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The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805
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An hour before dawn on September 3, 1798, the waves of the Mediterranean tugged at the coast of the island of San Pietro near Sardinia, lullabying the thousand or so sleeping residents. So peaceful was it, so rhythmic and hypnotic the sound—or perhaps it was due to a bottle of local vino bianco—that even the two municipal watchmen in the church tower had fallen asleep. So there was no one to puzzle out the faint white flecks of sails growing larger on the pinkish gray horizon, and no one to ring the massive church bells to sound the alarm that a fleet of seven ships was approaching.
Standing silently at the rail of these lateen-sailed ships, visible in faint silhouette, were bearded men in loose billowy pants and turbans, carrying scimitars and pistols. The vessels, packed with one thousand Barbary Pirates from Tunis in North Africa, glided to anchor inside the harbor. The crews quietly lowered small landing boats and began to ferry men ashore. The first group, barefoot and heavily armed, raced to seal off the two roads leading out of town.
Surprisingly, the leader of this attacking Moslem fleet, the pirate commodore, as it were, was an Italian who had converted to Islam. The ritual had involved losing his foreskin and gaining a new name. He was now Mohammed Rumelli, and in the Lingua Franca slang of the Mediterranean, he was dubbed a “rinigado,” a renegade. Over the centuries, the rulers of the Barbary countries of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, , had learned that Christian captains could navigate better than their homegrown Moslem talent.
Another Italian, acting as harbor pilot, had guided the fleet to the perfect anchorage. This fellow from Capri (never identified by name) carried a deeply personal motive for joining the attack. He had married a woman from San Pietro but she had abandoned him; he was now convinced that she was cuckolding him here on the island. He had turned Turk expressly to seek his revenge.
As the first ray of dawn caught the sails, Muhammed Rumelli gave the signal to “wake up” the townspeople. The pirates unleashed a sudden unholy thunder. The ships’ cannons bellowed out broadsides. The sailors on shore added a lunatic’s drum roll of small arms fire. The cacaphony climaxed as close to a thousand mouths let loose impassioned Arabic war cries and the men rushed into the town. Allahu akhbar speeded their pursuit of profit.
The corsairs engulfed the tiny town; they battered down the doors, burst into homes, brandishing torches and scimitars, rousting the stunned citizens from bed and kicking them into the streets. They cursed their victims as Romo Kelb (“Christian dogs”). The women cowered in corners, trying to avoid what one observer described as “shame and villainies.”
A French naval officer, arriving the next day, found that five women had died in their beds of knife wounds, their bodies entwined in sheets caked with blood. The first female victim, according to local accounts, was the unfaithful wife of that pilot from Capri. A Sardinian historian later called her a “fishwife Helen” who had no idea that her husband’s jealous rage had drawn the enemy to her homeland.
The attackers spent the entire day hauling money, jewels, church silver, silks to the harbor but by far the most valuable commodity to be stolen walked on two legs: human slaves. Surah 47 of the Koran allowed these Moslem attackers to enslave and ransom any of these captives. Young Italian women would fetch more than the men in the flesh markets of Tunis and Algiers.
The crews dragged the townspeople aboard various ships, tossing them like ballast willy-nilly belowdeck into the holds for the 160-mile voyage. The prisoners wore only what they had slipped into at bedtime on that seemingly unimportant September night, which would turn out to be their last night of freedom for half a decade.
This was life on a Mediterranean island, circa 1798, in the age of Napoleon and Nelson and the waning days of the Barbary Corsairs.
The Bey of Tunis, the country’s ruler, had commissioned these seven ships and a thousand men to attack San Pietro. To the Bey, they were his privateers, fighting a legitimate war against Sardinia which had refused to pay tribute to him for the right to navigate the Mediterranean; to the rest of the world, these seven ships were Barbary Pirates, part of a centuries-old extortion scheme.
Fall weather on the Mediterranean can run skittish and storm winds kicked up. The San Pietro prisoners spent the next four days seesawing in the windowless foul-smelling dark, appalled at their fate, vomiting, weeping, with no sanitation, and almost no food or water.
That is, all except six young women. “Six jeunes filles,” ran a later report in French from a Dutch consul, Antoine Nyssen, in Tunis. “Six young girls, alas, that they were still so, were selected by the Rais (captains) to serve their filthy desires, and the most disgusting forms of volupte’ were their pasttimes during the voyage.”
The ships, nearing Tunis, passed the site of ancient Carthage, and the captains fired off celebratory cannon shots to signal their victory. The city of Tunis lies six miles inland from the harbor, connected by a stagnant reddish-colored lake. The pirates rushed the prisoners aboard small barges; boatmen, pushing poles, then strained to follow a winding route indicated by pillars rising a foot or two above the surface. “On these pillars, standing silent, sad, wings furled, seeming like those birds sculpted on tombs, are cormorants,” wrote French novelist, Alexander Dumas, who fifty years later took this same route. Dumas said the birds of prey would suddenly swoop down on some fish swimming near the surface, then calmly return to re-assume their crypt-like pose. It’s doubtful that many of the Italian captives noticed the wildlife.
