A few days were enough for Esteban to realize that Víctor Hugues had been overly optimistic in telling him that the journey from Cayenne to Paramaribo, at such times, was an easy undertaking. Jeannet, envious of Guadeloupe’s prosperity, also had his privateers: small, rapacious captains, without the charisma or stature of an Antoine Fuët, who pounced on any solitary or lost vessel, justifying the name ‘War of the Brigands’ with which Americans already referred to the French maritime action in the Caribbean.

This excerpt is from the novel “Explosion in a Cathedral”, in which the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier narrates the impact of the French Revolution on the Gallic colonies of the Caribbean.

In that context, as we see, Carpentier mentions what he calls the War of the Brigands; he refers to a peculiar conflict between the U.S. and France that is usually known as the Quasi-War (or Undeclared War or similar designations) because, despite confronting both countries between 1798 and 1800, they never formally declared the conflict.

The origin of this episode would have to be traced back to the American Revolution carried out by the thirteen British colonies against the rule of their crown, culminating in 1783 with the independence and birth of the U.S.

France, like Spain and other nations, had provided significant economic, material, and human support to the insurgents to harm Britain. Therefore, fifteen years later, the refusal of the second U.S. president, John Adams, to continue paying that debt was interpreted as ingratitude.

Adams argued that it had been contracted with the previous regime, namely, the monarchy of Louis XVI, which had been overthrown by the revolutionaries in 1792. But it went beyond gratitude. In 1794, the U.S. signed the Jay Treaty with the British, ending hostilities and strengthening bilateral political and commercial relations, resulting in a significant boost to the U.S. economy by tripling its exports.

The problem was that, at that time, Great Britain had joined the First Coalition, an international alliance created to oppose the revolutionaries, including almost all of Europe (Austria, Prussia, Portugal, the United Provinces, Sardinia, Naples, and Spain – although it changed sides in 1796 and aligned with the Directory) and continued in a Second Coalition in 1798, joined by Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Papal States.

In other words, France and Great Britain were enemies, and the U.S. was aiding the latter, despite the opposition of the Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson, which considered the Jay Treaty negative (Adams belonged to the Federalist Party, which dissolved in 1824).

To avoid tensions, Americans declared themselves neutral, but the refusal to continue paying the debt led the French government to seize American ships in the Caribbean.

This was known as the XYZ Affair. In December 1796, an American diplomatic delegation led by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney arrived in Paris to negotiate but not only were they not received, but they were also demanded a retraction from the president and the granting of a loan to finance the conflicts the French were facing at that time.

They returned empty-handed, and at the request of Jefferson (who had been ambassador to France), Adams made the report public, replacing the names of the commission members with those three letters.

The president, who had been very critical of the course taken by the French Revolution, turning the initial sympathies the National Assembly had garnered in his country, responded by authorizing privateering against French vessels in U.S. waters. Obviously, in this game of measures and countermeasures, the Directory responded in kind, escalating tensions until the rupture of relations and pushing both nations toward war, although neither officially declared it.

In late the following year, Adams informed Congress that military defensive measures were going to be taken, offering the position of lieutenant general and the command of operations to George Washington; it was July 1798.

In reality, the U.S. had a serious problem, as until its independence, it had been protected by the Royal Navy and now found itself without a navy to defend its ships at sea, beyond a few smaller units, mainly cutters. Consequently, French privateers roamed freely, capturing over three hundred prizes in eleven months. This forced the creation of the Department of the Navy and the reactivation of the Marine Corps (founded in 1775 with two battalions but dissolved eight years later upon breaking free from British rule).

Likewise, Congress authorized the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, to purchase a dozen merchant ships and convert them into warships, arming them with twenty-two cannons each and instructing them to attack French ships located in U.S. waters.

It was a de facto war, despite not being declared; the Quasi-War. A few days later, the construction of three frigates also began, the USS Congress, the USS Chesapeake, and the USS President, the first two launched in 1799 and the third in 1800.

Stephen Decatur (Orlando S. Lagman)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Due to budgetary and material limitations, the U.S. strategy focused on patrolling its coastline and escorting its merchant vessels, but it also aimed to attack French interests in the Caribbean, where it still had colonies. For this, they had a total of twenty-five vessels. The first successes came in 1798 when the USS Constellation frigate defeated and captured L’Insurgent and severely damaged La Vengeance, while the USS Delaware did the same with La Croyable.

These were the first signs that privateers would no longer be able to act with such impunity. In fact, throughout 1799, the schooner USS Enterprise captured eight of them, the USS Experiment surrendered Deux and Diane, and the frigate USS Boston captured Le Berceau, releasing dozens of detained merchant ships among them. That same year, the USS United States frigate, commanded by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, joined the fleet, who in 1804 would become a national hero for a daring assault on Tripoli.

