Empire of Liberty: To The Shores Of Tripoli

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

Originally founded by Greek colonizers and called Euesperides, the port of Bengazi far surpassed Derne as the leading harbor and chief center of commerce in Cyrenaica [1]. Briggs’ desired it for naval purposes. Eaton desired it as the next step in his mission to reclaim American honor. Hamet desired it as it would secure his rule over Cyrenaica and give him a springboard to Tripoli.

On April 26, 1804, Eaton dispersed enough cash and credit to send the army marching towards Bengazi. Despite the pleasant country and the relatively short march, the 150-mile affair was a constant comedy of frustrations and tediousness. The army could only move as quickly as the camel baggage train allowed because Eaton and his officers had to slowly follow it to ensure their hired baggage men did not suddenly decide to stop and demand more money. Hamet and Eaton were constantly squabbling. Hamet detested answering to the thickheaded Christian, especially in public and Eaton detested the lackluster Hamet, his indecisiveness, and the poor leadership of his entourage. On multiple occasions half the Bedouin contingent would wheel off after some tirade, threatening to return to Derne, or even Egypt, only to reappear within an hour and rejoin the army in exchange for promised credit, plunder or even increased rations of food [2]. Somewhere near the town of Massah, Eaton wrote an interesting letter to Briggs theorizing on post-war politics:

“We may very well say that Bashaw Hamet is only here because of our ingenuity, persistence, and pursuit of honor. Without our endeavors he would still be exiled in a hut hundreds of miles down the Nile. He may be obstinate but he owes us everything and surely he must know this. If we pursue victory to Tripoli and restore the Bashaw to his rightful place it may be prudent to continue our mission. Let the Bashaw benefit from our continued influence and, over time, perhaps we can remove the ignorance and superstition of this land, democratize, and create a proper civilization. Let this great land of Scipio and Hannibal see greatness once more. [3]”

Here was Eaton, surrounded by Muslims, in the middle of a country he had been in for only some months, openly advocating for a colonial effort to a former U.S. Vice President. For an ardent patriot like Eaton who reviled European style imperialism, the mental gymnastics are staggering. It should be noted that Briggs never replied.


Excerpt from Yevgeny Silin’sA Concise History of North Africa”, A.F. Marks, Goltsev, & Pisapia Publishing Co., 2011.

While the immediate events of the American’s campaign in North Africa started in Cyrenaica, the commodores in charge hardly ignored the theaters in Tunis and Algiers. The war began when the American navy implemented blockades of Bengazi, Tripoli, Sfax, Tunis, Algiers, Annaba, Jijel, Béjaïa, Mostaganem, and Oran. This daunting blockade demanded 70 percent of the American blue water navy and was the direct reason the USS Constellation found itself in its perilous situation in Tripoli’s harbor. While General William Eaton invaded Tripolitania, the U.S. Navy remained focused on keeping the beys of Algiers and Tunis isolated from Constantinople. While neither bey would formally declare for either Selim III or Mustafa IV (paying nominal lip service to both), most observers speculate that their allegiance lie with Mustafa and his pro-decentralized Ottoman state that favored the janissaries and autonomous governors like the North African pirate lords. Due to this speculation, both Washington and Paris were quick to keep the formidable navies of the pirates from sailing east and Selim was more than willing to let his allies run roughshod over his enemies. Hearsay evidence from Selim’s courtiers even seems to indicate that as early as September 1802 (when Selim was first establishing his court-in-exile in Antalya) the Sultan was making peace with the reality that he was going to lose his North African territories.

With a carte blanche to conduct their war against the Barbary Coast however they would like, Napoleon increasingly became involved in the Franco-American operations. More and more French-allied ships found themselves redirected from eastern waters to the blockade operation and on May 23, 1804 (shortly after the victory at Vidin) Napoleon ordered Jacques Macdonald, the commander who expelled the mamluks from Upper Egypt, to return to Toulon and prepare an invasion of Algiers. When the American Chargé d’Affaires George Erving (sent from his post in London to follow Napoleon directly in late 1803) discovered this maneuver, he hurriedly dispatched correspondence to Commodore William Briggs urging some sort of decisive action so that the Americans would not find themselves stuck with the naval bill while Napoleon added another territory to his growing empire. Notably he sent another letter to President Thomas Jefferson suggesting that the United States “reevaluate” its alliance with France the day the Louisiana Bargain transfers finally completed. The first letter successfully made the perilous mail route to Triste and sailed to Briggs’ for him to read at the squadron’s headquarters at Syracuse on June 28. The second letter however fell into the hands of bandits near the town of Niš. As history remembers, it circulated a bit before its importance became known and the letter sold to Ali Pasha, the strongman in control of Albania and Epirus desperately looking for a way to save his personal kingdom.

