Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Pirate Coast (copy)

Ahoy, mates. Can you guess which movie I saw over the weekend? There is something about a rebel pirate that really gets my imagination going. I understand that real pirates were not to be idealized, but today’s movie pirate can be rather charming. Okay, maybe I should say that I find Johnny Depp rather charming, pirate or not.

Anyhoo, I picked up Richard Zacks’ book The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 for the excitement. What I found was a compelling history lesson on the early stages of the U.S. Marine Corps.

When we think of Marines we think tough—even hardcore—soldiers, but in the beginning they demanded little respect. Their only mission was to keep U.S. sailors in order. It was an inglorious task for which they were despised and scarcely feared. It took a man, heavily in debt and fresh from a court martial, to change all that.

His name was William Eaton and the area he wanted to secure was Muslim Tripoli in Northern Africa on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This is the same shore celebrated in the Marine Hymn that begins, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” At the time, the area was notorious for excessively brutal pirates.

Eaton knew the area well having served there four years prior to the incident. He was appalled at the U.S. government for allowing slavery of Christians take place in the small African nation. Instead of fighting to secure the area from threat the U.S. Navy looked the other way and the Tunis were paid heavily to ignore American trade.

President Thomas Jefferson had a better idea. These Barbary Pirates were not going to take American citizens and place them in slavery and he was not going to pay any bribes to the local Beys. He sent orders to the small Navy and the USS Philadelphia established a blockade on the North African shores.

Unfortunately, the young Captain, William Bainbridge, ran the Philadelphia aground after giving chase to a blockade runner. He ordered the anchors cut first, then the foremasts chopped down, and finally, the cannons and ballast flung overboard to float the ship off the reef but to no avail. The crew was seized.

Later that night Bainbridge must have cursed as he watched the Philadelphia roll gently at high tide.

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