On The Shores of Tripoli

Decatur boarding the Tripolitan gunboat during the bombardment of Tripoli, 1804. by Dennis Malone Carter

In my seventh grade music class, we regularly sang the anthems of the various branches of the United States’ armed services.*  Three days a week, the caissons rolled, bones sank to Davy Jones, planes sailed into the wild blue yonder, and the Marines fought from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.  It was years later before I realized that the “shores of Tripoli” referred to the United States’ first foreign war: an odd combination of pirates (err, privateers), naval battles, a new nation flexing its political muscles,  and the man on the spot taking matters into his own hands. **

The Barbary corsairs were privateers who dominated the Mediterranean and North Atlantic under the auspices of the Barbary states of North Africa from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The corsairs raided ships and coastal towns.  They not only seized treasure, they took captives, who were held for ransom or sold into slavery. European  powers paid  tribute [e.g. bribes] to the Barbary states to ensure that their merchant vessels were allowed to sail the Mediterranean without interference.***  The Barbary states regularly complained about the quality of the tribute goods they received,  broke treaties with other powers, and negotiated new treaties with higher rates of tribute.

The end of the American Revolution brought a new player into the Mediterranean.  Britain had prohibited its North American colonies from trading directly with other countries. The newly formed United States was eager to gain free access to Mediterranean ports.  From the perspective of the Barbary states, the United States was a new opportunity for extortion. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Moroccan sultan was the first foreign ruler to recognize American independence. )

The United States authorized negotiations with the Barbary states within months of becoming an independent country and signed agreements with Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis between 1786 and 1797.  The relationships were difficult from the beginning: both sides complained of bad faith on the part of the other.

In 1801 the pasha of Tripoli demanded increased amounts of tribute.  When Jefferson refused to pay, Tripoli declared war on the United States.  For the next few years, the two powers carried out a half-hearted naval war.  The United States blockaded and bombarded Tripolitan ports.  The pasha’s fleet seized the frigate USS Philadelphia with the intention of demanding ransom money for the crew and adding the ship to the Tripolitan navy.  Lieutenant Stephen Decatur earned a reputation as a hero with a daring night time raid in which he sailed the ketch Intrepid into Tripoli harbor, boarded the Philadelphia, set her on fire, and escaped. (Leaving her captain and crew in the hands of the pasha.) In short, the First Barbary War began as a series of skirmishes and raids that hardly deserved the name of war.

In 1805, the war took a weird turn.  William Eaton, took a lesson from the British experience in India and decided to become a king maker as a way of resolving the tribute problem.   A rival claimant to the Tripolitan throne, older brother of the ruling pasha, was in exile in Egypt.  Eaton traveled to Alexandria, where he made a deal with the would-be pasha (without the agreement or authority of the United States government).  Using his own money, he raised an expeditionary force that can only be described as motley, cliche or no: sixteen members of the American Navy and Marines,**** forty Greek mercenaries, a squadron of Arab cavalry, and a fleet of camels.  Commanded by Eaton, whose military experience was limited to service in the Continental Army as a sergeant and ended in court martial, the force marched more than 500 miles across the Libyan desert–the same territory where Rommel and Montgomery would duke it out in WWII.  Food was short and his little army almost mutinied on the way. On April 27, 1805, Eaton and his crew attacked and captured the town of Derna, with the help of  three American ships stationed in the Berna harbor.

After the battle, Eaton requested permission to lead his forces against Tripoli.  He was told that peace negotiations were underway and he should sit tight.  The final treaty reduced the tribute the United States paid to Tripoli, but did not place Eaton’s candidate on the throne.  (The American government also didn’t reimburse the money he had spent on his army.)

Ten years later, the United States was once more at war with one of the Barbary States.  The resulting treaty with Algiers outlawed future demands for tribute from the North African power.  It was soon followed by similar treaties with Tunis and Tripoli, in theory changing the rules of shipping in the Mediterranean.***** Not bad for a new country with a tiny navy.

* Did this happen in other schools?  Because in retrospect it seems  very odd.  It was 1970.   I’m sure some of my classmates had older brothers, cousins and/or fathers stationed in Vietnam. War protests were every where: even on the college campuses of our small Ozark city, where the counterculture was relatively thin on the ground.   On the other hand, we also sang plenty of songs that were part of the folk revival of the time.

**The “halls of Montezuma” will have to wait for another blog post.  One stupid war at a time.

***It is only fair to point out that those same powers, including the United States, also licensed privateers to attack foreign shipping in times of war, which was often loosely defined.   And they actively traded in African slaves.  Despite eighteenth century hysteria on the subject, enslaving Europeans was not worse than enslaving Africans.

****Hence “the shores of Tripoli”.

*****In fact, Algeria continued to attack European ships in the Mediterranean until the French invasion of 1830.


  1. Jonathan on May 9, 2015 at 1:08 am

    I was just reading about this recently. While we never sang any Marine Corps songs in school, I am sure they sang them in some Looney Tunes shorts. Anyhow, my mother gave me a book called “Little-Know Wars of Great and Lasting Impact” by Alan Axelrod, which has a chapter on the Barbary Wars and I was captivated. Reading your post reminds me that I should look into reading something more in-depth about these little wars.

    By the way, The Axelrod book offers concise accounts of little-known conflicts which will whet your appetite for more information on the various subjects. I am sure one could read all about these wars on Wikipedia, but the writing is much more engaging than what is typically found in a Wikipedia article, and perhaps goes into greater depth. I admit that I have only read select chapters, but now I know a bit more about the Barbary Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and I want to know more! Fun, light historical reading that is perfect material for the traveler or casual history enthusiast.

    Your blog is great!

    • pamela on May 9, 2015 at 1:34 am

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ll check out the Axelrod book, which sounds fascinating.

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