The Pirate Coast


Richard Zacks




Date Reviewed:

November 2, 2006

he cover for The Pirate Coast proclaims that is was a national bestseller. A surprising claim, because the book turns out to be dull. You expect it to be the story of a heroic rescue by Eaton and the marines (thus, the famous line in the marine song "...to the shores of Tripoli". But Eaton never gets close to freeing the prisoners, in the end, a simpering diplomat named Tobais Lear pays tribute to the evil Bey who is holding the American sailors hostage.

Some background information: in the early days of our nation's existence (1805), piracy in the Mediterreanan was a big problem - pirate ships would set out from North African ports to capture merchant ships. The United States was frustrated by the loss of its trade ships, a big part of its commerce was from New England merchant vessels, so the US sent some naval warships to patrol. One of these ships, the U.S.S Philedelphia, captained by Bainbridge, chases a pirate ship into the harbor of Tripoli. But unfortunately, the Philedelphia gets caught on a reef. The Bey sends smaller ships to harass the Philedelphia, but they don't get too close because they want to capture the warship intact, and also because the Philedelphia has plenty of formidable cannons. After a few hours of fruitless struggle, the Philedelphia surrenders, despite the fact it hasn't been seriously attacked. (Later, it is revealed that when the next high tide rolled in, the Philedelphia simply floated free of the reef - it seems like an incredible thing to read - how could a seasoned captain nor his officers not think about the rising tide?) Anyway, a couple of hundred American sailors are enslaved by Yussef, the villanous ruler of Tripoli who demands a massive payment to free the slaves.

Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States, doesn't want to pay tribute. He wants a military solution, and so Eaton is enlisted on a covert operation to overthrow Yussef. It turns out Yussef has a younger brother, Hamet, who is in exile in Egypt. Eaton and band of marines will join forces with Hamet to restore him to the throne of Tripoli, if he will in exchange then free the American sailors and promise not to send his pirates against American merchant ships.

This should have been a great adventure, but it is a nonfiction book, based upon historical sources, and it seems the majority of the documents that survive are receipts or requests for payment. There is entirely too much squabbling over money. After several slow chapters, Eaton finally makes it to Cairo and begins searching for Hamet. Eventually Eaton meets Hamet, and Hamet is convinced to throw in his lot with the Americans. They hire a bunch of mercenaries, and begin an overland trek across the desert. Of course, spies betray their march to Yussef, and every inch of the way the Arab mercenaries threaten to desert (and some do). They run out of water, there are obstacles of heat, sandstorms, lack of food, there are disagreements, until finally Eaton and Hamet make it to Dunne, the eastern-most city of Tripoli. Incredibly, their ragtag force is able to thwart the defenders and with a heroic display of military prowess, they occupy the city. Wow, the story is really moving now! With this evidence of military victory, everyone is ready to switch to Hamet's side and abandon Yussef. But there the tale of derring-do halts.

The diplomat Lear meets with Yussef, who is in a complete panic now that Dunne has fallen. His allies are deserting him, the American warships are in the harbor - Yussef has no chance. But Lear offers to pay tribute to free the captured sailors, plus Eaton and his forces will then be taken away (and thus leave Hamet without an army) - incredibly, Yussef almost fails to accept the deal, because he thinks it is a trick. Alas, Lear is telling the truth, and that is the end of the story. Eaton never gets further than Dunne. It is disappointing to read. Lear botches up everything. Hamet is betrayed - his family is left as hostages to Yussef. The American sailors are rescued, but at a tremendous price in tribute and US prestige in the region.