HomeWorld CoinsThe Coinage of the Barbary Pirate States

The Coinage of the Barbary Pirate States

By Jay Turner for PCGS ……
The contemporary United States is no stranger to overseas war. This was not always the case, however, at least not until President Thomas Jefferson took the then-unusual step of protecting American interests abroad, setting a precedent that continues today. The result would be two wars fought by Americans and allies on foreign soil to protect American trade. This first such war would be with the Barbary Pirate States of Northern Africa.

Map of the Barbary coast. Public domain image
Map of the Barbary coast. Public domain image

Barbary Pirates vs. the United States

The Barbary pirates, also known as the Barbary corsairs or Ottoman corsairs, were bands of men with the support of the North African Ottoman provinces of Algiers (Algeria), Tunis (Tunisia), Tripoli (Libya), Sale, and Rabat (Morocco). These corsairs with their safe havens in North African ports attacked and raided merchant ships and European coastal towns. With these raids, not only would the goods on board the ships be stolen but the people would be captured for the Ottoman slave trade. It is believed that between the years 1500-1800 over one million Europeans had been captured and sold into slavery.

Under colonial English rule, the American Colonies had protection from the British Navy but didn’t face such attacks anyway since both France and Britain began a policy of paying tribute to the Barbary states in order to allow their merchant shipping to sail unharassed. After the United States declared independence, Morocco became the first state to recognize the United States, and the first United States vessel was seized in 1784, after the Treaty of Paris.

After Spain helped negotiate the freedom for the crew of the Betsey, it became U.S. policy to purchase peace treaties with these Barbary states. Thomas Jefferson sent envoys to Morocco and Algeria. In 1786, Morocco signed a treaty with the United States ending Moroccan piracy against American shipping interests and allowing Americans protection in Moroccan ports.

Peace negotiations with Algeria failed, with the capture of more ships and a demand for $660,000 in ransom to free their crews. In March of 1786, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would go to London to negotiate with the envoy of Tripoli. Negotiations failed, with the envoy telling Jefferson that nations not acknowledging the Prophet Mohammad were sinners and that it was the right and duty of faithful Muslims to plunder and enslave those who reject him, for a Muslim slain in the service of this warfare would go to paradise.

After this exchange, Thomas Jefferson reported to John Jay, who reported to Congress. Jefferson argued that paying tribute would encourage more attacks, and John Adams agreed. But the great American debt from the War of Independence and the lack of a Navy forced the United States to pay tribute. In 1794 the United States Congress appropriated $800,000 for the release of American prisoners and peace treaties with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. In 1795 a peace treaty was signed with the Dey of Algiers, with the upfront payment of $642,500 in silver coinage and an additional indefinite yearly tribute for $21,600.

The actions of the Barbary states caused the recommissioning of the American Navy in 1794 and the formation of the United States Department of the Navy in 1798. In 1801, Congress passed a Naval legislation act providing six frigates to be officered and manned by the President of the United States in the event of a declaration of war on the United States.

With Jefferson’s inauguration shortly after this act in 1801, he saw the opportunity he needed to deal with the active threat.

In 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded a new $225,000 in tribute. Jefferson refused and the Pasha declared war on the United States – not formally, but by cutting down the flagstaff of the U.S. Consulate. Before this had even occurred, Jefferson had sent an American squadron to maintain peace with the Barbary with the order to protect American ships and citizens from potential aggressors. Without a formal declaration of war from Congress, the actions of the Pasha were declared acts of war and the president ordered all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli to be seized. In 1802, Congress passed an act authorizing the president to employ such armed vessels as he judged appropriate. With the help of European allies, the United States began a naval blockade against the Tripoli.

With the naval blockade of the port of Tripoli, the deciding factor for the war was the Battle of Derna. U.S. Marines landed in Alexandria, Egypt, and marched 521 miles through the North African desert to the port city of Derna, Libya. Along with mercenaries and enemies of ruler Yusuf Karamanli, the United States Marines were able to win the battle and force Karamanli to sign a treaty on June 10, 1805. As a result, America agreed to pay a ransom of $60,000 for the American prisoners, arguing that paying the ransom was different than paying tribute.

With the War of 1812, the United States moved its attention to the British invasion of American soil and protecting the country from conquest. Europeans were dealing with Napoleon and the Barbary states saw the opportunity to once again target American ships. After the War of 1812, the United States refocused on Barbary piracy and in 1815 issued a deployment of naval powers against Algiers. With the capturing of Algerian ships and the battle off Cape Palos, Algerians returned all American captives in exchange for their subjects and also paid America $10,000 for their stolen shipping goods. A treaty was signed guaranteeing no further tributes by the United States and full shipping rights in the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1816, after 200 fishermen who had been under British protection were massacred by Algerian troops, the British and Dutch bombarded Algiers for nine hours with cannon. The Dey of Algiers was finally forced to sign a treaty and release 1,083 Christian slaves and repay ransom money.

Coinage of the Barbary Pirate States

For the coinage of the Barbary pirates, the coins were that of the states of Algiers (Algeria), Tunis (Tunisia), Tripoli (Libya), Sale, and Rabat (Morocco). All of these states, with the exception of Morocco, fell under Ottoman rule, and coinage was made in the name of the Ottoman sultan. Yet each one of these states had its own coinage and sometimes their own monetary system within the Ottoman Empire.

