Throughout the history of travel and trade by sea the threat of piracy has been a constant plague to sailors around the world. For European merchants, the coast of North Africa was a hotbed of pirate activity for centuries. At minimum pirates would demand tribute for passage through these waters- at worst cargoes and ships were stolen and crews taken for ransom or as slaves. It's estimated that more than a million Europeans were captured and taken as slaves just between 1530 and 1780- including ships from the British Colonies in America.
Eventually known as the Barbary States, the coastal city states of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers were central ports for pirates, each with a thriving European slave trade. While under British rule, the American Colonies were under the protection of a British Treaty with these ports, but once America became independent, it was open season on American ships once again.
Deeply in debt after the Revolutionary War, the US Government was unable even to afford to maintain warships and the Continental Navy was disbanded and all ships were sold. With no defense or threat of retaliation American ships were attacked with impunity. It was this rise of Barbary piracy that drove Congress in 1794 to allocate funds for six new frigates whose first job would be to attack pirate fortifications in North Africa and thus the United States Navy was born.
The First Barbary War (1801-1805) resulted in President Thomas Jefferson obtaining concessions of fair passage from local rulers and ships were safe for a time. In the following years, the U.S. was drawn into conflict with Great Britain over trade with France, leading to the War of 1812. Meanwhile in 1803, French leader Napoleon I began attacks on European neighbors that would lead to the Napoleonic Wars, raging on until 1815. Knowing that American and European Naval forces were distracted with various wars, the Barbary Pirates slowly restarted their business of ransom and plunder.
With the end of the War of 1812 America refocused on its pirate problem. On March 3rd 1815, the U.S. Congress authorized deployment of naval power against Algiers, and two squadrons were readied for war.
On May 20th, 1815 the first squadron departed New York harbor under the command of Commodore Stephen Decatur- the flagship USS GUERRIERE of 44 guns, the USS CONSTELLATION of 36 guns and the USS MACEDONIAN of 38 guns along with seven smaller warships- Sloops of War EPERVIER and ONTARIO, Brigs FIREFLY, SPARK and FLAMBEAU and Schooners TORCH and SPITFIRE.
It's easy to see why Duncan Gleason was drawn to depict this proud fleet as they sailed into what would be a decisive and important victory in American history. Decatur's squadron was a combination of new ships, one of the original six U.S. Naval Frigates (CONSTELLATION) and vessels captured during the previous war- representing the hopes, struggles and victories of the young nation. That bright optimism and spirit comes through in brilliant and warm sunlight across the sea and sky, all in Gleason's trademark warm color palette. With full sails, the ships charge forward in a strong wind cutting though an active sea, all superbly rendered with great luminism and fine brushwork.
As for Algiers, the deployment of the second squadron wasn't even necessary. Decatur and his fleet quickly captured two Algerian warships including their flagship MESHUDA and sailed on to the Bay of Algiers where on July 3rd, 1815 under the threat of an all-out assault the Dey (ruler) of Algiers signed a treaty granting the United States full shipping rights in the Mediterranean Sea.
In one step Decatur not only negotiated a treaty very favorable to the United States but further legitimized the American government and power in the world. It would take Great Britain another year to negotiate such a treaty for themselves.
These battles in what came to be known as the Second Barbary War would further cement Decatur's fame, making him a national hero in his own lifetime and a legend as one of the greatest Naval officers in American history. Gleason has brought this fleet to life in almost allegorical splendor, showing how these early pioneering vessels would go on to inspire generations of the American Navy.
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