The Pirate Coast
Lawrence of Africa
By Steven Martinovich
It is commonly held that highest principle of American foreign policy, dating back to the days of the nation's birth, has been to avoid interference in the affairs of other nations. Foreign policy and its application, however, do not exist in a vacuum. The reality is that almost from its emergence as a sovereign nation, the United States has been drawn into the affairs of other nations, whether voluntarily or otherwise.
America's war against the pirate nations of the Barbary Coast, chiefly Tripoli, was an example the later. For centuries Barbary pirates hunted the ships and raided the towns of the great European powers, demanding tribute to leave unmolested their people and trade. Slaves were captured and sold if exorbitant ransom wasn't paid and rulers of the Barbary Coast -- along with their state-sanctioned and supported pirate fleet -- grew rich from plunder.
As Richard Zack's The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 illustrates, it was a great racket until Tripoli -- modern day Libya -- captured the U.S. Navy warship USS Philadelphia and made slaves of its crew. An angry nation demanded their release, prompting a reluctant Thomas Jefferson to send America's tiny naval fleet to blockade the Barbary Coast and mount a secret covert mission via Egypt to overthrow the ruler of Tripoli and replace him with his previously ousted brother Hamet.
The man picked to lead this covert mission was William Eaton, a mercurial and combative ex-soldier who often derailed his own career with fits of anger. Eaton was passionate and hard driving but when faced with an obstacle, particularly in the form of a superior, could be remarkably tactless and impolitic -- a failing that destroyed him later in life. Eaton was given a handful of U.S. Marines -- at the time a lightly regarded branch of the American military best known for its fine band -- and sent off to Egypt to transport Hamet to Tripoli.
Like all great adventures, Eaton's was fraught with peril. As a Christian his life was in constant danger and the tiny ragtag force he assembled depended largely on nominally allied Arab tribes for its existence. As T.E. Lawrence did just over a century later in the sands of Arabia, despite this Eaton led his force and a reluctant Hamet across a 500-mile expanse of desert and amazingly captured one of Tripoli's largest towns. Flushed with success, Eaton dreamed of bringing what promised to be a growing army directly to pasha's castle. Unfortunately, events conspired to deny Eaton his grand victory.
As Zacks relates, back in America Jefferson was more willing to accommodate Tripoli then he let on publicly. He sent self-styled diplomat Tobias Lear, a duplicitous sort who disliked Eaton and his mission, off to Tripoli to negotiate the return of the Philadelphia's crew, sign a peace treaty and, if necessary though the public didn't know it at the time, pay tribute. That essentially meant that if Lear was able to come up with a peace treaty, Hamet would be abandoned to his own devices and Eaton's military victory would be rendered worthless despite the campaign's potential for leverage.
Unfortunately that's exactly what happened. The Pirate Coast chronicles how defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory as the United States essentially signed a peace treaty that allowed piracy to continue, though American ships were ostensibly to be left alone, and Hamet was forced to flee once again for his life. And although Eaton returned a hero to the United States, his anger over what happened halfway across the world prompted him to take on Jefferson himself, one battle he was severely ill equipped to fight. After the glory wore off, Eaton returned to a life of debt and added alcoholism to his problems, one that killed him before he turned 50. The man who could have overthrown a kingdom died in penniless near obscurity.
Like his previous effort The Pirate Hunter, a revisionist look at William Kidd, The Pirate Coast shows Zacks at being marvelously adept at both historical research and penning a rousing tale. Quoting directly from Eaton's own letters and notes and those of other contemporaries, Zack manages to convincingly place the reader in events that transpired two centuries ago. It is a sad fact of history that Eaton's name is unfamiliar to most Americans today but he could have hardly had a better savior then Zacks and his wonderful The Pirate Coast.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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