The Seas of Tripoli

  • Having a discussion here about the US war against the Barbary Pirates. In several texts I read, including Wikipedia, there seemed to be an omission of the fact that the American ships that were being intercepted would have likely carried slaves back from Africa to the New World. Conversely, the fact that American sailors were enslaved by the pirates was not omitted. The interception of slave vessels by the pirates paints a different picture of everything, I think. We were paying the pirates 1 million USD per year before sending war vessels to disrupt the pirates. That was 10% of American revenue in 1800. What I find interesting is that prior to 1813 we had no federal income tax. Tax on imports was our primary source of income. After the tarriff act of 1789, we were taking an average of 20% tax on imports. This number varied per import. The importation of slaves to the US was banned in 1807. I believe approx 389k slaves made it to the US, while approx 12 million were shipped to the New World and approx 2 million died in transit, so I assume approx 500k were shipped to the US. My question at this point is: how dependant upon the taxation of the slave import for federal income was the US government between the years of 1789 and 1807? And more granularly, how much was the tarriff on slaves in particular and how many slaves were sent to the US during this taxable period, and also were any ventures dealing with slaves sent elsewhere in the New World subject to this import tax (presumably no on that one, just wondering)?

  • @jaybate-1-0 your exploration of under reported histories might have encountered some insights on this one?

  • @approxinfinity

    Don’t know the specific answers yet, but this question is a marvelous one. When I don’t know an answer like this, I try to define the context, economy and trading system of the time some, before digging in. It helps me know what I don’t know.

    From its location on the north ATLANTIC, new USA was trying to transition from thirteen 200-year old resource colonies feeding tobacco, some cotton, naval stores, salted fish and whale oil illuminant to England’s heavily defended-and-financed, elaborate, global maritime trading system into a small new nation state trading, defending and financing a triangle trade and hoping to expand to all kinds of trade. It had friends that wanted to stick Britain, but little clout, needed many things, and little domestic production beyond tobacco, cotton, illuminant, naval stores and domestic ports to trade. And tobacco soil was losing fertility, whaling was shifting to the Pacific, and cotton had a HUGE supply competitor in Egypt, Middle East and probably India. Further, USA was not yet a gold producer, so it had serious liquidity problems, and so dependent on the currencies of strangers.

    Maritime trade requires having goods to carry along a series of stops that can be sold/swapped at a profit over shipping cost at most stops. The series of stops must form a circuit that starts and ends at a home port. Friendly ports must be established. Passages without cargo must be minimized. Cargo and shipping must be financed to bridge shipping time before payment. Cargo and ships require insurance. Security must be feasible to project on the circuit, but also wherever the traders and pirates reside to stop piracy and enforce contracts. Thus you must establish and maintain not only business ties, but diplomatic, naval and piracy ties to flourish. You must make more friends than enemies and if a link in the system breaks you must at the limit be willing and able to kill the enemies threatening the link or preventing reconnection. The trading circuit requires cargo. You may not like to carry some things, but you may have to carry such things to make the trading system feasible. Once you start carrying something, you may accrue sunk costs and the system’s profitability may require you to keep carrying it. You may have to join associations, alliances and secret societies you don’t want to join to stay solvent and make profit. Because you are operating in the anarchic realm between governments much of the time, there is no higher legal system to resort to to compel compliance. You learn that in most cases excess profits here are the only cushion against theft and gouging there. Finally, once you become a trading state there is no alternative to the above. Its trade, or perish. So if you seek your individual freedom through revolution and independent, constituted government, your freedom depends on trading because your Constitution and government depends on it for its funding. You may not like carrying slaves and opium, but you carry them until there is something else with sufficient margins to equal the profits and cover the sunk costs to carry instead. No ifs. No ands. No buts. You don’t teach much about the Barbary Pirates in Tripoli, because it gets into a lot of stuff you didn’t really want to carry in the first place and not just slaves.

    You tie your constitutional freedom to the revenues of maritime trade, then you have to trade. And you have to watch that the trading doesn’t trade away interests in your country, or you will not only be compromising your morals part of the time for trade to keep the trading system solvent, but you will also lose your freedom. Freedom isn’t free. Nothing is. Freedom often isn’t pretty in it’s necessary compromises, or in its unnecessary, corrupt ones. Freedom isn’t free. It comes at a great price both in the winning and in the keeping. Americans must keep being educated to this. Freedom based on trading isn’t free for all until all are trading. The questions always are who pays, who benefits, does it save our freedom, does it expand anyone ele’s freedom, and are we taking the least awful path to save our freedom? Are we being the lepper with the most fingers, or are we ruthlessly and unnecessarily exploiting human suffering for a gold dabloom, when we could be earning the dabloom another, less onerous way? Could we become vegetarians and stop killing sheep cattle and pigs, or can we eat at least some more vegetables and kill a few less of god’s creatures.

    More to come later.


  • Capitalism, in its most natural state, is about exploitation. This doesn’t mean that capitalism is automatically bad, just that it has to be regulated and controlled because capitalism, on its own, has no morals. It’s only goal is to generate higher and higher profits by driving down costs and driving up prices.

    I laugh when people say the market will regulate itself. The market cannot regulate itself if left entirely unchecked. I am not beating the drum for extreme regulation, but there must always be a framework of regulation, because again, the market, left unchecked, seeks to always drive costs down as low as possible, while driving prices up as high as possible, creating the largest possible profit margin. That is the goal of business, distilled down to its most basic level.

    We have seen this in practice. Things like child labor laws, safety regulation, 40 hour work weeks, and paid time off were not things created by capitalism. They were things created by regulation to protect children, workers, and families.

    A country built on capitalism, then, is a country that must also maintain a strong regulatory framework. Capitalism is an engine, not a steering wheel. An engine with no steering mechanism will just power itself as quickly and as efficiently as possible into oblivion. Why? There is no means of direction to harness the power in any useful way. That is capitalism. It is a powerful engine that can most certainly lift a society or country into global power.

    But it is also an engine that could, if unchecked, run through all sorts of civil and human rights because it cares only about making more money. Capitalism says that if you can find cheaper labor somewhere, you pursue it. If you can force people to work more hours with fewer breaks, less safety regulation and lower pay, you do it. That’s why manufacturing jobs have trickled into Asia and other places - the conditions for workers in those places are beyond reprehensible.

    @jaybate-1-0 asks a question that I believe deserves some illumination - “Are we taking the least awful path to save our freedom?” The path to freedom has always been terrible. It’s just been a question of who was doing the majority of the dying, whether it was West African slaves, Irish and Italian immigrants, Native American tribes or those living in inner cities. We are still trying to perfect our union, and sometimes that means examining whether we are okay with the price of the freedom bestowed upon that union.

    It remains an open question.

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