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The four Barbary States of North Africa - Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli - had plundered seaborne commerce for centuries. Surviving by blackmail, they received great sums of money, ships, and arms yearly from foreign powers in return for allowing the foreigners to trade in African ports and sail unmolested through the Barbary waters. They demanded tribute money, seized ships, and held crews for ransom or sold them into slavery. American merchant ships, no longer covered by British protection, were seized by Barbary pirates in the years after United States independence, and American crews were enslaved. In 1799, the United States agreed to pay $18,000 a year in return for a promise that Tripoli-based corsairs would not molest American ships. Similar agreements were made at the time with the rulers of Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis.
In 1805, Marines stormed the Barbary pirates' harbor fortress stronghold of Derna (Tripoli), commemorated in the Marine Corp Hymn invocation "To the Shores of Tripoli." Following the War of 1812, two naval squadrons under Commodores Decatur and Bainbridge returned to the Mediterranean. Diplomacy backed by resolute force soon brought the rulers of Barbary to terms and gained widespread respect for the new American nation. Decatur obtained treaties which eliminated the United States paying tribute. In the years immediately after the Napoleonic wars, which ended in 1815, the European powers forced an end to piracy and the payment of tribute in the Barbary states.
Washington and Madison, meet Barack Obama, the newest American president forced to deal harshly with murder and mayhem on the high seas. Over the last week, virtually all news in America was dominated by an attack on the unarmed cargo ship Maersk-Alabama by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The crew managed to fight off the attack, but the pirates made off with the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, and were demanding $2 million for his release.