Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Defending U.S. Maritime Commerce in Peacetime from 1794 to Today

Defending U.S. Maritime Commerce in Peacetime from 1794 to Today

Maritime commerce has been vital to the American economy since the founding of the colonies in the seventeenth century. Indeed, the ability to navigate the Atlantic Ocean freely has always been crucial to U.S. national interests. Historically, any time that a war has threatened our ability to trade in the Atlantic, the United States has eventually entered that war. When both Britain and France infringed on what we considered our neutral rights during the wars of the French Revolution and Empire, we first fought the French in the Quasi War, then the British in the War of 1812. For the next century, the Atlantic was free of a major war. However, with the World Wars of the twentieth century and German U-boats preying on American commerce, the United States ended up becoming involved in wars yet again.

Only a month after the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the War for Independence, the Betsey, a merchantman from Salem, Massachusetts, became the first of six American trading vessels to be seized by Algiers in the final three months of 1783. In August of 1784, the New York merchantman Empress of China arrived at Canton to open trade with China. As other trading vessels entered waters of the Far East, Mediterranean, and Caribbean, they were subject to attack, and none could look to an American navy to protect them. In 1785, Congress ordered the last ships of the Continental Navy to be sold.

The U.S. Navy’s Creation

In 1794, the first ships of the U.S. Navy were commissioned. Protecting commerce against the Barbary Corsairs was the key factor in rallying the congressional support needed to establish the new service in 1794. For the next 20 years, the young service sought- with only limited success- to defend American ships from attacks by the warring states of Europe and North Africa. While no wars involving major powers were waged in the Atlantic during the nineteenth century, the seas were far from peaceful in the century that followed, Barbary Corsairs continued to plague the Mediterranean Sea, the Latin American Wars for Independence bred piracy south of the United States, and the East Indies remained a region of weak governments and instability. Thus, American commerce often fell prey to raiders at sea and the property of its citizens was frequently threatened ashore. In these troubled times, it quickly became the duty of the U.S. Navy to provide protection for American citizens and their property abroad.

While systematic plans had been established to provide coastal defense for the continental United States, no such plans existed to defend trade. Instead, the government dispatched warships to trouble spots as needed. These actions often resulted in the subsequent assignment of a squadron to the region on a permanent basis.

The first ad hoc instance of this kind followed the War of 1812, when President James Madison dispatched two squadrons to the Mediterranean. They were to deal with corsairs, or privateers, from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. These corsairs had resumed seizing American ships during the war. The ships commanded by Stephen Decatur arrived first, captured the Mashouda, flagship of the Algerine Navy. Decatur then visited Tunis and Tripoli where he exacted indemnities for damage done to American merchantmen over the previous four years. Having, in his words, “dictate[d] peace at the mouth of a cannon,” Decatur sailed to Gibraltar from where he wrote Secretary of State James Monroe saying that “the only secure guarantee we can have for the maintenance of the peace just concluded with these people is the presence in the Mediterranean of a respectable naval force.” When he departed for America, Decatur left behind two frigates and several smaller vessels which formed the nucleus of what would become the Mediterranean Squadron. After an Anglo-Dutch squadron shelled Algiers the following year, the Mediterranean waters were relatively safe for a decade. However, Greece then rebelled against its Ottoman Turk rulers, and both sides authorized privateering and its practitioners often turned to piracy in the mid 1820s. Still Decatur’s advice proved prophetic not only for the future of U.S. commerce in the Mediterranean, but for the rest of the world, as well. Over the next 25 years, the United States established another six naval squadrons to protect American lives and property.

Half of these naval squadrons patrolled the waters off Latin America where both the imperial governments of Spain and Portugal- and their rebelling colonists- announced blockades and counter blockades. They also licensed privateers to prey on merchant ships trading with their opponents during the Latin American Wars of Independence from 1811-1825. These blockades were often paper blockades, where the government declaring them had few- if any- ships to patrol the areas declared to be closed to shipping. Mostly, they used the declared “existence” of a blockade as an excuse to seize any vessel suspected of trading with an enemy. In 1823, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams noted that Spain had only one frigate, one sloop, and a single brig to enforce the 1,200-mile-long blockade it declared along the coast of Central and South America. Such a paper blockade, Adams declared, was not a blockade at all but “a war of extermination against neutral commerce.”

