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"To Conquer Upon the Sea"
Barbary Wars, 1801-1805, 1815
It was 7:00 P.M., and the African night was turning blue-gray beneath the faint light of a crescent moon when the small ship entered the harbor of Tripoli. The two-masted ketch, driven by a light breeze, made a slow, two-and-a-half-hour journey through the cavernous harbor. Visible on deck were half a dozen men in Maltese costume; above them fluttered a British flag. In the distance, at the end of their journey, lay a forbidding stone castle, its ramparts several feet thick and bristling with 115 heavy cannons like needles on a porcupine.
It was February 16, 1804.
By 9:30 P.M. the ketch had reached a strangely stunted vessel, lacking a foremast or sails, anchored directly beneath the castle's guns. This was the U.S. frigate Philadelphia, which had been captured the previous fall when it had run aground outside the harbor. Most of its crew now languished in Tripolitan prisons, working as slaves breaking rocks while surviving on black bread. The Philadelphia had been part of a flotilla dispatched from America to the distant waters of the Mediterranean to wage war on Tripoli, whose warships preyed on American merchantmen. Losing the Philadelphia had been a cruel blow to America's hopesand a big boost to the pasha of Tripoli, whose puny fleet had gained a powerful punch by salvaging the U.S. frigate with its 36 cannons.
Now the Philadelphia was manned by the Pasha's men. When they saw the small vessel drawing close theyshouted out a challenge. As they did so, the Tripolitan crew double-shotted their guns and made ready to fire. The men on board the smaller ship knew that if they gave the wrong answer they would literally be blown out of the water. The pilot declared in Arabic that this was a Maltese trading boat that had lost both its anchors in a recent storm. He asked for permission to tie up for the night next to the Philadelphia.
As he spoke, the small craft edged closer and closer. About 20 feet from the Philadelphia, it coasted to a stop ... becalmed in the still night air ... helpless before the guns of the man-of-war. Even across the expanse of two centuries one can almost hear the crew's intake of breath, their hearts thumping in their chests, but the sailors calmly lowered a small rowboat to tie the two vessels together. The small ship's crew then grunted and heaved on the rope to draw the two ships side-by-side. As the smaller ship approached the bigger one, the Philadelphia's Tripolitan sailors finally realized what was going on. A voice screamed, "Americans!"
The pilot of the smaller vessel, a Sicilian named Salvatore Catalano, yelled in panic: "Board, captain, board!" If the crew had taken his advice many would have fallen into the water. But another voice calmly boomed out, "No order to be obeyed but that of the commanding officer!" Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr., standing on deck dressed in Maltese costume, waited a few seconds that must have seemed an eternity until his ketch had kissed alongside the Philadelphia. Then he gave his own command: "Board!"
"The effect was truly electric," recalled a surgeon's mate under Decatur's command. "Not a man had been seen or heard to breathe a moment before"some 70 of them had been hiding in the stifling hold"at the very next, the boarders hung on the ship's side like cluster bees; and, in another instant, every man was on board the frigate."
The ketch had been captured by Decatur from the Tripolitans the previous December, and was now dubbed the Intrepid. She had made a wearying voyage to reach this point, spending a week at sea being tossed and pounded by a heavy storm. Rats and vermin infested the ship and many of the improperly packed provisions had gone bad. But the sailors and marines, volunteers all, had refused to abandon their mission. Now they swarmed aboard their target, careful not to fire a shot that would alert the pasha's castle. Wielding knives and pikes and cutlasses, the Americans overwhelmed the Tripolitan crew in about 10 minutes. "Poor fellows! About 20 of them were cut to pieces & the rest jumped overboard," Midshipman Ralph Izard Jr. wrote.
The Americans could perhaps have tried piloting the Philadelphia out of the harbor, but since it did not have any foremastit had been cut down just before the ship was capturedit would have been tough going. At any rate their orders were to destroy the ship. So the boarders split up into several parties and placed combustibles around the ship. As the wooden hull began to crackle and hiss with the spread of the flames, the Americans jumped back onto the Intrepid in a dense cloud of smoke. The last man aboard was Lieutenant Decatur, who barely managed to outrun the flames roaring out of the hatchways to grab the Intrepid's rigging at the last second. "It is a miracle that our little vessel escaped the flames, lying within two feet of them & to leeward also!" Izard marveled.
