Although Slave to Fortune is set in Europe and North Africa, two aspects of the book may be of particular interest to American readers: firstly the reported family connections between one of the principal characters in Tom’s memoir – the corsair captain Murat Reis – and some of the most prominent US families; and secondly the role that Barbary corsairs played in the early days of US independence, how they became a principal concern of fledgling US foreign policy and led to the formation of the US Navy.
This post focusses on these two aspects but it is worth noting more generally that the struggle described in the book between Islamic and Christian or ‘Western’ forces has particular resonance in a modern geopolitical context, and the issue of tackling Islamic extremism (of which the jihad of the Barbary Corsairs might be seen as an expression) remains an area of key concern for US foreign policy almost four centuries after Tom’s memoir was purportedly written.
The Surprising Descendants of Murat Reis
One of the key characters in Slave to Fortune is Murat Reis the Younger, a native Dutchman formerly known as Jan Janszoon. The deeds of this villain of the high seas have been well documented, given the gaping wounds they inflicted on societies as far afield as Ireland and Iceland.
Of particular interest to American readers, is the reported family link between Murat Reis and some of the most prominent families in modern America.
The link occurs because Murat’s fourth son, Anthony Janszoon van Salee, emigrated to America (possibly as the first Muslim to settle in the New World). Anthony went on to become a major landowner in the founding days of New York City (then New Amsterdam) with extensive property in first Manhattan and then Long Island.
As a result of the anti-social behaviour of his first wife, Anthony van Salee was induced to leave lower Manhattan and move across the river, thus becoming the first settler of Brooklyn. Since Coney Island abutted his property (and he was apparently its first ‘grantee’), it was previously referred to as “Turk’s Island”; the word “Turk” likely relating to Anthony’s appearance.
Anthony had four daughters who married into respectable colonial families:
- Eva Antonis, who married Ferdinandus van Sycklin, an original immigrant to New Netherlands for whom Van Siclen Avenue in Brooklyn is named.
- Cornelia, who married William Johnson
- Annica, who married Thomas Southard. Annica and Thomas’s daughter Abigail was the great-great-grandmother of Cornelius Vanderbilt
- Sara, who married John Emans. They were fifth great-grandparents of Warren G. Harding. (29th US President).
Anthony (and hence Murat’s) descendants also include Jackie Kennedy (and hence her children with John F Kennedy) and Humphry Bogard.
In the UK, the Spencer-Churchills (Dukes of Marlborough etc) are similarly reported to have Murat Rais as an ancestor, through the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. Sir Winston Churchill was a member of this broader family, though was not himself a direct descendant of Murat and Anthony.
The Barbary Wars and their role in the formation of the US Navy and US foreign policy
The Barbary Wars of 1801–1805 and 1815–1816 were fought between the USA and, at different times, four North African states known collectively as the Barbary States. Three of these were nominal provinces of the Ottoman Empire, but in practice autonomous: Tripoli (in modern-day Libya), Algiers, and Tunis. The fourth was the independent Sultanate of Morocco.
The First Barbary War
The First Barbary War (1801–1805), also known as the Tripolitanian War, was caused by the seizure of American merchant ships by Barbary corsairs. Prior to independence, American colonists had enjoyed the protection of the British Navy. However, once the United States declared independence, British diplomats were quick to inform the Barbary States that US ships were open to attack. In 1785 Dey Muhammad of Algiers declared war on the United States and captured two American ships, the Maria and the Dauphin. The crews of Maria and Dauphin remained in captivity for over a decade and were soon joined by crews of other ships captured by Barbary corsairs.
In an attempt to address the challenge posed by the Dey of Algiers, Thomas Jefferson, then US Minister to France, attempted to build a coalition of naval powers to defeat Algiers, but was unsuccessful. However, the Kingdom of Portugal was also at war with Algiers and blocked Algerian ships from sailing past the Straits of Gibraltar. As a result, U.S. merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean remained safe for a time. In 1793 a brief Portuguese-Algerian truce once again exposed American merchant ships to capture, forcing the United States, which had thus far only managed to conclude a treaty with Morocco, to engage in negotiations with the other Barbary States.
The adoption of the Constitution in 1789 had given the US Government the power to levy taxes and to raise and maintain armed forces – powers which had been lacking under the Articles of Confederation. In 1794, in response to the continuing demand for tribute and Algerian seizures of American ships, Congress authorized construction of the first 6 ships of the US Navy. With the reformation of the US Navy (following its disbanding after the American Revolutionary War), it became feasible for America to refuse to pay tribute. Nevertheless, in 1795, the US Government sent diplomats to North Africa and successfully concluded treaties with the states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Under the terms of these treaties, the United States continued to pay tribute to these states. The treaty with Algiers freed around 100 American sailors at a cost to the US government of over $1 million. The US government continued to pay up to $1 million per year (reckoned at approximately 10% of the US government’s annual revenues at that time) over the next 15 years for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages – a policy that was opposed by Jefferson.
