Pirates: An Early Test for the New Country

Today’s post comes from Tom Eisinger, senior archivist at the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC.

Richard O’Bryen's letter to Thomas Jefferson, first page, July 12, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Richard O’Bryen’s letter to Thomas Jefferson, first page, July 12, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

When Richard O’Bryen, captain of the Philadelphia ship Dauphin, penned his July 12, 1790, letter to Thomas Jefferson, he had been a captive of the Barbary pirates in Algeria for almost five years.

This letter, and others, helped bring attention to an unexpected problem the Federal Government inherited from the government under the Articles of Confederation: pirates.

The new nation was faced with the questions: What could be done about the Barbary pirates? And what could be done for the American prisoners held for ransom in Algeria?

In the late 18th century, the Barbary pirates were a well-known problem in Europe. These pirates—who came from Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunisia—captured vessels sailing in the Mediterranean Sea and held their crews for ransom.

To free a captured vessel, European nations were forced to pay the ransom. Some European nations signed treaties with the four Barbary nations and paid tribute for safe passage of their vessels.

The Barbary pirates were not an issue for the American colonies while they were under the protection of the British Empire or during the Revolutionary War while they were under the protection of France. However, those protections effectively ended in September 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolutionary War and freeing the United States from British rule.

Richard O’Bryen's letter to Thomas Jefferson, last page, July 12, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Richard O’Bryen’s letter to Thomas Jefferson, last page, July 12, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

In October 1784, the Boston brig Betsey was captured by Moroccan pirates. On July 25, 1785, Algerian pirates captured the Boston schooner Maria. Less than a week later, the Algerians also captured Captain O’Bryen’s ship, the Dauphin. Americans had a rude awakening to their hopes of free trade throughout the world.

Morocco released the crew of the Betsey and concluded a peace treaty with the United States that the Confederation Congress ratified in July 1787.

Peace with Algiers, however, was much harder to achieve. The Dey (ruler) of Algiers refused to negotiate a peace treaty and demanded $59,496 in ransom to release the crews of the Maria and Dauphin. Since that amount of money was not available, the 21 captives remained enslaved in Algiers.

The Algerian situation highlighted the weaknesses of the government under the Articles of Confederation. The Confederation Congress did not have the money to build a navy that would protect American vessels, or pay any tribute or ransom to the Barbary States because they could not levy taxes. In fact, this was one of the motivating factors in creating the Constitution, ratified in 1788, which gave the new Federal Government significantly more power.

Even after the Constitution was ratified, the Federal Government did not address the situation with Algeria right away.

Captives and their family members were hardly quiet while they awaited action from the new government.

Richard O’Bryen's letter to Thomas Jefferson, page showing ransom rates, July 12, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Richard O’Bryen’s letter to Thomas Jefferson, page showing ransom rates, July 12, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

One of the more prolific writers was Captain O’Bryen. The document featured here was one such missive, penned by O’Bryen to Thomas Jefferson on July 12, 1790. Secretary of State Jefferson sent a copy of this and other letters to the First Federal Congress in order to keep Congress up to date on the situation with the captives in Algiers.

O’Bryen’s 11-page letter outlined both the plight of the remaining 14 captives and the status of current negotiations.

It also explained the price set for the captives’ release, which was a total of 17,225 sequins (each sequin was worth 8 shillings sterling at the time).

The price for O’Bryen and Isaac Stephens, the captain of the Maria, was set at 3,000 sequins apiece. O’Bryen closed the letter by expressing his faith that the government would immediately see the necessity of paying the price for its citizens’ freedom.

In this case his faith was misplaced and Congress didn’t approved a treaty with Algiers until September 1795. The final cost of the return of all 119 captives (other ships were captured after the Maria and Dauphin), and peace with Algiers was $642,000, plus $21,000 in annual tribute.

In addition, the United States provided four naval vessels to Algiers, including a 36-gun frigate.

President George Washington was unhappy with the arrangement, but realized the United States had little choice in the matter.

The long wait for freedom did nothing to dim Captain O’Bryen’s loyalty to his country. Upon his release in 1796, he was appointed consul general to Algiers, a position he held until 1803.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Senate transmitting O'Bryen's letter, January 20, 1791. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Thomas Jefferson’s message to the Senate transmitting O’Bryen’s letter, January 20, 1791. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

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