But the Intrepid was hardly home safe. Seeing the tiny ship illuminated by the burning Philadelphia, the Tripolitan gunners in the pasha's castle and the nearby ships blazed away. Luckily for the Intrepid, their aim was poor and the little vessel was unscathed save for one shot through her topgallant sail. As the Intrepid negotiated its way out of the harbor, the hardy Jack Tars (as sailors were then known) laughed and cheered, admiring the "bonfire" in the southern sky. A midshipman captured the spectacle of the Philadelphia burning: "The flames in the interior illuminated her ports and, ascending her rigging and masts, formed columns of fire, which, meeting the tops, were reflected into beautiful capitals; whilst the occasional discharge of her guns gave an idea of some directing spirit within her." In its death throes the man-of-war discharged a broadside straight into Tripoli, before breaking loose of its moorings and drifting closer to the castle, where it exploded with a terrifying roar that further shook the nearby city.
The tale of this astonishing featburning a captured ship while under the guns of the enemy, and not losing a man in the processreverberated from one corner of the globe to another, gaining newfound respect for the nascent American navy. Lord Nelson of the Royal Navy called it "the most bold and daring act of the age." In reward, the Intrepid's crew received an extra two months' pay from Congress, and Decatur, just 25 years old, became the youngest person ever promoted to captain, then the navy's highest rank.
Decatur seems to have stepped out of a storybook. One of the handsomest officers in the navy, he had broad shoulders, a slim waist, curly chestnut hair, and dancing dark brown eyes that ladies found irresistible. His future wife, the daughter of a Virginia merchant, was said to have fallen in love with him merely from seeing a miniature portrait of him. She was not the only one enamored of him. A fellow officer wrote, upon first meeting him, "I had often pictured to myself the form and look of a hero, such as my favorite Homer had delineated; here I saw it embodied." A marine private testified: "Not a tar, who ever sailed with Decatur, but would almost sacrifice his life for him."
Decatur was born with salt spray in his veins: His father, Stephen Decatur Sr., had been a famous naval captain of the Revolutionary War and the quasi-war against France. Indeed the elder Decatur had at one time commanded the Philadelphia, the very vessel that his son now burned. The Decaturs were a prominent Philadelphia family, but Stephen was born on January 5, 1779, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where his mother had fled after the British had occupied their hometown during the War of Independence. His mother, Ann, wanted him to be a bishop but an ecclesiastical life was at odds with his nature; contemporaries recalled him "in every scheme of boyish mischief or perilous adventure taking the lead."
He went to sea late by the standards of the age: He was commissioned a midshipman in 1798, when he was almost 20 years old, after briefly attending the University of Pennsylvania. His decision to leave the university is cloaked in some mystery. Rumor has it that he wanted to leave the country in a hurry after being acquitted of having struck "a woman of doubtful integrity" who subsequently died. Whatever the truth of this charge, we do know that in 1801 he sailed for the Mediterranean, seeking glory and adventure as a 22-year-old first lieutenant aboard the frigate Essex at the start of the Barbary Wars. Needless to say, he found plenty of both.
By the time he had returned home from North Africa, Decatur was being fêted and celebrated across the land, making him "America's first nineteenth-century military hero." It is no exaggeration to say that his exploits, by helping to kindle the flames of patriotism, helped forge a new nation out of 13 former colonies not long united under one flag.
Today Decatur is remembered, if at all, for coining the phrase, "My country, right or wrong." (What he actually said, in a toast, was: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!") The Barbary Wars in which he made his name are all but forgotten, save as the subject of children's stories about pirates and the first line of the Marine Corps anthem ("to the shores of Tripoli"). Yet they deserve to be disinterred from the grave of history, for it was because of these wars that the United States gained a navy and a marine corps and a role on the world stage.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, there were four statesMorocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunissituated on the northern edge of Africa along what Europeans called the Barbary Coast (from the Greek word for foreigners) and Arabs knew as al-Maghrib (the West). Morocco was and is an independent country ruled by the Alawite dynasty. The sovereigns of the other Barbary states were variously styled as bey or dey or pasha, all Turkish honorifics, and since the sixteenth century they had professed nominal loyalty to the sultan in Constantinople, but in practice, given the weakness of the Ottoman Empire by the eighteenth century, they were largely masters of their own fate.
To finance their governments they would routinely declare war on a European state and set either naval vessels or privateers to seize enemy shipping. This was a lucrative business: Captured cargoes and captives were auctioned off to the highest bidder, the latter being sent to flourishing slave markets unless they were wealthy enough to ransom their release. Although piracy had declined by the eighteenth century from its heyday in the sixteenth and seventeenth centurieswhen Algiers alone held 30,000 Christian captivesit was still the foundation upon which the Maghrib states built flourishing and sophisticated civilizations. Many European states too had held Muslim slaves in years past, though this practice was dying out by the eighteenth century; America of course continued to hold many African slaves of its own, a few Muslims among them.