The city soon announced itself by smell as much as by sight. The prisoners later learned that fecal ditches run along the northern and eastern walls to receive the human waste from 300,000 inhabitants of various races: Moors, Arabs, Turks, Jews, European merchants and diplomats, African and Christian slaves. Runoff from the ditches feed into the stagnant shallow lake making the fish poisonous to humans but edible by the likes of cormorants, flamingos and seagulls.
The corsairs, swinging leather straps, herded the filthy exhausted prisoners through the narrow byways of the whitewashed city on the unusually hot day of September 8, 1798. “I saw them harassed by blows, by fatigue, covered in dust and dying of thirst, dragging themselves along a burning street, barefoot, hatless,” wrote the Dutch consul. “There was a huge crowd drunk with joy to see so many Christian victims of the bravery of their soldiers.”
These unfortunate captives staggered forward two hours to the palace where the Bey of Tunis, Hamouda, in his jeweled turban and diamond-encrusted silk vest, inspected them. For him it was like counting money. Each of the prisoners was now a slave to be sold at his whim. The Bey’s corsairs had captured an astounding 950 people, including 702 women and children.
On the northern coast of Africa circa 1800, blacks and whites could still be sold into slavery. Men were usually peddled near naked, or in dangly shirts, in an outdoor auction; women could be inspected privately in stalls nearby. Unlike slave auctions in the southern United States, male buyers here openly acknowledged lustful desires for their human purchases; matrons inspected the women, and virgins were sold at a steep premium, often with a written guarantee.
Of all the fears of people living in the 1780s and 1790s, a fear perhaps exceeding death itself was the terror of being made a slave on the Barbary Coast; in sermon after sermon, it was portrayed as Hell in life. (Twenty-one free-born Americans had spent eleven years in slavery in Algiers from 1785 to 1796, bringing their stories home to the nation.)
Foreign consuls begged the Bey not to break up the San Pietro families, not to sell anyone off to Algerian slave traders. The ruler of Tunis set his opening asking price for the women at 600 Venetian Sequins each, about $1,371 at a time when a U.S. sailor earned $144 a year. He would charge half that amount for the men. The Bey, to save on the costs of feeding and dressing, then farmed many of the captives out to the leading citizens of Tunis, including the representatives of foreign countries who accepted the slaves on humanitarian grounds. (Six years later, Tobias Lear, United States consul-general to Algiers, would accept two female Italian slaves to work as housekeepers in the consulate. He would expense-account their $75-a-year upkeep.)
Among the San Pietro prisoners, one young girl stood out. Strikingly beautiful and of aristocratic birth, Anna Maria Porcile was 12 years old, a ripe age on the Barbary Coast, a marriageable age. She was the grand daughter of the Count of Sant-Antioco, the admiral of the Navy of Sardinia. Brought up in a strict Catholic household, Anna had led a sheltered life; private tutors taught music, literature and dance to this naturally vivacious girl.
The Bey, to keep loyalty high among his officers, decided to allow his six corsair captains to select one female each as his own personal slave. The Admiral of the fleet, Rais Muhammed Rumelli, chose Anna.
Rumelli was quoted as saying he “had fixed his desire on her”; he intended her as his concubine unless someone would immediately buy her from him for the record asking price of 16,000 piasters, or almost $5,000 (the price of a mansion in Manhattan).
Anna’s entire family had been captured in the raid, including her mother Barbara, her father Antonio and her two sisters. While the negotiations for the rest of the slaves could drag on over months via shipboard messages to and from Sardinia, Anna’s fate must be decided quickly. Rumelli demanded an answer. Anna’s father desperately tried to find financing. He naturally turned to fellow Italians who happened to be in Tunis and he fortunately found a Tuscan merchant, one Felipe Borzoni, who would loan him the entire sum. The man paid Rais Rumelli and Anna was suddenly free… almost.
She was the human collateral for her father’s loan… the Bey would not grant a tiskara or passport to her until the loan was repaid. With Anna as hostage for her father’s return, Don Antonio Porcile was allowed to travel to Europe to raise the money but in the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars, he failed. So the Tuscan merchant sold the debt to the aged prime minister Mustapha Coggia, a man known for his wisdom, courtliness and a complete lack of teeth.
