Empire of Liberty: Cyrene Song

Excerpt from Lt. Thomas Barron’s “Adventures of the Company of General Eaton in Barbary”, Philadelphia 1819.

“Early in the morning we sighted a sliver of red on the horizon; the coast of Egypt. As we approached the city unveiled itself dominated by the Pompey’s Pillar, a Roman column from centuries past that has towered above the city for ages. Our arrival in Alexandria was perplexing to say the least. Upon arrival late in the afternoon the Captain ordered a salute fired and colors hoisted in hopes of attracting a pilot into the harbor. This occurred and no pilot ever came to greet us.

The next day the Captain ordered the French tricolor hoisted and a salute fired once more. This maneuver finally attracted the necessary attention and an old Arab came out to guide us into port where we settled between several French and Italian frigates.

The city is unlike any I have yet seen. It is ancient and the ruins of Greeks, Pharaohs and Romans litter the streets. None of the wonders of antiquity remain beyond the pillar. Desert sands pile against Roman manors and the fountains and aqueducts are bone dry save for those kept in operation purely to provide water for the citizenry. One day on the streets allows one to hear all manner of tongues and see all manner of races. Arabs shout in French and Turkish, the French barter in Italian, the Italians all speak Greek and the Greeks all speak Turkish. Some lingering Turks remain but allegedly most of the Turks and Albanians evacuated after Bonaparte’s invasion. The French are constant in their activity. The sound of hammering and sawing carries into the night. Soldiers scuttle about every which way dodging Arabs, Jews and Copts. Curiously a Dutchman says that the Copts, despite being Christian, hate the French whom they regard as heathen disturbers of the peace while the Moslems embrace the French for the order they provide.

Truly this is a land of paradoxes.”


Excerpt from “Bald Eagles in Arabia: A Brief History of the U.S. Middle East”

Several days after arriving in Alexandria, Eaton and a small entourage of officers began the journey to Cairo and, hopefully, Hamet. Crossing the Boghase, the rough sandy entrance bar where the turbulent red silt of the Nile collides with the azure waters of the Mediterranean, on November 17, 1803, the Americans left the sandy coast and quickly entered the verdant fields of the Nile Delta. Surrounded by rice plantations, orange groves, ancient villages, palms and brilliantly colored parakeets and ibises, the party arrived in the ancient metropolis of Egypt a week later.

Cairo of 1803, like Alexandria, was a city in transition. With a population of approximately 400,000 the city was home to Arabs, Turks, Copts, Syrians, Greeks, Jews, French, Nubians, Sudanese, and even a few straggling or loyalist mamluks with their Circassian and Georgian origins. Like Alexandria, it was a place of ancient traditions and casually littered with ruins and treasures ranging from the time of long forgotten pharaohs to the recent Caliphs, mamluks and French invaders. The French were also a flurry of activity as they scrambled to “éclairer et moderniser” [enlighten and modernize] the ancient city. Museums, libraries and hospitals were all under construction…as were barracks, supply depots and fortresses. Napoleon clearly intended his name to one day be associated with Egypt in the same vein as Alexander, Antony, Umar, and Saladin.

In Cairo, Eaton found a good working relationship with French General Louis Desaix, the de facto commander of French Egypt but struggled to track down viable leads on Hamet’s whereabouts [1]. For nearly a month he worked leads, inquisitional locals and took in the sights. Whereas Napoleon’s correspondence and journal entries tend to wax poetic about the vast history of the region, Eaton’s take on an unabashedly pro-American tone, obviously heavily influenced by his own pride and passion and his interactions with the locals. Of the pyramids and the Sphinx he writes:

“Ruined temples, pyramids, and catacombs, monuments of superstition, pride, and folly of their founders disgust my sight; for with their magnificence I cannot but couple the idea of the slaves who must have groaned under the oppressive folly of their fabrication.”

Of the Nile itself:

“When I contrast the pure currents, healthful margins, and delightsome landscapes of our Susquehanna, Delaware, Hudson and Connecticut [Rivers] with the muddy waters, miry or parched banks and eternal deserts of the [Nile]; and the intelligence, freedom and felicity of the citizens [in America], with the stupid ignorance, riveted vassalage and hopeless misery of the peasants ere, I almost lose sensibility of pity in the glad reflection that I am a citizen of the United States.”

Interestingly, Eaton’s idle venting of frustrations ominously seems to lay out the very attitudes that would define the next several decades of history of the region.

There was good reason for his frustrations over the delays since Hamet was no longer technically in Egypt. Eaton eventually found an Arab Sheik who informed him that Hamet had fled Egypt with his mamluk hosts beyond Elephantine Island and into Nubia, technically into the domains of the Sultanate of Sennar.

To understand the gravity of Eaton’s decisions one must understand the locale he was weighing on whether to enter or not.

