Customer Reviews: The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805
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VINE VOICEon June 14, 2005
Some people like suspense novels, some people like action adventure stories, and some people are real history buffs. This book will satisfy all three crowds. To find accurate history written in such an engaging, page-turning manner is a rare delight.

The United States became a nation at a time when the Barbary States (Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers) were enjoying a piracy trade they had been running for three centuries. This robbery took place by forcefully taking a ship on the high seas, then keeping the goods and enslaving the crew and passengers. The pirates would hold prisoners for ransom--typically for a year, while they negotiated a price--then release them when paid. No country would stand up to these pirates. In fact, other nations paid tribute to them to avert even worse problems.

This cowardly state of affairs would have continued for centuries more, had not William Eaton headed up a mission to end the reign of one of the bashaws (a bashaw is a sort of king).

This particular bashaw (Yussef) killed his oldest brother, who had been the rightful heir to the throne. Then, he took the middle brother's family hostage and sent him into exile--leaving Yussef the one occupying the throne. The middle brother, Hamet, wanted to regain his throne from his sadistic and unscrupulous younger brother. This is where William Eaton came in.

To understand the central story, you have to understand Eaton. Zacks helps us do this, by showing Eaton engaging in the failures that brought him to the point where his adventure with Hamet began. Eaton had a sound military mind, but he was lousy at politics. He was constantly shooting himself in the proverbial foot, and his enemies took pains to make him suffer.

Eaton's adventure with Hamet is the central story of this book. How that adventure begins, stumbles, picks up, and goes through a multitude of setbacks and political machinations is fascinating. How it ends is disheartening, because that ending shows the triumph of petty politics over common sense.

This book allows the reader to see into historical events and the people behind them. For example:

We see the pompous Tobias Lear--a long-time personal friend of George Washington who damaged that relationship by stealing rent money he was allegedly collecting for Washington--truly bungle negotiations in a way that makes you think of Jimmy Carter. He was that bad.

We see the incompetent Captain William Bainbridge surrender the USS Philadelphia, when there was no reason to do so. This act of stupidity wasn't his first surrender. But, this one got his whole crew enslaved (and some killed) and tortured for over a year. Officers, of course, were pampered by their hosts (only the enlisted men were barbarized). Amazingly, the Navy gave him command of yet another ship. I guess three's a charm?

We see Thomas Jefferson get an object lesson in why a gunboat navy doesn't work and why a navy needs massive ships. Jefferson was a complex character and a skillful political manipulator. Zacks shows the man at his scheming best, while also reminding us of Jefferson's many significant contributions. A balanced portrayal like this rarely occurs in accounts of major historical figures.

Today, we think of the US Marines as an elite force--the few and the proud. They are often the first into battle. But at the start of Eaton's adventure, they were not highly thought of. Their pay was less than that of a regular sailor, and their main job was to serve as a sort of police force for the ship they were assigned to.

But Eaton took a force of Marines into battle and made history. Eaton's Marines did what Marines have done ever since--the impossible.

Throughout this book, you can't help but share Eaton's sense of frustration as he faces one obstacle after another. Because the dialogue and narration are so alive, you experience his joys, his anger, his pride, and his worry. Zacks does an excellent job of bringing those emotions forth. But Zack stays true to history and doesn't let our view of Eaton be one-sided. He also shows, throughout the book, how Eaton's various weaknesses work against him. One weakness is his inability to stay out of debt. Another is his inability to garner mutual respect with those in authority over him.

But the weakness that does him in is his inability to let go. Eaton's mission ends, his obsession with Lear's incompetent bungling and Jefferson's complicity in undermining Eaton's mission gnaw at him. He lets his unhappiness drive him to drink. And in 1811, he finally drinks himself into his grave at the age of 47. Five years later, Tobias Lear--Eaton's most hated enemy--takes his own life.

Eaton's mission was the first covert operation conducted overseas by the United States. He did not accomplish what he set out to do, because of undermining from other people--most notably Lear and Jefferson. But in the year following Eaton's death, Stephen Decatur, Jr., commanded a Naval force that proceed to kick a-- and gravely weaken the pirate nations.

Decatur's actions stopped the Barbary Pirates from attacking US ships. But, those actions also emboldened other victim nations to fight back.