The months of 1799 slipped by, and these white-skinned slaves joined the 2,000 or so slaves of various hues laboring in Tunis. Negotiations dragged on… the price for the women dropped in half to 300 Venetian sequins… the exasperated Bey, to encourage a speedier payment, sold eleven to slave traders of Algiers; nonetheless, the king of Sardinia, harassed by Napoleon, was unable to redeem his countrymen. Italian slave mothers gave birth to dozens of new slaves in Tunis.
On Oct. 10, 1800, 87 year old Mustapha Coggia—who held the Porcile debt—died, and all the prime minister’s possessions passed to the Bey of Tunis. The very next day, the Bey demanded that the Porcile family pay off the debt immediately or else the Bey said he would reclaim lovely Anna and add her to his seraglio. Or, more ominously, he said he might instead auction her off in the slave markets of Istanbul. (Since the Bey made little secret of his preference for men over women—his foreign minister Yussef Sapatapa, a 33 year old former slave, was his lover—selling Anna was the likelier scenario.)
That afternoon, Anna and her mother and her sister tried desperately to figure out a way to raise the money. Her grandfather, the admiral, had died and her father, the new count, was at that moment in Sardinia, still trying to amass the huge sum with absolutely no success. The pirates had stolen everything. His credit was suspect. European banking was a mess. The mother and her daughters were running out of options and time… they considered the various consulates, such as British, French, Danish, and the Catholic Redemptionist charities, Jewish moneylenders, European merchants.
On that afternoon of October 11, 1800, frantic, they presented themselves at the door of the consulate of the United States of America, a fledgling nation that trumpeted itself as a bastion of freedom; they sought refuge under the red-white-and-blue flag which then had 15 stars and 15 stripes and was represented in Tunis by one of the most unlikely diplomats ever to be forgotten by history: William Eaton.
A former Army captain, Eaton had recently been court-martialed and convicted. He was impetuous, hard-headed, argumentative. His loud voice cut through conversations; his ramrod straight stance inspired respect; his Dartmouth education added polysyllables to his vocabulary. Diplomacy, he had very little, he was blunt-spoken, exceedingly direct. He once wrote of the feeble efforts of the U.S. Navy that “a fleet of Quaker meeting houses would have done just as well.” This bulldog of a man, age 35, stood 5’8”, with deep set large blue eyes. A friend described his eyes as “expressive of energy, penetration and authority” but also of “impatience and disquietude.”
Eaton had arrived in Tunis on the little merchant brig Sophia in 1799 and was immediately appalled. “Here I am,… under the mad rays of a vertical sun reflected and refracted from wall and terraces of white-washed houses, hotter than tobacco & rum, with plague and scorpions suspended over my head, menacing death, surrounded by brutal Turks, swindlers, jews, perfidious Italians, miserable slaves, lazy camels, churlish mules, and savage arabs --- without society and without amusement. Is not this enough to constitute a hell?”
His irritation only grew, as he observed slavery close up. “For my part, it grates me mortally when I see a lazy Turk [a Moslem] reclining at his ease upon an embroidered sofa, with one Christian slave to fan away the flies, another to hand him his coffee and a third to hold his pipe…. It is still more grating to perceive that the Turk believes he has a right to demand this contribution and that we, like Italians, have not the fortitude to resist it.” (The United States government, with a huge debt from the Revolutionary War, found it cheaper to pay off Tunis--and keep the pirates away--than to fight against them.)
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 out diamond-encrusted watches, gold watches, pairs of gold-mounted pistols, gold tobacco boxes, silks, and many others items to sixty different government officials in Tunis from the Bey and Admiral down to the infamously ugly eunuch who guarded the Bey’s harem, the dark-skinned giant with the raspy meuling infant’s voice.
The Porcile women stood crying before William Eaton. Anna’s honor hung in the balance. “Imagination better than language can paint their distress,” Eaton later wrote. From a conviction about freedom that literally had its roots near Plymouth Rock with Eaton’s great great grandfather, he could not abide this form of persecution.
Against all common sense, Eaton agreed to guarantee a six month loan for Anna’s father, allowing himself to stand as surety for the repayment of $5,000. “I ransomed your daughter,” Eaton later wrote to the Count, “because being in my house, both the honor of my flag and my own sensibility dictated it.” If at the end of six months Count Porcile couldn’t pay, then Eaton was obligated to do so.
What is striking is that Eaton at that moment had absolutely no money. At least, none of his own, and yet, he was committing to pay a small fortune to rescue an Italian slave girl. Impetuously. For Honor. William Eaton, throughout his life, would be drawn to commit deeds that he considered righteous and others would consider reckless.
His flurry of letters to Count Porcile received eloquent replies but no money.
And in June of 1801, the homosexual lover of the Bey, Yussef Sapatapa, told Eaton that he must repay the $5,000. Eaton, after failing to raise money through trading ventures, was now forced to borrow the large sum from a Tunisian merchant, named Unis ben Unis.
