Shores of Tripoli
The Barbary Pirates, the American
tradition of secular government, an American suicide bomber attacking
Muslims, Billy Budd, and a reversible pro/anti-war song
The more closely you look at something, the
more interesting it becomes. For the hedgehogs among us, this can be a
problem -- when you're trying to fit the petty details into the one big
thing, you want the details to be controllable. But for us foxes sniffing
around, the farther the details take you, the more fun it is.
Like many of my pieces, this one is a Googling
exercise. Teachers of undergraduates learn to hate Google, but
Google is no worse than any other incomplete and imperfect archive, and
to use than the others.
The Shores of Tripoli
America was a trading nation from the beginning, and
during the first two decades of its existence the Barbary states of the
Maghreb (the SW shore of the Mediterranean) preyed on American shipping.
These pirates played the British and the French off against one another,
and once American ships were unprotected by the British, they were fair
game. In 1785 two American ships were captured, and the majority of the
members of their crews eventually died in captivity. For about twenty
years the still-weak US used a combination of tribute, ransom, and
diplomacy to deal with the pirates, but Thomas Jefferson was always
unhappy with this approach, and when he became President he chose war.
Piracy of this robber-baron type is characteristic
of any period without an overarching political order, and the Barbary
states thought themselves to be charging a fee ("protection rent") for the
service of protection from piracy -- even though they themselves were the
pirates. During the struggles between the great European empires in the
early modern period piracy was rampant, and the imperial nations freely
used pirates (rebaptized "privateers") against one another. (The long
struggles for control of the Mediterranean and Black seas between Venice
and Genoa, and later the Ottomans and Spanish, are a similar case).
In the late eighteenth century it was the long war between the French and
the British which enabled the pirates to practice their trade, and the
losers were the smaller states. At one point the US was working with the
Swedes, the Two Sicilies, and other small powers to settle the problem,
but found the British and French to be dragging their feet. (After the
defeat of the French in 1815, the Maghreb was fairly quickly pacified.)
In 1801 the US refused to pay increased tribute to
the small state of Tripoli
(in the west of present-day Libya), and Tripoli declared war. (This is the
Tripoli of the Marine Hymn -- the "Halls of Montezuma", properly
represent Mexico City). The US sent a fleet which might have gained a
fairly easy victory if one of its ships, the USS Philadelphia, had
not run aground in 1803, leaving its crew in Tripolitan hands. It
took a number of bold American moves to bring the war to a relatively
successful conclusion which ended the tribute payments, and even so
it was necessary to ransom the crew.
Reuben James and the three
USS Reuben James
Reuben (sometimes Ruben) James was one of the first
American heroes of the Tripoli campaign. When the USS Philadelphia
was captured, the American commander realized that it would be dangerous
to leave it in enemy hands, so Lt. Stephen Decatur and 70 volunteers were
sent (in a captured Tripolitan ship renamed the Intrepid) on a bold
raid to destroy the Philadelphia. This raid was successful, and
when British Admiral Lord Nelson heard of the raid, he called it "the
most bold and daring act of the age." Reuben James made his name in
this fight by protecting Decatur from one of the pirates, and he went on
to long career in the US Navy.
The first Reuben James, built in 1919, was
sunk on October 31, 1941 while escorting a convoy off Newfoundland (even
before the US officially entered WWII), and it was the first American ship
sunk in that war. (This was the ship about which the song was written.) A
second Reuben James was launched in 1942 and served through the
war, being decommissioned in1947. The third Reuben James
was launched in 1985 and figures in Tom Clancy's
Hunt for Red October.
Lt. Somers and the USS
Lieutenant Richard Somers was the
inadvertent suicide bomber. After the Philadelphia had been
destroyed, a plan was hatched to refit the Intrepid as a floating
bomb. The plan was to sail the bomb into the Tripoli harbor and abandon it
before it exploded, but it exploded prematurely:
"In September, 1804, Lieutenant Somers
was given charge of the Intrepid, a bomb ketch that had been filled with
explosives and was to be sailed into the harbor at Tripoli and set to
explode in the centre of the enemy fleet after the crew had abandoned her.
Unfortunately, the Intrepid exploded before she could reach her intended
position, killing Somers and his entire crew."
In 1842 the
navy launched a 259-ton brig named after Lt. Somers; this was the
ship on which the mutiny took place. There also have been three more
Intrepids, most recently a
WWII aircraft carrier.