Operating with great expediency (and perhaps pushing the limits of his permitted expenditures), Briggs hired 800 Sicilian mercenaries and dispatched them to reinforce Eaton in Tripolitania. As Briggs was reading his dispatch, Macdonald was arriving in Alexandria and prepared to head towards Toulon. Just as Napoleon, Selim and the Zubovs unknowingly raced towards Constantinople in the eastern Mediterranean, Briggs, Eaton and Macdonald now unknowingly raced each other for supremacy in the west.


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

After 17 arduous days, Eaton and Hamet’s army arrived outside of Bengazi on May 13. Already blockaded by John Rogers, a formidable fleet surveyed the harbor. A brief excursion by Eaton to Rogers’ ship, the recently commissioned USS George Washington, Eaton and Rogers outlined a similar battle plan as occurred at Derne. Rogers would blast the old fort at the end of Juliyana Point. Hamet and his cavalry would rush the town from the northeast, attempting to ride in along a salt marsh where the defenders would least suspect such a charge. Eaton and his foot soldiers would attack from the south and attempt to physically take the fort. Bickering held up the attack by a day and Eaton once again dispatched a tirade-filled letter to Briggs regarding the shortcomings of Hamet. A captured scout brought the army back together when he revealed that Yussef’s cavalry were less than two days ride away. With no desire the be caught between an hammer and an anvil, the unlikely conquerors attacked at first light the next morning.

To everyone’s pleasant surprise the attack lasted approximately 20 minutes. Rogers’ ships got off only two opening broadsides into the old fort before the governor opened the gates and rode out to parlay with Eaton. After an awkward 20-minute pause as Eaton fetched a translator and Hamet, quick negotiations saw “the rightful bashaw” welcomed into his city with open arms. Eaton suspected that the governor merely hedged his bet. Had Yussef’s force arrived first, the situation would have been far bloodier. Had the American force shown up with fewer numbers and ships, the city likely would have resisted. Even if it had, Eaton liked his odds. On closer inspection of the Juliyana Castle, the fortress sported nine cannons, seven in working order.

It worked in Eaton’s favor that no attack meant no defenses battered down since they would need them for the coming fight against Yussef’s cavalry. The next day, camels and barbary horses flying green banners combed the hills outside of the city. The siege that unfolded was unlike anything Eaton expected. Hamet’s forces spread out across the city, supplemented by the fighting men of Bengazi. The Christians took refuge in the old fortress, reorienting the old cannons and installing their own field pieces in strategic positions. Eaton ordered the city gates barred but Bedouin women slipped in and out of the two camps like seasoned spies. Eaton quickly learned that he had a $6,000 bounty on his head; the other Christians had $30 each. Each day brought news of an imminent attack that never came. The supporting tribes on Yussef’s payroll gave their own leadership the same frustrations that Hamet’s followers gave Eaton, always seeking more money and disdaining an actual attack. More than a few Tripolitans had no desire to rush a fort, backed up by American seapower, when all they had was scimitars and outdated muskets.

For eight long days, the two forces sized the other up. The only action occurred when several Tripolitan raiders advanced near the city to capture some of the pro-Hamet Bedouin’s cattle and sheep. The raiders were soundly defeated and the stolen livestock returned. In the meantime, the officers attempted to kill their boredom in what ways they could. Rogers began sounding Bengazi harbor and drafting a new chart. Much to his (and eventually Briggs’) chagrin, he found the harbor pock marked with reefs and far siltier than his outdated charts indicated. Like Derne, Bengazi would not be an ideal point of operations for the U.S. Navy in the region. Hamet dispatched some riders towards the interior province of Fezzan to put out feelers for support. Eaton borrowed Rogers’ copy of the Iliad and some English newspapers obtained during a stopover at Malta.