Upper Egypt was only recently pacified by the French thanks to the efforts of Jacques Macdonald and the recent expulsion of the mamluks. Even then the further downriver along the Nile one went, the less centralized control one found. Maps of the era seem to indicate that France firmly controlled vast swathes of northeast Africa when, in reality, their grip centered on the Nile Delta and key points and forts along the river such as Fayyum and Luxor. Isolated villages often operated in a state of semi-permanent lawlessness. Turkish bandits still roamed, stranded down river with no way back home. Bedouin raiders combed the desert as they had for centuries. A lucky wayward traveler might find a friendly band and immense hospitality. Unlucky travelers might find death and robbery. In addition, the flight of thousands of mamluks and their various families, servants and entourages into Nubia had thrown the political situation beyond Elephantine Island into question.

Further south at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, the Sennar Sultanate dated to the early 16th century and had once been a powerful trading sultanate with its basis in gold and slaves flowing from the distant lands of east Africa northward into Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. Infighting between the Sultan and powerful nobles had eroded the power of Sennar from the mid-18th century onward. Nascent attempts by the Turks to gain control of the region were preempted by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. This left a power vacuum in the region, one conveniently waiting to be filled by the migrating mamluks.

Soon the north of Sennar found itself under mamluk control and the new arrivals exerted more and more control on the weak Sultan Ranfi. The region became lawless, a prime location for robbery, extortion, slave trading and murder. Combined with the weak French control south of Luxor, this made any attempt by white Christians to pass through the region extremely hazardous.

So that is exactly what Eaton did. Departing from Cairo southward along the Nile, Eaton, a translator, a guide, four navy officers, an alleged Hamet minister and his stepson all began the perilous journey into the depths of Africa. From what everyone understood this would be the furthest any Americans had ventured into interior Africa in history. Indeed only a handful of adventuring Europeans seeking the mythical land of Ethiopia were recorded to have gone father. Eaton’s letters and diary provide a glimpse of their endeavors. Extortion from a roving band of Turks near Daraw, a rough portage around the first cataract, an encounter with a Nile crocodile near Semna and a curious encounter with a detachment of Bedouin raiders, one of whom spoke perfect Italian which allowed for successful communication (and bribery) all made for an eventful journey. Eventually the misplaced entourage encountered mamluk patrols who took them to Dunqulah, the mamluk’s makeshift capital in the northern reaches of Sennar [2].

After many long months, Eaton finally met Hamet in person.

And the exiled prince failed to live up to the hype.

While it proved easy enough to convince Hamet to venture north back into Egypt, Eaton quickly learned why Yussef had triumphed over the rightful heir. Hamet was prone to indecision and panic. He lacked inspiration and his entourage were less valued ministers and more unscrupulous conmen. Eaton shelled out thousands from his expense account to barter passage, settle squabbles and debts and slowly prod Hamet and his loyalists back up the Nile to Cairo. It quickly became apparent that Eaton, not the would be pasha, was in command. Yet, Hamet and his most important sheiks commanded the Muslim portion of the growing strike force. Clashes and miscommunication between Eaton and the Christians and Hamet, the sheiks and the Muslims would characterize the entirety of the campaign.

In Alexandria, Eaton and Hamet cobbled together a makeshift army to attack Cyrenaica from which an assault on Tripoli would occur. Thanks to generous American expense accounts, several hundred mercenaries of Arab, Bedouin, Turkish, Greek, Albanian, Italian and Maltese descent joined existing American ranks. Loaded into the holds of three ships-of-the-line, Hamet’s new army proceeded to the ancient bay at Bomba in order to make their assault on Derne. Eaton finally laid his eyes on Cyrenaica on April 12, 1804 [3].

Operating a polyglot army with glaring tensions between Christian and Muslims on French-controlled soil or the cargo holds of American warships is one thing. Operating that same army in a strange, arid, predominantly Muslim, nominally enemy, territory was a whole other. Even with naval support there were questions about food and freshwater. Two days inland the hired caravan stopped in its tracks and demanded more money to proceed. It was a trick dating to the time of Abraham but the Americans were none the wiser and Eaton had long since expended most of his cash on hand. Urged on by promises of plunder and payment on American ships, the caravan slowly continued on [4].

Delays became incessant. The camp came to a halt one day as officers searched the company for thieves who had swiped excess provisions and a wallet of francs. Eaton never found the culprits but three Bedouin mercenaries had coincidentally disappeared. Two days into their march, Hamet rode off to the south and disappeared for several days before returning with nearly 1,500 Bedouin nomads, including many women and children from the Eu ed Alli tribe. Exiled as supporters of Hamet, they provided manpower even if Eaton blasted them as a constant source of headaches. We should note that Eaton’s journals and correspondence are among the only evidence we have of the overland portion of this march. A few corroborating articles survive from his officers and enlisted men but no written record provides a rebuttal on the side of Hamet, the Bedouins and other Muslims.

