Part 1: The Pirates

Like most obsessions, I suppose, it started small.  I read a tidbit in a Florida history book about the grandmother of Florida’s first senator. She was captured by Barbary pirates, sold to the vizier of the king of Morocco and later escaped to Gibraltar.

 Was that it? I asked myself. What happened then? Did she ever return to her family? Would they have accepted her if she did? How did she survive such devastating circumstances? And was such a bizarre story true?

 I was hooked, and began a 10-year journey to find out what actually happened. The library and the Internet were the first stops.  I quickly learned that piracy was an economic mainstay of the maghreb, the Arabic term for northwest Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria).  The capture, ransom, and enslavement of the pirates’ victims was a profitable enterprise. It still is in Somalia, Indonesia and other parts of the world.

From a community college class on piracy, I learned that the Barbary pirates were often descendants of the Moors cast out of Spain along with the Jews in 1492 . Stripped of property and possessions, the Moors turned to piracy—especially against Christian nations–while the Jews found refuge and other vocations in Morocco and other countries.  

PBS’ Antiques Roadshow added another interesting bit of information. Someone brought in an antique pistol that had belonged to a Barbary pirate. I wrote down the appraiser’s description and used it in the book.

Of course, research for this book included reading about U.S. naval history. European countries, including England, paid a high tribute to the Maghreb kings as a bribe to protect their ships from pirate attack. When the United States declared its independence, Great Britain no longer paid the bribes to protect American ships. As a result, the new country became embroiled in debates about whether to pay tributes to protect its ships, pay ransoms when ships were captured, or to establish a strong navy.

Although the U.S. Navy considers Oct. 13, 1775 as the official date of its establishment in a resolution of the Continental Congress, the Continental Navy was disbanded soon after the end of the Revolutionary War.  When conflicts between American merchant shipping and the Barbary pirates intensified, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, which created the U.S. Navy to protect American shipping.

Side Note:  In 1803, the naval hero Stephen Decatur was given command of the brig Argus. He took it to the Mediterranean for service in the First Barbary War against Tripoli. Once in the combat zone, Lieutenant Decatur took over command of the schooner Enterprise. On Dec. 23,   1803, he captured the enemy ship Mastico, which was taken over by the U.S. Navy and named Intrepid. Decatur used the Intrepid on Feb. 16, 1804, in a night raid on Tripoli harbor to dstroy the U.S. frigate Philadelphia. This ship had been captured after running aground. .This daring and successful operation made Lieutenant Decatur an immediate national hero, a status that was enhanced by his courageous conduct during 3 August 1804 bombardment of Tripoli. In that action, he led his men in hand-to-hand fighting while boarding and capturing an enemy gunboat.

The Research: Part 2 will cover Morocco and its history.