The two years of the Quasi-War consecrated that original generation of U.S. sailors, including the aforementioned Decatur, Silas Talbot, and William Bainbridge, among others. Bainbridge, who would be the cause of Decatur’s action in 1804 by rescuing him from captivity by the Barbary pirates (he had been captured when his ship ran aground), also had the opportunity to shine in command of the USS Retaliation. This was the French ship La Croyable, captured by Decatur and renamed, which was later recaptured by two French frigates while its escorts, the armed merchant USS Montezuma and the brig USS Norfolk, had separated from it.

William Bainbridge (John Wesley Jarvis)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Taken to Guadeloupe, it changed names again, becoming the Magicienne. Bainbridge was allowed to go ashore to negotiate the return of the crew to the U.S. in exchange for his government admitting neutrality to the island. The governor desired to open bilateral trade relations with the Americans and disassociate from the metropolis. The sailors safely reached their homes, he presented the proposal to President Adams, and he to Congress, which accepted but with a caveat: the Retaliation Act, authorizing the capture of any French citizen embarked.

Bainbridge was promoted to commander and assigned to the USS Norfolk. Meanwhile, the bizarre story of the Magicienne ended as it began: a collision with the USS Merrimack meant it passed back into American hands.

As can be seen, hostilities were fought almost exclusively at sea. But only almost because, for example, on May 11, 1800, Lieutenant Isaac Hul carried out an amphibious operation by landing in Puerto Plata (Santo Domingo) leading ninety marines to capture a French privateer nicknamed Sandwich, which Silas Talbot had taken his schooner Sally from three days earlier.

There were more skirmishes, of course. Some cutters of the U.S. Revenue-Marine (predecessor to the Coast Guard) dared to travel to French Caribbean ports and make their own captures of merchant vessels, and even the USRC Pickering of Benjamin Hillar seized L’Egypte Conquise, a larger and better-armed privateer (it later sank in a storm); in fact, these actions were not limited to the West Indies because the USS Essex frigate rounded Cape Horn and rescued several ships of its country that were being taken to the East Indies.

During the Quasi-War, strategic differences prevented collaboration between the Royal Navy and the nascent United States Navy, although the British government did provide material assistance. The fact is that, until 1800, the U.S. had had close to two thousand merchants captured, but in return, it had only lost one warship, the aforementioned USS Retaliation, so France had no reason to be satisfied either. Both were waiting for an opportune moment to end the situation, and finally, that year arrived.

Napoleon had just returned from his expedition to Egypt, finding the country bankrupt and with a Directory so corrupt and unpopular that two of its members, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès and Roger Ducos, offered him support for a coup d’état, joined by his brother Luciano and Talleyrand. It was executed on November 9 (18th Brumaire in the revolutionary calendar), establishing a triple consulate of which Bonaparte managed to impose himself as the first consul and then become consul for life.

To a strategist like Napoleon, the possibilities offered by Louisiana as support for the sugar production of its Caribbean colonies did not escape him. But before planning anything, he had to regain authority over them since Martinique had fallen into British hands, Guadeloupe was experiencing a turbulent pre-revolutionary situation, and Santo Domingo was engulfed in a civil war between the mulattos of André Rigaud and the blacks of Henri Christophe, which has been called the War of the Knives. Therefore, he needed to make peace with the U.S. to have a free hand and be able to develop a reconquest campaign.

Thus, Talleyrand, appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, began an approach to the U.S. that John Adams was receptive to, postponing the bellicose sector of his party. As a show of goodwill, both stopped their naval forces, and before the year ended, a plenipotentiary arrived in Paris to negotiate, William Vans Murray, who was also the ambassador to the Batavian Republic (a satellite state created by France in 1795, after occupying the United Provinces, from which Holland would emerge).

The discussions resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also called the Convention of 1800. The U.S. emerged as a moral victor, as it ratified the end of the old alliance with France between 1778 and 1783, in addition to emphasizing its neutrality in the Franco-British war. The counterparts were two: first, the French government refused to pay the twenty million dollars demanded as compensation for the looting of American ships; second, the news of the final agreement did not reach the other side of the Atlantic in time for John Adams to wield it in his election campaign… and he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 31, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en La Cuasi-Guerra, la contienda no declarada que enfrentó a Estados Unidos y Francia entre 1798 y 1800


Donald R. Hickey, The Quasi-War: America’s First Limited War, 1798-1801 | Jasper M. Trautsch, The Genesis of America: US Foreign Policy and the Formation of National Identity, 1793-1815 | Eugene G. Windchy, Twelve American Wars: Nine of Them Avoidable | Greg H. Williams, The French Assault on American Shipping, 1793-1813 | David McCullough, John Adams | Wikipedia

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