The port city of Derne was the first target of this makeshift army. According to Eaton this was the richest, easternmost, outpost of Tripolitania. The city straddled the boundary between the Jebel Akhdar, or “Green Mountains” of Cyrenaica, and the harsh Libyan Desert that stretched eastward to the Nile Valley. The ancient summer homes of long-forgotten Carthaginian and Roman patricians and overgrown with vineyards, peach and orange trees, date palms, sugarcane, wildflowers as well as stubby cedar trees littered the surrounding countryside. The unknowing Americans referred to the harbor as “excellent”, ignorant that high winds, shallow waters and a reef-choked channel rendered the harbor practically useless between February and August for all but the most seasoned pilots. The geography of rainfall and trade winds had conspired long ago to make Bengazi, not Derne, the center of commerce in Cyrenaica.

Nonetheless, Hamet’s campaign to retake his birthright began in this lush wadi [valley]. The governor of Derne had roughly 800-men at his disposal, a seaside fort, several cannon (most pointed towards the harbor) and the benefit of several days to fortify the town. Eaton and Hamet had a motley army of roughly 2,000, segregated into a Christian camp under the command of Eaton and a Muslim camp under the command of Hamet. They had three brass fieldpieces of their own, mostly to knock down any walls. They also had the benefit of Bainbridge’s fleet (even if Eaton and Bainbridge came to hate each other over the months since they first met in Hampton, Virginia).

After a brief parlay to find a peaceful solution (in which the governor of Derne pithily responded “my head or yours”) the American ships positioned themselves to bombard Derne’s seaside fort and Eaton’s army prepared to attack. Eaton, with the use of the artillery and his more disciplined ranks of U.S. marines and Christian mercenaries, would attack the governor’s main line of defense to the southeast. Hamet and his mostly Bedouin cavalry would wheel around the town and attempt to capture an ancient castle on the southwest corner of the town.

Under green Muslim banners, Hamet’s force quickly took the castle and then planted themselves. The American warships lobbed everything they had at the coastal fort from 24-pound balls to grapeshot. The defenders broke and evacuated the castle after 45 minutes to reinforce the main defense. The disciplined ranks of the Euro-Americans combined with their superiority in artillery to collapse the defenses after a little more than an hour. At this time, Hamet and his cavalry charged into the southwest of the town and began clearing the streets. Eaton led a charge that quickly secured the seaside fort. Eaton ordered the stars and stripes lifted over the fort as a signal to Bainbridge’s fleet that the fort was secure. Surely no one knew that this marked the first lifting of the U.S. flag in a region that would soon be defined by its long, complex, relationship with the United States. With Hamet clearing the streets, and the Christians pointing the city’s cannons down towards the limestone dwellings, the fighting ended. A few defenders fled to the countryside. The governor was cut down attempting to find sanctuary. Most of the defenders quietly hid their muskets and scimitars and blended back into civilian life. The April 21, 1804 Battle of Derne cost Eaton four wounded Christians and Hamet two killed Bedouins with several other’s sporting minor injuries.

The dominant victory rocked the region.


Excerpt from Batavian Consul Antoine Zuchet’s “Weekly Reports Written From Inside Tripoly”, Tripoli May 10, 1804.

“Yesterday there arrived here from Derne, after 18 days passage by camel, dispatches that brought the devastating news to the Bashaw that his brother, Sidi Ahmed, with around 2,000 men, Infantry and Cavalry and 500 Americans commanded by “Colonel Aiton,” former U.S. consul at Tunis, have captured a city in the province of Derne and that a tribe of Arabs have joined them.

This news has produced alarm in this Regency and in the whole country, although the Bashaw deludes himself that his enemies will be soon destroyed by his troop of 5,000 soldiers, which is only a little ways from Derne. Many of the inhabitants of the city who, trying to avoid the bombardment, rented at great expense villas in the countryside were ordered to return to the city. The Bashaw lavished money and clothes on the Arab tribes camped around the city walls to keep them loyal.”


Excerpt from Lt. William Wormley’s “Recollections From A Prisoner In Tripoli”, Trenton, 1808.

“It was apparent to the most indifferent observer that on the arrival of the second courier announcing the defeat of the reigning bashaw’s army by General Eaton and Hamet Bashaw that the greatest terror and consternation reigned throughout the whole town.”


Excerpt from “Bald Eagles in Arabia: A Brief History of the U.S. Middle East”

Yussef immediately dispatched several hundred cavalry to Cyrenaica to crush the rebellion. He also quietly decreased the ransom demand on the Constellation prisoners and relayed the message to Commodore Briggs via the Danish consul. Dr. Jonathan Cowdery, one of the Constellation’s officers wrote that he believed Yussef to be so agitated over the news from Derne that if he could, he would make peace in exchange for the prisoners, without compensation.

