Purdue News

September 23, 2005

Book addresses how America won its independence at sea

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Americans are mistaken if they think colonial America's fight for independence was won solely by defeating the British, says a Purdue University historian.

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"Here was the United States just emerging from its fight for independence when the young country finds itself blocked from free trade by North African countries in the Atlantic Ocean," says Frank Lambert, professor of American history. "Now, America had to fight for free access against imperial restrictions imposed by Britain and North African states and Europe in what is known as the Barbary Wars.

"This 33-year period, which includes the Tripolitan War (1801-05) and the Algerine War (1815-16), is an important aspect of history that people often overlook."

In 1784 the United States was vying with the Barbary States, including Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, to dominate Atlantic Ocean trading routes. America's 13 colonies had just won independence from Britain in 1783, but the victory also meant America lost the protection of the British Royal Navy at sea. The following year, America's first ship, "Betsey," was captured by pirates and its crew held for ransom.

Lambert, an expert on the American and colonial revolution periods, explores the role commerce played in the Barbary Wars in his new book, "The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World." The book ($24) was published in August by HILL and WANG, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

"Thomas Jefferson called the Barbary States 'petty powers' and declared they were no match for the new America, but the pirates commissioned by these North African states managed to stop American shipping and commerce cold," Lambert says.

Unfortunately, Lambert says, many historians only think about the Barbary Wars when analyzing America's relations with the Arab world. For example, some cultural and religious studies support the premise that religious conflict played a primary role in the Barbary Wars.

"The tension and fighting during this time was about trade, not theology," Lambert says.

He says many of the pirates contracted by the Barbary States were Christian Europeans, so the idea that Christian Americans were fighting only African Muslims is not accurate.

"Pirates who were hired by many countries, especially in times of war, were businessmen and capitalists of every background searching for a profit in the Atlantic Ocean," Lambert says. "Governments armed pirates' ships and directed the pirates to attack ships of other warring countries. America even hired its own pirates to disrupt British trade ships during the War of Independence."

Lambert's research is supported by the Department of History, which is housed in the College of Liberal Arts.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Frank Lambert, (765) 494-5811, flambert@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in review copies should contact Ethan Rutherford, publicist with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, at (212) 206-5328, erutherford@fsgbooks.com.


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