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The Hostage Rescue, 1796

April 2024
6min read

Nothing is more seductive and false than the illusion of golden yesterdays, a spin-off of the undying human dream of lost innocence. I thought of this recently when I saw the grisly picture of a U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel, kidnapped in Lebanon, dangling lifeless at the end of a terrorist’s rope. It was tempting to think that this could not have occurred in a simpler day, when the world was less disfigured by doctrinaire murderers and America was universally respected. But a moment of recollection brought me down to earth. For the record shows that nearly two hundred years ago more than a hundred American mariners were the hapless captives of a North African Muslim ruler whom the United States had neither the strength nor the will to fight.

As it turned out, this particular set of “hostages” was finally freed in 1796—after the United States had shelled out a stiff ransom. The liberation was managed by an unusual emissary, and his story of the affair, in personal and official letters, tells us a good deal about what has and hasn’t changed in our dealings with peoples and leaders in the southern and eastern Mediterranean.

The negotiator was Joel Barlow, a Connecticut-born Yale graduate (1778), a would-be poet (whose verses are pretty awful to a modern ear), and a failed lawyer. In 1788 he sailed for Paris to sell Ohio wilderness tracts to French emigrants, hoping to earn some money for a change. The trip stretched into a seventeen-year stay, during which Barlow matured into a successful international businessman as well as a witty, congenial, and persuasive citizen of the world and a strong admirer of the French Revolution and associated radicalisms. In 1795 the American Department of State asked him to travel to Algiers and take over uncompleted negotiations for treaties with the so-called Barbary states of North Africa. Barlow spoke three languages, loved travel, was a patriot, and said yes. But he had taken on a brutal task.


The three countries involved—Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis—were onetime provinces of the Ottoman Empire that had gradually become almost independent and were so treated by other nations. All three had small but potent navies that plied Mediterranean waters capturing merchant vessels of foreign nations—especially small foreign nations. The crews and cargoes were then held for ransom to fill the treasuries of the dictatorial Barbary rulers. Sometimes the extortion was practiced wholesale instead of retail—that is, a large sum of “tribute” would be exacted for a treaty that guaranteed immunity to the contributing nation for a period of time.

This seagoing protection racket was rightfully denounced by the civilized world as piracy and a violation of all rules of international law. But the two great naval powers that could have stopped it—France and, in particular, Britain—let it go on because it was especially costly to small maritime states that were commercial competitors, such as Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, and the young, almost unarmed United States.

It should be noted with hindsight that the Barbary states’ depredations were no greater than those inflicted by France and Britain on neutral shipping during their wars with each other. But this was of little comfort to the citizens of President Washington’s America. The administration faced a harsh situation in 1795, with Algiers alone holding 119 Americans who were doing forced labor for its prince, the Dey Hassan Bashaw. Readers will be surprised to learn that Washington’s Federalist advisers responded with pragmatism rather than pride. From their mercantile viewpoint, tribute added to the expense of doing business but was cheaper than building and deploying a navy. So Congress was persuaded to authorize up to eight hundred thousand dollars (about $5.6 million today) in payoff funds. Barlow’s job was to use it to buy freedom for the kidnapped Yankees and long-term peace not only with the Dey but with the rulers of Tripoli and Tunis, over whom the Dey supposedly had some influence.

Barlow set off from Paris on Christmas Day of 1795, his baggage stuffed with twenty-seven thousand dollars’ worth of jeweled pistols, snuffboxes, brocaded robes, and other gifts to soothe what he considered at least a semisavage beast. It took him some eleven weeks of often delayed land and sea travel to cover the approximately eight hundred miles to Algiers.

He found the Dey a challenge to his skill and charm. Hassan Bashaw had already been promised money and he wanted it immediately, or he would make no deal at all and would step up his war on American-flag vessels. At the glacial pace of eighteenth-century international banking, there was simply no way for the United States to raise and transport the bullion that the Dey demanded in a hurry. So to buy time, Barlow made an astonishing offer, which his government astonishingly backed. If your modern sensibilities are offended by the idea of tribute to the “pirates,” consider this: Barlow promised the Dey, in exchange for a ninety-day moratorium on captures, a brand-new thirty-six-gun frigate to be built and delivered by the United States. Talk about arms for hostages and encouraging terrorists! Yet the bargain was made and kept in the presumable hope that Algiers would use its enhanced sea power only against members of the international community other than the United States.

