Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. New York: Sentinel, 2015. Print.
As this book points out, the Marine Corps Hymn has the line “to the shores of Tripoli.” Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates tells us, among other things, the history behind that claim. Fast-paced, and engaging, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates tells about the first significant warfare and first declared war that the United States engaged in since its founding.
The authors no doubt found the topic still relevant today. The notorious Barbary pirates, working under the authority of four governments in North Africa were seizing “infidel” ships, stealing their cargo, and holding their crews for ransom. Most European nations put up with this as part of doing business and paid Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli (today’s Libya), and Tunisia annual tribute money. The fledgling United States under Washington and Adams did so, too, but the demands were getting more and more exorbitant—we are talking about a measurable percentage of the Federal budget in those days.
When Thomas Jefferson was an envoy to France under Washington, he joined John Adams and attempted to negotiate with the Tripolitan ambassador to France, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. When asked why his country was “[making] war upon nations who had done them no injury,” he told them that according to the Qur’an:
[A]ll nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave. (14)
Plus ça change…
Kilmeade and Yaeger note:
The man who had written that all people were “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” was horrified. (14)
Nearly ten years later when Thomas Jefferson became president, he realized that the only way to convince these rogue states to not attack American shipping was to subdue them so that they would leave us alone. The United States had virtually no navy at the time (it was authorized in 1794 and the first ships were launched in 1796), but the Barbary states had no formal navy at all, just small privateers. If a group of solid Western frigates were to take them on, it would be possible to get concessions.
Most of the book tells how this happened. We hear about James Cathcart, who spent nearly eleven years as a slave in North Africa, but as a naval leader reminded this reader of the Civil War’s General Butler. He mostly cruised around the Mediterranean hobnobbing with the British and did virtually no fighting or even surveillance of the African Coast, just as Butler spent a year with the Army of the James observing the James River.
We read of envoy Tobias Lear who thwarted the Marine plans with a treaty with the Bashaw of Tripoli in spite of the Marine victory at Derne. We read of William Eaton and Presley O’Bannor who would lead the Marine contingent from Egypt to Libya in an attempt to overthrow the Bashaw of Tripoli. Had it not been for Lear’s agreement, he probably would have succeeded. As it was, it did help prove that fledgling America could stand and “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”
Then we hear of a young Stephen Decatur whose courage exemplified the American spirit, and his commander Edward Preble whose success insured that the Barbary pirates would leave American ships alone for the better part of a decade. When, in 1815, the pirates returned to their old tricks, Madison sent a much stronger force to prevent them from doing more harm.
This lively book not only tells us of military and diplomatic adventures and misadventures, but also gives contemporary descriptions of the people and governments of the Barbary states. Though he had been captured by the Tripolitans, Captain William Bainbridge was able to smuggle out intelligence to American leaders. He also noted that the overall power of the political leaders was relatively weak, and they mostly were able to stay in power by a small armed force and Islamic law. Perhaps things have not changed so much today.
This book was given to me because it looked interesting. It is. It is very easy to read as well; it appears to be at a middle school reading level. In other words, do not be deterred. While reading the acknowledgments, I learned that Mr. Kilmeade is a news reporter for Fox News. I do not subscribe to cable television, so while I have heard people talk about Fox News, I can honestly say that I know little about it or him. If you have strong opinions about that, do not let that deter you from reading this book. Since I am writing this at the Christmas season, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a gift for someone in the U. S. Navy or Marines.