While the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, pirates from Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco were holding sailors from the Colonies hostage. The Barbary Coast pirates regularly sacked merchant ships unless a ransom of jewels, gold and currency was available.
With no American Navy to protect them, or even a federal system in place to raise taxes for a fighting fleet, the sailors were defenseless, says Michael B. Oren, CC '77, SIPA '78. Their vulnerability concerned residents of the port cities that comprised the young country, according to evidence Oren found in his research for Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to Present (Norton, Fall 2006).
On Thursday, Nov. 3, Oren captivated a Low Library audience of Columbia students and scholars, including several of his former professors, by presenting a piece of American history few had ever heard. Oren theorized that frustration over an inability to stand up to the North African pirates and the countries that harbored them greatly contributed to a rise of federalism and the beginnings of the U.S. Navy.
Ratification papers from the Continental Congress contain evidence of American fear and anger over the North African pirates.
During the discussion that followed the lecture, many audience members expressed concern over why this important bit of history continues to be ignored.
The author of numerous studies on the history and politics of the Middle East, Oren writes extensively for publications such as The New Republic and The New York Times. His best-known work, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, (Oxford University Press), is considered an authoritative account of this period. It has been acclaimed in the United States, winning the National Jewish Book Award for best book of 2002 and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.