Barlow used the three-month delay well. By June he had managed to borrow some up-front cash from a local Jewish banker, Joseph Bacri, and ransomed the suffering prisoners, whom he promptly sent off toward safety in a chartered ship. Just in time, too, for the plague had broken out in the capital city (also named Algiers). Five captives actually died, and Barlow put his own forty-two-year-old life at considerable risk by frequent visits to those Americans stricken.

His stay in Africa was not over yet. There were still the treaties to complete. In the long months of waiting Barlow took time for tourism. He grew a mustache, he hunted wild boar, he roamed the streets and alleys. He wrote to his adored wife, Ruth, back in Paris, about mosques and “Mohammedans,” veiled women in trousers, and barbaric punishments. Though cheerful and dispassionate, he was still a dismayed man of the Enlightenment in an ancient and unchanged land. He claimed Algiers to be “the haunt of pirates” and a “sewer of all vices, of all impurities that imagination can conceive or monsters practice.” As for the tempestuous Dey, Barlow finally won his off-and-on friendship but no doubt shared the opinion of another American who described Hassan Bashaw as “a huge, shaggy beast, sitting on his rump, upon a low bench, covered with a cushion of embroidered velvet, with his hind legs gathered up like a tailor, or a bear.”

The job took another year, thanks to the slowness of communications, the capriciousness of the Dey, and a generous helping of such customary human ingredients as greed, intrigue, and bad faith on more than one side. There were new actors and new crises, but finally, in autumn 1797, mission fully accomplished, Barlow could get back to Ruth and his neglected private affairs.

In exchange for laying off American shipping, Barlow offered the Dey of Algiers a 36-gun frigate. Talk about arms for hostages!

The long-run sequel is interesting in itself. When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he changed the policy of appeasement, which he had long opposed on grounds of nationalism and principle. Ironically, this enemy of navies who was an indifferent supporter of commerce sent U.S. battle squadrons into a war that thrashed Tripoli and bought Americans safety from future attacks by all the Barbary powers. But the overall problem was not settled until 1830, when France occupied Algiers and went on from there to colonize or control all three of the offending states.

Of course, in comparing America’s problems with the Barbary “pirates” then and with terrorists now, I am being facile. Hassan Bashaw was no Muammar al-Qaddafi, with links to a superpower. Nor was he a faceless kidnapper. Barlow knew with whom he was dealing and where the prisoners were held. And the Dey simply wanted money, not political concessions. Nor did he threaten to kill his victims if his demands were not met—merely to prolong their slavery. He was not an ideologue so much as a hijacker, much easier to deal with. In that sense, Barlow’s era was simpler and more like the fabled “good old days,” right down to the conclusion in which the bullies get their comeuppance.

Yet ambiguity lingers over even that happy ending. It was an improvement from our Western viewpoint. But the subjugation of North Africa by Europeans, unbroken until modern times, left a legacy of hostility among the resident populations that is one source of the potential terrorism that haunts travelers to the region and to the neighboring Middle East. The cycle never ends. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” The long-range and realistic view of history does not encourage backward-glancing sentimentality.

I was further reminded of the footloose Joel Barlow during Lech Walesa’s recent visit, which set off thoughts about historical links between the United States and Poland. Barlow is one of them, though a small one. His grave is on Polish soil. It happened this way. Barlow came home to America in 1805 to settle down outside Washington and enjoy the role of a rich man of letters. But in 1811 the government called on him again, this time to go as minister to France to persuade Napoleon to stop seizing American ships. Barlow—with Ruth—returned to Paris, but Bonaparte was even harder to see than Hassan Bashaw and left on his illfated invasion of Russia (which then included part of Poland) before any serious negotiations could take place. Barlow gamely followed him, hoping for a promised audience at Vilna. But the same bitter winter that destroyed the conquering French army gave Barlow a fatal pneumonia. He died on December 26, 1812, near Krakow, and his body has never been brought back.

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