The infamous Barbary corsairs were the scourge of the Mediterranean throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed right up until Lord Exmouth's successful British assault on Algiers in August 1816. Operating out of several fortified citadels along the North African coast, the corsairs' reign of terror, specifically the enslavement of Christian prisoners, had flourished unchecked for many generations whilst the European nations had fought each other in seemingly interminable conflict. Only after Napoleonic France had been defeated could Britain and her allies give their full attention to the problem whereas the United States had already achieved victory in 1804-05, when Europe's own troubles precluded its participation.
Hostilities between Tripoli and the United States had begun as early as May 1801 when the Basha of Tripoli accused the U.S. of delaying the payment of its annual 'tribute' [i.e. protection money]. A formal declaration of War soon followed, whereupon a prolonged campaign by U.S. warships began in the Mediterranean which was marked by a number of American successes. However, on 31st October 1803 the U.S.S. Philadelphia, while chasing a Tripolitan ship, ran aground inside Tripoli harbor and her officers and crew taken prisoner. A U.S. blockade ensued and, in February 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a raiding party into the harbor and burned the Philadelphia right under the enemy's guns without the loss of a single man. The Basha was incensed; further cruelties were inflicted upon the imprisoned crew of the Philadelphia and Commodore Edward Preble, flying his flag in the Constitution, resolved the bombard the city in an attempt to subdue it and obtain the release of the U.S. prisoners. Preble's squadron, including the brig Syren, commenced the bombardment on 5th August (1804) and, over the next two days, five separate attacks were mounted with great determination although the city held out thanks to its estimated 25,000 fanatical defenders. In fact, the War dragged on for almost another year - until June 1805 - but the attacks on Tripoli had so impressed the Tripolitans that, once the U.S. squadron was reinforced with more ships, they sued for a peace settlement after which no further tribute was ever paid.
The U.S.S. Syren was a 16-gun brig built at Philadelphia and launched in August 1803. Sent straight out to the Mediterranean under the command of Lieutenant Charles Stewart, she took part in all the operations against Tripoli and stayed on in the area until the summer of 1806 when she returned home. Laid up for a time, she was back in action again during the Anglo-American War of 1812(-14) when she was captured by H.M.S. Medway on 12th July 1814 after an epic 11-hour chase.
For full career details of the U.S.S. Constitution, see the notes accompanying lot 90 in this catalogue.