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

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
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.

Zacks and London said the piracy and extortion amounted to a Muslim war against Christian nations. Ignoring the religious undertones, London said, is being dishonest with history.

"It's a little bit ludicrous to say religion doesn't enter into it if everyone at the time understood religion was a factor," London said.

But no one stood up to the piracy until Yusuf Karamanli, the bashaw, or ruler, of Tripoli issued an ultimatum in 1801 to the fledgling U.S. government and its new president, Thomas Jefferson. Unless the U.S. paid him a cash tribute, Karamanli said, he'd declare war.

To underscore his demand, Karamanli had the captured crew of a U.S. frigate, the U.S.S. Philadelphia, sold into slavery.

Under Cover

Jefferson had long wanted to do something to stop the piracy in the Mediterranean. "Jefferson took up the idea that we should fight the pirates and do whatever we could to fight them rather than seek accommodation or buy them off," London said.

Eaton, a Revolutionary War veteran and former diplomat in Tripoli, proposed using military force to depose Karamanli and install the ruler's exiled brother, Hamet, as the new monarch. Jefferson and his cabinet approved Eaton's plan.

Eaton was chosen to lead the mission because he was a skilled and disciplined military commander. But he was blunt and unyielding in his personal beliefs about right and wrong. He also was totally inept at politics and prone to outbursts of self-righteous recklessness.

"Eaton was able to convince Jefferson that the mission was worth a shot and that it could be done cheaply," London said. "But almost from the moment he gave Eaton the green light, he started to have his own doubts about it."

Jefferson didn't bother notifying Congress of the decision to send a military force to the Mediterranean until the expedition was well underway and beyond recall.

"It was much easier for Jefferson to break the news of things when it was impossible to prevent them from happening," London said.

Zacks says Eaton was "obsessed" with accomplishing the mission. In addition to his contingent of eight U.S. Marines, he recruited an unlikely force of European mercenaries and disaffected Arab fighters.

Eaton overcame odds that might have stopped a saner man, Zacks said. He led a march across a trackless desert without a map or local guides to the Tripoli city of Derne, where in April 1805 he confronted a force much larger than his.

His strategy was to lead a charge straight into his enemy's guns and, with the aid of U.S. Navy gunboats offshore, capture the city. When Eaton's Marines flew the Stars and Stripes at Derne, it was the first time a U.S. flag had been raised in conquest in a foreign land.

"If Eaton hadn't been such a madman, his mission wouldn't have worked out so well," Zacks said.

Mission Interrupted

Eaton wanted to continue his campaign after capturing Derne. But by then the U.S. had signed a treaty with Karamanli that ended the piracy and slavery and voided Eaton's agreement to install the exiled royal sibling Hamet on the throne.

Unknown to Eaton, Jefferson had authorized U.S. diplomat Tobias Lear to negotiate the settlement at the same time Eaton was undertaking his daring and dangerous mission. It was the president's way of hedging his bets.

Jefferson figured "that whichever effort proved successful first, [he] would still be able to claim victory," London said.

Eaton sailed home depressed and angry that he'd been deprived of the opportunity to carry out his full mission and win a clear military victory.

He was astonished to learn that U.S. newspapers were hailing him as a hero of the young nation. Congress approved paying him $12,000 (U.S.) to pay off debts he'd accumulated.

But Eaton's demons got the better of him. He couldn't keep quiet about Jefferson undercutting his mission, and the money disappeared into heavy drinking and gambling. He died in 1811 at the age of 47.

In the end, Zacks said, Eaton's most difficult opponent was himself.

"It all would have been great if he'd been a team player," Zacks said. "But he couldn't do it. He had to criticize relentlessly."

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