At the US Naval Academy, in the green grassy square between Truxtun and Decatur Roads and the Preble and Leahy Halls stands a slowly crumbling monument to six dead men and a long forgotten war.
It is the Tripoli Monument and it is the oldest military memorial in the United States.
Originally known simply as the Naval Monument, it was carved from fine white Carrara marble quarried in Tuscany and sculpted by master stone mason, Giovanni Macali, in Livorno, Italy.
In 1806 it was carried to the United States in the hold of USS Constitution.
The monument was first erected at the Washington Naval Yard on the Potomac in 1808. Then in 1831 it was moved to the west front of the US Capital Building and placed within a fountain – where the US Grant Memorial stands today. Finally, it was moved to its present location at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland where it has stood for the last 149 years.
Few outside of the US Navy remember or recognize the names inscribed upon the Tripoli memorial, Captain Richard Somers, Lieutenant James Caldwell, Lieutenant James Decatur, Lieutenant (acting) Henry Wadsworth, Lieutenant (acting) Joseph Israel, and Midshipman Thomas Dorsey. These Naval officers were killed in action during the First Barbary War which raged from 1801 to 1805. Also called the Barbary Coast War or the Tripoli War, this conflict is the source of the line “To the shores of Tripoli” in the US Marine Hymn, and is the impetus behind the formation of the US Navy and Marine Corps, and it was the United States first trial by fire as a new and independent nation.
In the late 1700’s through the early part of the 19th century, Corsairs raiding north out of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli into the Mediterranean captured foreign merchant vessels in thinly disguised acts of piracy and demanded tribute for unmolested passage. The great seafaring powers were mostly powerless against the pirates of the Barbary Coast, primarily because they were engaged against each other and had few assets to spare for pirate suppression, and so the great nations formed an uneasy agreement with the Corsairs. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy agreed to pay tribute to the quasi-independent Ottoman Sultanates of North Africa for more or less safe passage. The might of their navies backed those agreements up, as did the complex and often incomprehensible diplomacy of the European powers in North Africa.
Prior to 1776, the vessels of colonial America fell under the protection, more or less, of British treaties. After 1777 and throughout the revolution, American vessels were protected, again more or less, by France and their agreement with the Corsairs. But after independence, the United States became solely responsible for the protection of her vessels on the high seas. Unfortunately, the new nation had no Navy. The privateer force of the Revolutionary War was long decommissioned and would have been inadequate for the job even if it did still exist. Without a navy, the United States had only one option – tribute.
And so, for eight years, all during the presidency of George Washington, the United States paid tribute to the Barbary Pirates for unmolested passage. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both sent to negotiate peace treaties in London in 1786. Tripoli’s Ambassador, one Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, laughed and told Jefferson that is was the duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave nonbelievers. Jefferson reported to Secretary of State John Jay and to President Washington that that to pay tribute to such brigands would only invite more tribute and encourage more attacks.
And he was right.
While in Congress the Federalists and the anit-Federalist (or in modern terms the Liberals and the Conservatives) argued over western expansion and the need, or lack there of, of a Navy, and taxation, and so on and so forth – the attacks against US shipping continued to increase, and the Sultanate of Tripoli demanded larger and larger tributes, until the size of the payoffs became unbearable. By 1800, tribute and ransom to the Barbary States amounted to over twenty percent of the US Budget.
In addition to attacks by the Corsairs, Britain had embarked on a program of impressment of US merchant seaman and harassment of American vessels on the high seas (eventually these actions and others would lead to the War of 1812) and it was glaringly obvious that America needed to defend her access to the sea lanes. Led by Jefferson (who was at odds with his own party) and supported by Washington and other founding fathers, the United Stated established the American Navy in 1794. They commissioned numerous smaller vessels and six large Frigates; the Constitution, the Congress, the President, the United States, the Constellation, and the Chesapeake. Those vessels, designed by Joshua Humphreys and built in Boston from American black and white oak, were unique in the world. They were not Ships of the Line, but were rather designed to fight independently and/or as the flagship of a squadron of smaller vessels. They were fast and powerful – today we would call them cruisers. They were considered to be some of finest warships in the world, and a tribute to American shipbuilding prowess and seamanship. Those vessels and the ones that followed distinguished themselves again and again, defeating far larger vessels and repeatedly winning the day against staggering odds. USS Constitution still floats in Boston Harbor today, the oldest and most distinguished warship on active duty anywhere in the world. Her sister, Constellation, rests in Baltimore.
