Simon Fern Dissertation .pdf

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Simon Fern

Edward Moran, 1897. The Burning of the U.S.S. Philadelphia in the Harbor at Tripoli. USNA, Annapolis.

The Barbary War as a site of contested collective memory:
discourse, narrative and representation.
Supervisor: Professor Francis D. Cogliano
Candidate: Simon Fern
Word Count: 11,997
Date of Submission: April 4th, 2017.


Simon Fern


Professor Francis Cogliano for his supervision and guidance throughout this project.
Dr David Silkenat for his support and encouragement.
Dr Michelle Keown for two years guiding me through postcolonial studies.
Dr Andrew Mitchell and Kalpana Shenoi.
Samuel Fern, my younger brother, for his critical eye.
The Forest, The Student, and the Housing Co-Op.
Friends too numerous to thank.
Ačiū. Tak. Danke. Woof.

To my parents, Katie and Rob, whom I love dearly.


Simon Fern







Chapter 1: Central interpretation of the Barbary War.


Chapter 2: The changing historiography of the Barbary War, 19362016.


Chapter 3: The Barbary War in public discourses, 2001 – 2017.


Chapter 4: Prevailing trends in historical representation.








Simon Fern

This dissertation frequently refers to the “Barbary pirates”. The so-called pirates were usually
operating with the sanction of their governing authority and in accordance with laws, tradition
and precedent which gave legitimacy to their actions and thus they should be distinguished
from lawless rogues. Similarly, there is no such thing as a coherent and homogenous “Muslim
World”, and there is such diversity across Muslim majority states that such a term is largely
meaningless. The ‘War on Terror’ is another similarly questionable term. It is used in this
dissertation to refer to the ongoing state of conflict between the United States and myriad
groups which have been designated as terroristic or politically extreme.


Simon Fern

The Barbary War (1801-1805) is a marginal chapter in the history of the early American
Republic, a small-scale conflict between the United States and the Barbary States – presentday Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya – which was fuelled by disagreements over trading rights
in the Mediterranean, and an unwillingness by the United States to pay tribute to these Ottoman
sultanates, as was standard practice. Neither side possessed significant naval power, and the
course of the war largely consisted of a naval blockade followed by a brief land excursion by
six United States marines, albeit supported by several hundred local mercenaries.
Despite referring to popular discussion, most have never heard of the Barbary War – its
discussion has been traditionally confined to the United States Naval Academy, 19th century
adventure novels, and occasional elementary school ‘pirate days’. There have been few fulllength scholarly treatments of the Barbary War, and nowadays it is largely treated as an
interesting footnote in Thomas Jefferson’s presidential career which helps to explain his views
on foreign policy and political economy. Since the advent of the War on Terror there has been
a renewed interest in the historic relationship between the United States and the Muslim World.
This has led to a burgeoning interest in the Barbary War by sensationalist writers who draw
anachronistic and unsubstantiated parallels between the conflict and contemporary American
foreign relations and military action in the Middle East. This has led to crude representations
of the Barbary War as “America’s First War on Terror” and the birth of an interpretation which
is here described as the Barbary Terror thesis.
The Barbary Terror thesis has led to the appropriation and distortion of historical
memory to explain and justify contemporary American foreign relations. In more extreme
circles this interpretation has helped to perpetuate racist metanarratives which cast the United
States and Muslim World in a perpetual clash of civilisations. This has meant that the Barbary


Simon Fern

War has become a useful touchstone for groups which advocate violence against people of
Islamic faith.
Whilst traditional sources such as Commodore Dudley W. Knox’s Naval Documents
Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary powers, Thomas Jefferson’s writings, and
the anthology of Barbary Captive narratives produced by Paul Baepler have been instrumental
in informing the understanding of the conflict, these are not the object of discussion in this
This dissertation is informed by a poststructuralist interpretation of historical writing.
This means assuming the axiomatic position that historical discourse is often rhetorical and
pretences to objectivity often mask an historian’s underlying world-view. Historians “do not
passively summon up the reality of the past, but actively constitute it as an effect of their
discourse”. 1 A central tenet of this study is that the War on Terror has engendered a
paradigmatic shift in the historical memory of the Barbary War through the application of a
discursive framework which projects contemporary events onto the reading of the past. In this
way, secondary sources on the Barbary War have been treated as primary sources, with the
acknowledgement that all historical writing is itself an object of inquiry. The second and third
chapters of this study trace these interpretive paradigms onto recent historical writing on the
Barbary War.
This analysis is indebted to the works of Franz Fanon, Aimée Césaire, Homi Bhabha
and Edward Said whose writings inform a postcolonial approach which historiography often
neglects. The fourth chapter of this dissertation is an express attempt to deconstruct the
representation of the Barbary War from a perspective which employs this postcolonial lens and
draws attention to tropes which have come to characterise contemporary discourse.


