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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

On the Shores of Tripoli

The Libyan Hostage Crisis, US Intervention & Regime Change

George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, on his refusal of a third term, breathes practical authority on foreign entanglements. What he has to say is pretty straightforward: Don’t you do it.

He had good reason to be wary. Within a decade of taking enough French support to win the revolution, we got been dragged into defending France’s Caribbean territories in the War of the First Coalition against Britain and the Netherlands. Which is not at all what US thought would happen when we were taking all that French money.

Faced with a budget pinch, Washington’s argued that after Louis XVI lost his head in 1793, so did all the treaties in his name. In 1794, Congress passed the Neutrality Act which cancelled all military obligations. The French were philosophical about it until we quit repaying our war debt. Then went full repo, seizing any American ships trading with the British. This led to the Quasi-War that wrapped up in 1800 with France not repaying US shipping losses and the US not repaying its loans. Let’s call it a draw.

Seizure of American merchant vessels continued, however. As a tiny nation of exiles perched way over on the edge of the world, we’d disbanded our own navy and found ourselves without Imperial protection of the British or, since we’d walked out on our tab, the French. So, it was that the United States entered into its first treaty of friendship – with Morocco. Although, “friendship” is overselling it.

The sultans and pashas of the Barbary Coast – roughly three semi-autonomous Ottoman provinces: Tripolitania (the western chunk of modern Libya), Algiers, and Tunis plus a fully independent Morocco – were running a protection racket. Ships plying the Mediterranean either paid tribute or were seized, the goods sold and the crew either ransomed or auctioned off into slavery.

Needing to do something, Congress decided that it was cheaper to pay the sultans off. Until it wasn’t. George Washington finally authorized the building of six frigates that would form the US Navy. The old bastard may have been against foreign entanglements, but he wasn’t afraid to throw hands either.

By 1797, under President John Adams, the United States would pay $1.25 million, nearly 20% of the national budget, to the Barbary States for safe passage of American merchant vessels. Pinching the natinal pride as well s purse, during the presidential election of 1800 Thomas Jefferson argued fervently against subjecting the United States to “the spoliations of foreign cruisers.”

The man knew what he was talking about. Years before, in 1786, both Jefferson and Adams had been sent together to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy over protection money. Jefferson asked the envoy to explain on what grounds the Barbary States had “pretentions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury.” According to Jefferson the envoy replied:

It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.

Jefferson found this grating and always maintained (correctly it turned out), that paying the money to pirates would only lead to more piracy.

On his inauguration as president, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded $225,000 (about 4.5 trillion 2020 dollars) from the administration. Jefferson refused – first of all, we didn’t have the money. Secondly, Yusef wasn’t the rightful pasha anyway, he’d usurped the throne from his older brother Hamet – now in exile in Egypt. The Pasha sent some goons out to cut down the flagpole in front of the US consulate in Tripoli – which was his way of declaring war. Things moved slower back then, and other than a bit of fist shaking, it wasn’t until 1802 that the United States sent ships to the area. The hold up being was to get Ferdinand IV of Naples to let the US Navy use Sicily and Syracuse as a base.

Now the United States, with a government barely a dozen years old, was involved in its first foreign war just down the beach from our oldest ally - in what is now Libya. Being Americans, we tried to whip up a coalition so we hitched our wagon to Sweden’s star. The war didn’t amount to a lot more than pale Protestant sailors turning a violent shade of pink cruising the Riviera and giving the dusky Muslim sailors the hairy eyeball in passing.

While pursuing a pirate corsair, the USS Philadelphia ran aground on a reef about two miles out from Tripoli harbor. Attempts to refloat the ship only pushed her further aground. The next day the provisions and cannon went overboard to lighten her, but she was stuck. The captain ordered holes drilled into the hull and surrendered, making himself and his men slaves of the pasha. For their part, the Libyans used the Philadelphia as a gun battery against further US attacks.

In a daring mission, US Marines took a captured Berber ketch and sailed up to the Philadelphia, overpowered the Ottoman sailors on board and, seeing that the ship wasn’t seaworthy, torched her.

American’s first experiment with global adventurism was finally wrapped up when one Lieutenant William Easton lead some US Marines, and a lot more Greek and Arab mercenaries, on a 500+ mile forced march from Alexandria, Egypt to Derna in the capital of Cyrenaica (now the eastern chunk of Libya). It was in Alexandria that Eaton launched the United States’ first experiment in regime change by teaming up with the exiled Hamet to retake the throne. On the 50-day trek, tensions ran high enough that the marines had to use the one cannon on the Arab mercenaries trying to make off with the chuck wagon.

On 26 April 1805, Eaton (who’d declared himself general of the force because, evidently, the military was much more mellow about that sort of thing back then) asked for safe passage and supplies from the Mustafa Bey, governor of Derna. According to legend, Mustafa responded “Your head or mine!” Which is, even today, an ill-advised thing to say to a marine. The navy bombarded the city from their end, and Eaton launched an attack from his, and by sunset, an American flag flew over a city on the far end of the Atlantic Ocean.

Over in Tripoli, Yusef Pasha sent a force in a vain attempt to retake the city, and then cried “Uncle Sam” to US pressure before the marines arrived. He agreed to cut out all the piracy and ransom and the rest of it. Eaton was told to go back to Egypt and take to Hamet with him. The once and future lieutenant, was furious, but probably not as angry as the mercenaries, who were never paid.

So the Marine Hymn kicks off with:

From the Halls of Monetezuma

To the shores of Tripoli


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