When you get finished reading the Radoshes’ Red Star Over Hollywood, grab a copy of Richard Zacks’s rollicking account of the event that put “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn. The two have a lot in common, somewhat surprisingly. Both meet my standard for historical writing, which comes from Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. After telling Humphrey Bogart the story of the bird, Greenstreet folds his hands over his belly and says–this is from the fading memory of an aging scholar, remember–”and that, Mr. Spade, is the stuff history is made of. Real history. Not that junk H. G. Wells writes about.”
But here I’m interested in the Zacks book.
The Pirate Coast is the truly cinematic story of the American response to the trafficking of American and European slaves by the Bey, or Pasha, or Bashaw (the Arabs don’t pronounce the letter “P” so “Pasha” became “Bashaw”) of Tripoli in the early 19th century. Even those who fancy themselves well educated in such matters will, I fear, be astonished at how much has been Hollywoodized and even falsified in the popular press and the children’s texts. The real tale is at once more entertaining, more believable, and far more instructive than the mythology most of us have been fed. Just for starters, you will no doubt be surprised to learn that the first Marines–a mere eight of them–to see foreign combat did not actually make it to “the shores of Tripoli,” but fought their way across the Libyan desert to a less celebrated location, and then were forced to leave the matter in the hands of our diplomats.
Yes, they performed admirably. Yes, they left their mark on history. But no, it was not a particularly glorious adventure. You wouldn’t cast John Wayne in this movie. Sidney Greenstreet, on the other hand, has a target-rich environment.
Which is to say that Zacks gets it right.
For one thing, Zacks has a refreshing way of putting events into their proper context. So, at the very beginning, he talks about slavery, since the whole thing started in 1798 when Arab pirates raided an Italian island and carted off 950 people–all but 248 were women and children, who fetched higher prices than the older men–to Tripoli. And Zacks gives us the big picture:
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…
And Zacks, perhaps unaware of the current stigma on pointing out unfortunate elements of Islam, reminds us that “Sura 47 of the Koran allowed these Muslim attackers to enslave and ransom any of these captives.”
Having set the stage, Zacks presents us with the ensuing saga in enthusiastic detail, from a series of bumbling and cowardly American sea captains stumbling into captivity in Tripoli, to the emergence of the story’s leading man, William Eaton, a crazy Massachusetts military man who sought to recover his honor (he’d been court-martialed) and his fortune (he’d ruined himself by ransoming some of those slaves from Italy) by embarking on a covert operation to produce regime change in north Africa.
To be cinematically attractive, this kind of story needs several great minor characters, and The Pirate Coast has lots of them. To begin with, there’s President Jefferson, who comes off as a cynical politico who grudgingly lets Eaton sail off with a mealy-mouthed letter of commission that would provide Jefferson with plausible deniability if the thing went bad, and who cheerfully pursued other options along parallel tracks. Chief among these was the negotiating track, conducted by another of the tale’s terrific minor characters, our Consul in Malta. I love this:
While Jefferson’s secret agent, Eaton, starved in the desert, Jefferson’s diplomat Tobias Lear lounged in the perfumed gardens of Malta and decided that the time was ripe to reopen peace negotiations with Tripoli. Lear–eager to settle the peace himself–chose to ignore Eaton’s covert mission…
It is so today, isn’t it? The warriors are out there risking all on behalf of our national honor, while the realists are busily selling out in order to make a deal (and Lear, unlike some of his more modern heirs, didn’t wait until retirement to start making private business deals with north African rulers). The president, as so often happens, supports them all. It’s a great lesson in real geopolitics: Most everything you can imagine is gong on all the time, and neat simplifications rarely account for the richness of human activity.
Zacks does not spare Jefferson, quoting from a memorandum of Senator Plumer: “The President was in an undress–Blue coat, red vest, cloth coloured small cloths–white hose, ragged slippers with his toes out–clean linen (!)–but hair disheveled.” To which Zacks adds, a bit over the top, “Jefferson’s rebellion from British formality was reaching new extremes.” It does seem to have established an American tradition which, for example, Lyndon Baines Johnson vigorously continued.
In the end, Eaton succeeded in his mission by making it possible for Lear to cut his deal, and then we abandoned our Arab allies, thereby establishing yet another tradition, most recently incarnated in our Kurd “policy” of betraying them to their murderous neighbors at least once a decade. And Eaton achieved brief celebrity in another singularly contemporary way–his operation was blown out of all proportion by a politically motivated press–only to have the air let out of his balloon by Jefferson once the media feeding frenzy died down.
It all ended with suitable disgrace for most of the characters, major and minor. Eaton was disgraced and his name vanished from most history books. Lear returned to America a wealthy man–thanks to his Arab business deals–got a reward of sorts from Jefferson (chief accountant of the War Department), and eventually committed suicide for no apparent reason. Eaton’s Arab allies ended badly, and his main enemy, the Bashaw, ruled successfully for nearly three more decades, during which he shook down European and American leaders for a vast cornucopia of presents. Finally, having bankrupted the kingdom, he was overthrown by an ambitious son and driven into a dark corner of his palace “half-naked in rags.”
America’s honor was not rescued until the end of the War of 1812, when Steven Decatur Jr. captured an Algerian flagship, forced the local regime to promise an end to taking American slaves, and then went to Tripoli where he collected a tribute from the Bashaw and liberated ten Christian slaves. As Zacks tells us in his admirable book’s penultimate paragraph, “ultimately, a few years after Jefferson’s death, it was military coercion and not diplomatic finesse that ended the three-century-long reign of terror of the Barbary pirates.”
Somebody might mention that to Jack Straw the next time he implores us to be patient as he appeases the ayatollahs in Tehran.
Or we can wait for the movie.