Monday, February 05, 2007

Regime Change

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, by Richard Zacks, Read by Raymond Todd, Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc., 2005

Richard Zacks starts things off with a bang. Barbary Coast pirates invade San Pietro, a Mediterranean island, at daybreak, pounding down doors, climbing in through windows, brandishing scimitars, snatching up all the residents to sell into slavery. For centuries, this was life all along the shores where pirates sailed. In the popular imagination, being captured by Barbary pirates was a fate worse than death.

From this scene in his historical account of the United States first foreign military adventure, The Pirate Coast, Zacks takes us directly to the sweltering slave market of Tunis, which leads us to Anna Maria Porcile, a twelve year old Italian girl of noble birth. Her family, having paid part of her debt, seeks to find a way to buy her out before her “honor” was compromised. So youthful and from such an illustrious bloodline, her virginity was guaranteed to fetch the highest bidder. The family, noble by name if not by pocketbook, appeal finally in their desperation to the consul of the infant United States.

The man they find there, the fiery and opinionated (as well as recently court-martialed) William Eaton, freed the girl, promising to pay off her debt — all without a penny to his name. His complicated loan arrangements lead to arguments and near war as Eaton, easily aroused, insulted the governor, or Bey, of Tunis’ lover as a thief to his face. With tempers running high on both sides, Eaton was eventually replaced in his position as consul. Sent home in disgrace, he returned to America only to find greater financial hardship, the U.S. government refusing to honor most of his receipts for costs incurred while serving as ambassador to the Barbary Coast. With ruin staring him in the face, Eaton was desperate for any chance.

Meanwhile, at this time then, it had been the policy of the administrations of the U.S. government to pay tribute to these same Barbary pirates, an argument bolstered by the weakness of America’s fledgling navy. “[A] fleet of Quaker meeting houses would have done just as well,” Eaton wrote of the nation’s ships. Payment of the first tribute came in 1785 when Algiers took two American ships hostage, leading to years of tributes paid out, a policy opposed by then-Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson. Upon his inauguration, Jefferson rescinded all such payment of tribute. Tripoli’s Pasha ordered the flagstaff of the U.S. Consulate chopped down as a declaration of war, which lead to a few pitched naval battles.

Originally successful, the U.S. finally lost one ship, the USS Philadelphia, when it ran aground the Tripoli harbor. With all hands taken hostage and thrown into prison, the United States government plotted several tactics to free the men. The doomed ship USS Intrepid, meant to sail into the harbor and explode the Philadelphia (so as to prevent its use by the pirates), exploded before it had a chance at success.

Still smarting from his recent humiliations in Barbary lands, Eaton petitioned the Jefferson administration to send him back. With a small force, Eaton argued, he could overthrow the Pasha’s rule and install the older, deposed brother Hamet Karamanli on the throne. Desperate for any ploy with even a slight chance of success, Jefferson backed Eaton’s plans and engaged him in America’s first covert military mission overseas.

Leading a small contingent of troops from the U.S. Marines, Eaton was to land in Egypt where Hamet was living in exile and lead a mixed force of mercenaries back to Tripoli. At the time, the U.S. marines was nowhere near the elite military force it is nowadays. Instead, the minor service branch of the U.S. military had duties mainly consisting of little more than a naval police work quelling mutinous types. Their pride at that time was their marching band.

Complicating many of the Eaton’s plans was the shifting alliances of various Arab tribes, the Mamelukes in Egypt, France and Britain’s ongoing Napoleonic fighting, the aggressions of the Ottoman Empire, Bedouin tribes, Albanian benditti, and finally Jefferson’s vacillation. As an example, there were no less than 24 regional rulers of Egypt, Mameluke Bays, all of them hating each other and in competition with each other. As a kind of civil war raged through the Nile region, Eaton traveled through the country in disguise as a tourist American general in order to find Hamet, who lived in the deep south.

And when Eaton finally hooked up with Hamet and the various troops involved in the mission, it turned out to be an underfunded ragtag mix of twelve nations seething with mutual hatreds among the Muslims and Christians, Europeans and Africans, Turks and others. There is an element of Lawrence of Arabia in Eaton’s oft-quoted observations, while at other times Zacks shows him easily sliding into the purpled prose of Richard Burton. The journey across the Libyan desert is marked by one tribal conflict and one cheat after another, and Zacks makes ample use of Eaton’s sometimes hyperbolic and quite Romantic letters and journals throughout.

