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White Slavery
Digital History ID 167

Author:   John Adams


The problem of slavery received a new meaning when white American sailors were enslaved by the so-called Barbary pirates of North Africa. In 1785, the American schooner Maria, sailing off the coast of Portugal, was boarded by Algerian pirates. Its captain and five crew members were taken prisoner. Then a second American ship, the brig Dauphin, was captured, and its 15-member crew was taken to Algiers and enslaved. Several Americans were put to work as domestic servants; another was forced to care for the Dey of Algiers's lion. Much of the time the hostages were kept in leg irons, chained to pillars, or locked in a rat-infested prison. Six American captives died of bubonic plague. One went insane.

During the late eighteenth century, three small North African states--Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis--preyed on merchant ships sailing in the Mediterranean, seizing their crews and cargoes and holding both for ransom. Many European countries paid tribute to the Barbary States to ensure that their ships would be unmolested. But America did not. Major powers like Britain and France tolerated the "Barbary pirates" because they raised the shipping costs of potential competitors, such as Denmark, Holland, Portugal, and the United States.

In a bid to free these white American "slaves," the Continental Congress decided to send John Lamb to negotiate with Dey Mohomet of Algiers for release of Americans prisoners and for safe passage of American ships in the Mediterranean. The Dey demanded $3,000 ransom per hostage, twice as much as he asked of other nations. Lamb returned home in 1789 without securing a treaty.

Over the next eight years, Algerian pirates seized more than 100 hostages from a dozen captured American ships. Finally, in 1795, the United States successfully negotiated for the hostages' release. To gain their freedom, the United States agreed to pay $800,000 plus annual tribute that amounted to about 20 percent of the yearly federal budget.

It was not until 1815 that the United States successfully ended North African piracy. In that year, a fleet of ten American ships under the command of Stephen Decatur threatened to bombard Algiers. The threat worked. The North African states agreed to release American prisoners without ransom and to cease all interference with American shipping.


Congress having been pleased to invest us with full Powers entering into Treaty of Amity & Alliance with the Dey [the Algerian ruler] & Government of Algiers & it being impracticable for us to attend on them in Person & equally impracticable on account of our separate Stations to receive a Minister from them. We have concluded to effect our object by the intervention of a confidential Person. We concur in wishing to avail the United States of your Talents in the execution of this Business, and therefore furnish you with a Letter to the Dey and Government of Algiers to give a due Credit to your transactions with them....

You will present our letter with the Copy of our full powers, with which you are furnished at such time or times, & in such Manner as you shall think best; as the negotiation & conclusion of a treaty may be a work of time, you will endeavor in the first place to procure an immediate Suspension of Hostilities. You will proceed to negotiate with their Minister the terms of a treaty of Amity & Commerce as nearly as possible conformed to the draught [draft] we give you. Where Alterations, which in your opinion shall not be [of] great importance shall be urged by the other Party, you are at Liberty to agree to them; where they shall be of great importance, & you think they may be accepted, you will ask time to take our Advice & advise with us accordingly, by Letter, or by Courtier as you shall think best: When the Articles shall all be agreed you will sign them in a preliminary form & send them to us by some proper Person for definitive execution.

The whole expense of this treaty, including as well the Expenses of all Persons employed about it, as the presents to the Dey &c. must not exceed 40,000 Dollars & we urge you to use your endeavors to bring them as much below that Sum as you possibly can. And to this End we leave it to your discretion to represent to the Dey Government of Algiers or their Ministers if it may be done with Safety, the particular circumstances of the United States, just emerging from a long & distressing war, with one of the most powerful nations of Europe; which we hope may be an apology if our presents should not be so splendid as those of older & abler Nations....

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: John Adams, U.S. Minister to England, Co-Signed by Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Minister to France, Instructions to John Lamb

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