Pirate Coast Campaign Was U.S.'s First War on Terror, Authors Say

December 2, 2005

Two centuries ago, the president of the United States sent an odd, obsessed, and self-destructive man to the Mediterranean to lead what amounted to the nation's first war against terror.

Two new books—one by Richard Zacks of Pelham, New York, and the other by Joshua London of Washington, D.C.—tell the story of this campaign against North African pirates in 1805.

At the center of the story is William Eaton, who accomplished his task against staggering odds and then was abandoned by the president who'd sent him on the mission.

London is the author of Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, published in September by John Wiley and Sons.

London said Eaton "had the grace and bearing of a rough-and-tumble zealot" and was a man who didn't allow "gray areas in his patriotism."

"I saw Eaton as a hero and a patriot and a tragic figure," said Zacks, author of The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, published in June by Hyperion Books.

Zacks said he'd been interested in the story since he first read about the Barbary pirates in elementary school. Many years later he realized that the history books hadn't touched on one intriguing angle.

"I realized that no one had told the story from the standpoint of it being a covert operation," he said.

Pirate War

Eaton's mission—to depose the Muslim ruler of Tripoli (now Libya) and install a monarch who was a friend of the U.S.—is obscure but not forgotten. A line in the U.S. Marine Corps' anthem mentions "the shores of Tripoli," memorializing the participation of eight Marines in the campaign.

For centuries the Barbary nations of North Africa— which included the Muslim kingdoms of Algiers, Tunis, Morocco, and Tripoli—had been enriching their treasuries by committing acts of piracy against non-Muslim nations.

The pirates took the cargoes and held the crews for ransom or sold them into slavery. The only nations that were exempt from piracy were those that regularly made huge payments to the Barbary nations to leave their ships alone.

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