Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bainbridge Sails Again

The dramatic release of the MV Maersk Alabama and the rescue of her captain from pirates off Somalia have been widely applauded as a major success for the Obama administration. But it’s not the first time the United States has flexed its muscle to protect American interests from pirates on the high seas, and it won’t be the last.

The Maersk Alabama was a 17,000 ton cargo ship containing emergency relief supplies destined for Kenya. Somali, enveloped in anarchy and poverty, has been a hotbed for pirates in recent years because of the enormous profits involved. There have been seventy pirate attacks since January, and 14 foreign ships and 260 crewmen are currently being held for ransom. The Maersk Alabama was the first American-flagged ship to be waylaid in almost 200 years.

Piracy has been around for centuries. Any local warlord with a few fast boats could hijack a passing merchant ship and hold it for ransom from its owner. Safe passage could sometimes be guaranteed in advance by the payment of tributes to local leaders, for whom it became a lucrative source of revenue. Although only used once during World War II, Article I of our Constitution authorizes Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal, meaning we could enter the piracy business if we wanted.

Dealing with piracy was one of the first great international challenges of the United States. After the American Revolution, our fledgling Navy was inadequate to protect shipping that was so essential to the country’s survival. In 1784, Congress began allocating protection money for pirates along the Barbary Coast of the Mediterranean. Thomas Jefferson, then the ambassador to France, argued that paying tribute would only encourage more attacks, but in the short run it was less expensive to pay the tribute until an adequate Navy could be built. By 1800, the ransoms and tributes we were paying amounted to twenty percent of the annual revenues of the United States.

When Jefferson became president in 1801, the ruler of Tripoli demanded $225,000 from the United States for safe passage through the Mediterranean. Jefferson refused, and began deploying ships and blockading ports on the Barbary Coast. For the next four years, American ships clashed sporadically with pirate frigates. One American ship, the USS Philadelphia, ran aground in Tripoli harbor while chasing a pirate ship, and was converted to a Tunisian gun battery against the Americans until it was torched by Stephen Decatur Jr. and the U.S. Marines four months later.

In 1805 an expedition of eight Marines and 500 mercenaries marched from Egypt to capture the city of Derna, marking the first time the American flag was raised in victory on foreign soil.

Under assault and weary of the blockade on his port, the ruler of Tripoli signed a peace treaty with the United States, exchanging captives for $60,000 in ransom. The U.S. had proven it could execute a war far from home, could support a navy, and could fight as one country rather than separate states.

When the United States became distracted with the War of 1812 with England, piracy resumed, and the United States had little choice but to start paying ransoms again.

After the war ended, the United States sent ten ships to the Barbary Coast and forced the pirate ruler to capitulate. The resulting treaty ensured no further tributes and granted the United States full shipping rights to this day.

The great irony of this story is the history behind the USS Bainbridge. Launched in 2004, she is the fifth American warship named for Commodore William Bainbridge. In 1800, as captain of the USS George Washington, it was Bainbridge who delivered American tributes to pirate leaders along the African coast. While making a delivery to the ruler in Algiers, he made the mistake of anchoring in the harbor directly under the guns of the fort. The ruler insisted that Bainbridge hoist the Algerian flag and shuttle the Algerian ambassador on an errand to Turkey, or be sunk; Bainbridge complied with the embarrassing demand, much to the delight of the pirates.

In 1803 Bainbridge was the captain of the ill-fated Philadelphia when it became stranded in Tunisia. He was held captive in Tripoli for nineteen months. After he was released as part of Jefferson’s treaty with Tripoli, he served as captain of the USS Constitution during the War of 1812 and later against the Barbary pirates after the war with England ended.

Renegade pirates are no match for Navy Seals, and it’s clear this administration will have little patience for such behavior against United States interests. It’s good to see America’s respect being earned again around the world.

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