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Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation
By Joshua E. London
John Wiley & Sons
A fledgling republic without a navy, the United States seemed ripe for the picking. In 1783, Muslim pirates - the sea-faring terrorists of their day - began attacking American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean, and the following year, the Moroccans captured a brig called Betsey and enslaved its crew. Soon afterwards, the ruler of Algiers declared war on the US, a declaration backed up by marauding corsairs.
The situation worsened with each coming year, but for the life of them, the Americans could not figure out what they did to make themselves so hated. In May 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, then both diplomats in Europe, met with Tripoli's ambassador to London. Why did the North Africans attack ships of a country that had done nothing to provoke such hostility, the two asked him.
The response was unnerving. As Adams and Jefferson later reported to the Continental Congress, the ambassador said the raids were a jihad against infidels. Muslim privateers felt "it was their duty to make war upon them [non-Muslims] wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could as Prisoners, and that every Mussleman [Muslim] who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise."
The Americans now had two choices: pay tribute or fight the pirates.
In Victory in Tripoli, Joshua London gives a fascinating, fast-paced account of how the United States took on the pirate states of North Africa and, in the process, learned about appeasement, naval power and diplomacy through the barrel of a gun. If the book has one drawback, it is this: The author sometimes gets too breezy with the details and the reader is left guessing.
The Barbary States comprise what is now modern-day North Africa. The name comes from the word barbari ("barbarian"), what the Arabs called the native Imazighen population. The rough-and-tumble Imazighen (or Berbers) began to convert to Islam following the Arab invasion in the seventh-century CE and, some 70 years later, helped conquer much of Christian Spain when the jihad spread to Europe.
Centuries later, in 1492, the Christians eliminated the last of Muslim stronghold in Spain, but the religious conflict did not end there; the North African Muslims simply took the war to the Mediterranean. "Piracy was deemed an acceptable and important component of the al-jihad fi'l-bahr, or the holy war at sea, and the ta'ifa, or community, of seamen became integral to the Muslim struggle with Christendom," writes London.
Eventually, this holy piracy evolved into a nice money-making scheme. European powers would pay bribes to the Barbary rulers to avoid having their ships raided and crews enslaved. The British also participated in this protection racket, so vessels from America did not have to worry about Muslim pirates - that is, until the United States declared its independence from England.
And then, in 1783, the attacks on American shipping began.
Diplomacy on the part of the Spanish helped free the crew of the Betsey captured by Morocco in October 1784, but other American vessels were plundered by Algiers in the coming months. Thomas Jefferson, then US minister to France (later, third president), would have preferred to fight the pirates then, but the republic lacked the funds to build a navy. So the Americans traded arms and money for hostages.
Of course, once it set down that path, the US had to pay tribute to other Barbary States. In 1800, Pasha Yusef Qaramanli of Tripoli sent a message to President John Adams that war would be forthcoming if the Americans did not pay up. Tunis was also itching for a fight, and with Portuguese and Sicilian forces no longer blocking the Straits of Gibraltar, its pirates had a clear run of the Atlantic.
In 1801, Tripoli declared war on the US, which in response instituted an utterly ineffective naval blockade that only managed to rile up other Barbary States. "The American war against Tripoli was understood in light of the infidel's encroachment against the Dar al-Islam [House of Islam]," notes the author. "The fact that Tripoli seemed to be winning only spurred" on the pirate rulers.
Two years later, President Thomas Jefferson redoubled war efforts, building more ships and jettisoning an incompetent commodore, but he never thought the Barbary pirates could be completely tamed. Finally, in November 1804, with the blockade still dragging on, US consul to Algiers William Eaton went to Egypt to find a claimant to the throne who would lead a coup against the troublesome Tripolitan.
Eaton's mixed Arab, Greek and American force marched all the way from Egypt, and backed up by naval guns, took the port city of Derna. An alarmed Pasha Yusef Qaramanli agreed to a peace treaty in June 1805, and Jefferson declared victory over Tripoli. As for the Arab claimant to the throne, he was betrayed by the Americans when deemed no longer useful; Eaton never forgave the president and died an alcoholic.
THOUGH covering a neglected chapter of history, Victory in Tripoli comes alive thanks to a host of colorful personalities. The reader learns that, for example, the politically connected but incompetent Captain Richard Morris spent more time on port calls than securing the blockade of Tripoli, and that the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople first imagined the Americans were quasi-Muslim because the stars on their flag were, like the crescent moon, a heavenly body.
However, in building a dramatic narrative, there is a danger in letting the statements of historical subjects go unchallenged - especially when such remarks are controversial.
US Consul Eaton described the dey of Algiers as a "huge, shaggy beast" holding out a paw to be kissed and, while seeking to overthrow the ruler of Tripoli, remarked, "Cash is the only deity of the Arabs." Similarly, Edward Preble, the commodore chosen to replace Morris, described the Imazighen as "a deep designing artful treacherous set of villains." In each case, a pro forma condemnation of racism from the author would have been appreciated.
Another area where London stumbles is his treatment of peripheral events. For instance, he notes that four Swedish ships took part in the American blockade of Tripoli, but he does not say when or why the Scandinavian nation first took up arms. Likewise, he makes vague references to things like the Jay Treaty of 1794 and then leaves it to the reader to go consult an encyclopedia for more information.
Still, the book is a welcome look into a formative period of American history and a reminder that the West's trouble with jihad did not begin in 1948 with the creation of Israel.