Today in North African history: the Battle of Derna ends (1805)

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For a military clash that didn’t involve that many soldiers, the 1805 Battle of Derna has a lot of symbolic importance. For one thing, it was the final and most decisive battle of the First Barbary War, arguably the first overseas war the United States ever fought (unless you count the 1798-1800 Quasi-War against the French, even though it was only a “quasi-war”). It was definitely the first overseas ground battle ever fought by a US military force. It gave the Marines the “to the shores of Tripoli” part of their theme song. So there’s a lot of stuff happening here. It also has the distinction of being a battle in which people who actually did the fighting and won came away almost completely empty-handed. More to the point, it was the first episode in the long history of the United States recruiting and then screwing over Middle Eastern proxies.

The First Barbary War pitted the young United States against the so-called “Barbary states” (named for the Berber people), which were (from west to east): the Sultanate of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripolitania. Except for Morocco these were all autonomous principalities within the Ottoman Empire. Economically, all four relied heavily on piracy and kidnapping (or at least the threat of piracy and kidnapping), and that included piracy against US merchant vessels and their crews. Shortly after the US became independent and its ships lost the protection of the French navy (which they’d had during the Revolutionary War), they became regular targets for Barbary corsairs.

Through the 1780s the US government sought to handle this problem the way most European states did—by negotiating treaties with the Barbary states and making regular tribute/protection payments to ensure the safety of their ships. But as the US Navy grew stronger, the willingness of politicians in Washington to keep paying tribute (which accounted for about 20 percent of the US government’s budget at one point) declined. By the time Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800 he’d become an ardent opponent of the tribute payments and believed strongly that only a robust military statement would end the piracy on US terms. When Yusuf Karamanli, the governor of Tripoli, demanded a tribute payment upon Jefferson’s inauguration, the new president refused, and that meant war. In alliance with Sweden (which was already at war with Tripoli), and with the assistance of the Kingdom of Sicily (which provided ships and bases), the US Navy began blockading Barbary ports starting in May 1801.

The war lasted from 1801 to 1805 and for most of that time the biggest thing that happened was a US raid in Tripoli harbor to set fire to one of its own ships that had run aground and been captured by the Tripolitanians. Kind of a snoozer as international conflicts go. But in 1804, Jefferson sent William Eaton, formerly the US consul in Tunis, back to the Mediterranean with the goal of overthrowing Yusuf Karamanli in favor of his brother, Hamet. In truth, Hamet was arguably the rightful governor of Tripoli, but Yusuf had usurped the job from him back in 1796 and exiled his brother to Egypt. Eaton approached Hamet Karamanli and convinced him to sign on to a mission to oust Yusuf.

Joining Eaton and Hamet Karamanli in their quest would be seven US Marines under the command of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and a couple hundred mercenaries, most either Turkish or Arab, recruited for the mission. Eaton appointed himself commander in-chief of this, uh, army, and they set out from Alexandria on March 8, 1805, headed ultimately for Tripoli. Their baggage train included all of one artillery piece and nowhere near enough food for the trek. Somehow, despite multiple mutinies along the way, the ragtag army managed to get to Bomba in early April, where they got resupplied. Eaton wrote ahead to the governor of Derna requesting safe passage. Said governor told Eaton to get bent, and so he prepared to attack the city.

Although they were wildly outnumbered and outgunned by a garrison that numbered in the thousands and had at least eight artillery pieces, some clever tactics and support from US vessels offshore enabled the American force to take the city. Eaton split his small army, sending the Marines and some Greek mercenaries straight into Derna from the east, while Hamet took the rest of the mercenaries around the city to attack from the west. The eastern attack drew the defenders’ attention, as planned, and was eventually able to capture the opposing artillery battery. They turned the city’s guns against its defenders, who fled straight into Hamet and the rest of the mercenaries. Two Marines, nine Greek mercenaries, and an unknown (possibly uncounted) number of Arab and Turkish mercenaries were killed, but the city was taken.

Eaton and his Marines charging Derna, a painting by American artist Charles Waterhouse (Wikimedia Commons)

Yusuf Karamanli sent a relief force that arrived too late and was then unable to retake the city in the face of artillery fire both from the city’s guns and those offshore US ships. Eaton began preparing for his glorious march on Tripoli, but his big dreams were dashed when Yusuf and Jefferson’s envoy, Tobias Lear, negotiated an end to the war. They agreed that Yusuf would release his American prisoners in exchange for a relatively modest ransom (much less than the tribute he’d demanded of Jefferson years earlier) and the return of Derna. Hamet Karamanli, who had to slink back into exile, learned an important lesson about allying with the United States—as did the mercenaries, who don’t seem to have gotten paid what Eaton promised them.

Despite the ransom payment, the First Barbary War was generally considered a US victory, which helped ignite America’s enduring love affair with war. Ironically enough the one thing the war didn’t do was settle the issue of piracy against US ships. That’s why this is the First Barbary War—it took a Second (albeit extremely brief) Barbary War in 1815, followed by a sustained British-Dutch campaign against the Barbary States, to actually begin to address Mediterranean piracy. Even then, piracy (particularly trading captive sailors as slaves or ransoming them) was so central to the North African economy that it lingered for several more years. It wasn’t until France conquered Algeria in the mid 1800s that the practice really subsided.