TCS Daily

The Shores of Tripoli

By Robert McHenry - May 6, 2005 12:00 AM

A significant anniversary has just passed us by, and if there was any mention of it in the press, I missed it. It's probably too late to hang up bunting and arrange for a parade to mark an event that happened 200 years ago last month, but surely it is always timely to relearn a bit of instructive history. And, notwithstanding Santayana's too-often repeated mot about forgetfulness and history repeating, it is sometimes possible to see in such repetition not error or futility but constancy.

At the time of the September 11 attacks many commentators more or less automatically called upon the memory of Pearl Harbor. The point of the analogy was to underline the shocking effect of a sudden and spectacular attack, even though it could be argued that the events of the "date which will live in infamy" were more predictable than the more recent horror.

But with U.S. forces engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a purpose not merely to retaliate for September 11 but to ensure that this still more infamous date will have no sequel, a different historical precedent suggests itself. This is the Tripolitan War, perhaps the least known of America's wars but one that has left a quiet reminder in the words of the "Marine's Hymn."

One of the unpleasant realities that the young and still untested United States had to face at the turn of the 19th century was the threat of piracy against its merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. The leading European powers had long dealt with the threat by paying tribute - we would now say protection money - to the rulers of the Barbary States of North Africa: Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco. At first the United States followed suit, but in May 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli was overthrown by a usurper who brazenly demanded more and, when it was refused, declared war on the United States.

President Thomas Jefferson decided to fight, despite the fact that the Navy had been nearly dismantled after the Revolution. In August a blockade of Tripoli was established by Commodore Richard Dale, who had fought with John Paul Jones. The blockade, small and ineffective at first, continued for nearly four years and gradually, with reinforcements from home and some borrowed vessels from the King of the Two Sicilies, took command of the waters of the Barbary Coast. The naval war is best remembered for the daring raid into Tripoli harbor led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur in February 1804 to burn the captured U.S. frigate Philadelphia.

In November of that same year the former U.S. consul in Tunis, William Eaton, landed in Egypt with a tiny detachment of Marines under the command of Lieutenant Presley N. O'Bannon. Gathering irregular troops from the countryside as they went, they trekked some 500 miles across the Libyan Desert in March-April 1805 and on April 27 stormed and occupied the Tripolitan stronghold of Derna. The Marines on that day raised the U.S. flag - then featuring 15 stars and 15 stripes - for the first time over foreign soil. Tripoli signed a treaty of peace on June 4, and other Barbary states quickly followed suit. State-sponsored piracy in the Mediterranean was ended.

The Tripolitan War may well be counted the first instance of America's stepping forth to solve a problem on Europe's doorstep, a line that runs down to the Balkans and the Middle East and Central Asia today. More significantly, it first thrust the United States into the unsought role of enforcer of international law against rogue states in league with terrorists.

Maybe a little bunting after all. It's never too late, or the wrong date, to remember, and perhaps to think.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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