Plagued by thievery, constant threats of mutiny, abandonment and factionalism, Eaton’s sorry lot of fighters marches over 500 miles through the desert, always at the brink of complete and utter failure. Misunderstandings between the Christians and Muslims were always on the point of finally breaking out into open violence; in one notable instance, both sides were lined up against each other, guns drawn, each side hesitating in firing just long enough to prevent a slaughter.

The largest cheat though, was still to come. After the long march, Eaton’s troops arrived and surprisingly took of the port city of Derna’s harbor fortress with an assist by the USS Argus, shelling from the sea. Routing all advances by the Pasha’s troops, Eaton and his men held the city for weeks, recuperating and planning their continued march toward the capital city of Tripoli. It was there that they received news that Jefferson’s private secretary Tobias Lear had negotiated a peace treaty with the Pasha, freeing all American hostages, but refusing to establish Hamet on the throne.

Jefferson, it seemed, had changed his mind in regards to the plot and sent Lear to negotiate a peace with Yusuf, paying a ransom (as opposed to a tribute) for the release of all the sailors. One of the most important sticking points in Lear’s negotiations was the abandonment of Derna. Eaton believed that their position allowed for them to demand the hostages release without payment, while Lear caved repeatedly to every counter proposal the Pasha suggested. The negotiations Lear oversaw were ridiculously favorable to a conquered nation; while the immediate issue of hostages was resolved, Barbary piracy and hostage taking would continue to plague America until 1815.

Eaton’s life after this stunning success was to return to America, ashamed of his government’s failure to support his actions and embittered against Jefferson. However, Eaton returned home a hero and engaged himself in several speaking tours describing his struggles and ordeals.

Lauded by most Federalist newspapers, who blew his deeds, as singular and brave as they were, into full mythology, Eaton was celebrated up and down the new nation’s coast. Political rivalry, on the other hand, sought to use this new hero for its own ends. Congress, likewise Federalist in opposition to Jefferson, investigated the matters behind the Tripoli Treaty and Eaton’s travails at Derna, and found in Eatons’ favor, bashing the executive branch and especially Lear.

What followed was a complicated chess game between Jefferson and Eaton and Jefferson and his Federalist enemies. Into this strode American villain, Aaron Burr and his trials for treason, though by that point Eaton was well on his way to a life of dissipated ruin. While Jefferson at this stage behaved with considerably less honor than one would like from a Founding Father, it is fascinating in Zacks’ account to watch the crafty Virginian shift tactics and subtly undermine his enemies’ positions.

Indeed, Zacks’ account is lively, fast-paced, and entertainingly enlightening. He reaches back to a little known historical event and makes the whole of it as compelling as the latest political scandals plaguing the nation. Here he is describing Jefferson as President and the whole of the book is as thoroughly enjoyable as this brief passage:

Jefferson stood a lanky six foot two and at age sixty his often unkempt hair had frizzled from red to gray and framed a pale, freckled, sun-damaged face and often parched lips. Thomas Jefferson, though raised as landed gentry, was now notorious for his slovenly dress, for his common man refusal to don ceremonial garb. Instead, visitors such as Senator William Plummer (Federalist - New Hampshire) observed that the President often opted to greet guests in down-at-the-heel slippers, an untidy red undervest, and cordoroy long pants, and that his white shirts were often stained. He rarely tied back, groomed, or powdered his unruly hair.

One tends to think of historical figures as a kind of bloodless pale marble statuary. Zacks has no such reverence and as a result his history breathes with a blood red heat. Petty disputes over small points of honor, the looming threat of debtor’s prison, the wearying sun of the Libyan desert, all subjects large and small are delivered in as pleasantly diverting a fashion as you can imagine. As such, Zacks’ book reads less like a history lesson, though it is that, and more like an adventure tale straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson or the like.

As a book that frequently relies on quotes from letters and reports sent back to home governments, reader Raymond Todd drops his voice into various dialects to note this primary source material. This is easiest heard when the quoted party is foreign; his American vocal inflections, however, are virtually indistinguishable from the general narration. Otherwise, Todd reads with a smooth baritone easy on the ears and limber enough for a twisting tale such as this.


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