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The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 - Richard Zacks “From the Halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea.”

--The Marines’ Hymn

The Pirate Coast tackles the story of the fledgling United States’ first foreign war, a conflict with the country formerly known as Tripoli (now Libya). By the early days of the United States, the Barbary pirates had a long history of making a nice living from piracy. Operating out of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, they were the scourge of the Mediterranean, capturing ships, stealing their cargo, and holding the passengers for ransom or selling them as slaves. The Barbary states were able to bring in a steady income as tribute from from other countries. Refusal to pay the tribute would put foreign vessels at risk of falling prey to the pirates.

William Bainbridge paying tribute to the Dey of Algiers (Source: Wikipedia)

President Jefferson refused to pay the tribute, and Tripoli declared war on the United States. In October 1803, an American ship under the leadership of Captain William Bainbridge was blockading Tripoli when it was captured. More than 300 Americans were made slaves. For almost two years, they lived under harsh conditions, with physical abuse, small quantities of poor food, and difficult work. Yussef Karamanli, the Dey (ruler) of Tripoli, hoped that such treatment would result in complaints back to the U.S., hopefully driving up the ransom. His scheming had an impact - Americans back at home, perhaps somewhat hypocritically, were horrified at the idea of white Christian Americans serving as slaves to Muslim oppressors.

Enter William Eaton, army officer and former consul to Tunis. Irascible but principled, Eaton led his Marines on a difficult mission to bring the Yussef’s ousted brother, Hamet, across the desert to Tripoli with the objective of inciting civil war and replacing the recalcitrant and demanding Yussef with the more cooperative, though regrettably weaker, Hamet.

William Eaton (Source: Wikipedia)

Eaton made a good showing, capturing the city of Derne and placing the U.S. in an excellent position to negotiate a favorable treaty. Unfortunately, poor communications and weak diplomacy undermined what could have been an impressive military victory. Despite American pronouncements on entering the war, the United States eventually ended up paying to ransom the slaves and even agreed to objectionable tributes, a condition that would last until the Second Barbary War in 1815. Even more disgraceful in Eaton’s eyes, the U.S. did not manage to negotiate freedom for Hamet’s wife and children (who had been the brother Yussef’s hostages for years), and left Hamet in an extremely uncomfortable situation after his failed coup. Eaton never forgave Tobias Lear, who negotiated the treaty, or Thomas Jefferson for betraying promises to Hamet and tarnishing the American reputation in that region.

Overall, it was an inauspicious start for U.S. foreign affairs. Despite Jefferson’s inaugural vow to avoid “entangling alliances” with other nations, it proved easier said than done. Fomenting civil war in another country turned out to be trickier than anticipated. The discussion afterwards as to what the U.S. had and had not actually agreed to, while the participants worked on spinning a more favorable version of the story and political opponents seized the opportunity to take advantage of it, did none of them any credit. It's funny what a hard lesson that is to learn.