Category Archives: Mediterranean

First Barbary Ambassador to U.S.

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. c. 8150ff:

When the American fleet was released from the patrol off Tripoli by Lear’s peace treaty, [Commodore] Rodgers showed his power to Bey Hamouda Pacha at Tunis.

He dispatched the Congress and the Vixen and followed with the Constitution, Constellation, Essex, John Adams, Siren, Nautilus, Franklin, Enterprise, Hornet, and part of the flotilla of gunboats which were now arriving from the United States; sixteen sail in all….

They made an imposing sight when they rounded Cape Bon and stood into Tunis Bay on August 1, 1805.

Then Rodgers wrote a letter asking the Bey if he wanted peace or war and giving him the generous time of thirty-six hours in which to reply….

The Bey now refused to receive Decatur, whom Rodgers sent ashore, and the Captain started back to the ship. The Bey told Davis that Rodgers’ letter amounted to a declaration of war. But Bey Hamouda Pacha had no appetite for the big guns of the frigates anchored off his city, and on quick reflection he sent a messenger to Rodgers in such hot haste that he reached the waterfront ahead of Decatur and got a conciliatory reply to the Commodore before Decatur could report how he had been snubbed.

Lear eventually went ashore to assist Davis in the negotiations, but he could not have put any indemnities or weasel clauses into this arrangement even had he desired because Rodgers was watching. To the Bey’s complaint that the entire American fleet had descended on him, Rodgers gave assurance it was not so, because a frigate, a brig, eight gunboats, and two mortar boats had not yet arrived.

Davis wrote to Rodgers suggesting a suspension of any hostilities until a communication could be had with the President of the United States.

That was not Rodgers’ way of doing business. He replied that unless Bey Hamouda gave a guarantee of the maintenance of peace and signed it in the presence of the British and French consuls, he would seal the port so tight that nothing could get in or out. Then Rodgers sent a copy of the wording he wanted in the guarantee. Lear and the Bey went into a round of letter-writing during which Rodgers’ patience was wearing thin. In a letter of August 15 he declared that the Bey must give a guarantee of peace and then he could send an ambassador to Washington to treat if he desired.

Then Rodgers let loose to Lear an opinion about this petty tyrant: “His prevaricating with you in particular, induces me to believe, that he is now more than ever the Scoundrel, I had thought him before, and I have only to repeat, that if he does not do all that is necessary, & proper, that even at the risk of my Conducts being disapproved by my Country, he shall feel the Vengeance of the Squadron now in his Bay.”

In the face of such force and persistency Bey Hamouda capitulated. He gave notice that the United States would be placed on a most-favored-nation basis and that he would send an ambassador to the United States to deal with any complaints. Rodgers answered cordially, said he had a frigate returning, and asked to have the ambassador make ready at once.

The ambassador was Sidi Suliman Mellimelli, who sailed with Decatur on the Congress, and was to become a startling figure, during the winter of 1805-1806, in the American capital where he lived luxuriously at the expense of the American government and pressed a claim for tribute and indemnity.

Decatur carried a letter from Rodgers to Secretary Smith, saying of the Bey of Tunis that if his late hostility should be overlooked, “I can with almost certainty say that he will never again attempt to behave in a similar manner.”

Mellimelli took four beautiful Arabian stud horses with him as a gift to President Jefferson, one having been a gift to the Bey from the Dey of Algiers. The scrupulous Jefferson would not accept them for himself but the Treasury sold them as part payment of Mellimelli’s expenses. But first they were kept in the President’s stables and the stud fees went to the collector of revenues.

The ambassador was accompanied by a suite of eleven, including an Italian band. He was short on women, for whom he had a ravenous appetite. The prim little Secretary of State Madison had to have concubines supplied at public expense, and wrote about it later, saying: “Appropriations to foreign intercourse are terms of great latitude and may be drawn on by very urgent and unforeseen occurrences.”

Madison never lacked the ability of choice expression. Mellimelli did not know the tightness of the American farmer-congressman. He was unable to exact a single coin from Congress or Secretary Gallatin, but the more freehanded Lear did make an adjustment with the Bey two years later by paying $10,000.

After much difficulty and some revolts among his followers, Mellimelli, whose main argument for tribute appeared to be that he would likely be killed if he returned without it, was packed off home in a ship from Boston. The United States continued its payments of tribute to Algiers through the years, but learned what other powers had long known, that it was best to be in arrears.

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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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Navy Gunners vs. Tripoli Pirates, 1801

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. ~2750:

Captain Sterrett bore a British flag as he approached the Tripolitan ship, an expedient frequently practiced in the naval warfare of the day. He inquired of the Tripolitan the object of her cruise. The commander replied that he had come out to look for Americans but lamented that he had not yet found a single one. Sterrett promptly lowered the British and hoisted the U.S. colors and ordered a volley of musketry discharged across the Tripolitan’s decks.