With the start of the Latin American Wars for independence, Caribbean piracy increased significantly. Jean Lafitte, the leader of a colony of smugglers at Grand Terre in Barataria Bay, south of New Orleans, was especially important to the United States. When Colombia declared its independence from Spain in 1810, Lafitte obtained a letter of marque from the rebel government and added privateering to his business enterprises. When Spain announced a blockade of its rebelling provinces, the revolutionaries declared a counter blockade-banning trade with all ports still under Spanish control. Lafitte then began seizing U.S. ships anywhere he found them in the Caribbean. U.S. naval forces at New Orleans were unable to control his freebooters prior to the War of 1812. When Lafitte helped Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans from the British in 1814-1815, he received a pardon for past actions. However, by 1817, he was back to his old ways, with a privateering license from Mexico. In 1823, Spanish forces finally captured and executed Lafitte.

In 1819, President James Monroe dispatched Oliver Hazard Perry to Venezuela where he met with Simon Bolivar. Bolivar signed a treaty ending attacks on American commerce by individuals licensed by his government. But this did not end piracy in the Caribbean. In 1820, a total of 27 American vessels were seized. This prompted more navy ships being sent to the area. In 1822, Congress formed the permanent West India Squadron. Based at Key West and St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies, its ships patrolled the Caribbean until 1842 when it was renamed the Home Squadron.

When rebellion against Spain spread to Latin America’s west coast, both the Royalist and rebel forces started seizing U.S. ships. In 1817, a ship was dispatched to the Pacific to show the American flag and demand respect for U.S. merchantmen and whalers. Other warships followed and in 1821, all the area forces were organized into the Pacific Squadron and placed under a single commander. This squadron was to patrol the coasts from Valparaiso, Chile, north to Panama similarly to how the West India Squadron had operated on the other side of Central America. As American whaling expanded in the Pacific, the squadron added Hawaii-where many whaling ships spent the winter-to its cruising ground.

Establishing the Brazil Squadron in 1826 was not the product of a war for independence but rather a war between Brazil and Argentina over present day Uruguay. The United States had little trade in these regions, but Rio de Janeiro was a dock for ships going to the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope or around Cape Horn to the Pacific. Ten years later, the squadron protected U.S. merchants from attacks tolerated by Juan Manuel Rosas, the dictator at Buenos Aires.

Nearly a decade later, the East India Squadron was established to protect America’s limited lucrative trade in lands bordering the South China Sea. On February 7, 1831, natives of Kuala Batu on the so-called “Pepper Coast” of Sumatra, seized the U.S. merchant ship Friendship, killed three sailors, and wounded three others. The captain and a party ashore at the time escaped to another village and, with the help of friendly natives, retook the Friendship. The ship’s owners demanded assistance from the U.S. government in obtaining compensation, and the ship’s cargo. Captain John Downes and the Peacock were sent “to obtain redress.” When Downes reached Sumatra in February 1832, he made no attempt to meet with local officials. Instead, he landed 282 sailors and marines who captured the four forts defending Kuala Batu, burned much of the town, and killed 150 people. A strong possibility exists that Downes destroyed the wrong village. The people killed may have been innocent regarding the attack on the Friendship. Still, the attack served as a warning to others not to allow attacks on U.S. ships lest they become the victim of retaliation. Indeed this incident illustrates how U.S. naval forces operated-partly like cops on the beat- to deter violence but also through retribution to punish wrongdoers.

In 1835, the United States sent a diplomat to Canton with orders to secure a trade treaty with China. The diplomat was escorted by two warships which remained on station as the first vessels of a permanent East India Squadron, the ships of which patrolled widely. Such patrols did not prevent attacks on U.S. ships. However, attacks could be punished more quickly. The murder of merchant ship Eclipse’s captain, by natives of a village near Kuala Batu in 1838, was such a case. News of the attack reached Commodore George C. Read in Ceylon. Read, commander of the East India Squadron, proceeded to Sumatra post haste, put 360 men ashore, and after giving natives time to leave a village, burned it to the ground. Downes then collected an indemnity and forced a promise that U.S. mariners would not be harmed in the future.