Eaton and Hamet had no desire to linger on their victory, especially when rumor began swirling that 800 Tripolitan cavalry were thundering across the Al Marqab towards Bengazi.

Despite being flush with victory, the makeshift mission became beset with new problems. Many of the mercenaries demanded payment. Several robberies occurred as Hamet and Eaton both tried to hold 2,000 men of various tongues and creeds from sacking the town. A day after the battle Bainbridge foolishly ran his ship-of-the-line aground on one of Derne’s tricky reefs. It would take several days to dislodge the ship and extensive damage forced her to limp to Toulon. Operations in Tripolitania had just cost the United States two ships-of-the-line through bad luck alone. Only promises of payment at Bengazi, relayed back to Briggs via Bainbridge, kept the army together. Even with his wide latitude to draw on U.S. credit, Eaton worked double time to keep the ever-growing expenses down. If Jefferson decided to thrust even a fraction of the cost of the expedition back on to Eaton, he would be financially ruined given the scope of the debts he already incurred as consul to Tunis.

Furthermore, Eaton had foolishly relayed a report to Briggs essentially slamming Hamet for lacking military talent and firmness. He also pointed out a paradox of honor the mission had revealed. If supporting Hamet to force peace with Yussef potentially meant abandoning Hamet then there was just as little honor in abandoning an ally as there was in paying ransom money. Simultaneously, Eaton was berating his ally for a lack of leadership and advocating that honor dictated supporting that very person all the way to the gates of Tripoli. Any other commodore would have taken Eaton’s recommendation and begin pushing a diplomatic solution to the conflict [5].

Of course, William Briggs was no run of the mill commodore.

By this point, the U.S. conflict in North Africa had become its own theater of war. Lacking a large standing army, the United States was in no position to directly assist Napoleon on the continent but its navy and marines could assist in Mediterranean operations. The Barbary War took pressure off France in her wars in the Balkans and kept the Mediterranean free of pirates. The open shipping lanes greatly assisted France in its support of Greece but also benefited the British who began to flex their muscles. British ships constantly streamed from Gibraltar to Naples and Malta and on to Anatolia in support of Selim III as the War of the Janissaries raged for control of Turkey. The Nottingham Incident further upped the geopolitical ante when Britain became involved in Morocco. A month before Eaton arrived in Alexandria, Britain declared war on Russia in response to their audacious attack on Constantinople. Simply put, a half peace could not cut it. Furthermore, Briggs increasingly sought a base of operations from the United States in the region. Constantly borrowing French, Aragonese, Greek, Italian and Egyptian ports was straining American logistics and costing the U.S. a small fortune.

The very notion of imperial adventures detested most Americans but Briggs routinely theorized creative ways to net the United States control over an African port. He long sought Tunis as this port but the fighting focused first on Tripoli. Bainbridge’s reef encounter quickly clued the Americans into the reality that Derne could not be the port of call they hoped for either. Eaton’s and Briggs’ mind wandered slightly westward…

———————- Author’s Notes ————————-

[0]: The above quotes from Wormley, Zuchet and Eaton are all from our timeline. Eaton’s contempt for Egypt and his initial disillusionment with Hamet are also real.

[1]: It’s been a while since it was mentioned but the French are still very much in Egypt with Louis Desaix acting as the man in charge, alternating between affairs in Egypt and the stalled front near our timeline’s modern Lebanon border.

[2]: Also remember that France’s renewed push against Ottoman Egypt netted the expulsion of the mamluks into our timeline Sudan. In our timeline, Hamet was living amongst the mamluks and Eaton found him much further north in Egypt. In this timeline, he risks a ton to go down into Sudan to find Hamet.

[3]: The larger U.S. navy in this timeline means that there is no need for Eaton to cross the desert like he famously did in our timeline.

[4]: In our timeline, Eaton had massive money problems in his personal life and in his Derne campaign. His alternate timeline self can thank the existence of the Order for literally printing money to bail him out. Unbeknownst to anyone, Jefferson could really care less how expensive the mission is so long as it produces results.

[5]: A similarly stupid letter in our timeline essentially prompts the navy to authorize ransom negotiations with Yussef. Had Eaton not sent his dispatch it is a real possibility the navy would have let Eaton continue his mission towards Tripoli.

Source Materials

Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast. Hyperion, 2005.

Zuchet, Antoine. Letters of Antoine Zuchet, consul in Tripoli for Batavian Republique to Department of Foreign Affairs. Translation from French by Richard Zacks. Nationaal Archief. The Hague. Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, 1796-1810. Access number 2.01.08. inv. Nr. 356.

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