Frederick C. Leiner
Prisoners of the Bashaw:The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803-1805
On October 31, 1803, the frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground on a reef a few miles outside the harbor of Tripoli. Since April 1801, the United States had been at war with Tripoli, one of the Barbary “pirate” regimes, over the payment of annual tribute—bribes so that American merchant ships would not be seized and their crews held hostage. After hours under fire, the Philadelphia, aground and defenseless, surrendered, and 307 American sailors and marines were captured. Manhandled and stripped of their clothes and personal belongings, the men of the Philadelphia were paraded before the Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanali. The bashaw ordered the crew moved into an old warehouse, and the officers were eventually moved to a dungeon beneath the Bashaw’s castle. While the officers were treated as “gentlemen,” although imprisoned, the sailors worked as enslaved laborers. Regularly beaten and given a meager diet, several died in captivity; escape attempts failed, while a few ended up converting to Islam and joined their captors. President Thomas Jefferson, Congress, U.S. diplomats, and Commodore Edward Preble, commander of the naval squadron off Tripoli, grappled with how to safely free the American captives. The crew of the Philadelphia remained prisoners for nineteen months, until the Tripolitan War ended in June 1805.
The Philadelphia captives became the key to negotiations to end the war; the possibility existed that if threatened too much, the Bashaw would kill the captives. Ultimately, the United States paid $60,000 to get them back—about $200 per man—a sum less than the Bashaw’s initial demands for compensation. In June 1805, the Americans began their journey home. Combining stirring naval warfare, intricate diplomatic negotiations, the saga of surviving imprisonment, and based on extensive primary source research, Prisoners of the Bashaw: The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803-1805 by Frederick C. Leiner tells the complete story of America’s first great hostage crisis.
[Added April 06, 2023]
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Frederick C. Leiner, a lawyer and historian, is the author of The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War Against the Pirates of North Africa and Millions for Defense: The Subscription Warships of 1798.