In 1829, two French brigates ran aground in the harbor in Algiers. The Dey (ruler) of Algiers had 109 officers and crew members beheaded. That action resulted in a massive French force descending upon Algiers. The French forced a surrender in three weeks, and took complete control of the country. France did not grant independence to Algiers until 1962, which is why French is a common language in Algiers even today.

The French also took control of Tunis in 1881, granting them independence in 1956. Tripoli did not come out of this unscathed. We are all familiar with this portion of The Marine Hymn: "From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli." Read this book to find out why US Marines still sing those words today. Or, read it simply for the pleasure of reading a good book.
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on May 31, 2005
Long before our current war with Islamic extremists our young nation engaged in the War with the Barbary Pirates. It had almost become a footnote for history for many until the likes of journalists like Christopher Hitchens brought its events back into the spotlight.

Now Richard Zack's "The Pirate Coast" brings the events of the war of Barbary Pirates into sharper focus.

During the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson our fledgling nation faced a thorny problem. The United States and other European nations were forced to pay tribute to the nations of the North African coast to do business in the Mediterranean or would be subject to attack by the Barbary pirates. The other nations of Europe went along with this practice but the US was against it not only on principle but because of its sheer cost (at one point we paid the Barbary pirates tribute which exceeded the entire US military budget).

At the time the practice of the Barbary pirates was to commandeer foreign ships and sell their crew into slavery.

Eaton was sent by Jefferson in 1805 on a clandestine mission to aid in a revolution going on in Tripoli. Now comes the intesteting character of Eaton. Eaton was by accounts a stubborn individual who seemed to get himself in trouble in every endevour he found himself in but Eaton was a super patriot who saw this mission as a chance to redeem himself. However the revolution in Tripoli sputtered. Jefferson was more than willing to aid a people in a revolution but wanted no part in overthrowing a government now that the revolution had been foiled.

Eaton was promised a large amount of funding but at the last moment after Jefferson hearing the revolution in the area has failed Eaton is sent off virtually alone. However Eaton once given the green light for the mission could not be stopped.

He was virtually alone an army unto himself. Little did anyone expect that is just what he was.
Sent out on impossible mission with insufficient provisions and just a few men anyone else would have given up but to borrow a name from popular culture Eaton was the "Jack Baurer" of his day and became an exemplar for the covert ops agent.

Once in Alexandria he employed mercenaries and Bedouins for an improbably march across the deserts of Libya. Eaton has to deal with the luke warm alliance and friendship of the Bedouins who often press Eaton into bargaining and renegotiations of their terms.

Amazingly Eaton and his group of misfits arrive in Tripoli and defeat the forces there playing a crucial role in the defeat of the Barbary Pirates. How crucial of this assault from land was to the outcome war is a matter of opinion but it does not take away from Captain Eaton's achievement.

However once back in America Eaton could not let go of the fact that Jefferson had let him down and did not kept the promises he made and was not shy in telling him so. For this reason perhaps Jefferson never gave Eaton the credit he was due. In the end Eaton dies an early death - drunken, in debt and unacknowledged.

A great yarn and thought provoking read that has implications for the war in which we are now presently engaged.
Highly Recommended.
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VINE VOICEon July 3, 2005
A US Navy warship goes aground in the territorial waters of a hostil Muslim power, the crew is taken hostage, the President of the US dispatches a secret agent to overthrown the Mulsim leader and free the Americans ... Another Tom Clancy thriller? Not, just a history of what happened at the beginning of the nineteenth centry when the USS Philadelphia grounded in the harbor of Tripoli on the Barbary Coast, the officers and crews made prisoners, and Tom Jefferson sent former US Army Captain William Eaton to North Afric to find a brother of the ruler of Tripoli and support that brother in an attempt to gain the throne and free the Americans. It involved an incredible march across hundreds of miles of terrible desert with a small "army" of mercenaries (and eight US Marines), the successful capture of one of Tripoli's main cities, and betrayal of Eaton's mission by the politicians and diplomats. But in the process Eaton briefly became one of America's first post-Revolutionary military heroes. He was also a cantakerous, hot-tempered, hard-headed drunk, but nobody's perfect. Zacks skillfully tells the story of this remarkable adventure (one that was later immortalized by part of the US Marine Corps' hymn), although I wish he had provided few better maps so the action could be more easily traced.
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HALL OF FAMEon December 21, 2005
"The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805," by Richard Zacks, is an enthralling work of history. It's full of bold and colorful characters, fascinating places, and perilous situations. Zacks takes us back to the early 19th century. The nation of Tripoli (modern-day Libya), which terrorizes the Mediterranean, declares war on the United States and eventually captures a U.S. naval vessel and its crew. Zacks tells the story of the military and political effort to free the captives. It's an epic tale that involves both land warfare in North Africa and naval warfare in the Mediterranean, as well as political intrigue in the city of Washington and diplomatic maneuvering in Malta and Tripoli. Although Jefferson gets mentioned in the book's subtitle, the real hero of the book is William Eaton, who leads "America's first covert military op overseas." He's a truly larger-than-life character.

