George Washington and the Barbary Coast Pirates

Before 1785 the United States under the Articles of Confederation had few concerns about attacks from the Barbary Coast pirates. In that year, Spain and Algiers signed a truce, which meant that Spanish ships would no longer patrol the Strait of Gibraltar to keep the Barbary corsairs trapped in the Mediterranean Sea. One consequence of this was an increase in piracy in the Atlantic Ocean, and on 25 July 1785 Algerian pirates captured the Maria off the coast of Portugal, taking its crew as hostages. On 30 July in nearby waters other pirates overtook the Dauphin, captained by Richard O’Bryen. Each American ship had a crew of twenty-one. O’Bryen soon became the spokesman for the hostages, and he periodically appealed to his government for subsistence money and funds to redeem the captives.

As minister to France under the Articles, Thomas Jefferson assumed the task of pursuing peace with the Dey of Algiers. However, he preferred war as the only sure way to thwart piracy, as opposed to the tribute system favored by European nations. Jefferson feared the United States, as a new nation, would be setting a bad precedent if it paid a higher ransom than did Europeans–finding American hostages to be uniquely valuable, the pirates might attack American shipping with more fervency than ever. Yet Jefferson even refused to reimburse well-meaning Spanish diplomats who had paid to keep the Americans alive and in prison, which prevented their sale as “infidel” slaves by their Algerian captors to other Muslims in North Africa. The only attempt made to free the captives and achieve a peace failed because the American diplomat sent by Jefferson was not authorized to meet the Dey’s high ransom demands. As the United States changed its form of government and George Washington’s first administration began, O’Bryen and his comrades got lost in the shuffle. Many died in a plague that swept through Algiers in 1787-1788, and some died of other diseases soon thereafter. By 1792 only ten of O’Bryen’s crew were left alive.

Since 1786 Portugal had played Spain’s former role as guardian of the Strait of Gibraltar, thus keeping the corsairs out of the Atlantic. The Portuguese naval presence also kept the Algerian pirates confined to their ports, which enabled American ships to enter the Mediterranean after the signing of a U.S.-Moroccan peace treaty in 1786. But when Washington learned that Portugal was engaged in negotiations with Algiers, he realized that peace between those two nations would endanger American shipping even in the Atlantic. The Washington administration thus turned its attention toward Algiers, which had a new Dey, Hassan Bashaw, whom O’Bryen claimed was more reasonable than the last.

The first of Washington’s diplomatic maneuvers with Algiers came in 1792 but failed even in providing subsistence relief for the captives. However, that same year Congress allocated funds to be used not only to redeem the hostages, but also to establish a lasting peace. After delays caused by the deaths of tis first two negotiators, John Paul Jones and Thomas Barclay, the United States signed a treaty with Algiers in 1795. Besides agreeing to pay an immediate $642,500 to ransom the captives, the United States also promised to provide Algiers with $21,600 worth of naval stores annually to protect American ships from piracy.

Soon negotiations with other Barbary states began, and a peace treaty, negotiated by the now free Richard O’Bryen in his capacity as the new U.S. consul to Algiers, was signed with Tripoli. Several years later Tripoli decided that it was strong enough to demand new concessions and more money. Jefferson, now commander-in-chief, chose war over continuing the policy of tribute, and waged a successful war against the Basher of Tripoli.


Richard B. Parker. Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Michael L. S. Kitzen. Tripoli and the United States at War: A History of American Relations with the Barbary States, 1785-1805. Jefferson, N.C., and London: MacFarland & Company, Inc., 1993.

Selected Documents:



2 thoughts on “George Washington and the Barbary Coast Pirates

  1. Tina Marie Stinnett , What history you’re talking about ? in 1790’s washington’s United states was a new born country while Algeria was the strongest country in the Mediterranean (which is something we are very proud of in Algeria) and they were protecting smaller countries who couldn’t even protect them selves from a bunch of pirates like United States at that time for some money in return, exactly like the United States is protecting smaller countries now for billions of dollars.
    And just so you know the people who read koran and follow the deeds of Mohammed are the same people who protected your ships from pirates, and if you really know history , you aleady know that Unitd States wasn’t even discovered when followers of Mohammed ruled the World from China in the East to Spain in the west and from Russia in the North to South Africa in the South for more than 1000 Years.

  2. The author of this piece does not mention at all anything about ISLAM. It is a fact that the Barbary pirates read the Koran and followed the deeds and words of Mohammed. Shame on you for your political correctness. People need to know the truth. We’ve had enough of these omissions which amount to no less than lying about our American history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *