Above: This statue of Richard Somers was placed in a park dedicated to his memory in Somers Point, New Jersey, in 2013. An identical statue stands in Somers, New York, a town named for him shortly after his death in Tripoli in 1804. Both monuments were created by sculptor Luigi Badia.
Richard Somers was born in Somers Point in 1778. After elementary school, Somers attended Abercrombie’s Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. He completed school by age 15 and mastered a useful trade by 18. By 1794, Somers was put in charge of merchant ships sailing between New York and Philadelphia.
At that time, America had no navy. Most Americans thought they were at peace with the world and did not need one after the War for Independence ended in 1783. They were wrong.
For more than a thousand years, small kingdoms on the Barbary Coast of North Africa sent sea-fighters to attack and rob the ships and coastal towns of non-Muslim European nations as far north as Iceland. They then sold the people they captured as slaves or held them for ransom. Although these sea-fighters are commonly called the “Barbary pirates,” they were not pirates or criminals as defined by international law. Rather, they were corsairs: privateers fighting under the banner of nations legally at war with the people they attacked.
At first, Britain, Spain, and other European nations with navies fought them. They later bought protection for their people by making treaties and paying tribute.
When America became independent from Britain in 1783, the Barbary corsairs attacked American ships, which were no longer protected by the treaties or navy of Britain.
Over the next 15 years, the United States reluctantly signed treaties and paid tribute because it did not have a navy to protect its merchant ships. The more America paid, the more the Barbary corsairs demanded. Meanwhile, the British and French navies and pirates in the Caribbean also stopped, seized, and attacked America’s defenseless ships.
By 1798, most Americans had enough and embraced the slogan “Millions for defense; not one cent for tribute!” America built a new navy, and 20-year-old Richard Somers was one of the first to join.
In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson stopped paying tribute to the Barbary corsairs. He instead sent our new navy to fight them. In 1803, Somers was given command of the warship Nautilus and its103 men.
Somers and the new American Navy fought with skill and courage. By August 1804, three of the four Barbary kingdoms had made peace. Only Tripoli remained at war with America.
Above Image: Original 1800s Monument To Richard Somers By New York Ave. School In Somers Point, NJ: “He perished in the 25th year of his age in the Ketch Intrepid in the memorable attempt to destroy the Turkish Flotilla in The Harbor of Tripoli on the night of the 4th Of Sep, 1804”. Why does it refer to the “Turkish Flotilla” rather than “Flotilla of Tripoli” or “Barbary Pirate Flotilla”?
On September 4, Somers and 12 others made a daring attack to quickly win the war against Tripoli. They packed a small ship, Intrepid, with explosives and planned to sail it into Tripoli harbor, light the fuse, and escape just before it exploded near the enemy fleet. However, it detonated before the crew could escape and before it was close enough to accomplish its mission. Somers and all aboard were killed. Nevertheless, their courage and ingenuity inspired the Americans to keep fighting, which persuaded Tripoli to soon make peace.
Above Image: Millville artist Maryann Cannon completed the above mural to illustrate the story of Richard Somers just before September 4, 2015.
This year (2023), our organization will gather at this park by 801 Shore Road in Somers Point, NJ to remember Richard Somers and tell his story.
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