The Tripoli replied with a partial broadside. It was 9:00 a.m. For three hours the ships lay alongside at pistol range and blazed away at each other with broadsides and small arms. Three times they came together and the Muslims tried to board. Each time they were beaten back with severe loss.

Fortunately the Enterprise had a small Marine Corps detachment, commanded by Lieutenant Enoch S. Lane, whose fire was particularly effective during the boarding efforts. An equal number of times the Tripolitans seemed to give up the contest and surrender. They struck their colors, but each time as the wary Lieutenant Sterrett drew close for boarding and as the American gun crews relaxed their efforts, came to the spardeck and cheered for their victory, the enemy ship hoisted her flag again, let loose a blast and renewed the battle. After the last deception Sterrett ordered the gunners to sink the craft, whose fire had grown steadily weaker under the unmerciful bombardment from the American guns. The seamen took up the cry of “Sink the villains.”

Finally the unhappy and treacherous Admiral Rais Mahomet Rous, who like his second in command was wounded, called out for mercy. He bent over the vessel’s waist in a supplicating position which appeared to be a genuine surrender.

Sterrett, not to be duped by further trickery, held his fire but told the commander to come aboard the Enterprise or send some of his officers. The Admiral replied that the Tripoli’s boat was so shattered it was unfit for use.

Sterrett then inquired what assurance he would have that his men would not be murdered if he sent a detail aboard the Tripoli. The Admiral threw his colors into the sea. After that and other supplications and assurances, the American commander decided to take the risk. When the boarding party headed by Lieutenant Porter reached the enemy deck it found a scene of death and desolation almost unparalleled in such small ship actions.

The ship was shot to pieces. Of her eighty men thirty were dead and thirty wounded, leaving but twenty to man the ship. The deck was covered with bodies, splinters, blood, and wreckage. The ship’s surgeon had been killed and there was no one on board to care for the wounded. With the two top officers wounded and the third officer dead, the distressed vessel was virtually out of control.

But the strange feature of this battle fought for three hours at close pistol range, with the two ships often lying alongside, was that when Captain Sterrett checked the American gunners, marines, and seamen, not an American had received a single scratch.

The reason can only be guessed at; partly chance, but mainly because the Barbary powers who were accustomed to boarding defenseless merchant vessels were not fitted by training or temperament for the fierce, desperate, pent-up fury of sea actions in the era of “iron men and wooden ships,” in which, for some reason, the Americans of that day seemed to excel.

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Cost of Barbary Tribute, 1786

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. ~1150ff:

When Jefferson went to London in company with John Adams to meet the ambassador of Tripoli, Abdurrahman, he found that this least powerful of the Barbary regencies wanted an aggregate of $160,000 from the United States.

The Ambassador thought Tunis would settle for the same tribute.

The cost for all four of the Barbary States probably would be a million dollars, a figure later considerably increased. The ineffectual Congress which operated under the Articles of Confederation had difficulty in raising any kind of money from the states and had no powers of direct taxation.

The request for a million dollars was fantastic. Jefferson was in no temper to pay it even if the money came easily. He rejected it forthwith. What the expected tribute amounted to may be understood better by a comparison with present-day expenditures.

The cost of the federal government for the first ten years under the Constitution, from 1789 to 1800, was roughly $5,775,000 a year. That was the average. The proposed tribute of one million dollars would have aggregated more than one-sixth of the entire federal expenditure.

It would have been tantamount proportionally to fifteen billion dollars of federal expenditures in 1963, at a time when money is much easier to procure by taxation than it was in 1786.

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Battling Barbary Pirates in the 1600s

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. ~980-1000:

England had her first naval brush with the Barbary Powers in 1655. When Oliver Cromwell became Protector, the Dutch ruled the waves and their Admiral Van Tromp moved with his fleet up and down the Channel with a broom fastened atop his mainmast, giving notice that he would sweep England from the seas. After he had been defeated by the English Admirals Blake, Dean, and Monk, and the Dutch Admiral De Ruyter likewise had learned that Blake’s broadsides swept cleaner than a broom, England became the leading sea power.

Admiral Robert Blake, sickly with dropsy [edema], scurvy, and other ailments on his voyages but awesome in battle, was in 1654 given secret orders by Cromwell to sail to Tuscany and collect reparations for injuries inflicted on British shipping. Cromwell would not mind if Blake picked up some of the Spanish treasure ships returning from the New World while he was cruising around Gibraltar. But one of his leading tasks was to chastise the Barbary powers and put an end to their raids on British and Irish seacoast towns.

Blake has generally been held to be the first admiral who dared to take wooden ships against stone fortresses. What he accomplished in this respect must have been in the mind of Captain Edward Preble of the U.S. Navy 150 years later. The question was whether mobility was superior to great stationary strength and he gave the odds to mobility.

