Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Shores of Tripoli

Sheva Apelbaum and the Halls of montezuma to the shores of tripoli

Recently, I read about  pirates who captured the American ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia.  After a short battle with the pirates, the US Navy released the ship and her captain.  Fighting off pirates is nothing new for US, it has been doing it for over two hundred years.

After the American Revolution of 1776, US merchant ships lost British naval protection.  The American ships sailing in the Mediterranean were a favorite target for pirates. They frequently came under attack and their crews were often enslaved .  These pirates came from a group of nations including Tunis, Tripoli, Morocco, Algiers,  and Libya. In 1784 the American ship “Betsy” was taken by Moroccan pirates. Then in 1785, Algerians and Libyans captured the US ships Maria and the Dauphin.

Not having had a real navy, the US was unable to send ships to the Mediterranean for a rescue, so they tried to appease the pirates instead. In 1784, Congress agreed to make ransom payments to the pirates in order to buy the freedom of the enslaved US sailors.

Thomas Jefferson-Sheva ApelbaumJohn Adams-sheva ApelaumSidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja-Sheva ApelbaumIn 1786 Thomas Jefferson, then the US Ambassador to France, and John Adams, then US Ambassador to Britain, met in London with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the pirate ambassador to Britain, in an attempt to negotiate a peace treaty based on Congress’ agreement to pay the yearly ransom.   After the meeting, Jefferson wrote:

1786 Jefferson Letter-Sheva Apelbaum “…We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the Grounds of their [desire] to make war upon nations who had done them no injury & observed [that we] considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation.”

When Jefferson became president in 1801 he argued that continuing to pay extortion money would encourage more attacks and he refused to pay the tribute of $250,000.  The ruler (Pasha) of Tripoli immediately declared war on the United States.

Jefferson dispatched a squadron of ships to the Mediterranean with instructions to engage the pirates and win at all costs and seize all ships and goods belonging to them.

Decatur Boarding a Tripolitan Gunboat-Sheva Apelbuam
US Navy Lieutenant Decatur Boarding Pirate Gunboat 

Commodore Edward Preble-Sheva ApelbaumIn 1803 Captain Edward Preble on board the newly launched USS Constitution (the copper sheathing for its hull was provided by Paul Revere), was on his way to join the fight against the Barbary pirates.  Near the Rock of Gibraltar, he sighted an unknown ship in the darkness and gave the order to General Quarters (battle stations). He asked the unknown ship to identify herself, only to receive the USS Constitution-Sheva Apelbaumsame request from the other vessel. He identified himself as the USS Constitution.  Then shortly afterwards, he was asked again to indentify himself. Suspecting that the other ship was stalling for time because they were loading their cannons and were about to open fire at him. Preble said: "I am now going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you."  The other ship replied, "If you give me a shot, I'll give you a broadside," (I will fire at you with all of my cannons).  Preble demanded an answer, to which the other ship replied, "This is His Britannic Majesty's ship Donegal, 84 guns, Sir Richard Strachan, an English commodore. Send your boat to us."  Preble, losing his patience is said to have exclaimed, "This is United States ship Constitution, 44 guns, Edward Preble, an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel."  He then turned to his gun crew and instructed them to "Light your matches, boys!" (calling them “boys” because his oldest officer was 20 and the youngest 15). 

Fortunately, before any firing begun, a boat arrived from the other ship and a British officer came on board and apologized.

USS Philadelphia-Sheva Apelbaum In October 1803, Tripoli's pirates captured the USS Philadelphia, which ran aground while patrolling their harbor. The ship and its crew were taken and held as hostages. The USS Philadelphia was turned against the Americans and anchored in the harbor as a gun battery. On the night of February 16, 1804, in a daring  operation, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a small group of US Marines in a captured Tripolitan ship called the Intrepid. 

Stephen Decatur-Sheva ApelbaumTo deceive the pirate guards on board the USS Philadelphia, they used an Arabic speaking pilot who said that he could not control his vessel because he has lost his anchor in a storm.  As soon as the Intrepid got close to the USS Philadelphia, the marines jumped on board and overpowered the pirates.  Decatur then set the Philadelphia on fire and destroyed her in the harbor.

Preble finally attacked Tripoli on July 14, 1804.  The attack also included packing the USS Intrepid with explosives and sneaking her into the Tripoli harbor in an attempt to destroy the pirate fleet. Unfortunately the Intrepid exploded before achieving her goal, killing her captain and crew.

William Eaton-Sheva ApelbaumPresley O'Bannon-Sheva Apelbaum But these two setbacks did not stop Jefferson. In 1805, William Eaton and Presley O'Bannon led a force of eight US Marines and several hundred local mercenaries on a 500 mile march across the desert from Alexandria, Egypt to attack the Tripolitan city of Derna (during the march the condition were so bad that they had to eat dry rice and threaten the mercenaries at gun point to continue the march). After leading the charge personally (and being shot in the arm in the process), Eaton successfully captured the city and raised the US  flag on top of the palace. The Pasha of Tripoli, Yussif Karamanli finally realized that he lost the war with the US and agreed to signed a treaty with them.

If you think about it, it is amazing what Jefferson was able to achieve in such as short time. He was in office for only 4 years and the US as a country had only been around for 20 years. What was the secret formula behind successfully defeating the Barbary pirates? I think that it was a combination of things.

  1. When it came to piracy and paying protection money, Jefferson had a strong moral stand and refused to conduct business as usual (as the Europeans had been doing for centuries).
  2. The officers and crew sent to fight the pirates were adventurous, creative, and brave, and they didn’t view their assignment just as another “job”. 
  3. The American captains were not afraid to engage in battle even if the odds were against them.   They where highly skilled, improvised well, and took advantage of every opportunity (even adapted pirate tactics themselves).

Maybe in the end, its not the big navy and a large budget (the Federal budget in 1801 was around 10 million dollars).  Perhaps, all it takes is determination, creativity, and perseverance.

1 comment:

  1. Very good work as always Sheva, although the subject is prone to discussion and different opinions...