The setup: Muslim countries support and sponsor terrorists who kill, capture, hold for ransom, or enslave non-Muslims. Part of it is for profit – the Muslim countries don’t do much in the way of commerce; part of it is religious – Christian and African non-Muslims are fair game in pursuit of Islamic hegemony. Western countries pay bribes, ransom, and tribute (weapons are most appreciated) to keep the peace, but sometimes it doesn’t work. The French play both sides. The United States goes along for a period, decides there has to be a different/better way, and goes to war against the Muslim countries. Not entirely successful at first, the U.S. decides on diplomacy, pays bribes, ransom, and tribute, and gets a worthless treaty in return. Dropping the pretext of diplomacy, the U.S. goes back to war and wins a decisive series of battles.
But wait, you say. Iran has oil.
Yes, but the Barbary pirates didn’t.
Early American history never looked as contemporary as it does in Victory in Tripoli by Joshua E. London, which is why this book, although 14-years-old, should be on your current reading list. London’s career has crisscrossed the Jewish community (including here at the Jewish Policy Center); the conservative political realm, writing in The Federalist and The American Spectator magazine where he was a Senior Editor; and as a kosher wine and distilled spirits columnist. Here he brings a little-known part of American history to life, including the early division between those who would rely on diplomacy and those, including Thomas Jefferson, who preferred to put their faith in battle. And he finds George Washington’s dictum on avoiding treaty entanglements not to have interfered with the first president’s support for American defense capability.
The United States ought not to indulge in a persuasion, that, contrary to the order of human events, they will forever keep at a distance those painful appeals to arms with which the history of every other nation abounds… if we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace… it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.
The Muslim Barbary states ran along the southern Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean to western Egypt – about 2,600 miles – divided into Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco. The northern Mediterranean littoral and northward to Britain were Christian. South of the Barbary states were African tribes, some Muslim but mostly of traditional religions. Both trade and warfare were common on all sides, but in the early 16th Century, both the Spanish and the Ottomans were in expansionist mode, setting the stage for conflict that would last for nearly 300 years.
A small nitpick first: Victory in Tripoli would benefit greatly from contemporary maps – most of us are not familiar with the shoreline of North Africa – but perhaps that’s what Google is for.
Slavery Then and Now
London spends the first part of the book on Christians vs. Muslims – and writes without apology about the religious roots:
The point of jihad is not to convert by force, but to remove the obstacles to conversion for the infidels and the apostates, so that they shall either convert or become dhimmis (non-Muslims who accept Islamic dominion) and pay the jizya, the poll tax. The goal is to bring all of the Dar al-Harb [world of war] into the peace of the Dar al-Islam, and to eradicate unbelief. The Qu-ran also promises those who fight in the jihad material rewards – booty and glory – in this world, and the delights of paradise in the next.
Slave trade receives its due. The Barbary states had been traders in human beings for centuries – Christian and non-Muslim African people, primarily. Slave trade continues to exist in Africa and the Middle East – including Christian slaves taken and sold by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Yazidis in Iraq by ISIS. According to the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, more than 500,000 African slaves (more than 850,000 in some estimates) “are still bought, owned, sold, and traded by Arab and black Muslim masters” in Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Nigeria and Sudan.
This does not absolve anyone else of anything else, but it is useful to be reminded that the world was already a well-established place, for better and for worse, before Americans got there; and remains so.
Col. William Eaton, diplomat extraordinaire – a key figure in Victory in Tripoli – made the connection for Americans:
Barbary is hell… So, alas, is all of America south of Pennsylvania; for oppression and slavery, and misery, are there… remorse seized my whole soul when I reflect that this is indeed but a copy of the very barbarity which my eyes have seen in my own country. And yet, we boast of liberty and national justice.