Algiers AH1218 (1804) 1/4 Budju, PCGS MS62
Algiers AH1218 (1804) 1/4 Budju, PCGS MS62. Image: PCGS.
Algiers AH1211 (1797) Gold 1/2 Sultani KM-46 Ex. Dr. Hans Wilski Collection, PCGS AU55.
Algiers AH1211 (1797) Gold 1/2 Sultani KM-46 Ex. Dr. Hans Wilski Collection, PCGS AU55. Image: PCGS.

During that time, Algiers issued coins under three: rulers Abdul Hamid I, Ottoman ruler from 1774 to 1789; Selim III, Ottoman ruler from 1789 to 1807; and Mahmud II, Ottoman ruler from 1808 until 1839. The silver coins feature denominations of Budju and are broken down into fractions of 1/8, 1/4, 1/3 and 1/2 Budju with a 1/8 Budju. The Budju was equal to 24 Muzuna or 29 Asper. The copper coins are denominated in Fels. The gold coins are denominated Sultani, with a weight of 3.4 grams of gold. Minors of the gold Sultani in 1/4 and 1/2 denominations are also made. All coins are produced in the Jaza’Ir Mint in Algeria.

Tunis AH1232 (1816) Burben KM-85, PCGS VF25 Brown.
Tunis AH1232 (1816) Burben KM-85, PCGS VF25 Brown. Image: PCGS.
Tunis AH1203 (1789) Piastre, PCGS MS61. Image: PCGS.
Tunis AH1203 (1789) Piastre, PCGS MS61. Image: PCGS.

Tunis, Tunisia, issued coins under the name of four rulers during this period: Abdul Hamid I (1774-1789); Selim III (1789-1807); Mustafa IV (1807-1808); and Mahmud II (1809-1839). A gold coin issued under Tunis during this time is very rare, ranges in weight, and has a small survival rate. Silver was issued in the form of billon coins. These coins were in the denomination of Rial or Piastre, which was subdivided into 16 Kharub each of 13 Fals. A Fals is a copper coin that could be subdivided int 6 Qafsi or Burben. The billon coinage can be found in 1 Rial; 8,4,2, and 1 Kharub; and 1 Nasri or Asper denominations. While Tunisia was under the Ottoman Empire, its coins were not equal to that of Turkey since they were made in debased metals.

Tripoli AH1209 (1795) 100 Para, PCGS VF25. Image: PCGS.
Tripoli AH1209 (1795) 100 Para, PCGS VF25. Image: PCGS.
Tripoli AH1143 ( 1731) Gold Sultani, PCGS AU Details Scratched. Image: PCGS.
Tripoli AH1143 ( 1731) Gold Sultani, PCGS AU Details Scratched. Image: PCGS.

Tripoli, future Libya, also fell under Ottoman rule at this time but issued coins under Abdul Hamid I, Selim III, Mustafa IV, and Mahmud II as the rulers. In line with the Ottoman coinage system at the time, the coins were on the Kurus system, which lasted until 1844. Gold coins in the denomination of Sultani struck at the Tripoli Mint were issued typically weighing 3.20 to 3.40 grams. Zeri Mahbub would be issued weighing usually 2.30 to 2.50 grams each. Silver and billon coins were issued in the denominations of Piastre, 100, 60, 50,40, 30, 20, 15, 10; and 5 Para, with copper being issued in the denominations of Para and Mangir.

Morocco AH1189 (1775) Mitqal Rabat Mint, PCGS MS62. Image: PCGS.
Morocco AH1189 (1775) Mitqal Rabat Mint, PCGS MS62. Image: PCGS.

Morocco or the cities of Rabat and Sale were not under Ottoman rule. Coinage was issued at the Rabat al-Fath Mint in Rabat, Morocco. Issued under Sidi Mohammed III, sultan of Morocco from 1757 until 1790, issues from Rabat include the silver Mithqal, also known as the Moroccan Cob for its hefty 29.3 grams weight, the 1/2 Mithqal, 1/4 Mithqal, the Dirham weighing usually 2.73 grams, the Mazuna weighing 0.68 grams of silver, and the copper Falus and 1/2 Falus.

Collecting the coinage of the Barbary states from their time period at war with the United States and the rest of the world is a very difficult task simply because the coins are not often offered for sale. Surviving pieces are usually holed or impaired and infrequently found. For what they are and their rarity, they are rather inexpensive when encountered but are difficult to build a collection of, especially with any competition.

Yet, when you have a piece in your hands, you can think of the history of this far-off place where the Barbary Pirate States ruled the seas and terrorized the United States to the point of necessitating a navy and sailing it across the ocean to fight its first foreign battles as an independent nation.

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  1. Using the word “Pirate” to describe the berbery States,is unfair and inappropriate. They were organized States with an official Navy Fleet that signed treaties and reflected power of States on mediteranean trade routes and resisted Spanish , Portuguese and French invasions ,such as the Regency of Algiers. The official documents and treaties signed by the US and other nations never used the word pirate. Even Thomas Jefferson never used the word pirate in his accounts. The word pirates to describe these States was newly created in Wikipedia.

  2. Corsairs would be more balanced than Pirates. Designating these states by Pirates is little Derogatory and unfair. Pirate ships have no flag and they’re not not under any state authority. In the case of Barabry (Comes from Berbers) states ,they were part of an organized naval force under the authority of north African states Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli under the umbrella of the Othoman Empire. with official flags and orders, and currency (mentioned in the article)
    The Article was little simplisic t in accusing these naval forces of Piracy. they too defended their interesst, by protecting their trade routes and defended the north African cities from invasions. Cities like Oran, Algiers , Bejai, were under Spanish and Portuguese occupation and liberated by these Algerian othoman naval forces. the historical context of the Crusades during this period was also missing in the article.


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