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thedrifter
04-10-09, 08:27 AM
FRIDAY APRIL 10, 2009 Last modified: Friday, April 10, 2009 3:46 AM EDT

"Old Ironsides' led the fight against 19th century pirates off Barbary Coast

BY RICK FOSTER SUN CHRONICLE STAFF

An American crew that successfully fought off Somali hijackers near the African coast would not be the first group of U.S. sailors to stand up to heavily armed pirates.

On Thursday, the cargo ship Maersk Alabama sailed away from a group of pirates that attempted to hijack the ship and took its captain hostage. The vessel is now under the command of Seekonk resident and Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate Capt. Shane Murphy, and under escort by U.S. warships.

U.S. merchant vessels' first sustained encounters with seaborne bandits dates back more than two centuries, when Barbary Pirates held hostage shipping in the Mediterranean Sea.

Ultimately, an armed response was the only recourse.

So, in 1804, the Boston-based U.S.S. Constitution was part of a squadron dispatched to the coast of Tripoli by President Thomas Jefferson in response to tribute demands by the Barbary Pirates.

The warship U.S.S. Philadelphia, under the command of Capt. William Bainbridge, ran aground and was captured by the Tripolitans, who refloated the ship and deployed it to defend the harbor against the Americans.

In a brilliant display of swashbuckling, Third Squadron commander Commodore Edward Preble sent Lt. Stephen Decatur and a contingent of Marines to decoy the pirates and burn the Philadelphia to keep it from being used against the fleet.

The Constitution bombarded the city and the squadron subjected Tripoli to a series of inconclusive attacks.

Subsequently, a force of only eight Marines under the command of a lieutenant and former U.S. Consul William Eaton marched overland through the desert to attack the Tripolitan city of Derna with 500 European and Arab mercenaries.

Under increasing pressure, the Tripolitan ruler Hamet Karamanli was deposed by his own brother, who in turn signed a treaty with the United States.

The pirates of the early 19th century were far different than today's version equipped with deadly automatic weapons and rocket launchers, said Ann Grimes Rand, executive vice president of the U.S.S. Constitution Museum in Boston.

"The pirates of 1804 were different in that they were state-sponsored," Rand said. "They were the toll-takers of the Mediteranean. If you wanted to sail in their waters you paid tribute. If you didn't pay, they came after you." But the North African states that employed the pirates overplayed their hand, Rand said, constantly upping the ante and demanding ever greater tribute to allow the passage of American, British and other ships.

Eventually, she said, U.S. tribute payments amounted to one-sixth of the entire federal budget. Jefferson, livid over the escalating demands, responded by sending in the Navy.

Pirates continued to be a nuisance even after the victories at Tripoli and Derna. But the intrepidity of American forces firmly established the reputation of the U.S. Navy and Marines and left America as a maritime power to be reckoned with.

The battles are immortalized in the Marine Hymn, with its reference to the "shores of Tripoli."

The captain of the Philadelphia and a number of American captives were freed after payment of $60,000 in ransom. Bainbridge later redeemed himself and was hailed as a national hero when he commanded the Constitution in an historic sea victory over the British frigate H.M.S. Java during the War of 1812.

The group of U.S. warships now dispatched to the coast of Somalia includes the destroyer Bainbridge, named for the War of 1812 hero.

Ellie