It is tempting to compare the Barbary States to modern Islamist states that preach and practice jihad against infidel unbelievers. It is a temptation best resisted. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire and its North African tributaries were not particularly xenophobic nor especially fundamentalist. By the standards of the day, they were uncommonly cosmopolitan and tolerant in many respects, offering more protection than did many European states to flourishing Jewish communities that played a prominent role in their commercial affairs. Ali Karamanli, pasha of Tripoli from 1754 to 1795, was even said to have been much influenced by his Jewish mistress, a corpulent woman known as "Queen Esther."
It is also tempting to speak of the Barbary "pirates," as contemporary Europeans and Americans did, but in reality the corsairs of North Africa were no moreand no lesspiratical than Sir Francis Drake or Sir John Hawkins, two of the more illustrious figures in English naval history, both of whom operated as privateers, using the authority given them by letters of marque to seize enemy shipping. Americans also resorted to privateers to harass their foes; the U.S. government was so attached to this practice that it refused to sign the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing privateering as a weapon of war. As in the American and British navies, the Barbary rulers gave captains and crews a portion of the "prize money" captured by their ships. The difference is that in Europe and America the legally sanctioned capture of enemy merchantmen typically served some larger state purpose; it was not an end unto itself, as it became for the Ottoman regencies.
The European states occasionally attacked the Barbary States but usually found it more convenient to buy them off. Starting with Cromwell's England in 1646, the Europeans chose to ransom their hostages and buy "passports" to allow their ships free passage in the Mediterranean. The British, French, and Dutch also encouraged the Barbary corsairs to target ships belonging to their enemies. Until 1776, American ships were protected by English tribute and the Royal Navy. As many as 100 American merchantmen made annual voyages to the Mediterranean, carrying salted fish, flour, lumber, sugar, and other goods, which they traded for lemons, oranges, figs, olive oil, and opium, among other valuable items. After the Revolution, the enterprising merchants of New England tried to reestablish this lucrative trade but found it dangerous going.
Morocco captured and then released the U.S. merchantman Betsey in 1784. The following year Algerian corsairs swooped down on the Maria and the Dauphin. Eleven more American ships were seized by the Algerians in the summer of 1793 after Portugal ended its war on Algiers, which had kept Barbary ships from slipping past the Straits of Gibraltar. More than 100 Americans became captives of the dey of Algierstriggering a debate in the newly established Congress about whether it was time to build a navy. John D. Foss, a young sailor captured aboard the brig Polly in 1793, described a hard life in Algerian prisons. His captivity began when 100 Algerians swarmed his ship, stripped the crew down to their underwear and took the nine Americans back to the city of Algiers, where they were paraded before jeering crowds and presented to Dey Hassan Pasha, who crowed, "Now I have got you, you Christian dogs, you shall eat stones."
They did not literally eat rocks but they did have to work as slaves, breaking and hauling rocks while clanging around in 40 pounds of chains. Along with 600 other prisoners, they were housed in a dingy fortress, made to sleep on the stone floor, and fed nothing but vinegar and bread that, Foss complained, "was so sour that a person must be almost starving before he can eat it." Slaves who were found guilty of malingering could expect up to 200 bastinadoeswhacks on the feet with a five-foot cane. A slave who spoke disrespectfully to a Muslim could be roasted alive, crucified, or impaled (a stake was driven through the anus until it came out at the back of the neck). A special agony was reserved for a slave who killed a Muslimhe would be cast over the city walls and left to dangle on giant iron hooks for days before expiring of his wounds.
Other captives were better treated. James Leander Cathcart, captured at age 17 on the Maria in 1785, spent 11 years in Algerian captivity. He progressed from palace gardener to coffeegie (coffee brewer) to various clerical positions and finally became chief Christian secretary to the dey. Although he was bastinadoed on occasion, his situation "was very tolerable." Indeed he bought several taverns and made so much money that he was able to purchase a ship to take him back to the United States, before returning to North Africa as an American diplomat.
But it was not Cathcart's story (never published in his lifetime) that captured popular imagination in the U.S. Rather American public opinion was inflamed by the books and letters produced by Foss and other captives, chronicling what Foss vividly described as "the many hellish tortures and punishments these piratical sea-rovers invent and inflict on the unfortunate Christian who may by chance unhappily fall into their hands."
Excerpted from THE SAVAGE WARS OF PEACE by Max Boot. Copyright © 2002 by Max Boot. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.