The Problem for America
After independence, the young United States lost the protection of British forces at sea. The first American ship was seized in 1784 (released with help from Spain) and in 1785, Americans from two other ships were taken as slaves. Thomas Jefferson, then-minister to France, and John Adams, then-minister to Great Britain, were charged by Congress with negotiations to redeem the crew. They failed, and the crew of The Dolphin spent 11 years in captivity. But it also led the American Congress and then-President Thomas Jefferson to address the need for a navy to ensure American security in the Mediterranean. The Democratic-Republicans were opposed; the Federalists in favor.
In 1794, the Federalists won and construction began.
In 1801, the first cuts to the new navy were passed in Congress.
The ensuing chapters of Victory in Tripoli cover the diplomacy and diplomats, the naval maneuvering and the naval officers of the next several years. Some were excellent. Some were terrible. Some were moved by love of country. Some were desultory at best in pursuit of their missions. Some won and some lost. London makes them all human.
There was the honorable Captain William Bainbridge, forced to act as courier for Dey Bobba Mustafa of Algiers, sailing The USS George Washington to Constantinople under an Algerine flag. Eaton, then U.S. Consul in Tunis, wrote:
I never thought to find a corner of this slanderous world where “baseness” and “American” were wedded, but here we are the byword of derision, quoted as precedents of baseness…History shall tell that the United States first volunteered a ship of war, equipped, a carrier for a pirate. It is written. Nothing but blood can blot the impression out…will nothing rouse my country?
Battles on Land and Sea
The country was, in fact, roused and the battles, both diplomatic and military, commenced. Gaps in communication were months long, and although Tripoli’s Bey Yusuf Qaramanli declared war on the United States in June 1801, Congress didn’t know about it until February 1802 and the first U.S. squadron sailing in response didn’t approach Tripoli until June of that year.
Sent to enforce the first blockade of Tripoli was Captain Richard Valentine Morris who brought his wife and son on his warship and hung around Gibraltar, apparently not in much of a hurry to see action. But after a bit, Commodore Stephen Decatur arrived and livened up the party.
The USS Philadelphia, stuck in Tripoli harbor, had been taken by the Tripolitans and was destined to become the finest pirate ship in Barbary. Until Decatur and his crew on The Intrepid slipped into the harbor to destroy it under the nose of Pasha Yusuf Quaramanli. As a result, the truly intrepid Decatur became the youngest captain in the U.S. Navy.
One of the most important pieces of action was actually on land, not on sea. William Eaton was the architect of the first U.S.-led regime change. He proposed bringing Ahmad Qaramanli, the exiled brother of Pasha Yusuf, from Egypt to Tripoli and installing him as a pro-American bey. After much discussion, the mission was approved by the U.S. government, allotting Eaton 10 Marines commanded by Lt. Presley O’Bannon. Those who know, know 10 Marines can cover a lot of territory – and they did.
London is in his element describing how they raised an army, mercenary groups fighting with one another as much as preparing to fight the enemy as they marched from Egypt to Derne, and captured the city – and how O’Bannon and his Marines kept the motley army moving. Ready, then, to march on to Tripoli, they were caught flatfooted when Consul Tobias Lear, who had been negotiating with Yusuf for months, arrived not only at an agreement, but a proviso to re-exile Ahmad to Egypt while keeping his family hostage in Tripoli. Eaton was distraught. “Six hours ago, the enemy were seeking safety from them by flight – this moment we drop them from ours into the hands of this enemy for no other crime, but too much confidence in us.” Later negotiations freed Ahmad’s family and provided him a small American stipend. So much for being an American ally.
The war actually goes on longer, and it wasn’t until 1815 that a telling exchange took place from the bridge of Decatur’s ship, The Guerriere. The captain of an Algerine ship demanded of Decatur: “Dove andante?” (Where are you bound?) Decatur shouted back in the vernacular, “Dove me piace!” (Wherever I please!)
Victory in Tripoli is great reading and a reminder that in ways illustrious and notorious, remarkable and maladroit, America’s early days resemble its current days.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.