Pirates and presidents – sometimes friends but mostly enemies – Daily Press
Pirates have a long and checkered history with America and its presidents.
From the colonial era to the new millennium, legendary swordsmen have sometimes been useful but above all a torment for the commanders-in-chief.
Contrary to Hollywood’s wistful depiction, the Buccaneers who sailed the seas were usually fiercely independent opportunists willing to align themselves with whoever best served their mercenary goals.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, “pirates were one of the main mechanisms by which the British Empire achieved its aims of domination of the New World”, according to one article published by the American Battlefield Trust. They plundered French, Dutch and Spanish ships, eliminating competition for the British.
In the pre-revolutionary 13 colonies, sea-loving robbers served a different purpose. With the blessing of many early colonial royal governors, they were often the source of shipping for goods and slaves.
After a treaty that granted the British Empire control of the transport of captive Africans, there was little tolerance for pirate rivalry in this market; the elimination of dogfish competitors was aggressively pursued by England.
By 1776 the number of raiders operating in the waters off North America had dwindled. The Revolutionary War revived the dying race.
When the colonies declared their independence, they had no navy to fight the British naval fleet. The solution to the problem was to pay for the privateers; they were often pirates who gained some legitimacy as private warriors sanctioned by the Continental Congress. They are credited with capturing or destroying 600 English ships and raiding loyalist areas along the Atlantic coast.
Shortly after the formation of the new republic, the first four founding father presidents faced the thorny problem of American merchant ships being attacked and captured by mercenaries off the Barbary coast of Africa near present-day Algeria.
For generations, these sea raiders backed by regional kingdoms “had waged a kind of ‘protection racket’ against the European nations whose ships plied the Mediterranean waters; they extracted tributes in return for a promise to refrain from harassing hackers,” according to author Graham T. Allison.
American ships lost British protection against Barbary buccaneers after the American Revolution. In 1786 in London, future CEOs John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s negotiations with representatives of the ocean bandits to prevent future assaults on American shipping failed.
Without a navy to thwart the raids, Presidents George Washington and John Adams paid bribes to the rulers of the Barbary states in exchange for the safe passage of American ships. Shortly after Jefferson entered the White House in 1801, he refused to pay any additional protective tribute. The ruler of Tripoli declares war on the United States.
Although he failed to secure a declaration of war from Congress, Jefferson nevertheless dispatched the newly reinforced Navy to quell the pirates. Four years later, after a US victory in Tripoli, hijackings off the coast of Africa have declined for a decade.
After the War of 1812, Algiers, believing that America was weakened, declared war on the United States. James Madison sent the navy to the Barbary coast; victory was quickly won, thus ending strikes against American shipping in the area.
Andrew Jackson was both friend and foe to pirates.
Jean Lafitte was a French-born privateer whose profitable smuggling business was located on an island just outside of New Orleans. During the War of 1812, he was approached by the British to become a potential ally to help them in their strategy of controlling access to the Mississippi River. He informed US authorities of the proposal but was rebuffed and even attacked by the region’s governor’s militia. He was considered a criminal.
When Andrew Jackson arrives in New Orleans to take over the defense of the city, the future president sees in Lafitte an opportunity to obtain the necessary fighters. During a meeting between the pirate and the general, Lafitte said: “For a pardon for me and my men, we will help you send the enemy to hell. It’s my promise. The two men became mutual friends and admirers.
At the White House, Jackson’s view of swordsmanship was more dubious. After a group attacked an American ship taking on cargo in the harbor on the coast of Sumatra, Old Hickory sent a warship of soldiers to retaliate. They succeeded in punishing the “Malaysian pirates” in what was to become the first-ever official American military intervention in Asia.
The Civil War saw a revival of sanctioned mercenaries.
When the 11 breakaway states formed the Confederacy and went to war in 1861, they had no navies. Their remedy, much to Abraham Lincoln’s chagrin, was to use privateers to disrupt Yankee shipping and attack Union navy ships.
While the practice had been banned in an 1856 treaty by European countries, the United States did not become a signatory until after the war. Centuries of privateering ended with the Confederacy.
In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt used his “big stick” when he ordered a fleet of seven warships and marines to the Mediterranean to rescue wealthy Greek-American Ion Perdicaris. He and his son-in-law were kidnapped in North Africa by Mulai Raisuli, considered the last barbarian pirate. The incident became a watershed moment to proclaim TR an interventionist protector of American freedoms.
Just over a century later, in 2009, new President Barack Obama also faced a pirate hostage situation; this time it was the captain of an American cargo ship held by armed Somali marauders. A well-executed high seas rescue by the US Navy off the east coast of Africa has taken place. The story was made into a movie, “Captain Philips” starring Tom Hanks.
While presidents have successfully taken on the crooks of the past, for modern commanders-in-chief today’s pirate brand of terror-driven subversive groups are harder to defeat.
Stolz is a resident of James City County