By the spring of 1804, the young Republic of the United States of America was struggling to find her place in the world of nations. She found herself at war with the Barbary States of North Africa, whose ships were taking unarmed American merchant vessels, stealing their cargoes, and enslaving their crews for a huge ransom. At first, the US which had no navy was obliged to pay the ransom. But after she built a navy, the US was able to fight back. But still things did not go well, and the fleet met with limited success. In fact a US frigate, the USS Philadelphia had been captured and her crew taken prisoner in Tripoli. One man, a feisty former Army officer named William Eaton, now a diplomat, had a bold idea. Eaton proposed taking the elder brother of the Pasha of Tripoli, Ahmad Quaramanli, and providing support for his claim to the throne of Tripoli away from his brother Josuf, the reigning Pasha. In effect, Eaton was proposing a policy of regime change in Tripoli, a policy very much like the one which the U.S. is pursuing today.
Eatons Plan is Approved
Jefferson gave the Eaton’s plan his somewhat equivocal backing. But almost a full year would pass before Jefferson would appoint Eaton as “Naval Agent to the Several Barbary Regencies”. Unfortunately for Eaton, the commander of the US Naval forces in the region, Commodore Samuel Barron was ill, and vacillated on his support of Eaton’s idea from the start. Worse yet for Eaton, bigger problems were looming in the presence of Colonel Tobias Lear, whom Jefferson had appointed as Consul General to the North African Coast in 1803. Lear is one of these men in history who appears to have been present, or almost present at several disastrous moments. As a personal Secretary to George Washington, he happened to be present when the man died. His subsequent handling of Washington’s papers lead to the widespread belief that he had destroyed certain of those documents in which Jefferson had been critical of our first president. Both Jefferson and Lear denied that anything had been destroyed, but Lear continued to receive plum appointments from Jefferson for the rest of his life.
The Intrigues of Tobias Lear
Jefferson appointed Lear as the American commercial agent in Saint-Domingue just before Napoleon Bonaparte brutally suppressed the slave rebellion of Toussaint L’Overture and wrecked all of the American holdings there. He sailed to the Mediterranean aboard the USS Philadelphia, but was transferred to the USS Constitution just before the Philadelphia was captured by the Tripolitans and all of her crew were enslaved.
Lear thought that Eaton’s scheme was a poorly-planned mess and was convinced that the only way to advance American interests in the region was through diplomatic efforts exercised by himself. He doubted Ahmad’s abilities and further doubted that Josuf (Ahmads brother, who was the reigning Pasha of Tripoli) would ever leave his throne without some diplomatic face-saving which would of course include some token cash ransom for the crew of the Philadelphia.
Lear was working on Barron who was ill almost the entire time that he was in the Mediterranean, owing to a liver ailment. Originally he had been fully behind the plan. In fact by the time that Eaton started off on his mission, he was convinced that he had Barron’s full backing. But Barron had in fact moved back to a less supportive position. He thought that Ahmad would be brought to him for further conferences, and he told the very agitated Lear that he would do nothing without consulting him. Eaton was transported to Alexandria aboard the brig USS “Argus” with a small detachment of Marines under the command of Lieutenant Presley Neville O’ Bannon.
Finding Ahmad Quarmanli
Ahmad Quaramanli proved difficult to locate when Eaton arrived at Alexandria in late November 1804. After much searching, Ahmad was found camping out with a band of 3,000 Mamluks (a warrior caste of Egyptians who had recently been vanquished by Napoleon) who were being besieged by the Turks near El Minya. Eventually, Ahmed was found and signed on to the expedition and named Eaton as the commander of his forces. On March 4, 1805, Eaton, Lt. O’Bannon and the Marines, and a ragged “army” which included about 400 Greeks, Bedouins, Mamluks, and Arabs on camels set out on along and very hard march to besiege the city of Derna.
Immediately there were frictions between the Marines and the various over paid and under paid factions of this army. On March 10 came the first of several mutinies which Eaton had to quell. On March 13, the Arabs almost killed all of the Christians in the convoy. And Ahmad repeatedly attempted to desert. Their food almost exhausted, this “army” arrived at the city of Bomba where they were re-supplied by Captain Hull from the brig “Argus”.
“My Head or Yours….”
Their flagging spirit restored by the infusion of fresh supplies, the army moved on to Derna, a ten day march. They arrived and took up positions outside the city on April 25, 1805. He sent an ultimatum offering fair compensation to the Dey. But the Dey, who was fiercely loyal to Josuf Pasha (the man whom Eaton was proposing to replace with Ahmad), simply wrote in reply “My head or yours, Mustapha.” Eaton took the man at his word and set about making sure that it would in fact be the Deys head and not his. On April 28, using close support from the guns of the USS Argus, the Nautilus, and the Hornet (all of them ships of war with 12 or fewer guns), Eaton’s forces commenced a frontal assault on Derna.
