Originally created 07/03/05

'Pirate Coast' is captivating reading



Richard Zacks' "The Pirate Coast" is an excellent book that captures a period of American history not often visited today.

It tells an exciting true tale in which uncertainties, crucial decisions, military and naval action, and honor and betrayal all play roles.

Early in the 19th century, the fledgling United States, dependent on foreign trade for its development and prosperity, became a victim of piracy and extortion, especially in the waters off North Africa. U.S. ships conducting lawful business in the Mediterranean were frequently set upon by the so-called Barbary Coast pirates.

The Barbary Coast, ruled piecemeal by satraps, or governors, of the widespread Ottoman Empire, stretched from Egypt west to the Atlantic. For centuries, pirates there had preyed upon foreign merchant vessels, seizing them and their cargoes, and enslaving their crews and passengers. They also demanded regular payments from European nations for their ships to be allowed to ply their legitimate trade.

The captives often endured lifelong forced labor as slaves of Muslim masters, or imprisonment until ransomed by their families or governments. In the United States, there were two schools of thought about the problem: One advocated appeasement and tolerance of the practice of paying tributes and ransoms, while the other supported creating a strong navy to fight back.

In 1803, the frigate USS Philadelphia, commanded by William Bainbridge, ran aground in Tripoli harbor in what is now Libya. Bainbridge and his crew of about 300 were taken hostage and enslaved. Lengthy negotiations between Tripoli and Washington got nowhere, so President Thomas Jefferson instructed William Eaton to attempt to overthrow the pasha, or military ruler, of Tripoli.

Eaton had been a U.S. Army captain and consul in Tunis. He was blunt and outspoken, and didn't submit easily to authority. What's more, Eaton was intolerant of anything that might sully the honor of the U.S. and was strongly opposed to appeasement and paying ransom.

Instructed to support an uprising staged by the pasha's brother, Eaton gathered eight Marines and a small, ragtag army of Christian and Arab mercenaries. They marched 500 miles across the North African desert from Egypt to the coastal city of Derne, which they seized. The plan was to then attack Tripoli with the support of a small fleet of U.S. naval vessels. Eaton's ultimate goal was to free Bainbridge and crew and to exact financial punishment from the pasha. He was also determined to permanently end payment of tribute to Tripoli.

However, Jefferson undercut Eaton's plan by authorizing another diplomat to negotiate with the pasha and sign an agreement that contained a secret clause providing payment of ransom for the prisoners. Eaton never got to attack Tripoli and unhappily returned home, where he was greeted as a hero by Americans who thought he had single-handedly ended U.S. subservience to the Barbary nations.

Before long, though, Eaton was doing whatever possible to expose Jefferson's secret diplomacy; in turn, Jefferson and his political allies attacked Eaton's reputation.

In its portrait of Eaton, "The Pirate Coast" introduces readers to a patriot who deserved more gratitude from his country than he received and who deserves to be remembered more than he is.