In February of 1803, to show some force and fend off any threat of war, the United States sent armed ships to Tunis. An old Barbary maxim states: “Whoever acts like a sheep, the wolf will eat.” So, the young United States did not want to be mistaken for a sheep. Commodore Richard Morris, with Captain John Rodgers, arrived in three heavily armed frigates. The mission seemed successful; the odd new nation across the Atlantic did indeed have a navy. But as Commodore Morris, in blue uniform with gold epaulettes, was about to embark to cross that stagnant lake to go to the harbor, he was suddenly arrested… because of the thousands of dollars of debt of William Eaton. The highest ranking United States Navy officer found himself surrounded by Tunisians wielding scimitars and he was forced to return to the city. “It was impossible to apprehend that the respect attached to the person of the Commodore would be violated,” Eaton wrote. “It is unprecedented, even in the history of Barbary outrage.”
Commodore Richard Morris—a scion of the wealthy Morris family of Vermont, whose brother had cast the deciding ballot to elect Jefferson over Burr--was furious with Eaton. He assumed that the man’s debts were mostly personal. Eaton, Morris and Unis ben Unis walked to the palace where Bey Hamouda, wearing a jeweled silk cloak, greeted them on his luxurious sofa. Eaton vehemently denied that he had ever promised to repay Unis ben Unis whenever the American squadron arrived. Unis demanded payment of $22,000… of that, $5,000 came from Eaton’s ransom of Anna and $10,000 came from Sapatapa claiming that Eaton had promised him a large bribe and the remaining $7,000 from a commercial dispute. Eaton snapped. He called the Bey’s lover, the prime minister, a “thief” to his face and said all he had experienced in Tunis was “violence and indignity.” The Bey, unaccustomed to contre-temps, shouted over and over that Eaton was mad. Eye-witnesses said that the Bey’s lip trembled and he oddly clutched his mustache as he yelled: “I will turn you out of my kingdom.” When the Bey had calmed down, he told the commodore: “The Consul is a man of a good heart but a bad head. He is too obstinate and too violent for me. I must have a consul with a disposition more congenial to the Barbary interests.”
Commodore Morris had no appetite for remaining in Tunis, for fighting for the loud-mouthed consul. He agreed to replace Eaton and to pay off the $22,000. He later wrote “As security for the money paid by me, I insisted on Mr. Eaton assigning all his real and personal estate to the government.”
On March 10, 1803, Eaton boarded the U.S. Chesapeake. He was on the verge of ruin. Disgraced as a diplomat, he was returning home to his wife; he was financially devastated. This last twist was ironic since Eaton had accepted the post of consul to Tunis in the hopes that he might make enough money to re-enter his marriage as the financial equal of Eliza, a widow of a wealthy Revolutionary War general. “[I hope] the hour is not far distant,” he had written to her before the disaster, “when I may demonstrate to the world that it was not Mrs. Danielson’s fortune but her person that Captain Eaton married.”
In his official report, Morris stated that “[Eaton] appeared to be a man of lively imagination, rash, credulous. And by no means possessed of sound judgement.”
Within two years, this disgraced diplomat would lead a band of eight marines, eight, and several hundred foreign mercenaries, the dregs of Alexandria, on a mad hopeless mission to march across the hell of the Libyan desert. He would try to finance the mission with the funds owed to him for ransoming Anna, the Italian slave girl. Thomas Jefferson would send Eaton on America’s first covert military op overseas, to try to overthrow the government of Tripoli in order to free the three hundred American sailors enslaved there. This man on the verge of personal ruin, joined by his handful of marines including violin-playing Presley O’Bannon, would surprise-attack Tripoli’s second largest city, and they would achieve a near miraculous victory. He would help stamp the then second class service, the United States Marines, with a new reputation for courage. His exploits would lead future generations of Americans to sing proudly: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our country’s battles on the land and on the sea.”
In 1805, in the first decades of our North American experiment in democracy, when the nation’s future prosperity was very much in doubt, William Eaton made one of the loudest statements to the world that the United States was not a country to be mocked or bullied. While politicians and military officers mouthed the same patriotic phrases, Eaton risked his life to back up his statements. He helped set a national tone of defiance and daring.
But in William Eaton’s flinty outspokenness and
fearlessness, there lurked the seeds of his own destruction. Thomas Jefferson
could not abide the man’s relentless belligerence. The aftermath of victory in
Tripoli for Eaton would be less than sweet. After taking on Tripoli and the
Barbary pirates, he would challenge and defy Thomas Jefferson. It would be a
battle between unequals, and no good can come of that.
Excerpted from The Pirate Coast by Richard Zacks. Copyright © 2005 by Richard Zacks. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.