The Shores of Tripoli
Eaton divided his men into two forces, with himself, the Marines, and the Christian foot soldiers attacking from the southeast, while Ahmad lead the mounted Arabs to attack from the north side. To Eaton’s surprise, Ahmad actually commanded his men bravely, showing for the first time some natural leadership.
While the US Marines established their tradition of bravery and toughness under fire, storming the main fort they “passed through a shower of musketry from the walls of houses, [and] took possession of the battery.” Then, following this action, which sounds very much like present-day action in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lt. O’Bannon “planted the American flag on it’s ramparts, and turned it’s guns upon the enemy.” This very action was the inspiration for the line in the Marines hymn “To the shores of Tripoli…” The city fell to Eaton’s forces in two hours.
Josufs forces tried to attack Derna, but were driven back with considerable losses. But it was becoming costly with the passage of days for Eaton’s forces to hold in Derna. Also, while the people there were satisfied enough with Ahmad as their ruler, they were not rising up and actively supporting him to replace Josuf as Eaton and Ahmad had hoped they would. And Eaton was not getting the necessary naval support for a further advance on Tripoli. Meanwhile, Commodore Barron, operating from his sick bed, and under continual pressure from Lear, was coming to conclude that the whole Eaton expedition was a wild scheme that had gone way beyond its original scope and was unlikely to succeed any further.
Eaton and Ahmad are Betrayed by Lear
Thus, on May 18, 1805 Barron consented to allow Lear to make an attempt at a negotiated settlement with Josuf. Four days later, Barron, realizing that his health was not going to improve sufficiently for him to take active command of the squadron, resigned his command. But Lear went ahead with his negotiations.
Josuf was very much worried about losing his throne. The Dey of Derna had greatly exaggerated the numbers of Eaton’s forces, and while his people were not rising against him, it was clear that they were not going to sit still for being bombarded into submission by the American fleet just so Josuf could make some more cash from ransoming the American prisoners from the U.S.S. Philadelphia.
Lear, understanding that Josuf only required a “face-saving’ opportunity to be talked into signing an agreement, offered him $60,000 for returning all of the American prisoners, and for a pledge to refrain from any further acts of piracy against American vessels. In return, Josuf was allowed to keep his throne, American forces were to be withdrawn from Derna, and in a secret clause of which Jefferson would later deny any knowledge, Josuf was permitted to keep Ahmad’s family as hostages.
Just like that, victory was declared, tossing aside the men who had brought them that victory, and a treaty was signed which left poor befuddled Ahmad and his supporters out in the cold and left Pasha Josuf still on his satin embroidered throne. Eaton who learned of his betrayal by treaty on June 11, 1805 wrote to Barron:
“You would weep sir, were you on the spot to witness the unbounded confidence placed in the American character here, and to reflect that that confidence must shortly sink into contempt and immortal hatred…. Could I have apprehended the result of my exertions, certainly no consideration would have prevailed on me to have taken an agency in a tragedy so manifestly fraught with intrigue, so wounding to human feelings, and, as I must now view it, so degrading to our national honor.”
The End of Eaton, Lear and Ahmad
Having saved the American Republic millions of dollars which she would otherwise have been obliged to pay to Tripoli if he and his army had not played so key a role in forcing Josuf to the bargaining table, Eaton was brought home where he was hailed for a time as a hero to the Federalist opposition to the government of Thomas Jefferson. Certainly, his scheme seemed more than a little bit hair-brained at the beginning. But Eaton, through sheer force of will, and by bravely laying his own life and credibility on the line throughout, had made it work.
Nevertheless, Eaton would die six years later in Brimfield, Massachusetts, embittered, and ignored. Ahmad went into exile, and Congress forced Jefferson into forcing Josuf to release Ahmad’s family in 1807. Josuf became a hero to his people for having gotten the Americans to leave. Tobias Lear would eventually return to the US and be made Secretary to the War Department moving into a home in Washington shortly before the city was sacked and burned by the British during the War of 1812. He would commit suicide in 1816.
And it was not until nearly a decade later that the full force of the U.S. Navy would finally be brought to bear, and the Barbary Pirates would be snuffed out for good.
Victory in Tripoli . London, Joshua E. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. Hoboken, New Jersey; 2005.
The U.S. Navy: An Illustrated History . Miller, Nathan E. Bonanza Books. New York; 1997.