Finally, on the ninth day, the Tripolitans attacked. Catastrophe immediately befell the attacking army when a wave of charging Bedouins received several direct hits from Rogers’ ship. The volleys caused the men to rethink their employment and hundreds of Bedouin mercenaries reeled off and back to safety. Hassan Bey, the Tripolitan commander of the force, must not have noticed that a third of his force had just abandoned the endeavor and continued the charge. To their credit, the Tripolitans broke through the dilapidated city gate with little trouble. The delay did allow some well-positioned artillery shots from the castle to land in their ranks and once a break through occurred Hamet’s city guards beset the remaining few hundred Tripolitans. Within 15 minutes of breaching the city, Bengazi lay quiet. Most of the Tripolitans fled or tried to quietly merge into the city. From start to finish, the battle lasted approximately 30 minutes.

The Battle of Bengazi was the last chance for Yussef to secure his reign. Twelve days after the defeat, rumor quietly buzzed quietly through Tripoli. Hamet had secured Cyrenaica. The Bedouin mercenaries dispatched by Yussef had turned in the battle. Gharian had risen up against Yussef as it had once before. Yussef was withholding a letter from the people offering the town safety for surrender but threatened to execute every man and sell the women and children into slavery if the city resisted. The Amenokal chiefs of the fearsome Taureg tribes had just signed a treaty with Hamet. Seventy U.S. ships convened at Syracuse to sail into Tripoli harbor. Most of these whispers were false (though Gharian did secretly send a messenger to Hamet declaring in his favor) but the mood in the city quickly soured nonetheless. Constantly beside himself, Yussef threatened everything from converting to Christianity and declaring himself an ally of the United States to massacring the American prisoners [4].

The prisoners were the sticking point in all operations. Briggs finally had his land force with which he could conduct lasting military operations throughout the region but with Yussef backed into a corner, he could always order a massacre and spoil any victory Eaton and Hamet could achieve. Always the outside thinker, Briggs’ concocted a solution and he would resolve the pending crisis personally.

On June 7, Briggs landed at Bengazi and met with Eaton and Hamet. Through broken French and Italian, occasionally conducted through Eaton and Hamet’s translator, Briggs’ laid out his proposal. The United States would guarantee Yussef’s safety, and the safety of his personal guard and the corsairs, on the condition that Yussef agree to exile from North Africa and instead conduct himself and his forces to Anatolia where they would declare their support for the desperate Selim III. The American prisoners would go free and Hamet would take Tripoli in a bloodless coup, reclaiming his birthright. Eaton, shocked that his unlikely odyssey might actually succeed, endorsed the plan (with reservations about not bringing Yussef to justice, but exile and use on another battlefield were rational excuses). Hamet, hardly the courageous warrior his brother could sometimes be, quickly endorsed the plan as well. All that remained was bringing Yussef, literally, on board. Surely Hamet also harbored fears that an attack on Tripoli could result in Yussef executing his wife and children, hostages his brother captured years before [5].

On June 11, the USS George Washington carried Briggs, Eaton, Hamet and John Rogers to Tripoli Harbor alongside the USS Essex and the USS Nova Scotia. Briggs’ went out of his way to demonstrate that this fleet was one of pomp, circumstance, ceremony and, above all, diplomacy. Rogers and Briggs donned their dress uniform, sporting long blue waistcoats, standing white collars trimmed with gold lace, gold lace cuffs, pocket flaps and emblazoned gold epaulets on their shoulders. Eaton had his officers’ uniform cleaned the night before and stood just as imposing, even if his dress featured a few tears from recent battles. Hamet had procured cleaned flowing robes before leaving Bengazi and sported a brightly colored turban above his long beard. Even Yussef, holed up in his castle, surely knew that the fighting was futile and the time for formality was at hand.

Rogers ordered a white flag of truce hoisted at the foremast and a Castilian merchant flag at the mizzenmast, the nautical signal in Tripoli for peace negotiations [6]. The Essex’s guns fired two salutes. No response came from the castle.

