Marines and sailors, resulting in the capture of the city of Dema (in Cyrenaica, far from "the shores of Tripoli" as extolled by the "Marines' Hymn"). Peace was achieved in 1805 and the crew of the Philadelphia was freed. …

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