When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, the Bashir of Tripoli demanded $225,000 in tribute – an unbelievable fortune and punishment for Jefferson’s outspoken hatred of the pirates. Jefferson refused payment and Tripoli then declared war on the United States. And the First Barbary War broke out. Jefferson sent the new US Navy to the north coast of Africa and laid siege to the pirates. Led by Commodore Edward Preble, the US Navy systematically hunted down and destroyed the Corsair raiders. Over a period of two years, Preble forced the pirates from the ocean and back into the city states from whence they came. Then Preble laid siege to the cities. In the most famous incident, Naval hero Captain Stephen Decatur and a contingent of the very first US Marines sailed into Tripoli Harbor in a captured Corsair ketch renamed USS Intrepid, and retook the USS Philadelphia, which had been captured after running aground during an armed reconnaissance of Tripoli harbor. Decatur and the Marines stormed Philadelphia and took the ship without firing a shot. American ships then came alongside but Philadelphia could not be readied for sail in time. With cannon shot from the shore batteries falling all around them, Decatur and his Marines fired Philadelphia and burned her to keep her out of the Corsair’s hands. This single action of unbelievable skill and daring defines the very heart of the US Navy and Marine Corps today.
Two months later Preble took his squadron into Tripoli harbor and fought a series of running battles to smash the remains of the Corsair fleet once and for all. At the vanguard of this action, USS Intrepid, now designated a Fire Ship and packed with explosives was sailed into the harbor under the command of Captain Richard Somers with a crew of two officers and ten enlisted volunteers. They intended to sail Intrepid straight into the enemy fleet, light the fuses, and escape in the ship’s boat – hopefully to be picked up by Preble’s fleet before the Corsairs could catch them. Something went wrong and Intrepid detonated early. Somers and his men were killed in the explosion. But the battle was won and the final nail in the Corsair’s coffin came when Marines under the command of General William Eaton and US Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and an army of mercenaries marched overland and took the pirate city of Dema at bayonet point. Then they turned to advance on Tripoli itself. Crushed between Preble’s iron blockade and O’Bannon’s advance, the Bashir sued for peace. A treaty was signed on June 10, 1805.
Acting Lieutenants (actually senior Midshipmen) Henry Wadsworth (Uncle of the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and Joseph Israel were with Captain Somers on USS Intrepid, and all three of them along with six men from USS Constitution (William Harrison, Robert Clark, Hugh McCormick, Jacob Williams, Peter Renner and Issac Downes) and four from USS Nautilus (James Simms, Thomas Tompline, James Harris and William Keith) are buried in an overgrown, weed infested lot beneath a crumbling stone monument in a small neglected park on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya. The United States has petitioned Libya for their return for many, many years now – and so far has been refused.
Lt James Decatur (not to be confused with Captain Stephen Decatur) was killed while commanding one of USS Constitution’s gun boats, shot through the head.
Lt Caldwell and Midshipman Dorsey were killed when one of USS Syren’s gunboats was struck by canon shot and exploded.
In the end the pirates were driven back and Tripoli crushed, but the threat was far from vanquished. Another pirate war, the Second Barbary War, and the War of 1812 would follow before the world understood that the vessels of the United States of America and her allies were not to be molested. But at the end of those conflicts, they did understand – and any time that memory dimmed one had only to look upon the seas and the warships of the United States Navy standing watch there to be reminded of the penalty for attacking Americans.
And so it has stood for well over a century.
But once again our people are threatened by pirates operating from the coast of Africa. This time it’s the lawless coast of the Horn of Africa. I’ve been there, it is a terrible place. A place where life is expensive and death is cheap and no one is safe.
At first the pirates claimed to be protecting the sovereign coastal waters of Somalia against illicit fishing. It wasn’t long however, before those vigilantes discovered that piracy was far more lucrative than fisheries enforcement – and like the Corsairs of old, they were encouraged by their success and the astronomical tribute other nations were willing to pay to keep the sea lanes open and their vessels free. Like any human endeavor, if one person is successful, others will follow – and like greenhorns flocking en mass to the gold fields of the Klondike (or Warlords to the Blood Diamond trade, to use an analogy more specific to Africa), new pirates flooded the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The lawless land of Somalia gives them refuge and a free hand. The warlords there, like the Bashirs of the Barbary Coast before them, take their tribute. And every ransom paid only encourages them more.
Piracy is not a problem in Somalia, it’s the national industry.
Make no mistake, there is nothing romantic about these pirates. They are lawless criminals, violent and ruthless men who have killed hundreds and looted billions and demand ever more every day. You only read about the big ships, the ones full of weapons or relief supplies. You rarely hear about the private yachts and the smaller ships sailing for the Suez Canal. These vessels disappear without a trace, their crews and passengers raped and murdered, their cargo stolen and sold openly in the markets of Yemen and Somalia, and vessels themselves liquidated on the black market.