Zacks draws on a rich variety of sources from which to tell the story of Eaton's remarkable mission, and he incorporates substantial quotes from these sources in the narrative. By doing this he allows the voices of Eaton and his contemporaries to be heard. Interestingly, Zacks also points out to the reader the places where there are gaps in the historical record. In the book's acknowledgements section, Zacks describes in detail how he got access to the documents he used in writing the book. The book also includes a "Cast of Characters" guide, extensive endnotes, a thorough bibliography, and an index.

Zacks' prose is witty, lively, and engaging. As he tells the story he includes many fascinating details--the use of lime juice for secret writing, the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by the builders of the U.S.S. _Philadelphia_, the fury of a North African sandstorm, etc. Especially fascinating is his description of how Eaton created a multiethnic, multinational task force of both Christian and Muslim troops as part of his daring mission. Zacks creates vivid portraits not just of Eaton, but of many other remarkable individuals. This work of richly documented history is both tragic and thrilling. For an interesting companion text, I recommend "Inside Delta Force," by Eric L. Haney.
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After America became a nation it was only a few years before another country declared war on it. In 1801 Tripoli declared war on the United States. The pirates of the Barbary coast (including the Tripoli area) made a regular practice of capturing the ships of any nation plying the waters of the Mediterranean and declaring war made it easier to justify. When a Navy ship was captured and all on board taken for slaves Thomas Jefferson had to decide whether to pay the ransom or engage the nation's very small Navy in a war. Enter William Eaton, a failed military officer who, for various reasons, President Jefferson asks to engage in covert operations to remove the leader from power. This is the story behind the first covert operations of the United States long before the CIA ever came into existence. Author Richard Zacks' writing technique engages the reader so the story comes to life. The Pirate Coast is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in history.
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on June 2, 2005
A century before T.E. Lawrence led a desperate army to a surprise victory after crossing a seemingly impossible to traverse desert, American William Eaton did the same thing in Libya.

I'll confess right away that I am a Zacks partisan. I loved his last book The Pirate Hunter so I am predisposed towards his latest. That said, it does not disappoint. He once again showed his dual skills of painstaking research and talented writing to pen a story that seems as fresh as the latest news story, not surprising since it was America's first war against terrorism.

He chronicles Eaton's singleminded quest to overthrow the pasha of Tripoli and free several hundred U.S. Navy sailors enslaved after being captured by Barbary pirates. Meanwhile, Eaton is being undermined by events back home. It's essentially a race to see which will win: Eaton's military campaign or the crooked diplomacy of Tobias Lear.

Well worth reading!
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VINE VOICEon December 29, 2009
In the late 1790s and early 1800s merchant ships in the Mediterranean were harassed mercilessly by the Barbary corsairs (pirates). Based in the nations on the northern coast of Africa, they extorted huge amounts of tribute payments from European nations, and sought to do the same with the fledgling United States of America. After losing the USS Philadelphia and over 200 officers and sailors as slaves to Tripoli, Jefferson decided to stand up to the pirates and end their tyranny. He sent William Eaton, a diplomat with a checkered history, to overthrow the Bashaw of Tripoli and free the Americans. And while Eaton nearly succeeded against enormous odds, his quest was cut just short of a tremendous victory by the dishonest (and incompetent) Tobias Lear, who was also sent by Jefferson to broker peace.