On Jefferson’s inauguration as president in 1801, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 from the new US administration. Putting his long-held beliefs into practice, Jefferson refused the demand. Consequently, on 10 May 1801, the Pasha declared war on the USA in the customary manner of cutting down the flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate.
Before learning that Tripoli had declared war on the United States, Jefferson sent a small squadron, consisting of three frigates and one schooner, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale with gifts and letters to attempt to maintain peace with the Barbary powers. However, in the event that war had been declared, Dale was instructed “to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression”. The American squadron subsequently joined a Swedish flotilla in blockading Tripoli, the Swedes having been at war with the Tripolitans since 1800.
In 1802, Jefferson deployed many of the US Navy’s best ships to the region: Argus, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, Enterprise, Intrepid, Philadelphia and Syren all saw service during the war under the overall command of Commodore Edward Preble. With support from The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in 1803 Preble set up and maintained a blockade of the Barbary ports and undertook a campaign of raids and attacks against the corsair fleets.
During 1804, Preble attacked Tripoli in a series of inconclusive battles. The turning point in the war was the Battle of Derna in 1805. Ex-consul William Eaton, a former army captain, and US Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon led a force of eight U.S. Marines, 500 mercenaries—Greeks from Crete, Arabs, and Berbers—on a march from Alexandria in Egypt across the desert to assault and to capture the Tripolitan city of Derna. This was the first time in history the United States flag was raised in victory on foreign soil. The action is memorialized in a line of the Marines’ Hymn—”the shores of Tripoli”.
Subdued by the blockade and raids, and now under threat of an assault on Tripoli itself and a scheme to restore his deposed older brother Hamet Karamanli as ruler, Yusuf Karamanli signed a treaty ending hostilities on 10 June 1805, which still involved a ransom payment from the US government to free remaining US captives but no tribute.
The Second Barbary War
The Second Barbary War (1815-16) is also known as the Algerine or Algerian War.
In 1812, the Dey of Algiers, Hajji Ali, rejected the American tribute negotiated in the 1795 treaty as insufficient and declared war on the United States. Algerian corsairs captured an American ship several weeks later. In accordance with an agreement between the Dey and British diplomats, the Algerian declaration was timed to coincide with the start of the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. The war with Britain prevented the US Government from either confronting Algerian forces or ransoming US captives in Algiers. Once the war with Britain had ended, President James Madison was able to request that Congress declare an authorization of force on Algiers, which it did on 3 March 1815. The US Navy, greatly increased in size after the War of 1812, was able send an entire squadron, led by Commodore Stephen Decatur, to the Mediterranean.
When the US naval expedition arrived in Algiers, a new ruler, Dey Omar, was in power. Omar knew he could no longer count on British support against the Americans. Decatur had already defeated two Algerian warships and captured hundreds of prisoners of war, and was in a favorable position for negotiation. Dey Omar reluctantly accepted the treaty proposed by Decatur that called for an exchange of US and Algerian prisoners and an end to the practices of tribute and ransom. Having defeated the most powerful of the Barbary States, Decatur sailed to Tunis and Tripoli and obtained similar treaties. In Tripoli, Decatur also secured from Pasha Karamanli the release of all European captives.
The war between the Barbary States and the US ended in 1815. The wider international dispute was effectively ended the following year by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The war brought an end to the American practice of paying tribute to the Barbary states and helped mark the beginning of the end of piracy in the region. But it was not quite the end. Although they captured no more US ships, corsairs began to resume raids in the Mediterranean and despite punitive British bombardments did not end their practices until the French conquest of Algeria in 1830.
In terms of long-term legacy, the Barbary Wars demonstrated that America could execute a war far from home, and that American forces had the cohesion to fight together as Americans rather than separately as Georgians or New Yorkers. The United States Navy and Marines became a permanent part of the American administration.
The Tripoli Monument, the oldest military monument in the USA, honours the heroes of the First Barbary War. Originally known as the Naval Monument, it was carved of Carrara marble in Italy in 1806 and brought to the USA on board Constitution (“Old Ironsides”). From its original location in the Washington Navy Yard, it was moved to the west terrace of the national Capitol and finally, in 1860, to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.