In the 18th and early 19th centuries, pirates along the Barbary Coast (the countries of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli --- modern-day Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) terrorized ships and coastal towns of the Mediterranean. The pirates would loot the towns and ships of every valuable --- the most precious being the humans, who were sold as slaves. Unless they were ransomed, slaves were doomed to lives of hard labor or sexual slavery, and an early death. Zacks writes, "From 1785 to 1815, more than six hundred American citizens would be captured and enslaved. This nuisance would prove to be no mere foreign trade issue but rather a near-constant hostage crisis."
Richard Zacks brings this period of history to life with the story of the United States' first overseas covert operation, led by William Eaton, one of the most hardheaded, hot-tempered, frustrating patriots ever to fire up a dull history book.
Eaton served as a U.S. Army captain before becoming consul to Tunis, where he became embroiled in the Barbary situation by ransoming a young Sardinian girl. But when nearly 300 U.S. sailors and officers were taken as slaves by the pasha of Tripoli, Eaton's New England passions flared up. He despised the idea of the U.S. paying ransom to lawless pirates, and was even more dead-set against paying tribute (like the European countries).
Eaton proposed a daring idea to President Jefferson --- assemble a small force of U.S. sailors, Marines and ships to find the pasha's older brother, Hamet. With the help of Hamet's followers, Eaton planned to topple the regime and put Hamet in power. Just the first of many attempts at foreign regime change that the U.S. would covertly support to this day.
The story of Eaton's secret mission, involving a 500-mile trek across the Libyan desert, makes as compelling a read as any fictional spy novel. The mission's successes and failures reveal much about Arab-Christian relations, Jefferson's weaknesses as president, and Eaton's own deeply flawed character.
Eaton's mission suffered constantly from underfunding from the U.S. government. It was almost as if Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison disavowed knowledge of the operation as soon as Eaton left U.S. soil. In an Arab culture where bribery greased the wheels of any venture, this was a huge obstacle.
Distrust between the Muslim and Christian soldiers in Eaton's small force almost doomed the mission on several occasions. In his notebook, Eaton wrote, "We find it almost impossible to inspire these wild bigots with confidence in us or to persuade them that, being Christians, we can be otherwise than enemies to Mussulmen." Although eventually these uneasy allies took over the city of Derne, ultimately an ignoble peace treaty with Tripoli left Hamet and Eaton's Muslim allies abandoned and betrayed.
Eaton never got over his anger over the peace treaty, which defied every principle that his mission intended to preserve. Under the terms of this treaty, the U.S. not only paid ransom for the enslaved sailors, but also paid tribute (secretly) and betrayed the trust of Hamet and his followers. Eaton died a ruined man.
Not until after the War of 1812, when Stephen Decatur Jr. confronted the Barbary nations with superior naval force, did the U.S. free itself from the predations of the pirates.
Zacks' book takes this little-known incident from American history and brings it to vivid life, leaving readers to ponder how deeply Arab-American relations are influenced today by events 200 years ago.