BOOK REVIEW: Prisoners of the Bashaw: The Nineteen-Month of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803–1805 by Frederick C. Leiner (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2022)
As the dust jacket says, this is the story of “The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803-1805.” Frederick C. Leiner, a lawyer by profession, as well as an historian and author of books and articles on the era, tells it in this superb book.
In a short “Introduction,” he makes it clear that, “This book is about what happened to the men in captivity. . . . No previous account of the Barbary Wars focuses on them and looks at the larger naval and diplomatic events from their perspective.” Furthermore, “This book raises timeless questions about moral conduct in captivity, about the American experience with the Islamic world, about slavery across cultures, and about the roles of diplomacy and force to redeem hostages from foreign lands.” It will make you think.
The “Prologue” sets the stage by a detailed and accurate account of the frigate Philadelphia running onto a reef near Tripoli, the attempts to get her off, and the crew’s surrender. “Then the Tripolitan corsairs swarmed aboard.”
Chapter One “Barbary,” tells who these corsairs were and introduces their ruler, the Basha Yusuf. It recounts America’s past history with him. Now, “the bashaw wanted more money.” “With the new Jefferson administration . . . it was unclear what reaction the United States would have.” Before long, “Matters were taken out of American hands . . . with the severing of diplomatic ties and the onset of war.”
Chapter Two “The Men,” first introduces the men who caused Philadelphia to be in the Mediterranean: President Thomas Jefferson, his cabinet, congress, the commanders of the first two ineffective naval squadrons, and finally, Commodore Edward Preble. Then Capt. William Bainbridge, who “was unpopular with the men of the lower deck.” These “men of the lower deck,” few of whose real names are known,are described in terms of their general characteristics as sailors. William Ray, a marine whose writings contribute much to the story, is introduced.
Chapter Three, “The Cruise” describes the voyage of Philadelphia to the Mediterranean, which was characterized by “pleasant weather,” “harsh discipline,” “grog,” and “flogging.” Midshipman James Biddle and Lt. David Porter are introduced.
Chapter Four “Captivity,” recounts the first period of captivity. “The contrast between how the officers and enlisted were treated in Tripoli could not have been greater.” “enlisted men were treated as slave laborers.” “The Philadelphia’s officers were subjected to capricious treatment.” Nicolas Nissen, the Danish Consul, “the savior of the beleaguered Americans,” is welcomed.
Chapter Five “Reaction.” It was nearly three weeks before Commodore Preble learned of the capture of the ship. “He called the blow alarming.” He established correspondence with Bainbridge, began scouting Tripoli, “wondering how much it would cost to ransom three hundred Americans in captivity,” and planning to make the bashaw “feel the force and Weight of our shot.” “It took six months for the news to reach America.” Before that, American diplomats began rallying foreign support. When President Jefferson learned of the crew’s capture, he was “mortified” that their “uninstructed & unauthorized” conduct had put him under moral obligation to foreign powers.
Chapter Six “Prisoners or Slaves,” describes how “the enlisted men were being exhausted by work that wore them past endurance” until the first man died. At the same time “the officers lived remarkably well.”
Chapter Seven “The Raid,” tells the story of Lt. Stephen Decatur’s raid in full and accurate detail. It “threw Yusuf into a rage.” Americans died in gunboat battles.
Chapter Eight “Reinforcements,” highlights the reaction of President Jefferson, congress, the navy and American newspapers to the imprisonment of American sailors. While Jefferson ordered reinforcements and congress supported them, “Everyone knew it would take months for the ships to be readied, manned, and sailed to the Barbary coast.”
Chapter Nine “Blockade and Diplomacy,” aptly describes Commodore Preble’s activity while he waited for reinforcements. “Two centuries later, it is impossible to know how successful Preble’s blockade was.” Coincidently, “Preble began a flurry of diplomatic activity to free the captives.” Yet, “Even while there were negotiations, the bashaw feverishly built up his defenses.”
Chapter Ten “Hardships.” Meanwhile, in punishment for the destruction of Philadelphia the officers were moved to a newly created prison. It was a “dungeon” where they were cut off from the outside world. They made several attempts to escape. The sailors and marines were moved to a newly fashioned prison, where “their new quarters were a marked upgrade.” Still working at hard labor, “the crew were not only being beaten but were also feeling the effects of malnutrition.”
Chapter Eleven “Attacks and Negotiations.” The naval bombardment of Tripoli was intense, heavy and destructive. Americans died. Negotiations were going nowhere.
Chapter Twelve “Prospects.” Despite the arrival of Commodore Barron and his squadron, “The outlook for American’s release seemed poor.” The “moral hazard” of the use of force confronted the administration and the negotiators. More Americans could die.
Chapter Thirteen “Peace and Return.” “Opinions were mixed at the prospects of the coming campaign.” Jefferson noted to himself, “if the enterprise in the spring does not produce peace & delivery of the prisoners, ransom them.” The arrival “on the shores of Tripoli” of an American-supported, potential replacement to the title, “got the bashaw’s attention.” Things changed. Negotiations began with “a reduction in Yusuf’s demands, and a clear suggestion of a willingness to deal.” Within five days, the parties had agreed to peace terms and ransom for the crew.
The author concludes the chapter by noting that “The experience of three hundred Americans in Tripoli more than two centuries ago still resonates.” “The moral from the Philadelphia captive’s saga is that if the United States had refused to pay ransom and continued with force, more Americans would have died.” But the saga of the American sailors in Tripoli is not just about lessons to be drawn in dealing with foreign hostage taking. In broad strokes the experience of the Philadelphia sailors is a timeless story of American honor and endurance in adversity.”
Most readers can read this book without reference to the endnotes. The story is so completely documented with primary source material analyzed objectively, that they can be confident in the telling. Historians and authors may want to do the same. Then make a second reading referring back and forth between the text and the endnotes, which even in smaller print, comprise over 20 percent of the book. That will convince them that this book is a complete reference guide to the political, diplomatic and naval aspects of the era.
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