Commerce Curbed

The final squadron formed during the antebellum period, the African Squadron, was assembled not to protect commerce but to prevent it. In 1808, Congress had banned importing slaves and in 1818 declared the international slave trade illegal. During the following decades, foreign slave traders, mostly Spanish and Portuguese, often flew the U.S. flag, hoping that it would protect them from being searched by ships of the British anti-slavery patrol. It did not. And in their effort to eradicate the trade, Royal Navy captains sometimes boarded legitimate U.S. merchant ships leading to disputes. In 1842, the United States and Great Britain signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty which called for the United States to station naval forces on the west coast of Africa to enforce anti-slavery laws in which case the Royal Navy would stop inspecting U.S. ships.

During this same Antebellum period, the Navy carried out a series of expeditions designed- at least in part- to further the commercial interests of American traders by charting coastlines, negotiating for the safety of Americans with native leaders, and gathering information about winds, currents, and the likely place to find whales. The Great U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 and Matthew C. Perry’s “Opening of Japan” were the most famous of these.

The primary motive of the Exploring Expedition was scientific-to chart little known islands of the South Pacific along with a portion of the coast of what is now British Columbia, and to determine if the southern polar icecap covered land. In four years, the six ships of the expedition sailed 85,000 miles, charted 280 islands and 1,500 miles of the Antarctic continent, and reached agreements with several native leaders providing for the safety of shipwrecked Americans.

The best known of the voyages of the era, Matthew Perry’s 1852-1854 mission to Japan, sought to obtain three things from the rulers of that nation: 1) protection for American seamen shipwrecked on the coast of Japan and for U.S. ships driven into Japanese ports by bad weather; 2) the right to establish coaling and supply stations at Japanese ports; and 3) permission for U.S. ships to trade in one or more Japanese ports.

Perry’s mission was a great success. Increasing American commerce in the region led to the North Pacific Surveying and Exploring Expedition that charted the coasts of Japan, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands (1853-1856). This coincided with the survey of Rio de la Plata those same years. The California Gold Rush led to thoughts of a Central American canal. A naval expedition surveyed the coast of Panama in 1854-1857. Other expeditions surveyed the coast of western Africa in 1853-1858. Each of these had both scientific and commercial development components.

Civil War

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the navy’s ships were called home from their distant stations to conduct operations against the Confederacy. The sole exceptions were the Africa Squadron ships, which remained on station as required by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, so as to not alienate the British who were feared to have pro-Southern sympathies.

Once the Civil War was over, the squadrons were reestablished, usually with new names and slightly different territorial assignments. However, the mission remained the same: protecting American lives and property.

In 1866, for example, the Mediterranean Squadron became the European Squadron, the Brazil and Africa Squadrons were merged to form the South Atlantic Squadron, the Pacific Squadron was divided into the North Pacific and South Pacific Squadron (later reunited from the Pacific Squadron, 1878-1907 when it became the Pacific Fleet). The East India Squadron was briefly reconstituted, 1865-1868, then renamed the Asiatic Squadron. In 1902, it became the Asiatic Fleet, the name it bore until World War II.

All of these squadrons operated much as their Antebellum predecessors. Their ships patrolled regular circuits showing the flag and steamed to trouble spots when needed. For example, when villagers on the island of Taiwan killed the crew of an American trading ship in 1867, a landing party from ships of the Asiatic Squadron retaliated by burning the village to the ground, killing many of its inhabitants.

Four years later, ships of the North Pacific Squadron carried Frederick Low to Korea with orders to obtain a treaty from the Hermit Kingdom. The treaty was designed to open trade and provide safety to American seamen washed up on its shores. When forts at Inchon fired on one of the American warships, squadron commander John Rodgers destroyed three Korean forts killing 243 Korean soldiers. Feeling American honor had been served, Rodgers sailed away-without the treaty Low had sought. That had to wait until 1878 when Commodore Robert Shufeldt returned to Inchon with the squadron and intimidated the Koreans into signing a treaty.