Simon Gunn, History and Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 2014), 25.


Simon Fern

The Barbary Terror interpretation dominates the historical representation of the Barbary
War. This historiographical schism has occurred as a result of the ongoing War on Terror.
Popular discourse on the Barbary War demonstratively reflects and perpetuates the Barbary
Terror interpretation whilst ignoring more scholarly, and correct, interpretations. This
predominance of the Barbary Terror interpretation results from the deliberate weaponization
of historical memory by rhetoricians who are actively seeking justification for contemporary
American foreign policy agendas and, in some cases, systemic prejudice against people of
Islamic faith and Muslim majority states.


Simon Fern

Chapter 1

This chapter is an introduction to the Barbary War, setting out the course of events and
contextualising the activities of the Barbary States at the turn of the 19th century. This chapter
sets out the interpretation which informs the evaluation of later accounts in this study. The war,
whilst vital to American shipping, involved comparatively few participants and saw little loss
of life. The blockade of Tripoli and the capture of Dern are the two key aspects to the war: the
former only became an effective enterprise after two years had already elapsed, and Dern was
won quickly and only held for several months before peace emerged. The majority of American
captives were seized due to navigational error, rather than the strategic brilliance of the Barbary
States. Initial diplomacy in the 1780s failed due to a power imbalance which undermined
American bargaining, and negotiations ultimately concluded because the Barbary War
demonstrated American naval parity which afforded its negotiators a more legitimate status in
foregrounding their demands for free trade in the Mediterranean.
The impact of the Barbary activity on Mediterranean shipping is often overstated,
instead the corsairs were a minor nuisance for the established European navies and only a threat
to less-powerful states.2 3 When European powers became enraged by Barbary activities they
bombarded dockyards and towns. 4 Indeed earlier writing on the Barbary States tended to
suggest that though piracy was practised by the states, this was a universal fact of maritime
conflict rather than something specific to the region.5
The activities of these ‘pirates’ were integrated into the operations of the Barbary States
whether in business, government or ordinary life. The economic input from their activities


Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971)
John Wright, A History of Libya (London: Hurst & Company, 2012) 78.
Ibid., 76.
William Spencer, Algiers in the Age of the Corsairs (Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1976)


Simon Fern

helped to support the growth of many coastal cosmopolitan areas.6 Despite narratives which
perpetuate ideas of rogues preying on noble European enterprise, the privateering activities of
the Barbary States represented a nuanced political economy which involved multiple actors,
from individual sailors, to ship owners, local merchants, naval officers, to the regional rulers
such as the Dey. 7 Barbary piracy should be understood as a system equivalent to
contemporaneous maritime activity both in the United Kingdom and the United States. Whilst
the violent acquisition of property is not a laudable enterprise neither was it something which
was symptomatic of a lawless barbarism, on the contrary these activities were very much within
the confines of established regional law. Elizabeth Fentress and Michael Brett make a clear
argument that the practise of “piratical voyages” funded by “corsair captains and janissaries
alike” where the eventual proceeds were “divided between them in proportion to their
investment” was not unlike the way Elizabethan financing supported the “privateering
expeditions of Hawkins and Drake against the Spaniards in the New World.”8
Thomas Jefferson’s involvement with the Barbary States began in 1785 as American
minister to France. His views on agrarian republicanism foregrounded his approach to
international trade which he believed would allow the Republic to “enjoy the benefits of
manufacturing without experiencing its deleterious consequences”.9 Jefferson understood that
trade required naval protection, and that when Barbary depredations affected American
shipping they should be met with retaliatory force.10 Jefferson calculated that the continued
payment of tribute was less economical than the use of naval force to protect American


Abdelhamid Larguèche, ‘The City and Sea: Evolving Forms of Mediterranean Cosmopolitanism in Tunis
1700-1881’, in North Africa, Islam and the Mediterranean World from the Almoravids to the Algerian War, ed.
Julia Clancy Smith (London: Franc Cass, 2001).
Ibid., 119.
Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 159.
Francis Cogliano, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2014), 49.
Ibid., 50.

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