Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli.

John Adams, who became president of the United States in 1797, was philosophical about the idea of paying tribute to the Barbary states. His successor and political rival, Thomas Jefferson, was not. Even in the 1780s, when the United States had no navy at all and hence no independent means of defending its interests in the Mediterranean, Jefferson, as vice president, was unhappy at what he saw as a dishonorable course, telling Adams “it would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war.” By the time he beat Adams in the election of 1800, America had created a naval force large enough for a squadron to be dispatched to the Mediterranean in response to increasingly exorbitant demands from Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli, who decided he wanted a revised treaty, another quarter of a million dollars, and an annual payment of $20,000. The U.S. squadron, which consisted of three frigates and a sloop, arrived off Gibraltar in July 1801 to find that Yusuf had found himself a place in the history books. He had just become the first head of state to declare war on America.

The war between Tripoli and the United States was characterized on both sides by good luck, bad luck, and expediency, with flashes of discreditable behavior and breathtaking heroism. Yusuf’s corsairs hunted for American shipping, while unarmed American merchant vessels went about their trade in the Mediterranean without regard for their own safety—or the interests of their country, which would be jeopardized if the Tripolitans managed to secure hostages. “One single merchantman’s crew in chains at Tripoli would be of incalculable prejudice to the affairs of the United States,” complained the U.S. consul at Tunis.

Yusuf’s men did capture one merchantman, the Franklin, in June 1802. She was sold along with her cargo at Algiers, and her nine-man crew was taken back to Tripoli. They were eventually released after the United States paid the pasha $6,500.

Worse was to come for America. A brand-new forty-four-gun frigate, the Philadelphia, was blockading Tripoli when, at nine o’clock on the morning of October 31, 1803, she caught sight of an enemy vessel trying to slip into harbor. After an exchange of fire and a pursuit which lasted for several hours the Philadelphia’s captain, William Bainbridge, realized there was no hope of catching the ship and gave orders to abandon the action—at which point his frigate ran onto a submerged reef and stuck fast.

Bainbridge’s crew did everything possible to float her off. They cut the anchors, threw heavy lumber and even some of the guns overboard, and eventually cut away the foremast and the main-top-gallant mast—all the while taking fire from Tripolitan gunboats whose commanders had seen what was happening and set out to capture her. At four that afternoon Bainbridge surrendered, and the 307 officers and crew of the Philadelphia were taken ashore and imprisoned. Bainbridge’s distress was evident in the report he sent to the U.S. Navy Department the following day; the terms in which it was couched speak volumes about the West’s attitude to Barbary. To strike one’s colors to any foe was mortifying, he said; “but to yield to an uncivilized, barbarous enemy, who were objects of contempt, was humiliating.”

Not every member of the Philadelphia’s crew shared his contempt. At least five American sailors converted to Islam during their imprisonment. Yusuf reacted to his fighters’ success by raising his price for peace to three million dollars and using his captives as a bargaining chip in negotiations. (He threatened at one point to kill them all if the Americans attacked Tripoli.) The Philadelphia was salvaged and brought into harbor, and over the winter, the Tripolitans went to work trying to repair and rearm her.

Senior officers of the American navy in the Mediterranean considered attempting to rescue the Philadelphia, but decided it would be impossible to get her away from under the guns of the Tripolitan shore batteries. There was a chance, however, that a raiding party might fire her, and this would at least prevent her from being used by Yusuf against them.

The mission was given to a young naval lieutenant from Maryland, Stephen Decatur—the same Stephen Decatur who as commodore in command of the American squadron in the Mediterranean would kill Hamidou Raïs eleven years later. With a crew of volunteers and a Sicilian pilot, Decatur sailed a captured ketch renamed the Intrepid into Tripoli harbor on the night of February 16, 1804. He pretended to be a European merchant and, claiming he had lost his anchors, requested permission to tie up alongside the Philadelphia.

Dr. Jonathan Cowdery, the Philadelphia’s surgeon, was being held with the other officers in the American consul’s ex-residence. He described what happened next:

About 11, at night, we were alarmed by a most hideous yelling and screaming from one end of the town to the other, and a firing of cannon from the castle. On getting up and opening the window which faced the harbor, we saw the frigate Philadelphia in flames.

