To The Shores Of Tripoli!

Another February day, another American warship, another foreign harbor, and another explosion and sinking; what is it about February? It was on this day, 16 February 1804, that the 36-gun frigate USS Philadelphia was destroyed a as she lay at anchor in the harbor of Tripoli, on the Barbary Coast in what is now Libya.

Unlike the later destruction of the battleship Maine, this was an undoubted case of sabotage, for Philadelphia was undoubtedly boarded by specially trained forces whose mission was to completely destroy the vessel. One unusual aspect of these saboteurs is that they were volunteer American sailors led by American naval icon Stephen Decatur, America’s first great military hero in the post-revolutionary era.

Philadelphia was destroyed to prevent the Bashaw (or Pasha) of Tripoli from using her as a part of his pirate fleet. The warship had been captured after running aground in Tripoli harbor the previous October as she patrolled the North African waters, thereby creating America’s first foreign hostage crisis in the in the Islamic world. The crew of Philadelphia had been enslaved after their surrender, and the Bashaw demanded an enormous ransom for their release.

The potentates of the Barbary Coast had for centuries derived an enormous income from what was basically an immense extortion racket. Pirate fleets attacked merchant ships of any nation which would not pay “tribute” to the Barbary gangsters. The powers of Europe had generally acceded to this scheme for years, because it was calculated that the cost of tribute was cheaper than the expense of a military solution to the problem. The United States, perhaps with the vigor or brashness of youth, rallied around the sentiment “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!” and sent armed vessels to the Barbary Coast to protect American merchantmen.

On patrol in the Fall of 1803 under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, who has the unenviable distinction of being the first U.S. Naval officer to surrender a ship to the enemy, (during the undeclared Quasi-war with revolutionary France in 1798) Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted sandbar outside of Tripoli harbor. The ship’s crew labored for hours to free the stranded vessel, finally jettisoning almost every object which could be moved in hopes of lightening the ship sufficiently to float it off of the bar. Unwisely, the ship’s cannon were finally tossed as well. During this activity, boats from Tripoli harbor began to sail around Philadelphia and men aboard began firing muskets and small guns at the helpless frigate.

By great good fortune or because of spectacular inaccuracy on the part of the assailants, no one aboard Philadelphia was wounded. Bainbridge, however, finally decided that the ship was indefensible, and signaled his willingness to parlay for surrender. Though the Bashaw promised to treat his captive according to military conventions of the day, the men were nevertheless immediately enslaved. The story of the crew’s plight and of the incredible scheme which was launched to overthrow the Bashaw, is wonderfully told in Richard’s Zacks’ 2005 book, The Pirate Coast, The truly painful irony of the ship’s surrender is that had the captain and crew borne up another two hours, the rising tide would have floated it free!

As negotiations attempting to secure the release of the enslaved sailor dragged on, America’s military leaders feared that the Bashaw might sell the frigate to one of the European naval powers. The design and features of Philadelphia represented the best in American naval technology, and there would be serious consequences if she fell into hostile hands. Accordingly, president Thomas Jefferson authorized an all volunteer force to attempt the destruction of the ship. In the aftermath of Decatur’s successful exploit, British admiral Horatio Nelson, a man who knew a thing or two about valor and duty, declared the destruction of Philadelphia to be “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

America had begun to show Europe’s powers that it was possible to stand up to the extortion of the Barbary states’ corrupt rulers. At the same time, America began a long history of strained relations with Islamic states.

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Jamie Rawson Flower Mound, Texas

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare;
it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.

— Seneca

FURTHER READING:

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, Richard Zacks; Hyperion, 2005: ISBN: 1401300030

Zacks tells the story of the capture of the United States Navy’s Philadelphia in Tripoli and the subsequent enslavement of its crew and officers. The ensuing diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and an Islamic state could have come from today’s headlines. In the first chapter of the book, Zacks recounts the raids of Islamic slavers on Europes Mediterranean coasts, and he later describes the lot of the American sailors who were enslaved in Tripoli. This is an excellent account of a little known episode in American history.

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