Intimidation and hit and run raids
One of the first actions taken by Commodore Preble was to demonstrate to the Sultan of Morocco his intention of enforcing the treaty between that nation and the United States. Preble dispatched part of his squadron to Tripoli to reinforce the blockade, including recently arrived vessels designed for the purpose of operating close inshore in the shallow waters of the harbor, in offensive operations. These were backed by heavier American frigates. He then sailed with a squadron to the Moroccan port of Tangier, nearly opposite the Mediterranean from Gibraltar, a sign to the Sultan of his intent to impose a blockade there, if events proved it necessary.
In October, 1803, Commodore Preble and US Consul to Morocco James Simpson met with Sultan Mulai Suleiman, the ruler of Morocco, and reaffirmed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations, with the Americans backed by the big guns of USS Constitution, Preble’s flagship, and other American warships in the harbor at Tangier. With his flank secured by the Moroccan agreement Preble was free to concentrate on offensive actions against the Tripolitans, and demonstrate American resolve to Algiers and Tunis. With the lighter and handier ships now under his command Preble determined to destroy the Tripolitan fleet.
Up until this point American actions in the Mediterranean were limited to naval activity, with the only troops involved being US Marines. Several “cutting out” expeditions had been launched from various ships, to destroy Tripolitan facilities ashore and to recover prizes taken by the pirates. Prisoners were taken in the hope that they could be exchanged, but the value of Christian slaves to Karamanli exceeded the value of the freedom of his own people, in his estimation. Prisoners of the Tripolitans, though slaves, had the opportunity to obtain both money and property of their own under the Pasha’s system, further complicating the issue.
The ability to obtain money made it possible for the prisoners to buy themselves positions which, though they were still enslaved in that they were owned by the Pasha or some other worthy, let them live in comfort and even luxury. The innate corruption of the government of Tripoli allowed astute prisoners to play their masters against each other, gaining both prestige and profit. James Leander Cathcart, an American taken from a captured merchant ship and enslaved in Algiers, managed to manipulate his captors to such a point that he became an advisor to the Bey (ruler of Algiers) gaining considerable influence and wealth in the process.
Most of the Americans held by the Muslim rulers were not so lucky, spending their nights in chains in the fortresses of the ruling clans and their days in hard labor, often forced to build fortifications against the Americans, or work as galley slaves. Food was of poor quality and scant, whippings and the bastinado were frequent, and the treatment was justified, according to the captors, because the Americans were infidels, deserving of nothing better than slavery. Letters from the more literate prisoners, smuggled out of their dungeons by guards who were less concerned with the Quran than they were with gold, gave Preble a greater sense of urgency over winning the war.