Stop me if you've heard this one:
- A totalitarian dictator of a Muslim nation kills hundreds of thousands while spending his nation's resources building a palace of mind-boggling size.
- European powers toady to a Muslim tyrant who projects his power in provocative ways, preferring to pay him off and do business rather than take action against him - even though they have enough military power to do so.
- The American president authorizes a mission to install a friendly government in a hostile Muslim country.
- Sleazy French agents undermine the mission and warn the dictator.
- An American diplomat whose marriage keeps him well connected scorns the idea that a government friendly to America can be established – or a military mission can succeed – then sets about to cause appeasement and containment.
- Marines are left hanging without support in unfriendly territory after a spectacular military success.
- Americans take the lead in stopping nation-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East, while the Europeans maintain a safe distance, becoming involved only in mop-up operations and peace negotiations.
If you suppose this scenario was taken from recent headlines, think again. Some are the main elements of a nearly 300-year old story, others from America's first shooting war during the Thomas Jefferson administration.
Two instant classics of popular history, Giles Milton's White Gold and Richard Zacks' The Pirate Coast, new in paperback this month, cover this dramatic era in our national past.
Many readers may be surprised to learn the West's battle against militant Islam did not end with the Crusades and not resume until the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. If anything, the century and a half of relative peace between Islamic states and the West that ended in the latter half of the 20th Century was the exception, not the rule.
When Bill Clinton and others justify Arab hatred for the West by hearkening back to the Crusades, they are exercising a selective memory. What they never mention is that, long after the Crusades, Arab pirates sanctioned by North African states kidnapped, murdered, plundered and enslaved Europeans for at least 200 years. Nor, when excoriating America's tainted history of slavery, do they note that while Western countries were developing modern economies and evolving from mercantilism to capitalism, which ultimately would make their involvement slavery obsolete, slaves continued to be an essential element of the Muslim system. In the 17th and 18th centuries, sea-going raiders from Islamic Mediterranean countries captured and enslaved about 1 million Europeans.
To get European slaves, Arab raiders had to sail great distances and raid the coasts of Britain, France and Spain – countries with established navies and central governments. And while tribal leaders in Africa regularly handed their own people or neighbors captured in war to slavers, no such cooperation existed in European countries. English mayors, for example, were not selling captive Scotsmen they had captured in tribal warfare.
In White Gold, Giles Milton, author of the best-selling historical adventure Nathaniel's Nutmeg, continues his method of illuminating how little-known personages and events had a big effect on history. Like his other books, White Gold is gory, spectacular and enormously entertaining.
After giving a brief overview of the Islamic slave traders' war on Christendom in the 17th and 18th centuries, Milton uses the story of Thomas Pellow to give us a slave's-eye view of the situation. Pellow was an 11-year-old cabin boy when corsairs on a commercial trip to the Mediterranean seized his uncle's ship in 1716.
The crew was given to King Moulay Ismail of Morocco, who ended the slave trade in his country in a unique way - by demanding all the slaves for himself. Ismail, a brutal and cunning tyrant, established a degree of totalitarianism based on terror that would be unequaled until modern communications technology gave Hitler, Stalin and Mao the ability to control the lives of vast populations.
In his great book, Fear No Evil, Soviet dissident (now Israeli statesman) Natan Sharanski discusses how he and the other dissidents referred to the Gulag as the "Inner Zone" and the rest of the USSR as merely the "Outer Zone" of a continental concentration camp. In White Gold, a European slave makes a similar observation about Morocco – that the rest of the populace was almost enslaved as they were.
Ismail's brand of slavery, however, makes Roots look like Gone with the Wind. He worked his captives to death, mostly constructing a horizontal Tower of Babel stretching a mind-boggling 300 miles that served as a palace.
Although they were in top shape at the time of their capture, Thomas's uncle and most of the crew were worked to death within a few years. Thomas, however, was an uncommonly bright and plucky young lad, and he caught the favor of the tyrant. After being tortured brutally for months, he "converted" to Islam and eventually was rewarded with a position of some importance in Ismail's army.
Despite his privileged life as a top soldier—and becoming a loving husband and father—Pellow spent every day of his 23 years in captivity looking for an opportunity to escape. When he did, he was one of the longest-surviving captives ever to return to England. In an ultimate act of irony, one of his descendants in 1816 accepted the surrender of the dey of Algiers, which ended the white slave trade.
Richard Zacks – whose previous book, Pirate Hunter, will convince you that Captain Kidd was a framed hero, not a murderous buccaneer – takes on the story of Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates in The Pirate Coast. This is mostly the story of William Eaton, whose exploits put "the shores of Tripoli" in the Marine Corps hymn.
An idealistic veteran of the Revolutionary War veteran, Eaton, as consul to Tripoli, was offended by America's kowtow to the Barbary Pirates and pay extortion as the price of doing business in the trade-rich Mediterranean.
With great fanfare, President Jefferson sent the pride of the U.S. Navy, the Philadelphia, to the Mediterranean to strike a blow for freedom of the seas. When Capt. William Bainbridge embarrassingly ran the Philadelphia aground in Tripoli Bay while pursuing pirates, he and his crew of over 300 were held hostage for ransom. Bainbridge – later decorated for his role in the affair during the political scramble for cover – still holds the U.S. Navy's record for cowardice. He surrendered not one but two ships in his career with hardly a shot being fired.
Eaton lobbied Jefferson for months for the chance to do something about the U.S. captives. Then he spent several more months seeking the exiled Prince Hamet in Egypt, before finally mounting an army for the mission to install Hamet on his brother's throne in Tripoli.
Meanwhile, the top U.S. diplomat in the region, Tobias Lear – who wed and outlived one niece of George Washington, then married another one – does everything he can to undercut the mission. Jefferson, the revolutionary with a wide streak of pacifism and a grave mistrust of standing armies, listens to Lear and begins backing away from Eaton's objective.
Eaton, however, bulled ahead with his mission against all odds. Accompanied by only eight US Marines, he gathered a rag-tag army pledged to Hamet. While neither nuanced nor diplomatic, Eaton kept his multicultural force together through a brutal 500-mile journey across the Libyan desert by sheer will. But just as ultimate military success was in his reach, Lear -with Jefferson's consent- treacherously pulled it from his grasp.
Ironically, it was Eaton's own partial success along with some feats of daring by Stephen Decatur to scuttle the Philadelphia before it could be used by the Enemy that took the pressure off Jefferson to act, and led to America's first cut and run Jack Murtha-like action.
Feeling betrayed and morally indignant over how Hamet and the Arabs who fought for their liberty were sold out, Eaton was surprised when he returned home to find himself feted as the toast of the nation. Ultimately, however, he could neither play nice nor resist using his new platform to go after Jefferson and expose the truth about the Tripoli mission and the President's role.
The Pirate Coast is a superb historical narrative with flawed heroes, a near-demigod with feet of clay, cynics who scoff at the bravery of their betters, and ordinary people spurred to do great things in the pursuit of liberty. Along with White Gold it provides a great summer read while also providing historical perspective on the Middle East and America's first war against militant Islam.