Skip to main content

Tonight, the Cave of the Moonbat once again looks out over the desert shores of North Africa, to a land we’ve all been seeing in the news quite a bit recently, but probably know uncomfortably little about.  We ought to, though – Libya was the site of the American military's first overseas victory, among other things – if for no other reason than to come to a deeper understanding of the Marine Corps Hymn.

Join me, if you will, atop one those rugged hills outside Tripoli.  We'll see if we can't get ourselves a good view of some Fatamid zealots, Barbary Pirates, and maybe – if we're lucky – one of those newfangled frigates of President Jefferson's U.S. Navy.

This diary originally appeared under the same title on May 13, 2007.  Like all the Libya series, this diary goes out to Meteor Blades the Great and his family. ;-)

To Recap

In the First Libyan Historiorant, we saw that human habitation of the region goes at least as far back as a time when the Sahara was a well-watered, game-ridden, bountiful grassland.  It stands to reason that hominid habitation began way, way earlier than that, and that parts of Libya have had people living in them since the days when we sapiens-to-be weren't even smart enough to realize that we were still just homo ergasters.

Much later (like, after we'd learned to wear clothes), Libya saw waves of Carthaginian, Greek, and Roman rule, and each civilization left its imprint on particular regions of the land.  Had Julius Caesar written The Conquest of Africa instead of the The Conquest of Gaul, it might have stared like this:

All Libya is divided into three parts, one of which the Tripolitani inhabit, the Cyrenaicans another, those who in their own language are called Berbers, their land Fezzan, the third.

All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws.

An inhospitably dry coastline separates the Tripolitani from the Cyrenaicans; a vast desert separates them from the Berbers in the Fezzan.

Of all these, the Cyrenaicans are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Greek, Egyptian, and Arab people, who dwell beyond the Nile and Adriatic, with whom they are continually waging war; for which reason the Tripolitani also surpass the rest of the Libyans in valor, as they contend with the people of the Maghrib and the remnants of Carthage in almost daily battles, when they either repel them from their own territories, or themselves wage war on their frontiers. One part of these, which it has been said that the people of Tripolitania occupy, encompasses much of the land that will one day make up the nations of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria.

The Fezzan rises from the extreme frontier of Libya, extending to the lower part of the Sahara; and is inhabited by a generally nomadic people whose power is based on control of important oases in the desert.

Cyrenaica is east of the Gulf of Sidra on that part of the ocean which is near Crete: it looks between the rising of the sun, and the north star, and takes its culture and customs from the Greeks, the Egyptians, a significant Jewish population, and the Arabs south of Palestine."

Caesar's now-profaned original text available at Wikipedia

Here's a map, to refresh your memory:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

When we last visited the oases and the coasts, it was the 9th century CE or so, and Islam had been ensconced as the religion of the lands.  The Aghlabids were in charge, which can only mean (you do remember your basic North African history, right?) that the Fatimids were due up next...

When Shiites Ruled the Nile

Along with Islamic armies of conquest came missionaries promulgating all sorts of interpretations of the Koran.  Sunnis predominated, of course (the caliphs in far-off Damascus, and later in Baghdad, were Sunni), but people came preaching Shi'ism, too.  The Ismaili sect of Shi'as was especially evangelical, with a tradition of extending an invitation that went back to the days of their founding, amidst the turmoil that surrounded the assassinations of the third and fourth caliphs.  Ever since, Ismaili Shi'as had heeded these Koranic passages in particular:

"Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious." Noble Qur'ân 16:125

"Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity (bliss)" Noble Qur'ân 3:104

Their message played well with the desert Berbers, who didn't much care for the ways of the aristocratic, urban Arabs who'd moved in behind the Spain-bound armies of Allah.  When the Kutama Berbers converted in the 890s, they began attacking Sunni Aghlabid outposts in the name of Ismailism; by 910, they had installed Ubaidalla Said as imam of their movement and ruler of their territory, which now included Tripolitania.  Said was further named Mahdi ("divinely guided one") by the Berbers, which gave him the impetus to found a dynasty named after Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (and from whom the Mahdi claimed descent).

Back East, things were coming apart for the Abbasid Caliphs, who had usurped and replaced the Umayyad Dynasty in 750 CE but had been on the path of decline for the past few decades.  They were no longer able to maintain control of rebellious provinces on their borders, and so it was that breakaway states like the fledging Fatimids gained some time to build armies and hone their message.  Trade also increased, as the Shi'a Berbers were far less concerned with meddling in portside economics than the previous Arab overlords had been; slaves, gold, leather, salt, and wool were shipped to Italy in exchange for wood and iron, and the Fatimids waxed wealthy and powerful.