Decatur’s men had been found out as they approached the frigate. They stormed aboard, set fire to the ship, and rowed out of the harbor and into the American history books. Decatur became a national hero, “the first ornament of the American Navy” whose “gallant and romantic achievement” was memorialized in countless pamphlets, poems, and paintings.

The burning of the Philadelphia was an enormously courageous act, though it made little difference to the war. Yusuf remained determined to extract more money from the Americans, while they in turn were just as determined to break him—and to remove him from power.

A cornerstone of the American strategy was a scheme to use Yusuf’s exiled brother, Ahmad Karamanli, as a focus for dissent—and, ultimately, to set him up in Tripoli as a puppet pasha. Unfortunately Ahmad was none too keen on the idea. William Eaton, the U.S. consul in Tunis, tracked him down in Egypt and, after promising that American support would extend to the two men either triumphing within the walls of Tripoli or dying together before them, he persuaded Ahmad to join his motley expeditionary force of ten American marines, 300 Arabs, thirty-eight Greeks, and about fifty other soldiers of various nationalities.

This ragtag army marched nearly 500 miles across the Libyan desert from Egypt to Darna, a Tripolitan outpost to the east of Cyrene. They saw “neither house nor tree, nor hardly anything green . . . not a trace of a human being.” The Arabs and Christians argued with each other. They had no water for days on end. Their horses had no food. At one point Ahmad went back to Egypt, then changed his mind and rejoined the party. Nevertheless, they reached Darna on April 27, 1805. And when they got there, they took it.

This was a remarkable achievement. But if Eaton had hoped that Ahmad would inspire a rebel force to go on and capture Tripoli, he was disappointed. No one joined the rebel army, while Eaton’s men struggled for six weeks to fight off combined attacks by Arab tribesmen and forces sent by Yusuf to relieve the town. Nevertheless, Eaton himself continued to believe, on very slender evidence, that it was only a matter of time before the countryside rose up and joined Ahmad’s cause.

He never had the chance to test that conviction. On June 11, the U.S.S. Constellation arrived off Darna with the news that Yusuf had suddenly caved in and made peace with America. There was no need to foment a general uprising. In one of the less creditable episodes of the war, Eaton, Ahmad, the marines, and most of the Greeks sneaked aboard the Constellation and left their beleaguered Arab army to fend for itself.

The terms of the peace agreed between Yusuf and the U.S. consul general, Tobias Lear, were that America should pay nothing for a new treaty, and that all prisoners would be exchanged man for man. The capture of the crew of the Philadelphia meant the Tripolitans currently held about 200 more prisoners than the Americans held, so Lear agreed to acknowledge the imbalance by paying Yusuf $60,000, or $300 a prisoner.

The treaty was formally ratified in Tripoli on June 10, 1805. On finally meeting his former adversary, Lear commented with some surprise that Yusuf was “a man of very good presence, manly and dignified, and has not, in his appearance, so much of the tyrant as he had been represented to be.” Abstract notions of the Other as barbarian are hard to sustain when you come face-to-face with the reality.

Considering that at one stage the pasha had demanded three million dollars, the treaty was an awfully good outcome for America. Nevertheless, it didn’t sit well with Eaton, who was furious at being prevented from marching on Tripoli and was still convinced that a show of force would have toppled Yusuf; nor did it sit well with sections of the American press back home, which were uncomfortable with the cost, with the loss of honor, and with the way Ahmad Karamanli had been used and then discarded. A plaintive letter from Ahmad, now in exile, to the people of the United States of America pointed out that Eaton had agreed on their behalf to place him on the throne of Tripoli and that America had reneged on that agreement. (The reality was that Eaton had exceeded his authority in the promises he made to Ahmad.) What the public still didn’t know was that although Lear had begun by insisting that Yusuf must immediately hand over members of Ahmad’s family who were being held hostage in Tripoli, he modified this demand and agreed to give Yusuf four years to comply.

Amidst all the condemnations in the press, it was left to the Washington-based, pro-government newspaper the National Intelligencer to defend the new treaty. The Intelligencer poured scorn on the critics and insisted that the payment of $60,000 to Yusuf was entirely justifiable under the circumstances. Since the United States was dealing with “barbarians . . . who made a practice of vending prisoners,” it declared, “the price demanded for our countrymen is very small. It amounts to about 233 dollars for each individual. This is not the value of a stout healthy negro.”

And not a hint of irony in sight.

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