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The War With Tripoli

W. J. Rayment / -- The current war on Terror is, of course, not the first war that we have waged with terrorists. The first was in 1805 when Thomas Jefferson sent the U.S. Navy and Marines along with a "secret agent" named William Eaton to the Barbary Coast.

Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States at a time when US shipping was terrorized by pirates supported by several of the states of North Africa. Americans were literally sent into slavery by these pirates and their cargoes stolen. The effrontery to U.S. sovereignty became intolerable and Jefferson was forced to act.

The Navy was sent to blockade Tripoli. The USS Philadelphia under the command of the martinet and perhaps incompetent Captain Bainbridge ran aground in the harbor while chasing a Tripolitan vessel. Although a few hours wait would have liberated the craft with the incoming tide, (Somehow Bainbridge neglected to consult his tide tables.) he was determined to surrender. He had to send out a boat to profer his sword to the enemy, an enemy surprised at the ease of their victory.

The disgraceful surrender gave the Tripolitan Bashaw, Yussef Karamanli, 270 new slaves in the form of U.S. Navy seamen. He refused to recognize them as prisoners of war and set them to work with very little in the way of sustenance or shelter. When news of this disaster reached the United States it set the train in motion for an expedition comprised of even more ships. William Eaton was also commissioned to do what he could to overthrow the Bashaw. He intended replacing him with his usurped elder brother, Hamet Karamanli.

While Eaton and Commodore Barron (who would be in charge of the fleet) were making preparations and in transit, the American Navy, in the person of Stephen Decatur made an effort to even the score with Bashaw Yussef. Sailing a bomb ship into Tripoli Harbor, he attacked the captured Philadelphia (which had been freed from the reef upon which it had been stuck under Bainbridge) and completely destroyed it, relieving the Bashaw of part of the great prize which he was convinced that Allah had delivered to him. Nevertheless, he was still in possession of the crew of the Philadelphia, and he was determined to extract a huge ransom for the captives.

When, Barron and Eaton arrived in the Mediterranean, Eaton, with minimal resources in money, weapons and support went in search of Hamet Karamanli to execute his plan to supplant Bashaw Yussef. He went to Egypt on the USS Argus, commanded by Isaac Hull, a determined and efficient Naval Officer. With a few Navy officers and marines, Eaton trekked up the Nile to Cairo. After considerable negotiation, expenditure of nearly all his resources, and some help from the British Consul, he secured the acquiescence of Hamet (as well as his person) to the plan to overthrow Yussef.

In a remarkable march through the dessert with only 8 marines, a few mercenaries and a large group of Arabs and Bedouin, on starvation rations, the group arrived in Derne and managed to take the second largest city in the Barbary state of Tripoli. The news devastated Bashaw Yussef. He was completely surprised and a force sent to retake Derne from Eaton and Hamet was bitterly repulsed several times.

At this time, Tobias Lear entered the picture. Commodore Barron had become very ill. He decided to bring operations of the United States Navy to a close as soon as possible. He sent Lear to negotiate an end to the struggle with Tripoli. Ignoring the superior position of the United States, he negotiated with Yussef, giving a $60,000.00 ransom for the sailors (a considerable sum at that time). Subsequent reports by prominent diplomats in the region show that Yussef would have given up all of the captured sailors for absolutely nothing if only the U.S. would end its war with his state.

William Eaton felt betrayed that the envoy, Tobias Lear, had ended the war without making provisions for Hamet Karamanli, to whom he had made many promises. He also knew that the Bashaw could easily have been defeated with the application of a bit more power. After Lear gave up Derne, Eaton was forced to abandon the city. He left in the Argus and took Hamet with him. Bashaw Yussef then wreaked havoc in Derne with his army to exact retribution for the city's surrender to Eaton.

Naturally, after such an easy escape and the U.S. agreeing to paying sub rosa tribute to him, Bashaw Yussef returned to the depredations of shipping passing near his coast. The negotiated settlement proved a total failure. It was not long before the United States again was forced to send a squadron into the region to deal with pirates. But it was not until 1815 that the U.S. finally ended the days of the Barbary pirates. Force finally proved to be the only language the pirates could understand.

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Related Topics: Gulf War, Military History, Iraq War.


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