Although not as enjoyable as Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian Toll (in my opinion), Richard Zacks does a good job of telling the story of the Barbary Wars. Zacks provides extensive information on the individuals involved, such as Eaton, Lear, Hamet, and others, but the story drags with excessive day-by-day detail of Eaton's 500 mile march across the desert. He also covers the political maneuvering and duplicity of Jefferson following Eaton's mission in great detail. I may have enjoyed it more if I hadn't recently read Toll's book, but I preferred Six Frigates and I suspect many others will, too.
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on December 17, 2012
Captivating account of the Barbary Coast War (1801-1805) in which President Jefferson sent a naval force to take on the Pasha of Tripoli and put an end the seizure of American vessels and the extraction of ransom and tributes for safe passage. An interesting part of the story describes how a handful (8) of marines organized outcast tribes and led a successful land campaign (from Alexandria to Tripoli) against the Pasha. The feat is strikingly similar to the initial operations in Afghanistan in which small teams of special ops warriors organized and led northern Afghan tribes in a rout of the Taliban. In the Tripoli operation, however, despite having routed the Pasha's forces, the marines received an order to end the campaign just as they were about to enter Tripoli and seize the Pasha. Why they were denied an well-earned heroic victory is a case study in bureaucratic bungling and poor communications. At the time, the only communications between the naval force and Jefferson was by way of messages carried by ship. Further complicating matters was that Jefferson relied on information and advice from a arrogant, incompetent diplomat who continually fed Jefferson misinformation and bad advice. The result was that Jefferson erroneously called off the assault on Tripoli moments after the marines had achieved certain victory. Worse yet, the bad advice caused Jefferson to settle the conflict by agreeing to pay the Pasha's demands of tribute. This has to be the origin of the saying, "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory". Despite this ignominious ending, however, the actions and achievements of the marines at Tripoli were indeed heroic, and a justifiable source of pride for the corps memorialized in "the Marine hymn". Highly recommended.
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on November 23, 2014
Richard Zacks' excellent history, The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, was published in 2005. It tells the timeless and yet timely tale of America's first major covert operation which was led by the now almost forgotten William Eaton. He was an ex-captain in the US army and former consul to Tunis who was dispatched by President Jefferson to north Africa on a mission to liberate the crew of the USS Philadelphia.

The Barbary pirates of north Africa (see earlier post, The Shores of Tripoli, Jefferson in London and the Birth of the US Navy, 4/20/12) had been terrorizing, kidnapping and enslaving westerners for centuries. An old a Barbary maxim statures: "Whoever acts like a sheep, the wolf will eat." Most Western nations had simply opted to pay tribute to the wolf rather than confront the pirates. After the American revolution, the USA no longer had the protection of the Royal Navy on the high seas. In 1803 the entire American fleet consisted of six ships. The Philadelphia, launched in 1799, was a 36-gun American frigate commanded by Captain William Bainbridge (the same Bainbridge after which Bainbridge island in my adopted home state of Washington is named). The US did not want to be mistaken for a sheep and, therefore, dispatched the Philadelphia to the Mediterranean. Bainbridge had orders to confront the Barbary pirates, instead he managed on October 31, 1803 to run his ship aground in Tripoli harbor. The crew of 307 officers and sailors was captured and held hostage by Yussef Karmaanli, the Bashaw of Tripoli. Yussef has the distinction of being the first foreign ruler to ever declare war on the United States.

William Eaton was a flinty New Englander who had served in the continental army during the American Revolution, attended Dartmouth college after the war and served as the American consul in Tunis. Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, opted to dispatch William Eaton to try to effect the release of the American hostages. Yussef Karmaanli had a brother Hamet who was his political rival for the throne of Tripoli. The Jefferson administration hoped Eaton would stir up a civil war that would topple Yussef and liberate the American sailors. It was therefore, the libertarian Jefferson who first implemented an American policy of using a covert force to effect a "regime change" in a foreign country.

William Eaton had some choice words in support of aggressive American action against the pirates of the Barbary coast. He said, "If the Congress do not consent that the government shall send a force into the Mediterranean to check the insolence of those scoundrels and to render the United States respectable, I hope they will resolve at their next session to wrest the quiver of arrows from the left talon of the (American) Eagle...and substitute a fiddle bow or a cigar in lieu."

Eaton was given the vague title of "Navy Agent of the United States for the Several Barbary Regencies". With long delays in orders due to the communications realities of the time, Eaton had been granted great latitude to get the job done.

