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Review: The Pirate Coast by Richard Zachs

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From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We will fight our country’s battles
On the land and on the sea…
&#8212U.S. Marine Corps Hymn

Richard Zach’s thrilling novel, The Pirate Coast, provides insight into the reason for the second line of this chorus, “to the shores of Tripoli.”

In 1785, the Moslem regent of Tripoly, Yussef Karamanli, declared war on an infant nation, the United States of America, sending out Barbary pirate vessels to harrass, sink or capture American shipping. The goal was to have tribute paid by the U.S., in exactly the way the Barbary regents had been bribed for centuries by France, Britain, Denmark, and so on. President Thomas Jefferson’s response to one such demand (in public, anyway) was, “Millions for Defense, but Not One Penny in Tribute!”

By 1804, the war had escalated, with six U.S. fleet ships in the Mediterannean. Then Bey Yussef siezed the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, and held them as slaves while he waited for ransom and tribute to be paid. Jefferson responded by sending William Eaton, a former consul to the region who had already proved himself no friend to piracy or slavery, with a commission to find and support Bey Yussef’s brother Hamet in a coup atttempt to create a U.S.-friendly state on the Barbary Coast.

Once Eaton had departed, however, Jefferson began to reconsider the commission. In the age of sailing ships, information from the other side of the world might be years out of date, and Eaton, no diplomat, had ruffled more than a few feathers while a consul in the Middle East.

A former army captain, Eaton had recently been court-martialed and convicted. He was impetuous, hardheaded, argumentative. His loud voice cut through conversations; his ramrod-straight stance inspired respect; his Dartmouth education added polysyllables to his vocabulary. Diplomacy, he had very little; he was blunt-spoken, exceedingly direct. He once wrote of the feeble efforts of the U.S. Navy that “a fleet of Quaker meeting houses would have done just as well.”

The US. government, with a huge debt from the Revolutionary War, found it cheaper to pay off Tunis&#8212and keep the pirates away&#8212than to fight against them, Jefferson’s anti-tribute bluster to the contrary. Eaton, however, was appalled by the aspect of slavery close-up.

“For my part, it grates me mortally when I see a lazy Turk [a Moslem] reclining at his ease upon an embroidered sofa, with one Christian slave to fan away the flies, another to hand him his coffee and a third to hold his pipe… It is still more grating to perceive that the Turk believes he has a right to demand this contribution and that we, like Italians, have not the fortitude to resist it.”

Within two years, this disgraced diplomat would lead a band of eight Marines (then a service chiefly known for supplying military bands to Washington ceremonies) and several hundred foreign mercenaries, “the dregs of Alexandria, on a mad hopeless mission to march across the hell of the Libyan desert.” Eaton, cut off from the promised funds for his mission, used every wit and wile available to him to round up the missing Hamet, corral the nomadic tribes who had allied against Bey Yussef, and keep them all marching in the same direction.

Eventually this rag-tag group would mount a surprise-attack on Tripoli’s second-largest city, Derne, and they would achieve a near miraculous victory&#8212followed by a disastrous retreat in the face of that victory, as commanded by the jealous U.S. Naval commander, John Rodgers, and the pompous (and disastrously compliant) Ambassador to Tripoly, Tobias Lear. (Six years after his suspiciously lenient treaty with Bey Yussef, Tobias Lear, then United States consul general to Algiers, would accept two female Italian slaves to work as housekeepers in the consulate. Their $75-a-year upkeep was part of his reimbursed expense accounts, making the U.S. government complicit in their slavery.)

Their retreat would abandon the allied tribes to the vengeance of their enemies, most of whom had fled when the U.S. fleet showed up in the harbor of Derne, assuming the fleet was there to support Hamet’s allies. Despite the slaughter that followed the U.S. retreat, the United States Marines acquired a new reputation for courage. Eaton’s single Marine officer, Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon (a fiddle-player in the Marine band), raised the U.S. flag over the harbor of Derne. This was the first time the flag would fly over conquered foreign territory; it flew side-by-side with the banner of Hamet, would-be Pasha of Tripoly.

Returning to the U.S from the Barbary Coast, Eaton found himself lauded and fêted by a 15-state nation that had thrilled to his victories. In Washington, however, Eaton was faced with another campaign far more dangerous than his recent trudge across the Libyan deserts: he set out to recoup his financial losses from multiple Mediterranean campaigns, and to bring Lear, Rodgers, and Jefferson himself under censure for commanding his retreat from Derne. None of the principals are simon-pure; Zachs spares no one, not even Eaton himself.

Thrilling, enraging, and delighting by turns, The Pirate Coast reveals that many things we applaud or decry in current events actually have a long, if secret, tradition in the United States. This is a wonderful story&#8212and so well written, I have already ordered Zach’s history of Caribbean pirate Captain Kidd, The Pirate Hunter.

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  • SFC Ski

    The sad fact is Jefferson never learned that war never solves anything; the first thing he should have done was find out why the pirates hated us, then sent a lot of foreign aid and withdrawn from the Mediterranean entirely.

    Seriously thanks for the review, I had seen a History Channel program about this campaign, and thge book looks like something I will want to read as well.

  • In fact (although I “heard” your sarcasm, Ski), Tobias Lear might have been any modern appeaser of terrorists.

    Zachs makes the point that Jefferson was operating on skewed information, reluctant to spend money, and willing to support slavery in the Mediterranean – even U.S. citizens as slaves – if it cost fewer lives and required less military effort. He made the required patriotic political noises at home, but secretly pursued a policy abroad that was the direct opposite.

  • SFC Ski

    I did not know that, the History Channel program was geared toward the military aspects, though there was some good political background. It was an amazing campaign to be sure, and if Ghadafi is for real, I might get to see Tripoli inperson one day soon.

  • The book focuses on the limitations of military and political intelligence (in both senses) in that era, and does not dress up errors to pass them off as something else. Jefferson gets no more slack from the author than does Bey Yussef.

    There is an astounding amount of parallelism between this event and the Iran hostage-taking, but that is best encountered in your own reading.

    AND I finished this book, and immediately took up The Confusion, which opens on Barbary Coast in a pirate slave-galley…

  • Kat

    So Eaton was morally appalled at seeing white Christian slaves but had no problem with black slaves at home. Typical US hypocrisy.

  • Reading the 1790-1800 period history will sgive us a chance to learn more about american naval history. It is amazing that, US government hasto pay tribute to Otomans(via algerian governors) as 642 thousand dolars and 12000 algerian gold to save and secure the shipping in the region. The 5 sept 1795 agreement is in Turkish originally and is the firs and probably the onlt document signed by the USA in a language other than English. That is honestly a good break to come up to a very huge armada today from coming the zero level of navy. I guess Us mnavy owes a little to Turkish sailor(ottomans) to encourage them to have a navy at all.

  • gabbie

    Its Zacks