The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, by Richard Zacks (2005) – Audiobook narrated by Raymond Todd.
State-sponsored terrorists! Kidnappers! Extortion! Human rights violations! Wishy-washy US and European response! US covert military intervention to enact a regime change! Meddling by self-aggrandizing diplomats! Peace treaties that solve nothing! Betrayed allies! Disgruntled war heroes! Vengeful, dissent-crushing presidents!
If the above sounds like one of those “ripped from the headlines” stories, well, one could certainly draw parallels to US foreign interventions since … well, since this one. This tale of the Pirate Coast — the Barbary Pirates, to be exact — recounts the first honest-to-gosh military conflict and covert ops on foreign soil ever pursued by the US.
Ongoing piracy, enslavement, and ransom/tribute demands from the Barbary Coast — the NW African coast from modern Libya to Algeria — had plagued European and American shipping for decades leading up to 1805. In response, a former diplomat and army colonel, William Eaton, wangles a commission from Thomas Jefferson to try and displace the reigning pasha of Tripoli, Yussef, with his deposed and exiled brother, Hamet. The actual trigger for this action is the capture and enslavement of 300 men of a US warship that absurdly runs aground in Tripoli harbor and is captured.
The ensuing military campaign is, on one level, trivial. Eaton, with a handful of US Marines, a hundred foreign mercenaries dredged up from around Egypt, Hamet’s entourage, and as many Arab and Bedouin troops as he could manage to bribe from day to day, managed to take the Tripolitan port city of Durna from a vastly larger force and hold it for a month. It was the first time the US flag had been raised on foreign soil (outside of North America), and the campaign still echoes in the Marine Corps’ hymn, “… to the shores of Tripoli …”
Outside of that, the story takes on aspects of tragedy and farce. Half the US navy in the Mediterranean — a tiny fleet to begin with — wants little to do with the firebrand Eaton, a Shakespearean mix of bravery, bombast, and bull-headedness. Certainly the diplomats and consuls in the area disdain the whole idea of a military intervention and undercut Eaton at every turn, ultimately throwing away his victory with a peace treaty that nearly gives away the store, and certainly betrays all those who had been egged on into action by the US.
And afterwards, an embittered and debt-ridden Eaton returns home to a hero’s welcome, but as he undiplomatically expresses his dissatisfaction with the episode’s resolution, President Thomas Jefferson takes it as affront to his foreign policy and hand-selected negotiator, Tobias Lear. Jefferson decides Eaton must be crushed, and effectively does so, driving the celebrated hero to an untimely self-destruction.
The tale is a great one, full of detail and recounting from primary records of the time — diaries and letters from diplomats, naval officers and ratings, soldiers on the trail with Eaton, and Eaton himself. While real life rarely has the taut timing of fiction, Zacks does a good job of playing the different threads of the story together, and bringing the various players to life. While the campaign against the Barbary Pirates — which would be resolved far more satisfactorily a decade later — is now more of a footnote in history compared to what else was going on during Jefferson’s administration, at the time it was the stuff of headlines, as the barbarous Musselman slavers dragged good Christian men and women — some of them Americans, by God! — into Dantesque hells of slavery and degradation! Zacks captures the tenor of the time, and, most importantly, a sense of William Eaton, a man whose love of liberty and the principles he saw America founded on (plus, to be fair, whose jingoism, bigotry, and self-righteousness) led him to one disastrous adventure after another, ultimately to be defeated by both a surprisingly political President and his own inner demons.
While the subtitle on the book is “Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805,” the focus is mostly on the latter (itself an ill-kept secret) and on William Eaton. Jefferson comes off much more as a political schemer, an ivory tower philosopher who learns far too well the ways of power and manipulation. The Marines — a tiny portion of the US force, though important — were not the renowned fighting troops they are today, but were usually lower-paid ship-board or dock guards, and they’d hardly show up in the title were it not for the “shores of Tripoli” connection.
No, this is Eaton’s tale, and the story of the events around him that shaped his mission and its tragic aftermath. And it’s a tale about how some things never change, about how regime change and covert ops in foreign countries (as often bungled or uselessly thrown away as not) have been themes in foreign policy for years.
Raymond Todd does a serviceable job with the narration, though the sound editing could use some work; while the recording is clear enough, some of the paragraphs, especially between narrative threads, get run together, and at times there are rather jarring transitions that almost certainly read more clearly on the page.
Anyone with an interest in early US history, especially its military/diplomatic aspects, would be well-served to read this book.