These men are not freedom fighters. They are not enforcing the sovereignty of Somalia, there is no sovereign Somalia. They are not the duly appointed maritime security force of the Somalia government, there is no such thing and no such government. They are not the victims of racism or the model of democracy in action (though I agree that Somalia itself is the predicable result of decades, if not centuries, of failed foreign policy and proxy wars by nations the world over – however, this fact does in no way justify the actions of the pirates. Period. If you think so, you're simply rationalizing brigandage and anarchy to prove your point – and you can look up which logical fallacy that is on your own). They are most certainly not defending their country from the depredations of the West as reported by Al Jareeza, this is nothing more than a load of hogwash manufactured whole cloth. The actions of the pirates, and pirates they are and make no mistake, belie all of these idiotic notions. The fact that the pirates attempted to take the M/V Alabama, loaded with relief supplies for Kenya and operating well outside Somalia waters shows how utterly in error such nonsense statements are.
No, these men are nothing more than the Corsairs of old, reborn. They have found a lucrative and repeatable way of extorting enormous amounts of money from other nations – including their own people and fellow Africans. The money and assets they take benefit only a few and the most ruthless, and do nothing to relieve the festering horror that is Somalia. Indeed, the actions of the pirates and the warlords directly increase the isolation of Somalia, and reduce aid and relief to the region. These men are criminals of the worst kind, they prey on their own neighbors as well as maritime targets of opportunity.
This threat is expanding every day. The pirates raid further and further from their bases. They demand bigger and bigger ransoms. They have threatened to kill any and all French and American citizens (including relief workers) in retaliation for what they perceive as transgressions against what they increasingly see as their right to control the high seas. This threat against Americans is tantamount to a declaration of war, the same as the Bashir of Tripoli two centuries ago.
It’s not a matter of avoiding those areas. We cannot. Our vessels cannot. Any ship transiting the Suez Canal and the Horn of Africa, and increasingly anywhere in the western Indian Ocean is at risk. Those risks translate into massively increased insurance costs, fuel costs as vessels have to move faster and further to avoid capture and attack, and increased delays in shipping. These things have a direct impact on you, on fuels costs, on the costs of goods, on the safety of your fellow countrymen, and on the world economy.
Just as our ancestors before us, we are faced with two choices, pay tribute or fight.
Unlike our ancestors we have a powerful and fully capable Navy and Marine Corps who were born in just this sort of fire and are supremely aware of our legacy and history and would like nothing better than to hunt these bastards down and wipe them from the face of the Earth.
Make no mistake, folks, we cannot live in peace with these people, just as you could not live in peace with criminal gangs who break into your house to steal and rape and murder.
It is time to halt the shortsighted policies of the previous administration, stop decommissioning ships that were specifically designed for this mission – the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigates. Dozens of these ships have be decommissioned in recent years in favor of new, advanced, pie in the sky technology ships, designed to fight mythical hi-tech bogymen from the Cold War. This is a mistake. The FFG-7 is small, fast, relatively inexpensive to operate, capable of sustained endurance, and armed with a 3” main battery and capable of carrying two advanced combat helicopters. These ships are ideally suited to this mission, and we already have dozens of them. Strip out the anti-submarine weapons, and fill the resulting space with Marines. With a cruiser for command and control, the pirates won’t stand a chance.
And while we’re at it, now is the perfect opportunity to mend the fences trampled by the previous administration. It’s time to join forces with those nations who were once our traditional allies, such as France, and who are willing to stand up and fight.
No other American vessel should ever again fall into the hands of pirates.
No dime of American money should go to tribute or ransom.
However it’s managed, this threat must be exterminated now.
If you doubt me, stand before the Tripoli Monument and read those names again:
Captain Richard Somers
Lieutenant James Caldwell
Lieutenant James Decatur
Lieutenant (acting) Henry Wadsworth
Lieutenant (acting) Joseph Israel
Midshipman Thomas Dorsey
and all of the others who have given the ultimate sacrifice so that we may be free.
Followup post is here: Somalia
To those of you running Google searches about Teddy Roosevelt and Eden Pedicaris and the last of the Barbary pirates - that would be a really good example of why you shouldn't get your history from Hollywood. Don't get me wrong, John Milius' The Wind and the Lion is one of my very, very favorite movies ever, but it's a complete load of historical fiction.
There was an event called the Pedicaris Incident where an American citizen was kidnapped from his home in Morocco. Sort of. The man's name was actually Ion Pedicaris and he did became friends with the brigand and kidnapper Razuli - which is similar in broad strokes to the events of the movie. And Teddy did send the Atlantic squadron, and he did supposedly say, "This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!" - though it was at a fund raiser and not an official declaration of the government. But that's about all the movie got right. There was no military action, the situation was resolved through diplomacy, with the help of France and Spain - and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Barbary Wars.
On the other hand, Milius' "prequel to The Wind and the Lion, Roughriders, is much closer to historical accuracy and is also a damned fine movie. Highly recommended.