The USS Somers,
Herman Melville's cousin, and Billy Budd
In late 1842 the
USS Somers left New York for the west coast of Africa. The ship's
nominal mission was not an important one -- it was primarily being used as
a training ship, and was crewed mostly by young novices. There were only
two commissioned officers on board, the junior of whom was Herman
Melville's older cousin, the 30-year-old Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort.
After about two months at sea, when returning to the
US by way of the West Indies, the officers of the
Somers, were told that a mutiny
was being plotted. Its leader, the 22-year-old Philip Spencer, was the
ne'er-do-well son of the Secretary of War, John Spencer, who had been put
on the ship after a series of escapades had gotten him kicked out of
college and had nearly gotten him expelled from the Navy. According to the
report, Spencer's plan was to take over the ship, get rid of the officers,
and embark on a career of piracy in the unstable West Indies.
Spencer and two other accused leaders of the
conspiracy were hanged after a summary trial which may not have met the
requirements of naval law, with Gansevoort one of the judges. This
incident roused a controversy when the ship returned to port; those of the
accused who had not been hanged were ultimately released, while the
officers who presided at the court martial were exonerated after a trial
and went on to distinguished military careers.
Many believe that this mutiny was the prototype for Melville's Billy Budd
(and perhaps also his story "Benito Cereno", in which the slaves take over
a slave ship).
The pro/anti-war song
The song "Reuben James" by Woody Guthrie (and
others) became popular around 1960, but it had actually been written
almost twenty years earlier, shortly after the sinking of the ship by a
German U-boat. During WWII the song was a patriotic pro-war song, but the
1960 version has a more ambiguous conclusion, added by Fred Hellerman of
"Many years have
passed and still I wonder why
the worst of men must fight and the best of men must die."
Not only that, but a few months earlier in 1941,
during the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the same musicians had recorded the
anti-war album "Songs for John Doe" -- a records which was never released.
Following the twists and turns of ideology and international alliances
requires a great deal of nimbleness.
The secular Treaty of
Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (unanimously
approved by the Senate on June 10, 1797) read:
"As the government of the United States of America
is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion—as it has in itself
no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of
Musselmen [Muslims]—and as the said states have never entered into any war
or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the
parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever
produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two
This is a strong expression of secularism, and has
been heavily used in recent political arguments. From the point of view of
"original intent", the unanimous ratification of this treaty a little more
than a decade after the ratification of the constitution would seem to be
strong evidence that the U.S. was not founded as a Christian
nation. On the other hand, a treaty is not part of the constitution, and
this particular peace treaty was not a success -- the Tripolitans relapsed
into slaving and piracy, and we had to go to war against them more than
once during the next few decades.
During this inquiry, Google has proved to be quite a
useful tool and has helped me sniff out lots of good stuff, and my guess
is that almost everyone who has read to the end has learned something
interesting that they didn't know before. However, I know no more than I
did before about the question that got me started on this: the
significance of Guert Gansevoort's experience in the Somers for the
author of Billy Budd.
One source (which I have not linked) asserts without
evidence that Gansevoort, despite serving on the court which hanged the
alleged conspirators, believed that they were innocent. Other sources
claim that Gansevoort's career and reputation suffered severely because of
the incident -- though the evidence I have seen is that his career, at
least, did not. (Quite understandably, Gansevoort never spoke publicly
about the incident.)
My confidence in Google as a resource has also been
shaken slightly by my discovery that a highly conjectural squib I wrote a
couple of weeks ago is the #7 Google resource on the Billy Budd /
Guert Gansevoort question.
So yes, I guess that libraries do have a function
LINKS AND SOURCES
Documents and maps relating to George Washington and the Barbary pirates.
Jefferson and the Barbary pirates
The US and the Barbary Pirates
Reuben James, the song "Reuben James", and the three ships called "Reuben
Lt. Somers and the Intrepid
Mutiny on the USS Somers
Legal aspects of the Somers mutiny
Melville, Billy Budd,
Gansevoort, and other topics
the song "Reuben James"
for John Doe"
Unrelated Kenny Rogers "Reuben James" song
A Christian view on Article Eleven of the Treaty of Tripoli
A secular view of Article Eleven
Joel Barlow and the Treaty of Tripoli
Protection rent and piracy:
Steensgaard, Niels, The Asian Trade Revolution of
the Seventeenth Century, Chicago, 1974.
Lane, Frederic, Venice and History
,The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966.
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.
Original materials copyright John J