This pattern repeated itself in the early twentieth century when the United States joined other nations in intervening in China to put down the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Additionally, the United States acting alone under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, landed Marines and blue jackets in virtually every country in the Caribbean. Indeed because of unrest in both regions, the United States established two squadrons-the Special Service Squadron in the Caribbean, and the Yangtze Patrol on that river in China- to protect American citizens and their property in those regions.

The U.S. Navy began operating gunboats on China’s Yangtze River in 1903, but they were not formally organized as a sub-unit of the Asiatic Fleet until 1919. In addition to protecting Americans in the region, the half dozen gunboats of the Yangtze Patrol were charged with enforcing America’s “Open Door Policy.” This policy called for the equality of opportunity for trade and investment for all nations in China. When Japan invaded the region in 1937, patrol vessels helped evacuate Americans caught in the war zone. Later that year, Japanese aircraft attacked the patrol boat Panay. World War II brought an end to the patrol when one of its last two gunboats, the Wake, was captured by the Japanese on December 8, 1941. The crew of the other, the Tutuila, turned the ship over to the Nationalist Chinese and flew to India the next month.

In the Caribbean, the Navy was the “big stick” that protected U.S. citizens and their property and countered foreign influence in Theodore Roosevelt’s “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” style of diplomacy. From 1900 until America’s entry into World War I, this was carried out by detached units of the Atlantic Fleet, but in 1920, the Special Service Squadron was formed as a component of the U.S. Fleet. Headquartered at Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, the squadron was charged with patrolling-and policing-the Caribbean Sea and defending the Panama Canal, which it did until it was disbanded in 1940.

World War II and Beyond

The outbreak of World War II forced a major reorganization of the entire U.S. military as it geared up to fight a global war. After the war ended, there was a stability imposed on the maritime world due, in part, to the Cold War’s rise and the fear of escalation to nuclear war. The implosion of the Soviet Union, the spread of terrorism, and the rise of non-state actors, including organized crime syndicates, led to the reemergence of piracy as a major problem in the post-Cold War world.

Merchant ships were caught in wars between nations such as that between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. Much of the world’s economy depended on oil from that region so when oil tankers were attacked by both sides, the U.S. Navy was called upon to protect them in what came to be called the “Tanker War.”

There has also been a rise of piracy, traditionally defined, particularly in the waters of Southeast Asia and those off the Horn of Africa. The United States has responded to attacks on shipping in these areas in slightly differing ways.

Maritime Issues Today

In the 1990s, Southeast Asia was the world’s most piracy-prone region accounting for about half of global attacks reported each year. The United States has occasionally stationed a warship in the region, such as when the destroyer Vandegrift was sent to the region between September and November 2001, and escorted 25 U.S. vessels through the Strait of Malacca. Generally, however, it has sought to work with friendly governments in the region-often by providing them with training and financial aid, a policy followed by Japan.

The threat of piracy became so significant that from July 2005 to August 2006, international insurers designated the Strait of Malacca a “war-risk zone.” Since then, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have invigorated their domestic efforts to fight sea robbery by increasing operations within their territorial waters and going after the pirates in their shore areas. The littoral states have also strengthened cooperative efforts to deal with piracy and sea robbery as a transnational phenomenon. The most visible of these efforts is the trilateral Strait of Malacca patrols that began in 2004. At first, these were only coordinated surface patrols. More recently, the program has been expanded to include cooperative airborne patrols, intelligence exchanges, standardized operating procedures, and limited “hot pursuit rights” into each other’s territorial seas. Although these actions have substantially reduced piracy rates, especially in the Strait of Malacca, the problem remains unsolved.[1] In 2009, the International Maritime Bureau counted forty-five acts of piracy and armed robbery on Southeast Asia seas, more than anywhere except the waters around the Horn of Africa.

