UPDATE: SINCE 2014, THE YEARLY CEREMONY TO REMEMBER RICHARD SOMERS IS HELD AT A NEW LOCATION. WE NOW MEET IN THE PARK BY THE STATUE AND MURAL DEDICATED TO RICHARD SOMERS BY THE BRANCH OF THE ATLANTIC COUNTY LIBRARY AT 801 SHORE ROAD (CORNER OF NEW JERSEY AVENUE), SOMERS POINT, NJ 08244.
This Labor Day Monday, September 2, you may be one of thousands of visitors who will pass through Somers Point on the way home from the Boardwalk and beaches of? Ocean City, New Jersey.
If so, take a look at the 300 year old house on the hill to your right as you get off the bridge. Then think about Richard Somers, the great-grandson of the man who built that house.
I invite you to join me and dozens of local residents at 1:30 P.M. that day when we gather again by that old house to hear the remarkable story of America’s first war against Jihad that brought Somers and 12 other young Americans to their deaths in Tripoli on September 4, 1804.
Few high school or college textbooks today even mention that war today. In the 1960?s, I was taught this basic story:
In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson sent the American fleet to the “Barbary Coast” of North Africa to fight “pirates” who were attacking American ships, stealing their cargoes, and holding their crews for ransom. Three years later, Richard Somers and his crew were killed when their explosive packed ship Intrepid detonated prematurely while on a daring mission to destroy the last remaining pirate ships in Tripoli.
But over the years, I learned these important new details at the ceremonies held each September in Somers Point.
While a handful of inexperienced young Americans fought and died alone 5,000 miles away from home, the most powerful sea powers of Europe paid ?”tribute” or bribes to make peace with these “pirates”.
The Barbary “pirates” were not “pirates” at all under international law. “Pirates” were criminals who were to be executed immediately after being captured. The Barbary “pirates” were recognized and protected by the Europeans and international law as “corsairs” or “privateers”. They were licensed, employed, and supervised by the recognized government rulers who had legally declared “war” or “holy war” (Jihad) against America.
These Barbary “corsairs” or “privateers” began attacking American ships, stealing them and their cargo, and capturing passengers and crew as slaves in 1784, just months after the world learned that America was no longer part of and protected by the British Empire.
Americans were shocked and surprised by this. We asked England, France, Holland, and the other nations of Europe for help in protecting our ships and our people.
In 1785, the Europeans told us that they kept their ships and people safe by paying bribes, ransom, and tribute to the rulers of the Barbary kingdoms. They suggested that we do the same. They helped us by setting up a meeting in London between American ambassadors John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the ambassador for Tripoli,.
At this meeting, the Tripoli ambassador gave this response when Adams and Jefferson asked why his country was attacking us:
“It is written in our Koran, that all nations which have not acknowledged the Prophet are sinners. It is the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave them. Every Muslim who is killed in this warfare is sure to go to paradise”.
This is when Thomas Jefferson bought this English translation of the Koran for his library.
After the meeting, both Jefferson and Adams strongly urged Congress to build a navy and go to war. They said paying bribes would only make these Muslim kingdoms stronger and more dangerous.
But in 1785, America had no Constitution, and the 13 separate states were unwilling to pay for a navy. For the next 15 years, Americans joined the Europeans and paid tribute to the Barbary Kingdoms.
But by 1798, Americans had enough. We built a navy to fight French pirates in the Caribbean. Then in 1801, we sent our fleet to North Africa to fight the Barbary “corsairs” (“privateers).
At first, the Europeans laughed at us. Most of our ships were commanded by men like Richard Somers who were just mostly less than 25 years old.
But these young Americans shocked the world. They quickly destroyed Muslim fleets that had defied the strongest European navies for centuries.
At that time, most Americans mastered reading, mathematics, and basic science when they finished school by age 16.. A booming economy with low taxes, few permits, and unlimited opportunities gave them years of skills and leadership experience running farms, ships, and businesses by age 21.
We recently learned that this Barbary War killed Richard Somers was America’s first war to end slavery.
For some 300 years, the powerful Muslim kingdoms of North Africa captured more than a million Europeans and 12 million Africans, and sold them as slaves around the world.
America’s war against them brought this to an end. It also made many Americans in the North aware of the evil of slavery for the first time. The movement to end the enslavement of blacks in America intensified when Americans learned of the suffering of Americans enslaved in North Africa.
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