Jul 30

Decatur & Gunboat Diplomacy in Tunis, 30 July 1815

Friday, July 30, 2010 6:00 AM


Historians depict the War of 1812 as a forgotten conflict because the Treaty of Ghent affirmed the status quo for the two combatants,. American naval victories during that war, however, had greatly improved the U.S. Navy’s stature. On 23 February 1815, only six days after that war had ended, President James Madison confidently proposed a declaration of war against Algiers for its depredations against American merchant commerce in the Mediterranean perpetrated during the late war with England.

Eleven years after his daring 1804 raid to destroy the captured frigate USS Philadelphia held by Tripoli during the first Barbary War, Stephen Decatur, now a commodore overseeing a 10-ship squadron, returned to the Mediterranean in June 1815 for a second Barbary War—this time to confront Algeria’s attacks on American shipping. After successfully concluding a Treaty of Peace and Amity with Algiers on 30 June, Decatur’s squadron anchored on 25 July off Tunis, a country supposedly at peace with the United States. The bey of Tunis, despite treaty obligations to protect American-controlled ships within his territorial waters, had permitted British violations of his country’s neutral waters during the War of 1812 by allowing Royal Navy vessels to free British merchantmen captured by an American privateer and taken to Tunis as lawful prizes.

Decatur, adopting gunboat diplomacy because communication with Washington was a two-months’ sail away, confronted the Tunisian authorities with firm demands for restitution. Despite possessing military forces comparable to the American squadron, the Tunisians capitulated on 30 July. Without his ships firing a shot, Decatur negotiated a payment of 46,000 Spanish dollars to compensate the American privateer for its losses. Decatur’s gunboat diplomacy in the Mediterranean in 1815–threatening force without executive authority–became a hallmark of nineteenth-century U. S. policy.