In spite of a lack of personnel, money and resources Eaton managed to link up with Hamet and lead a rag tag band of US marines (ten in all), Greeks soldiers and native mercenaries on a 500-mile overland desert journey from Alexandria to Derne in Tripoli. Eaton, greatly outnumbered, led these and US naval forces in the battle of Derne on April 27, 1805 and triumphing over the Bashaw's forces capturing the fortifications of Derne in what is now Libya. His faithful Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon of the US marines raised the American flag over a foreign fort for the first time in history. The Marine hymn owes its reference to the "shores of Tripoli" due to this battle. With the capture of Derne and a US naval blockade of Tripoli, victory seemed to be within the grasp of the American forces.

Jefferson, however, had been secretly proceeding down a double-tracked strategy, having also appointed Tobias Lear, formerly George Washington's private secretary, as US consul general to the Barbary Regencies with the task of negotiating a quick peace with Bashaw Yussef. Lear was a Harvard graduate who had embezzled from his boss, Washington and most likely destroyed some of his Washington's private correspondence, particularly with Jefferson. This naturally endeared Lear to Jefferson. Lear succeeded in making peace with Yussef by promising to abandon Derne, give up the naval blockade of Barbary ports and pay the sum of $60,000 for the release of the Philadelphia crew.

Christopher Kelly is the author of America Invades: How We've Invaded or been Militarily Involved with almost Every Country on Earth and Italy Invades
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on August 15, 2005
Zacks' off-beat history of William Eaton's campaign to free 300 American prisoner-slaves in Tripoli comes at the 200th anniversary of the dramatic events of 1805. Using primarily personal letters and other correspondence as primary sources, he paints a historical tapestry of all major participants after the American frigate, the Philadelphia, ran aground near the harbor of Tripoli. Its 300 crewmembers were taken prisoner. Wm Eaton and 7 Marines plus an assortment of European freebooters-mercenaries marched 500 miles from Egypt to Derne with the brother of the Bashaw of Tripoli to liberate them and to defeat or overthrow the ruler of Tripoli who had usurped the throne, extracted the usual centuries-old tribute from commercial vessels. This fascinating story involves Jefferson, on the one hand, sort of approving the military venture of Eaton but also, on the other, attempting to solve the issue through diplomacy and ransom payment. Tobias Lear, a former secretary to George Washington and of dubious character (he had already embezzled W.s rent and engaged in other shady deals) takes the diplomatic approach with Jefferson's approval, though he exploits his position in the Mediterranean for personal profiteering. As the story unfolds, Eaton's military approach clashes with Lear's diplomatic approach and Lear, ultimately, wins. Eaton, upon his return to the U.S. is feted and celebrated as a military hero yet remains heavily in debt and can never recover his expenses in spite of many appeals to Jefferson and Congress. Lear, ironically, becomes an auditor for precisely the military expenditures from which he profited.
This book must be read--on the 200th anniversary of the drama on the Barbary Coast which it so attractively recounts--in relation to current events in the Middle East. It describes bureaucratic manipulation involving spending the taxpayers' money on far-away foreign policy and military adventures. It provides profound insight, through heavy and extensive use of personal letters and primary documents, into miscommunication, working at crosspurposes, false information and interpretations and, above all, ignorance of foreign religion, politics and cultures.
Essentially, the perceptive reader will understand that not much has changed in 200 years as it relates to shadowy maneuvering, opportunistic exploitation and political manipulation for personal and bureaucratic grandstanding and careerism. If a Tobias Lear profits from wheat deals with the Barbary Pirates, it is not that much different than Halliburton reaping huge profits from the current mess in Iraq. Even the media's reactions and the actions of the various politicians and major characters of this fascinating story of l805 have their counterparts in the current imbroglio in Iraq. Above all, the constancy of racial and religious bigotry and cultural clashes is impressive though the author does not necessarily point them out but merely lets the reader observe them.

There are weaknesses in this book in terms of its style, occasional misspelling ("langauge") and the possible overuse--sometimes inappropriately--of the enormous quotes and references to personal letters at the expense of anchoring the story into a better historical evolution. Nevertheless, its use of personal letters provides unusual insight into the major characters ranging from Wm. Eaton to Tobias Lear to Jefferson and Burr. It is not a first-rate scholarly historical study but its delight resides partly in its more journalistic story-telling approach of a fascinating episode--the first covert mission abroad and the first appearance of the Marines.
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