Archive for the ‘Stephens, Hannah’ Category

“he was . . . taken . . . by the Algerines”

During the Revolutionary War there were only a few ships, nationalized privateers, that together could be called a navy, and they had no real bearing on the outcome of the conflict. After the War there was more concern about land attacks on the western frontier of the United States than threats on the seas therefore an army was more important than a navy.

This deficiency became a problem when Barbary Pirates began to attack American ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Privateers operating from the northern shoreline of Africa known as the Barbary Coast preyed on merchant ships in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast for their cargo but also for their seamen who were sold as slaves. American shipping before the Revolution had been protected by the British government which made treaties, paid tribute and, with the help of private sources and relatives, provided ransom for seamen who were captured. That shield was gone after the United States became independent.

The first American ship to be captured, in this case by Moroccan pirates, was the Betsy in October of 1784. Negotiations, with the help of Spain, were successful; the crew was released and trade resumed. But the new nation had neither the fleet nor the money to ensure the safety of American ships in the Mediterranean. In 1785 two more ships were seized, by Algerian pirates, the Dauphine out of Philadelphia and the Maria of Boston, their cargoes confiscated and their crews enslaved. The captain of the Dauphine sent several petitions to Congress describing the suffering of the crew and asking for relief. The amount of money that Congress authorized for payment to the pirates was far below what was demanded. Furthermore the United States was involved in devising a new constitution in 1787 and establishing a government under it in 1789. The plight of the captives fell from public consciousness.

Interest was revived when additional petitions were submitted to the new Congress. In December of 1791, HANNAH STEPHENS of Concord, Massachusetts sent a petition describing what befell her, as the wife of Isaac Stephens, the captain of the Maria, and their children as a result of his lengthy imprisonment.

To the President, Senate, and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled.

The memorial of Hannah Stephens of Concord in the County of Middlesex and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, wife of Isaac Stephens now a prisoner in Algiers: Humbly sheweth that her husband sailed from the Port of Boston in said Commonwealth on the twenty fourth day of June Anno Domini 1725, in the Schooner Nancy of which he was Commander bound to Cadiz, and was taken on the twenty fourth day of July in the same year by the Algerines, and has ever since remained a prisoner among them, deprived of his liberty & of every means of providing for himself, his wife or Children, said Stephens left these children the eldest of which is a daughter fourteen years old, sickly and not able to support herself and the other two still remain a great expense to their mother. Said Stephens several years previous to his last sailing from Boston, bought a house and a small piece of land in said Concord for his wife and family, that they might have a certain home, whilst he pursued the Business of a Mariner, and paid part of the purchase money; but by means of his great misfortune in being made a prisoner, he has been unable to complete the purchase, and the money that has been paid is lost by reason of the failure of the payment of the Remainder: therefore your Memorialist has been turned out of Doors and driven to the cruel necessity of doing the lowest duties of a servant to prevent herself, and her helpless children from suffering hunger, and nakedness. The sufferings of your Memorialist and of her Children become insupportable when added to the Distress she feels for her husband, who is continually representing by his Letters his melancholy situation, and praying for the interposition of the United States in his behalf. Your Memorialist in this her destitute and forsaken condition, humbly begs the interposition of the United States for her husband, that they would derive some way by which he may be freed from his present state of captivity, that she and her helpless children may once more enjoy the great pleasure of seeing their long lost friend, at liberty and in his native land. Your Memorialist is likewise under the necessity of entreating, and she now does in the most humble manner, entreats that the Legislature of the United States would also take her necessitous circumstances into their wise consideration, and make some provision for the subsistence of herself and her children, in order that she may have some alleviation of her accumulated load of human woe.

as in Duty bound shall ever pray

Hannah Stephens

Negotiations continued, some ransom demands were met, and attempts were made to secure peace treaties. Isaac Stephens was finally freed in 1797. His subsequent petition for monetary compensation, however, was refused. Meanwhile it had become clear that diplomacy was not going to solve the problem. Force was needed. Money was appropriated for a navy and ultimately the United States waged an undeclared war against the North African states of Morocco, Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis from 1801 to 1815 (recall “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine hymn). While it did not completely end acts of piracy it did show that the United States could and would wage a war far from its shores.

Stephens’ petition can be found HERE.
Additional background material: Documents to the People Vol 36, No 1 (2008), pp 32-36.

posted July 12th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Barbary Pirates,Britain,Stephens, Hannah

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