Fighting Pirates – Yesterday & Today
Pirates are capturing American merchant ships off Africa, demanding tribute and holding the crews for ransom.
Well that’s what the situation was in the early 1800s, when American merchant ships were being captured and enslaved or held for ransom by the pirates of the Barbary Coast African nations of Morocco, Tunesia and Tripoli.
But instead of paying the tribute and the ransoms, the United States, as a matter of national policy, decided to build at navy, a fleet of ships that would be sent over to engage the pirates and convince them otherwise.
Among those sent over was Captain William Bainbridge of the USS Philadelphia, a battleship of its day, built in Philadelphia and the largest ship in Commodore Edward Preble’s fleet of American warships sent to the Mediterranean to fight the pirates.
More recently, the USS Bainbridge was the first American warship to the scene of an American merchantman captured by pirates off Africa, leading today’s fight against the African pirates.
Unlike the millions of dollars in ransoms paid for ships captured by pirates off Africa today, the American response was to kill the pirates when given the opportunity, a policy and operational style that dates back to the first Barbary wars, and best exemplified by the American schooner Enterprise.
Although written decades later, the Memoir of Commodore David Porter (1875) is a first hand report from someone who was there. Porter reports that, “…The Enterprise was the first vessel that had the satisfaction of humbling the pride and lowering the flag of these corsairs. Notwithstanding the Tripolitan admiral had assured Commodore Gale that no war existed against the United States, on the part of Tripoli, on the first of August, 1801, the Enterprise fell in with a polacre-rigged vessel near the island of Malta, mounting 14 guns (and carrying Tripolitan colors), that was known to be cruising against our commerce. As soon as the colors were recognized, the Enterprise cleared for action, and ran down close to the enemy. As Lieut. Com. Sterrett got within pistol shot he opened his batteries, and continued for three hours to pour in a heavy fire, at the end of which time the Triplotian struck his colors. The polacre was superior in every respect to her antagonist, but the precision of the American’s fire told fearfully upon the enemy and her crew, while the beautiful manner in which the Enterprise was handled (taking whatever position she chose and raking her enemy several times), elicited the admiration even of the corsairs. There are no braver people than the Turks, but on this occasion though they fought desperately they exhibited very little skill. The Corsair lost fifty men in killed and wounded, and the ship was a perfect wreck, her mizzen mast shot away and her yards and sails cut to pieces. On the other hand, owing to the skill with which the Enterprise was handled she received little damage. Three times during the combat did the Tripolitians strike their colors, renewing the fight again when they thought they saw an opportunity of redeeming the fortunes of the day; till at last Lieut. Com. Sterrett, irritated by this treachery, opened fire, with a determination to sink his enemy; when the Tripolitans threw their flag into the sea and cried for quarter. The Tripolitan proved to be the Tripoli commanded by Mahomet Sous, the latter confessed to his orders from the bashaw were to capture American merchant vessels….”
As Porter notes, “Up to the time of the capture of the Philadelphia, the bashaw had received from the Americans nothing but humiliation, or to use the figurative language of the Turks, “The Christian dogs had made him eat dirt.”
The capture of the Philadelphia was probably the single biggest catastrophe of the war, and it is a testament to Bainbridge, who over came the stigma of having lost his ship to the enemy without having fired a shot, to become a US Navy hero and a getting a modern warship named after him.
Born in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of a Tory physician and surgeon for a British regiment during the Revolution, Bainbridge went by the book. He had orders to blockade Tripoli harbor until the rest of the fleet could arrive, with Richard Somers and the schooner Nautilus expected, but in his haste to fulfill his mission to blockade the harbor, Bainbridge chased a pirate corsair too close to the shore and the Philadelphia ran aground. [For in depth report see the Capture of the Philadelphia at Tripoli].
The ship was taken as a prize and the men imprisoned in the dungeon of the old Red Castle fort, prisoner of Yousef Karamanli, the Bashah of Tripoli.
While most of the 300 man crew, when not working on public projects, were confined to the dungeon, Bainbridge was permitted to dine with the Danish ambassador and Dr. Jonathan Powdery, the ship’s surgeon, was permitted to make house calls of sick citizens of the old city, which dates to pre-Roman times.
So now with his prize battleship and 300 hostages, Karamanli wanted a ransom as well as a tribute, but rather than pay, the Americans were resolute, determined to defeat the pirates in battle and win their release. In one of the first successful special ops, Lt. Stephen Decatur took the USS Intrepid, disguised as a pirate ship, into Tripoli harbor and destroyed the Philadelphia, escaping with no casualties.
With a full compliment of ships Commander Preble opened an offensive that attacked the enemy on the water, handily defeating the pirates in the Battle of Tripoli (Aug. 1804). The Americans had Lt. Somers lead one flotilla and Lt. Stephen Decatur another, going up against the pirates in hand-to-hand, swashbuckling combat. These victories were somewhat negated however, by the killing of Midshipman James Decatur, Stephen’s younger brother, and the explosion of the USS Intrepid on September 4, 1804.
In an attempt to duplicate the success of Decatur’s earlier mission to destroy the Philadelphia, Somers took the Intrepid back into Tripoli harbor outfitted as a fire ship.
