The Moorish Pirates Of The Mediterranean


I SUPPOSE all the readers of this book know what a pirate is. For those

who may not know, I would say that a pirate is a sea-robber. They are

terrible fellows, these pirates, who live by murder and plunder. In old

times there were many ship-loads of them upon the seas, who captured

every merchant vessel they met with and often killed all on board.

There have been whole nations of pirates, and that as late as a hundred

years ago. By looking at an atlas you will see at the north of Africa

the nations of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. The people of these nations

are called Moors, and they used to be great sea-robbers. They sent out

fast vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, and no merchant ship there was

safe. Hundreds of such ships were taken and robbed. Their crews were not

killed, but they were sold as slaves, which was nearly as terrible.

Would you not think that the powerful nations of Europe would have soon

put a stop to this? They could have sent fleets and armies there and

conquered the Moors. But instead of that, they paid them to let their

ships alone.

Not long after the Revolution these sea-robbers began to make trouble

for the United States. The new nation, you should know, had no navy.

After it was done fighting with the British, it was so poor that it sold

all its ships. But it soon had many merchant ships, sailing to all seas,

which were left to take care of themselves the best way they could.

What did the pirates of Algiers care for this young nation across the

Atlantic, that had rich merchant ships and not a war vessel to protect

them? Very little, I fancy. It is certain that they soon began to

capture American ships and sell their sailors for slaves. In a short

time nearly two hundred American sailors were working as slaves in the

Moorish states.

The United States did not act very bravely. Instead of sending out a

fleet of warships, it made a treaty with Algiers and agreed to pay a

certain sum of money every year to have its vessels let alone. While the

treaty lasted, more than a million dollars were paid to the Dey of

Algiers. If that much had been spent for strong frigates, the United

States would not have had the disgrace of paying tribute to the Moors.

But the natives of Europe were doing the same, so the disgrace belonged

to them also.

The trouble with the Moors got worse and worse, and the Dey of Algiers

became very insolent to Americans.

"You are my slaves, for you pay me tribute," he said to the captain of

an American frigate. "I have a right to order you as I please."

When the other pirate nations, Tunis and Tripoli, found that Algiers was

being paid, they asked for tribute, too. And they began to capture

American ships and sell their crews into slavery. And their monarchs

were as insolent as the Dey.

The United States at that time was young and poor. It had not been

twenty years free from British armies. But it was proud, if it was poor,

and did not like to have its captains and consuls ordered about like

servants. So the President and Congress thought it was time to teach the

Moors a lesson.

This was in 1801. By that time a fleet of war vessels had been built,

and a squadron of these was sent to the Mediterranean under Commodore

Richard Dale. This was the man who had been in Paul Jones's great fight

and had received the surrender of the captain of the Serapis. He was a

bold, brave officer, but Congress had ordered him not to fight if he

could help it, and therefore very little was done.

But there was one battle, the story of which we must tell. Commodore

Dale had three frigates and one little schooner, the Enterprise. All

the honor of the cruise came to this little craft.

She was on her way to Malta when she came in sight of a low, long

vessel, at whose mast-head floated the flag of Tripoli. When this came

near, it was seen to be a corsair which had long waged war on American


Before Captain Sterrett, of the Enterprise, had time to hail, the

Moors began to fire at his ship. He was told not to fight if he could

help it, but Sterrett decided that he could not help it. He brought his

schooner within pistol shot of the Moor, and poured broadsides into the

pirate ship as fast as the men could load and fire. The Moors replied.

For two hours the battle continued, with roar of cannon and rattle of

muskets and dense clouds of smoke.

The vessels were small and their guns were light, so that the battle was

long drawn out.

At last the fire of the corsair ceased, and a whiff of air carried away

the smoke. Looking across the waves, the sailors saw that the flag of

Tripoli no longer waved, and three hearty American cheers rang out. The

tars left their guns and were getting ready to board their prize, when

up again went the flag of Tripoli and another broadside was fired into

their vessel.

Their cheers of triumph turned to cries of rage. Back to their guns they

rushed, and fought more fiercely than before. They did not care now to

take the prize; they wished to send her, with her crew of villains, to

the bottom of the sea.

The Moors fought as fiercely as the Americans. Running their vessel

against the Enterprise, they tried again and again to leap on board

and finish the battle with pistol and cutlass; but each time they were

driven back.

The men at the guns meanwhile poured in two more broadsides, and once

more down came the flag of Tripoli.

Captain Sterrett did not trust the traitors this time. He bade his men

keep to their guns, and ordered the Tripolitans to bring their vessel

under the quarter of the Enterprise. They had no sooner done so than a

throng of the Moorish pirates tried to board the schooner.

"No quarter for the treacherous dogs!" was the cry of the furious

sailors. "Pour it into them; send the thieves to the bottom!"

The Enterprise now drew off to a good position and raked the foe with

repeated broadsides. The Moors were bitterly punished for their

treachery. Their deck ran red with blood; men and officers lay bleeding

in throngs; the cries of the wounded rose above the noise of the cannon.

The flag was down again, but no heed was paid to that. The infuriated

sailors were bent on sending the pirate craft to the bottom.

At length the corsair captain, an old man with a flowing white beard,

appeared at the side of his ship, sorely wounded, and, with a low bow,

cast his flag into the sea. Then Captain Sterrett, though he still felt

like sinking the corsair, ordered the firing to stop.

The prize proved to be named the Tripoli. What was to be done with it?

Captain Sterrett had no authority to take prizes. At length he concluded

that he would teach the Bashaw of Tripoli a lesson.

He sent Lieutenant David Porter, a daring young officer who was yet to

make his mark, on the prize, telling him to make a wreck of her.

Porter was glad to obey those orders. He made the captive Tripolitans

cut down their masts, throw all their cannon and small arms into the

sea, cut their sails to pieces, and fling all their powder overboard. He

left them only a jury-mast and a small sail.

"See here," said Porter to the Moorish captain, "we have not lost a man,

while fifty of your men are killed or wounded. You may go home now and

tell this to your Bashaw, and say to him that in the time to come the

only tribute he will get from the United States will be a tribute of

powder and balls."

Away drifted the wrecked hulk, followed by the jeers of the American

sailors, who were only sorry that the treacherous pirate had not been

scuttled and sent to the bottom of the sea.

When it reached Tripoli the Bashaw was mad with rage. Instead of the

plunder and the white slaves he had looked for, he had only a dismantled


The old captain showed him his wounds and told him how hard he had

fought. But his fury was not to be appeased. He had the white-bearded

commander led through the streets tied to a jackass--the greatest

disgrace he could have inflicted on any Moor. This was followed by five

hundred blows with a stick.

The Moorish sailors declared that the Americans had fired enchanted

shot. This, and the severe punishment of the captain of the Tripoli,

so scared the sailors of the city that for a year after the fierce

Bashaw found it next to impossible to muster a ship's crew. They did not

care to be treated as the men on the Tripoli had been.

Such was the first lesson which the sailors of the new nation gave to

the pirates of the Mediterranean. It was the beginning of a policy which

was to put an end to the piracy which had prevailed for centuries on

those waters.