Graeme Wood

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The Barbary Pirates

North African pirate states meet the U.S. Navy

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Two U.S. Navy vessels, the Ponce and the Kearsarge, are nearing the Libyan coast, officially to provide humanitarian aid and evacuate straggling Americans. The shores of Tripoli are well known as a historic landing ground for the U.S. Marines. But for the U.S. Navy, the coast is even more hallowed as the site where it came into its own as a fighting force, where it executed one of the most daring raids in naval history and where, for the first time, the young nation’s sailors truly kicked ass.

In 1801, newly elected president Thomas Jefferson decided that the United States would no longer pay protection money to the Barbary states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, which exacted tribute from ships passing their shores. Since 1785, the U.S. government had paid them vast sums, as much as 20 percent of annual U.S. government revenues, and the Barbary states still occasionally captured American ships and enslaved their crews. Jefferson’s refusal to pay led to an outright naval war with Tripoli.

On Halloween 1803, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef while chasing a three-masted Barbary ship from Tripoli. The Tripolitan ship proceeded another three miles to Tripoli harbor, and nine Tripolitan gunboats returned from the harbor to surround the Philadelphia. The Philadelphia’s captain, William Bainbridge, decided to surrender to the pirates, and he tried unsuccessfully to drill holes in the Philadelphia’s hull and disable her cannons and pumps. Shamed, he and his 307 crewmen became captives of the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli. The Pasha demanded $450,000 for the freedom of the crew — $1,000 per man, $100,000 for peace and $43,000 in gifts for him personally.

Bainbridge sent notes to his commanders suggesting a raid to avenge the loss of the Philadelphia. The plans were so secretive that he wrote them in disappearing ink (lime juice, which reappears when heated up over a candle or in an oven). The American commandos would disguise themselves, sail directly to Tripoli harbor and into the heart of the Tripolitan navy, steal aboard the Philadelphia, kill her new crew and set the ship ablaze.

For this suicidal mission, the Navy found a willing leader in Stephen Decatur, a 25-year-old lieutenant, and about 70 other men who also volunteered to to go along. On Feb. 3, 1804, Decatur left Syracuse, Sicily, captaining the Intrepid, a two-masted vessel that had been captured from a Tripolitan crew just six weeks earlier. Because she sailed with lateen rigging, a style common in North Africa, she would not look out of place approaching Tripoli. The men spent a week at sea in dangerous gales, waiting for the skies to clear enough that they would be able to leave the scene of the raid in a hurry. Conditions remained terrible for a week, and once their provisions spoiled, they had nothing to eat but biscuits.

On Feb. 15, the Intrepid sailed into Tripoli. Flying a British flag, Decatur let only half a dozen men on deck at a time, all disguised as Maltese traders. The helmsman, a 32-year-old Sicilian named Salvador Catalano, responded in the local language when other boats called to ask their business, claiming to have a cargo of cattle bound for Malta. In fact, below deck he had about sixty bloodthirsty Americans with cutlasses, sabres and tomahawks. The Tripolitan crew of the Philadelphia was satisfied with the explanation and allowed the Intrepid to draw near. When a pirate noticed something amiss and yelled “Americanos! Americanos!” it was too late: The Philadelphia opened its gunports but didn’t have enough time to fire a single shot before the Americans swung aboard and put nearly all the crew, some 20 men, to the sword.

The pirates on shore and on nearby ships heard the screams and fired back at the Intrepid, but the late hour and the suddenness of the attack made their reaction slow and ineffective. To make matters worse for the pirates, once the Americans had set the Philadelphia ablaze, her guns started firing, their loaded ammunition cooking off with the heat. The ship had drifted into a position near the Pasha’s castle, from where the guns shot directly into the city of Tripoli, providing some cover as the Intrepid went back out to sea. The whole encounter took about 25 minutes; the Philadelphia finally sank to the bottom of the harbor after 36 hours drifting in Tripoli harbor, a burning reminder of how the Americans had destroyed the gem of the Barbary fleet without losing a single man.

In a fit of rage after watching his prize ship burn, the Pasha visited his tailor. He had shirts made of “hemp cloth, and well saturated with melted brimstone,” and intended to dress the enslaved crew of the Philadelphia in these combustible garments and then ignite them. Eventually he was talked out of this plan, and instead just ordered savage beatings. But his view of the U.S. Navy had certainly changed. No longer did he consider the Americans pushovers like Capt. Bainbridge, who could apparently not even scuttle a ship, much less fight with one. The British Admiral Horatio Nelson called the raid “the most bold and daring act of the age,” and Pope Pius VII sent Thomas Jefferson a fan letter, admiring his having struck a blow for Christendom.

Tactically, the raid didn’t accomplish much. In the end, the Philadelphia was just one ship, and the rest of the war still needed fighting. Led by the Marines, the Americans took the city of Derna, just east of Benghazi, in 1805, and were preparing to advance on the Pasha’s home city of Tripoli when the Pasha sued for peace. Piracy resumed in just a few years — only after the Second Barbary War in 1815 could American ships pass the North African coast without fear — but in that First Barbary War, the U.S. had established itself as a military power on two continents. America’s willingness to assert its might in the farthest reaches of the planet traces itself back to those early actions. A force that can penetrate an enemy stronghold and lay waste to its prize possession is a force that will eventually realize it can go almost anywhere.

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