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Captives and Countrymen

Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785–1816

Lawrence A. Peskin

Publication Year: 2009

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Barbary States captured and held for ransom nearly five hundred American sailors. The attacks on Americans abroad—and the government’s apparent inability to control the situation—deeply scarred the public. Captives and Countrymen examines the effect of these acts on early national culture and on the new republic's conception of itself and its position in the world. Lawrence A. Peskin uses newspaper and other contemporaneous accounts—including recently unearthed letters from some of the captive Americans—to show how information about the North African piracy traveled throughout the early republic. His dramatic account reveals early concepts of national identity, party politics, and the use of military power, including the lingering impact of the Barbary Wars on the national consciousness, the effects of white slavery in North Africa on the American abolitionist movement, and the debate over founding a national navy. This first systematic study of how the United States responded to "Barbary Captivity" shows how public reaction to international events shaped America domestically and its evolving place in the world during the early nineteenth century.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii-viii

This book is divided into three parts, each of which contains three analytical narratives—chapters, organized around analytical themes, that narrate an aspect of the story of the influence of North Africa upon America. The first part offers a study of how the early national public sphere functioned to spread the news of the Algerian crisis and of how events in North Africa may, in turn, have shaped the ...

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pp. 1-4

This is a narrative about captivity, but it is not really a captivity narrative. Captivity narratives—stories of capture by Indians, pirates, slave merchants, terrorists, or other sinister outsiders—have been popular in America from the time of English colonization up to the present.1 In the early modern world they ranked among the most popular books of their day, inspiring literary masterpieces from ...


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1. Captivity and Communications

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pp. 7-23

How much did Americans know about what occurred in North Africa and how did they learn about it? These questions get to the heart of the story of the reception and influence of Barbary captivity in America. After all, if a ship were captured in the Mediterranean and no one heard (or read) about it, it could have no effect on the new nation. The early national public sphere is sometimes termed ...

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2. The Captives Write Home

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pp. 24-49

The American captives in Algiers were unlikely participants in the Republic of Letters. Most were common seamen with little literary ability, and none had any experience in public affairs. Furthermore, they were held in what they described as slavery, far from their homeland, and deprived of freedom of movement, let alone freedom of speech. Yet, despite confinement, distance, and lack ...

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3. Publicity and Secrecy

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pp. 50-67

In the fall of 1794 diplomatic events in Algiers took a worrisome turn. While David Humphreys was temporarily back in the United States, Richard O’Brien and James Cathcart came to believe that Portugal, with the assistance of Spain, was negotiating another rapprochement with Algiers. If successful, this effort would doom the Algerian-American negotiations before Humphreys even ...


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4. Slavery at Home and Abroad

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pp. 71-89

While Captains O’Brien and Stephens and their crews suffered in Algiers, another man began to write the story of his own captivity on the other side of the Atlantic. Olaudah Equiano, an African, was sold into slavery and shipped to the Americas but eventually gained his freedom and an education that enabled him to write one of the most famous captivity narratives of his age. The Interesting ...

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5. Captive Nation: Algiers and Independence

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pp. 90-109

When James Cathcart began to write his memoirs, he described himself and his fellow Algerian captives as “victims of independence.” In 1785 this would have been an apt description for the United States as a whole. The independence achieved in 1783 created new problems abroad and led to a severe economic crisis, which would in turn lead to internal violence in places like western ...

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6. The Navy and the Call to Arms

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pp. 110-133

The United States had no permanent naval establishment before the Algerian captures. Early in the Revolution the Continental Congress had established a navy, commissioned more than a dozen ships, and established a Board of Admiralty, but in the end it relied primarily on privateers and the French. With the war’s end, Congress sold off this small fleet and disbanded the navy, an action in ...


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7. Masculinity and Servility in Tripoli

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pp. 137-162

Not quite all of the former captives disappeared into anonymity; a few returned to Barbary to serve as the United States’ first African experts during a second round of captivity crises. Captain Richard O’Brien had been America’s de facto consul in Algiers throughout much of his eleven years of captivity and had gone to great pains during that period to demonstrate his knowledge of Algerian affairs. ...

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8. Between Colony and Empire

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pp. 163-186

For most of its early history, North America was the subject of literary explorers, conquistadores, travelers, and armchair geographers ranging from Christopher Columbus to Richard Hakluyt to Captain John Smith, all of whom produced important books about the New World. It was only in the late eighteenth century that residents of North America themselves began to produce such literature about ...

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9. Beyond Captivity: The Wars of 1812

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pp. 187-209

On June 1, 1812, President James Madison asked Congress to declare war against Great Britain for committing “a series of acts hostile to the United States as an independent and neutral nation.” The United States, he concluded, must oppose “force to force in defense of their national rights.” Thus began the War of 1812, frequently referred to as a second war for American independence. ...

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Conclusion: Captivity and Globalization

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pp. 211-214

Perhaps it is enough to conclude that events in North Africa had an extraordinary impact on the inhabitants of the new American republic, and globalization or the increasing contact between world cultures was an important phenomenon then as well as now. Such a conclusion certainly offers a corrective to modern-day commentators who discuss globalization as though it were a recent development. ...

Appendix: Lists of Letters from Captives

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pp. 215-217


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pp. 219-250


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pp. 251-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780801898952
E-ISBN-10: 0801898951
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801891397
Print-ISBN-10: 0801891396

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 2 halftones
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 649906434
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Captives and Countrymen

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slave trade -- Africa, North -- History.
  • Captivity narratives -- Africa, North.
  • Slavery -- Africa, North -- History.
  • Public opinion -- United States.
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