Impressions of Tripoli, 1804

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. 4200ff:

Wild beasts roamed the Barbary shore during the era of the American war. The most common was the hyena, called the dubbah. There were panthers, wild boar, ostriches, and antelopes, while snakes and scorpions abounded.

Though the harbor was commodious, it was shallow and could not grant ingress to vessels drawing more than five or six fathoms, or from thirty to thirty-six feet.

The dominating structure of the harbor was the gray old Castle (now neatly restored) which, partly in ruins, loomed above the shore. It was a formidable stronghold in appearance, while inside it was composed of a series of splendid chambers, arched colonnades, and circling courts, brilliant with mosaics.

Beneath was a labyrinth of subterranean passages where captives were imprisoned and the condemned were executed.

In those days a wide, circular beach stretched in front of the town and toward the east, and much of the city was built in a crescent extending eastward from the tip of the peninsula, and westward for a distance facing the Mediterranean beyond the reef which formed the harbor.

In this city of flat-topped houses, sometimes built from and on heaps of ancient rubble; of mosques, narrow streets, of baths with their clustered cupolas; of fruit trees and date palms giving their scant shade, but with the soft afternoon breeze often coming pleasantly from the Mediterranean, lived a population of extremes in poverty and opulence. For the more consequential men the coffee bazaar was the place of assembly and, in the absence of newspapers, the forum where information was exchanged.

These bazaars were strictly for coffee and no other refreshments were served. Inside they were smoky kitchens, and Arabs of distinction never entered them, but sent their slaves, who brought the coffee in vessels to the arbor-covered marble benches outside.

These were in effect couches, richly draped with carpets and mats, on which the chief men would sit cross-legged—“bear-like,” as Eaton described the posture in Tunis—and sip their beverage leisurely. Sometimes the females of the castle might prefer their coffee flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, but the men at the bazaar drank theirs black, thick, and straight.

As these patriarchs of wealth sipped, behind them stood their slaves, often three to one master. One held his pipe, a second his kerchief, and the third his coffee cup, thus releasing his hands while he conversed. Any distinguished Tripolitan Arab required both hands to emphasize and illustrate his words.

Often he would do this by jabbing or drawing designs with the finger of one hand on the palm of the other. On state occasions the chief officials and wealthy men appeared in flowing, gold-embroidered robes of satin and velvet, and, when seasonal, in rich furs.

They wore shawls of the finest texture, jewels, and long silver pendants that served as charms. At noon, which British Consul Richard Tulley’s sister observed to be “an hour when no Moor of distinction leaves his house,” the city napped. Beggars were common on the winding streets.

In sharp contrast with the ornate garb of the wealthy was the wretchedness of the poor and of even the ordinary-run citizen, who was covered with a piece of dark brown homespun cotton, no more than an age-ripened blanket. Blindness was common among the beggars.

The glaring sun of the summer months, taken with the sand particles which filled the air when the ghibli blew from the desert, induced an eye-soreness or ophthalmia, which became aggravated by the presence of numerous busy insects. Dr. Leyden, who studied social and moral conditions of North Africa, and noticed that games of chance were prohibited as strictly as was alcohol, found the time of the average man occupied with “eating, drinking, sleeping, women, horses and prayers.”

Apparently cock-fighting, which thrived, was not regarded a game of chance, or else no wagers were laid. Ostrich-racing was another sport. He reported too that the saints were venerated, but, “any extraordinary qualification—a remarkable crime, sometimes pure idiotism raised them to the rank of saint.”

The women of the harem, usually Georgian or Circassian slaves who had been brought to Tripoli when young and trained for court or harem life, went out but rarely, and only to the mosques to fulfill a vow or make an offering; and then the journey was made from eleven to twelve at night in a palanquin enclosed with linen.

They were accompanied by a large train of guards who showed lights and shouted their approach. This crying was a signal for all common people to clear the streets, for none could look on the females from the seraglio without grave risk to his neck. Such was the city and society the United States was fighting, by no choice of the Jefferson administration, in its first formal war under the Constitution.

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Filed under Africa, economics, labor, Mediterranean, religion, slavery, travel, U.S.

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