In that region, local governments, especially that of Somalia, have been unable to stop pirates operating from their territory. Here, the United States has taken the lead in forging an international response to the problem. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated: “The problem [of piracy] is easier to deal with when the surrounding land-as in the case of Southeast Asia and the Straits of Malacca-is controlled by real governments that have real capabilities, which is not the case in Somalia.”[2]

In September 2001, the United States formed Task Force 151 as a division of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. TF151s ships began patrolling the northwestern portion of the Arabian Gulf, the waters off Somalia. By the following May, warships of four other nations (Spain, Germany, Great Britain, and France) had joined the Task Force. Since then, the multinational organization has been joined by warships from India and Russia, and established a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) in the Gulf of Aden and adjoining waters of the Arabian Sea.

In October 2007, U.S. officials announced a new American maritime strategy called a Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21) which places emphasis on the forging of Global Maritime Partnerships (GMPs) to wage wars, ensure safety and stability in peacetime, and to render humanitarian aid in times of natural disaster. To date, measures taken under this strategy have had only limited success. Between January 2008 and March 2010, pirates operating from Somali have attacked more than 330 civilian vessels ranging in size from sailing yachts and small fishing boats to 70,000-ton bulk carriers.

Attacks on ships carrying humanitarian aid finally evoked a response from the United Nations in October 2008. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asked NATO to provide escorts for ships chartered by the UN’s World Food Program. NATO responded by forming Standing NATO Maritime Group Two, which worked with the Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) until December of 2008 when the UN force was replaced by a group of ships flying the European Union flag. This began as a short term deployment called “Atalanta” but has since been extended. NATO forces returned to the region in the spring of 2009. Thus, there are now three distinct forces operating in the Arabian Gulf: The European Union Naval Force in Operation “Atalanta”; NATO forces under the current name Operation Ocean Shield; and CTF 151 of the Coalition Combined Maritime Forces, the naval arm of Operation Enduring Freedom. Plus other nations, including China and Japan, have warships operating independently of any of these three groups. It is a complicated arrangement made more so by such facts as the EU having an agreement which allows its naval forces to send captured pirates to Kenya for trial, but NATO has no similar agreement with any nation in the region. How this will all work out remains to be seen.

In short, in 2010, the line between peace and war is as murky in the war against piracy as it was during the Barbary Wars of two centuries ago. Yet constants remain in war or in peace. Indeed, one might argue, especially in peace. First, the economy of the United States is dependent on maritime commerce today as it was two centuries ago. The globalization of the past fifty years has resulted in a 90-fold increase in the value of foreign trade.[3] Without access to overseas commodities, manufacturers, and markets the economy of United States would atrophy. Secondly, defending that commerce remains a primary role of the U.S. Navy. As in most of the nineteenth century, the period between the War of 1812 and the Spanish American War, the Navy has, for the past three decades, played a largely support role in Americas combat operations, but has been the service primarily responsible for keeping open sea lines of communication. While it has received assistance from allies, the primary burden for patrolling troubled regions, currently bordering the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea has rested with the U.S. Navy.


  1. ^ For further discussion, see Catherine Zara Raymond, “Piracy and Armed Robbery in the Malacca Strait: A Problem Solved?,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2009, pp. 31-42; Ian Storey, “Securing Southeast Asia’s Sea Lanes: A Work in Progress,” Asia Policy, July 2008, pp. 99-100, 109, 126, and John Bradford, “Shifting the Tides Against Piracy in Southeast Asian Waters,” Asian Survey, May/June 2008,, pp. 474-5
  2. ^ John J. Kruzel. “Navy’s Rescue Mission ‘Textbook,’ But Piracy Still Looms, Gates Says,” Outside assistance, especially the sending of warships to the area is often resented by local governments. Victor Huang, “Building Maritime Security in Southeast Asia: Outsiders Not Welcome?” Naval War College Review, Winter 2008.
  3. ^ The combined value of goods exported and imported grew from $35,408 million in 1960 to $3,243,042 in 2009 of which approximate 30% was with Canada and Mexico. The amount moving by sea changed little due impart to the increase in the volume of bulk commodities, especially oil, that moves by sea. “U.S. Trade in Goods and Services – Balance of Payments (BOP) Basis,: U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Division,