Dr. Jonathan Cowdery, one of the prisoners from the Constellation, would write of that moment:

“At about 11 A.M. several ships came near in and hoisted the banners of peace. The Bashaw asked his head men of the town, who were with him in his gallery, whether it was best to hoist his white flag. All except two, the chargé d’affaires for Algiers and Tunis, declared in favour of it, and of making peace possible. They expressed great contempt towards the Algerine and Tunisian consults for their advice, and said that whoever would advise the Bashaw not to hoist the white flag at such a critical moment must be his foe. [7]”

Yussef ordered two shots of salute returned and white flags rose over the castle’s ramparts. That afternoon, Yussef dispatched his negotiating team: the Danish Consul Nicholas Nissen, a local banker named Leon Farfara, and Shoush Hammad the town harbormaster. With drums and pipes playing the men boarded the George Washington and negotiations began. It took the negotiators two days to convince Yussef that he would not be receiving ransom money in any form and that the U.S. was providing a take-it-or-leave-it offer. If Yussef rejected this ultimatum, and last chance at a new life, the U.S. and Hamet would attack Tripoli from land and sea. A storm forced the ships out of harbor for two tense days but on June 15, the Essex sailed back in to receive a reply. His back against literal walls, Yussef took the deal.

On June 16, 1804 after a grueling 502 days of captivity, the survivors of the Constellation found themselves freed. The city gates opened and white flags waved. That afternoon, U.S. marines and sailors nervously stepped ashore and found no tricks. Hamet and his guards followed and quickly secured the castle and Yussef. For the first time in years, Hamet saw his wife and children whom Yussef had kept as hostages. The rightful bey of Tripolitania was restored.

On June 18, Yussef and roughly 90 guards, retainers and family members boarded the USS Nova Scotia and USS Essex, destined for Antalya.

If this were a tale of fiction, this is where the story would read that all parties lived happily ever after but history is not a pleasant narrative. While one chapter had closed for this cast of characters, another was just beginning. Tripoli was now full of hundreds of mercenaries who demanded payment or plunder and Yussef’s reign left the Tripolitan treasury practically empty. Luckily for Eaton, the USS Constitution, arrived five days after Yussef’s departure with several thousand dollars. Quickly dispersing the promised payment, Eaton solved the immediate problem but the city was still full of hundreds of out of work mercenaries. Roughly, 120 found employment on four ships that Selim purchased from Hamet (from the former corsair fleet) and sailed towards Antalya as the Sultan worked to rebuild his navy. This move helped and even put some gold in Tripoli’s treasury but it was a stopgap. The former U.S. blockade coupled with the end of piracy meant that there was little in the way of a functional economy for the city. Hamet was still a poor ruler and relied heavily on his ministers and Eaton for advice and actual governance. Hamet perpetually feared an unexpected return of his brother and a renewal of civil war. Eaton himself was uncertain as to his next steps for a few days until the arrival of the Constitution brought more than just dollars in her hold. Eaton found a personal letter from Jefferson congratulating him on his unlikely successes thus far (the letter was dated in such a way that Jefferson only spoke of Eaton’s actual finding of Hamet. It would take some time before word spread across the United States of Eaton’s unlikely exploits) and offered him an expanded role as a naval agent, under the discretion of Commodore Briggs for future operations in the region. Having tasted glory once how could Eaton let the president down?

————- Author’s Notes ————–

[1]: You’ll note that many cities in this timeline are spelled with non-modern English translations. There is a reason for that but I’m not diving into it in a footnote since it is a major spoiler. Nevertheless, do note that these spellings are intentional and there is a reason a modern in-timeline author is referring to Benghazi as Bengazi and Thessaloniki as Thessalonica.

[2]: This is a very similar march as the one our timeline’s Eaton went through between Alexandria and Derne. Keep in mind that I believe we have no existing sources from the viewpoint of Eaton’s our time Muslim allies about this march and Eaton’s own writings are typically very passionate and contemptuous of all things not American. The in-timeline author is relying on Eaton’s in-timeline recordings to write this chapter so take the accounts with a grain of salt no different than you would studying Eaton’s our-timeline recording’s for our timeline’s Derne campaign.

[3]: Obviously, this is an in-timeline quote.

[4]: Our timeline’s Yussef made vague threats of executing the USS Philadelphia prisoners, which helped prevent a U.S. Naval bombardment or outright assault of the town.

[5]: In this timeline and in our timeline, when Yussef ousted Hamet as the ruler of Tripoli he took his brother’s family hostage.

[6]: In our timeline the signal for truce was a white flag and a Spanish flag but seeing as there is no Spain anymore in this timeline, Castile will do just fine.

[7]: This is an adjusted quote for this timeline that is similar to one from our-timeline from the same source.

Source Material

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

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