Heres a Trivia Pursuit history question for you: What was the first
country to ever declare war on the United States?
The answer is the North African country of Tripoli, which is known today
In 1801, Tripoli had the honor of being the first nation on earth to
declare war on the youthful U.S. (The British, remember, fought a war with
their colony, not the nation that came after the Revolution.)
The war gave rise to a tale of derring-do, Americas first secret agent,
and a special ops mission across 500 miles of the brutal Libyan Desert
by 8 U.S. Marines to the shores of Tripoli in a raid to rescue 307
Americans held captive by pirates.
The events of this secret mission are recounted in an excellent book, The
Pirate Coast, by Richard Zacks -- a slice of history which reads like a
thriller. Perhaps our current misadventure in Libya will shed light on
this little-known story, which every American might enjoy with pride.
In the early 1800s, piracy was big business in the Mediterranean Sea.
Lateen-sailed galleys brimming with pirates swept off the Barbary Coast,
augmented by slaves chained to 40-foot oars.
Many square-rigged ships of the time were powerless to resist these
galleys, which werent dependent on the prevailing winds to attack.
Galleys swarming with hundreds of cutlass-waving pirates could attack from
any corner, avoiding broadsides of cannon fire and chasing down ships
which could only travel in the direction of the wind -- and at its current
speed or lack of it.
At the oars were white, Christian slaves, plucked from Europe and
condemned to row until sweet Death granted them a pardon.
The pirates were so persistent and effective that most nations elected to
simply pay them tribute. Denmark and Sweden even provided the timber to
build their galleys.
Initially, the United States paid tribute of up to $1 million per year for
safe passage past the pirate coast and to ransom American hostages. But
Thomas Jefferson argued for an end to the tribute. In 1801, Yusuf
Karamanli, the Bashaw (ruler) of Tripoli, declared war when Jefferson
refused his demand of $225,000 as protection money.
Game on. Although the U.S. had only seven ships in service (compared to
600 in the British Navy, which nonetheless paid tribute), we set out to
sink, burn and destroy pirate ships wherever they could be found.
But things took a turn for the worse when the newly-built USS Philadelphia
was grounded on a sandbar outside the harbor of Tripoli while chasing a
pirate corsair in the fall of 1803.
Captain William Bainbridge surrendered his ship and 307 men to a single
gunboat a few hours later without firing a shot, even though slavery to
the Muslims was considered to be a horror worse than death at the time.
The admiral of the Tripolitan fleet laughed when he heard the news, noting
that the 44-gun Philadelphia would have floated free on the tide if
Bainbridge had waited until nightfall. The pirates of Tripoli planned to
turn the Philadelphia into their flagship.
Thus began Americas first hostage crisis and one of the U.S. Navys most
The Bashaw, a wily and worthy adversary, would set his first demand for
the American slaves at $1,690,000, Zacks writes, more than the entire
military budget of the United States.
Although many Americans know the subsequent story of how Lt. Stephen
Decateur conducted a stealth raid on Tripoli harbor in 1804 and burned the
Philadelphia to the waterline to keep it out of pirate hands, few know the
tale of secret agent William Eaton.
Eaton had served as consul to the neighboring country of Tunisia. Eaton,
a New England patriot, was appalled that the United States would pay
bribes to pirates and was deeply annoyed at having personally to hand our
diamond-encrusted watches, gold watches, pairs of gold-mounted pistols,
gold tobacco boxes, silks and many other items to 60 different government
officials in Tunis... including the infamously ugly eunuch who guarded the
Bey‘s harem, Zacks writes.
One of the most unlikely diplomats ever to be forgotten by history,
Eaton was a bulldog of a man, who was blunt-spoken and exceedingly
direct -- the kind of man whod rip you a new one for treading on his --
or Americas -- honor. He was reputed to be such a reckless daredevil
that members of his family doubted he would survive his childhood.
Against all common sense, Zacks writes, while serving as a diplomat in
Tunis, Eaton lent $5,000 of his own money to an Italian father to ransom
his young daughter from the pirates. He also outfitted his own warship in
a plot to replace the Bashaw with the rulers younger brother, Hamet.
But when he returned home to Washington, D.C. with $40,000 in diplomatic
debts (a sum that would be millions today), Jefferson and Congress refused
to pay. Eaton would have been a ruined man, but for the disaster with the
He seized on the hostage crisis as a way out of his debts by proposing a
secret mission to track down prince Hamet in Egypt and launch a raid on
Initially, Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison gave their
approval to the coup, but then pulled Eatons, supplies, cash and troops
because they were philosophically opposed to intermeddling with the
internal affairs of another nation... even though Tripoli was holding our
Eaton ignored Jeffersons orders to desist. He located the exiled prince
Hamet in Egypt and raised a mercenary army of 500 Greeks, Berbers and
Arabs, led by a squad of 8 U.S. Marines. This rag-tag army marched 500
miles across the Libyan Desert from Alexandria to capture the Tripolitan
city of Derne in the spring of 1805 with the help of a naval bombardment.
This expedition was one of the finest hours for the Marines -- a branch of
service which got no respect up until that time -- with the battle
enshrined in the Marine Corp Hymn.
This, combined with naval raids and a blockade of Tripoli harbor, was too
much for the Bashaw, who signed a treaty that June, ending the war. But
the Bashaw had the last laugh, receiving a ransom of $60,000 in exchange
for the American hostages. Eaton never got over this insult to his
Theres more -- read Richard Zacks thrilling book for the juice. But the
message is, weve been through all of this intermeddling with Libya
before -- today once again working with a rag-tag force that may not
prevail this time around. History is a roulette wheel that does indeed
repeat itself, but also tends to land on a slightly different marker each
time its spun.