Blake claimed forts were effective only for making noises and arousing fears. He sailed into the harbor of Tunis, gave the two fortresses such a pounding that he battered them down, and here and at Algiers and Tripoli he destroyed the pirate fleets and put a stop for a season to all Barbary depredations.

Clearly, Christendom could have used more Admiral Blakes along the Barbary Coast. He managed to pick up part of the Spanish plate fleet as he returned to England. But was that not technically war and in no manner piracy? England and Spain were ever at odds on the sea.

De Ruyter, whose sea greatness was by no means ended by Blake, took a Dutch fleet into the Mediterranean in 1661, dictated treaties with Tunis and Algiers, liberated Christian prisoners, and gave piracy another setback. These nations learned what the United States discerned later, that treaties with petty despots were not worth the paper they were written on.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Dey vs. Bey

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. ~630:

For nearly two hundred years the deys of Algiers had inclined toward greater independence from the Porte.

They were loosely united with the Ottoman Empire. Although the terms dey and bey are often used interchangeably, they are distinct, the dey being, after the revolt of 1710, the head officer of Algiers. The two words have different Osmanli stems, the dey coming from the Turkish dai, meaning at first a maternal uncle, but applied by the Janissaries to any well-thought-of elder.

When the Janissaries deposed the pasha and elected their own commander the head of the province, they gave him the friendly title of dey, which prevailed until the French conquest of 1830. The bey, originally beg, meant an Ottoman governor or prince, as begum meant a princess or queen. It was a more common term than dey.

Eventually beg came to be pronounced bey and moved over into the English language in that form, but its application broadened to include the ruler of a district, an appointive governor, or an individual of rank. While there were many beys among the Ottoman rulers, there was properly only one dey, the half-independent ruler of Algiers.) [sic; poorly edited] The cord with the empire was there, and at times it could be binding.

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Explorer Barth and Reader Cooley

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 211-213:

[Heinrich Barth] … began replies to his recent correspondents. One of them was William Desborough Cooley, the British historian and geographer. His book of 1841, The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained; or, An Inquiry into the Early History and Geography of Central Africa, attempted to re-create the history and geography of the western Sudan through rigorous engagement with old travelers’ accounts and Arabic sources such as Al-Idrisi and Al-Bakri. Cooley sifted these sources for verifiable facts and cross-checked them against modern European travel accounts. Comparing all these sources, he believed, would yield a strong facsimile of truth about Central Africa’s past as well as the location of historical places and landmarks.

He was able to demonstrate that the half-legendary empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai had been real, and he roughly positioned them geographically for the first time. From old and new sources he extracted a detailed, complex history of black Africa that contradicted hazy European assumptions about the continent’s savagery. Cooley also avoided most of the era’s racial and cultural biases. He reminded readers that bloody executions by African leaders weren’t so different from English laws that burned women at the stake for counterfeiting money or that hanged hundreds of people for minor crimes such as pilfering.

Cooley’s book was immediately influential among Europe’s Africanists, but met its greatest resistance in Britain. Barth admired it so much that he carried it to Africa and often consulted it. On April 1851, a few days after he first arrived in Kukawa, he wrote Cooley an introductory letter that began, “Sir, It is from a warm love of science that I quite a stranger to you take the liberty of addressing you the following lines.” He expressed his esteem for The Negroland of the Arabs, “sincere as it is without the least prejudice and going on with a firm step from point to point”—a perspective and method like Barth’s own. Rereading the book in Africa, he told Cooley, increased his appreciation. He thought Cooley would like to know that on-the-ground observations were confirming the accuracy of the old Arab historians and many of Cooley’s speculations. “I am able to put truth in the place of conjectures,” wrote Barth, “and to give life to vague accounts of former times.”

Cooley’s response, written in January 1852, reached Bagirmi with the packet of letters in July. His tiny handwriting in pale ink contrasted strongly with Barth’s bold dark penmanship. The letter was a peculiar mixture of praise, advice, querulousness, bruised egotism, and condescension. Cooley regretted not meeting Barth in London and welcomed Barth’s compliments about his book, “as it has been received here with discouraging coldness,” despite “the revolution effected by me in the comparative Geography of Africa.”

He swatted away several of Barth’s suggested corrections to his speculations. Barth was right, but Cooley’s reaction was typical of him. He ridiculed any new information by explorers that contradicted his armchair conjectures. For instance, he mocked all the eyewitness reports of snow on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro because they clashed with his theory about possible temperatures at the equator. This habit eventually undermined his influence and earned him the nickname “the stormy petrel.”

Cooley praised Barth for sending back “a larger amount of valuable information, then [sic] has been as yet appended to the narrative of any African traveller, Burckhardt alone perhaps excepted; and doubtless you now possess much the loss of which would be deplorable.”

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