Six Frigates

Six Frigates

by Ian W Toll

After 1776, the merchant ships of the former American colonies ceased to enjoy the protection of the Royal Navy. For the first time, richly laden and defenceless merchant vessels, flying the Stars and Stripes (with only 15 stars in 1794), came to be seen on the high seas and in foreign ports.
They suffered dreadfully in the Mediterranean at the hands of the Barbary States of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco, which practised a form of institutionalised piracy, supported by the state. American ships were captured by fast-moving corsairs operating out of ancient sea ports along the North African coast. Crew members were sold into slavery. Women were delivered to harems. Prisoners who escaped or misbehaved were subjected to gruesome tortures and barbaric forms of execution. Not surprisingly, news of these attacks created a popular sensation in the United States, inspiring lurid journalism, fiction and plays.

Thus it was that in 1794 a closely divided US Congress came to enact a resolution for the provision of a naval force “adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States against the Algerian corsairs”. The War Office was authorised to build six wooden frigates with a proviso that their sole purpose was to police the Mediterranean against piracy.

Within a few years, the fledgling navy was engaged in an undeclared war with France and, from 1812 to 1814, in a declared war with Britain. Both wars were driven by a desire to protect the commercial interests of the burgeoning young country. French depredations were so great that in 1795 the Secretary of State reported that French privateers had that year captured 316 American merchant vessels.

The British were little better. The Royal Navy, imperious after routing the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805, adopted a bullying approach. It would make incursions into American territorial waters, boarding and confiscating American ships, impressing their seamen, taking their property and conducting blockades of harbours from Maine to South Carolina. Resentment reached boiling point; trade and commerce were stifled. A declaration of war came to a vote in June 1812 and was passed in the Senate by four votes.

The second Anglo-American war, known as the War of 1812, was the making of the United Sates Navy. Churchill later described it as futile and unnecessary. But he also said that as a result the British Army and the Royal Navy learned to respect their former colonials and that “the United States was never again refused proper treatment as an independent power”.

Book review originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 2 February 2007
About Michael Pembroke
Get in touch