Why Richard Somers Is Still a Hero 205 Years Later
By Seth Grossman, Political Columnist
(Reprinted from September 9, 2009 Current Newspapers of Atlantic County)
September 4 came and went last week with no mention of Richard Somers anywhere on TV, the newspapers, or in any schools, libraries, or from anybody paid by the government. Although his story has many lessons for young people in America today, Richard Somers is not “politically” correct these days.
In 1783, the British ended their eight year war against American independence. Richard Somers was a five year old boy living at the corner of Shore and Bethel Roads in Somers Point. And warships from the “Berber” or “Barbary” kingdoms of Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli (now Libya) in North Africa attacked American ships throughout the Mediterranean Sea. They held the ships, their crews, passengers, and cargo hostage until large ransoms were paid. Thomas Jefferson was our ambassador to France. John Adams, was ambassador to England.
The Americans asked the French and English to help us fight these pirates, but the Europeans suggested a more “practical” solution. They paid large bribes to the pirate kingdoms every year, and they urged us to do the same. They said it was cheaper than building a navy and going to war. The pirates did not attack Americans before because we were first colonies of England, and then allies of France. But now we were independent and had to pay our own “protection” money.
Congress raised taxes and got the money in 1784. In 1786, Jefferson and Adams met with Arab negotiator Sidi Haji Abdrahaman in London to make a deal. Jefferson began by asking why Americans “who had done them no injury” were attacked.
Jefferson said that this was the answer he got:
“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 . . . The first man who boards a vessel gets one slave over his share. When they spring to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor holds one dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually strikes such terror into the foe that they cry out to surrender at once”.
After this meeting, Jefferson bought an English translation of the Koran. Than he warned Congress that paying tribute was a big mistake, and would only encourage more attacks. (Last year, that very book was used to swear in Muslim Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota.)
But Jefferson was overruled. For the next 15 years, Americans paid roughly a million dollars a year as ransom and tribute to the “Barbary” kingdoms – roughly 20% of the federal budget.
In 1798, French pirates attacked Americans in the Caribbean. This time Americans shouted “Millions for Defense! Not One Cent for Tribute!” We built a navy and destroyed them in less than a year. Two of the most talented officers in that new navy were 20 year old Richard Somers, and his college roommate Stephen Decatur.
When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he stopped bribing Arab pirates, and sent our new navy 5,000 miles away to fight them. Richard Somers, now 23 years old, commanded one of those ships. Most of his crew were teenagers. Fleet Commodore Edward Preble call America’s fleet “a pack of boys”.
But in three years, those young Americans outfought and outsmarted the most feared sea-fighters in the world. Algeria and Tunisia quickly made peace with the Americans. The pirate king of Tripoli held out only by keeping his ships inside the harbor.
On September 4, 1804, Richard Somers and 12 brave volunteers tried to win the war, before Congress cut their funds and brought them home. They loaded their ship, The Intrepid, with explosives, and sailed it into the harbor at night. But the ship exploded prematurely, killing Somers and his crew. But that act of heroism, and a daring attack by U.S. Marines one year later, got the last pirate king to make peace with America – without tribute.
Your children should know this story. Please bring them to a brief ceremony to remember Richard Somers this Sunday, September 13, at 3:00 P.M. at the Somers Mansion by the circle near the Ocean City Bridge in Somers Point. (City Hall at Shore Road and NJ Avenue if it rains). You can park for free at Gregory’s, Mac’s, and Footmarks. The program is sponsored by Liberty and Prosperity and the Somers Point Historical Society led by Sally Hastings.