Twelve men, volunteers all, including officers Lt. Richard Somers and Lt. Henry Wadsworth (uncle of Longfellow), were joined at the last minute by Midshipman Charles Israel, who delivered a message from Preble with final instructions. Israel refused to return to the flagship, and insisted on joining the mission, becoming the unlucky thirteenth man.
The Intrepid slipped quietly into Tripoli Harbor, a lantern could be seen bobbing in the darkness, and then a tremendous explosion lit up the landscape, with the old Red Castle fort in the background, and then all fell quiet and dark.
The next morning thirteen bodies washed ashore and placed on the beach where the Philadelphia’s surgeon, Dr. Cowdery and a party of prisoners buried the men of the Intrepid just outside the castle walls. The three officers were identified and separated from the others and buried in a common grave. They marked the spot with four corner stones and clearly identified the plot with a makeshift cross.
This original grave site, they reported, was one cable’s length from the castle walls, a nautical length of one tenth of a nautical league, or 720 feet, about two and a half football fields. That’s where most of them are today, but the remains of five were uncovered by the Italian army while they were building a road during their occupation in the 1930s, and reentered in the nearby Old Protestant Cemetery, about a mile east along the coastal highway.
The original gravesite is located in what is now known as Green Square, where Col. Mommar Ghaddafi recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the coup that put him in power, September 1, 1969, when he overthrew the monarchy.
When the US Navy held an official ceremony at the Old Protestant Cemetery in 1949, the Libyan leader was then named Karamanli, of the same family and dynasty as Yousaf Karamanli, the leader of the Barbary pirates two hundred years ago.
At that time Yousaf Karamanli, the Bashaw of Triopoli, was having a family spat with his brother, Hamet Karamanli, pretender to the throne of their father, who was originally from Turkey and an extension of the ancient Ottoman Empire.
In the course of fighting Yousaf Karamanli, the United States supported the efforts of his brother Hamet. Under the leadership of a pistol packing American diplomat William Eaton and Sgt. Presley O’Bannon’s detachment of eight US marines, they put together a small army of 200 Greek mercenaries, a thousand bedouin cavalry they picked up along the way, and supporters of Hamet Karamanli. They marched across the desert and attacking from land, captured the port city of Derna, east of Tripoli. While this expedition is often referred to as the “Battle of Tripoli” in movie and song, it is actually the Battle of Derna.
The loss of Derna certainly made Yousaf Karamanli come around to the Americans way of thinking, and with an army massing against him, he agreed to a peace treaty, one that paid extra ransom for Bainbridge and the men of the Philadelphia, but didn’t pay any outright tribute.
When news of the treaty reached Eaton, O’Bannon and Hamet Karamanli at Derna, they had to quietly lower the Stars & Stripes, slip onto waiting ships and escape the harbor before their mercenary followers learned the news of the betrayal.
Apparently Hamet Karamanli understood how the politics worked and didn’t take it personally because he presented his sword to Presley O’Bannon, the Mamaluk sword that is part of the dress uniform of every US marine.
The diplomats may have prematurely ended the war when they had the upper hand, but Bainbridge, Dr. Cowdery and the officers and men of the Philadelphia were freed and given a heroes homecoming in Philadelphia.
“FALLEN BEFORE THE WALLS OF TRIPOLI”
As David Porter described the conclusion: “…The Tripolitans, seeing that the United States was determined to prosecute the war until they were conquered, concluded at length to succumb, and on the third of June, 1805, the treaty of peace was signed.”
“It was agreed that the United States should never be required to pay tribute to Tripoli, but after exchanging prisoners man for man it was settled that $60,000 should be paid to Tripoli for the excess of prisoners in her possession. This later clause in the treaty sounds rather strangely after such loss of life and outlay of money in prosecuting the war; and no doubt, the United States could have made better terms by carrying on hostilities a little longer, but the sufferings of the prisoners in Tripolitan hands were exciting so much sympathy at home, and the expense of further warfare would have been so great that, perhaps, the course pursued may have been the wisest.”
“ It was a joyful day when all these poor fellows were released, and received the congratulations of their friends; but amid all their joy at being relieved from confinement, the prisoners could not but experience deep sorrow when they missed the many comrades who had fallen before the walls of Tripoli. A few years had made sad havoc among their friends, but such is ever the result of war.”
“In this conflict the American nation, which had been fighting for the rights of civilized nations, had won great renown through its navy, and the thanks of Christendom for setting an example that was soon followed by all Europe. When we look at these insignificant Barbary powers today we can hardly realize that we ever consented to pay tribute to them in the first place, and in the last act abandoned all the principles for which we had contended by paying that ransom of $60,000. With all this, however, the navy had nothing to do, and had the matter been left to them to decide, the barbarians would never have got anything, since they knew that they could conquer a peace.”
“Throughout the trying ordeal they had to undergo, the honor of the navy remained untarnished; and painful as had been the imprisonment of the officers and crew of the Philadelphia, yet it produced good fruit, for without the loss of that vessel and its results, the government might have abandoned a contest which in the end put a stop to the enslaving of Christian people.”