Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Pirate Coast, by Richard Zacks

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, by Richard Zacks.
2005, 380 pp.

The previously quite obscure topic of the 1805 war with the Pasha of Tripoli has generated a startling amount of literature in the past few years, fueled almost entirely by the hunger of the popular press for instances of American conflicts with Muslims. Apparently there's currently a spot of bother involving Muslims, and there is a great deal of interest in divining patterns from past conflicts. Unfortunately, few scholars have specialized in the topic, and what with the prevalence of actual pirates lurking in every corner of the existing literature, amateur and popular historians have eagerly swooped in. It is now possible to amass a considerable library on the subject: Christopher Hitchens in a recent review cites The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, by Frank Lambert (2005); Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801–1805, by Joseph Wheelan (2003); To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines, by A. B. C. Whipple (1991, republished 2001); and Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, by Joshua E. London (2005). This is all not to mention the book here reviewed, or Glenn Tucker's Dawn Like Thunder, which was previously the stalwart on the subject.

Richard Zacks, the author of a slightly revisionist book on the pirate Captain Kidd, has made something of a living writing popular histories involving pirates. The Pirate Coast gets off to an unpromising start, with Zacks committing a half-dozen clunking prose misdemeanors on the very first page. The story quickly picks up and pulls the reader along, but the author's ongoing armwrestle with the English language often detracts from the experience. But with a subject like this, the reader cannot help but move quickly and happily through the first portion of the book, with little cause for complaint.

The story, in brief: the Barbary states were in 1801 the first entities to declare war on the newly-independent United States, whose shipping they regularly raided and from whom they wanted to exact regular tribute payments. President Thomas Jefferson dispatched most of the US Navy to blockade Tripoli, which it did quite effectively until the captain of the USS Pennsylvania managed to run his ship aground and surrendered to the Pasha of Tripoli. His crew were forced into slavery, and his ship captured, eventually to be blown up by a daring American commando raid. The impetuous, stubborn former Consul in Tunis, William Eaton, laboriously persuaded Jefferson to send him on a covert mission to find the Pasha's brother Hamet, overthrow the Pasha, and put Hamet on the throne in his place. It was the first American attempt at regime change, albeit during a declared war, poorly funded, and ultimately abandoned.

The first half or so of the book describes this lunatic plan. Eaton, with no money and no resources, eventually found Hamet besieged in a castle in the lawless anarchy of southern Egypt. He managed to extract him and his entourage, hired mercenaries on credit in Cairo, and marched five hundred miles across the Libyan desert to finally take the city of Derne, up the coast from Tripoli. This section of the book is a pleasure to read, with much derring-do and buckling of swashes and daring adventure in exotic locations.

The last hundred and fifty pages concern the peace negotations between the Pasha and Tobias Lear, Jefferson's peace envoy. Essentially, Lear gave the Pasha everything he wanted, including ransom payments and tribute, and abandoned both Eaton and Hamet. Eaton spent the rest of his life in an ongoing fight with Jefferson over the treaty and over Eaton's expenses before dying broke, bitter, and alone. Hamet died in exile in Egypt, and the Pasha ruled Tripoli until 1838. So it goes.

The rollicking subject matter and Zacks' chatty prose conspire to make The Pirate Coast into a decently-researched historical novel. There is nothing by way of analysis, only linear narrative, and Zacks' writing skills are sufficiently subpar that the reader begins around page 170 to wonder if instead he ought not simply obtain Eaton's journal and read that instead. Zacks seems to have never met italics he didn't like, and he has a curious habit of referring to the followers of Muhammad as "Moslems." This peculiar spelling, and the thoroughly negative things he has to say about the Arab shiekhs Easton encounters gives a distasteful impression of a world populated by cowardly, greedy, backstabbing camel drivers conniving against brave, stalwart, upright Americans. He even refers frequently to the Americans as "us" and waxes poetic about America's commitment to honor and justice. He uses the archaic phrase "turned Turk" to refer to American prisoners who converted to Islam, which may not actually be a racial epithet, but certainly sounds like one.

Zacks is plainly quite in awe of the belligerent, combative Easton, with little respect for "lawyerly Jefferson" or the scheming Tobias Lear. The flow of history is not often kind to structuring a pleasing story, and here it is jarring to transition from a bracing adventure novel to a final fifty pages of bureaucracy, lobbying, and litigation. The final passages are brightened up by the appearance of Aaron Burr, who had a demented scheme to split off the Western United States and set himself up as an emperor, with Easton's help. Even that, though, does little to enliven the bitterness Zacks channels directly from Easton about the "betrayal" of Hamet and of American values. Here the book's subtitle seems decidedly misplaced. It ought instead to have been called "The Life and Times of William Easton," which during the first, exciting portion was to the book's benefit, but during the long, polemical, bitter portion at the end, the reader wearies of Zacks simply fronting for Easton and begins to wish instead for some scholarly detachment and historical analysis. Alas, such things have little place in the popular press, so a book which was for a while enthralling ends with a sense of disappointment.

1 comment:

Ian P said...

For someone eager to analyze Zacks' writing abilities, use of italics,and his spelling of the word "Moslem", you certainly failed to display the same curiosity in proofreading your own review. I think you will find you misspelled the last name of William Eaton at least five times in your final paragraph.