By the mid-10th century, the Fatimids began sending religiously-motivated armies eastward, and in 969, they took control of Egypt.  They relocated their capitol from Mahdia (in present-day Tunisia) to Al-Qāhirah (Cairo; "the Triumphant"), and established a Shi'a Imamate to rival the Sunni Caliphate in Baghdad.  For much of the next 200 or so years, Fatimid Egypt was a vibrant, cross-cultural center of commerce and higher thought – trade relations were established with India and Song Dynasty China, and the world's first full-fledged university, Al-Ahzar, was set up in the early years of the Imamate.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Crushing an Independence Movement, Old-School

While the Fatimids developed their tastes for silk and tea off in Egypt, they left their old homelands under the control of the Zirids.  This turned out to be a mistake; the Zirids neglected the economy, ignored trade in general, and eventually outright revolted against their predictably-declining overlords.  In 1049, the Zirid amir ("commander") publicly broke from the Fatimid Empire, declaring a Sunni orthodoxy in the lands that formerly comprised the western holdings of the Fatimid Empire.  So it was that Sicily and parts of southern Italy briefly came under Zirid control; they would retain Sicily until it was wrested from them and declared the Property of Christ by Normans in 1060.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Meanwhile, back in Cairo...the Fatimid Caliph was pissed.  He invited two Bedouin tribes from Arabia, the Bani Hilal and Bani Salim (known collectively as the Hilalians), to migrate into the Maghrib and punish his rebellious vassals, and this they did, with extreme prejudice.  Ibn Khaldoun describes the Hilalians as "a swarm of locusts" who laid waste to vast swaths of the countryside, burning and pillaging to such an extent that the economy of the region was for centuries wrenched from its agricultural moorings.  Culture, too, was severely impacted, especially in Cyrenaica, where the destruction was so complete, the immigration so overwhelming, that it became arguably the most thoroughly Arabized region in the entire Islamic world (outside Arabia itself, of course).

Tripoli, too, was looted down to its foundations, and the Hilalians continued westward or settled with the Berbers as the spirit moved them.  Those who went west eventually conquered Morocco and the trans-Gibraltar city of Granada, and so brought Arab-style values and ways of thinking to the far reaches of the Maghrib.  Those who stayed put intermarried with Berbers defecting from the Zirids, and over a long period, the intermingled desert cultures transformed fields to pasturage and left the ports and coastal forts with few revenue-producing options outside of piracy.  To counter this threat, the Normans set up outposts; by the mid-12th century, there was a string of French castles along the coast between Tunis and Tripoli.

Almoravids and Almohads and Hafsids, oh my!

Norman control of the coast was not to last long, courtesy of an ascendant Berber tribe from Morocco.  The Almohads were religiously motivated ("Almohad" means "one who proclaims"): their founder, Ibn Tumart, preached a strict Sunni orthodoxy based on recommitment to monotheism.  The message carried as far as Tripoli, which was taken from the Normans along with the rest of the west coast of the Gulf of Sidra, and into Spain, where they conquered the (to their eyes) now-decadent Almoravids.  There is some irony in this – a century before, it had been the mostly-Berber Almoravids who had stormed out of Morocco to conquer vast swaths of Spain from other Muslims.  Half a century later – July 16, 1212, to be specific – would find Almohad fortunes reversed at the critical Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, in which Castile finally got the upper hand in its reconquista efforts (with a little help from the Pope, who authorized Crusader status – and remission of sins – for the knight who was just too busy to go all the way to the Holy Land).

Like the Moroccan Berber dynasty before them, the Almohads wound up concentrating most of their efforts in Spain, despite maintaining the Almoravid-built capitol of Marrakech to administer their North African affairs.  The eastern extremities were placed under an autonomous viceroy, an office that became hereditary to the line of Muhammad bin Abu Hafs (r. 1207-21).  When the Iberian noose began to seriously tighten around the Almohads, the Hafsids declared themselves legitimate successors, going so far as to take on the titles of sultan and caliph.

The Hafsids controlled all or part of Libya for the next 300 years, though things get a little messy toward the end.  At first, things had been great: the Hafsid caliphs encouraged trade and artistic exchange with Spain, spreading Moorish architecture across North Africa, and they entered into the bizarre world of Medieval Italian Shipping as well.  Eventually, the rivalries brought about by intrigue-driven politics resulted in increasing paralysis in the Hafsid capitol of Tunis; in 1460, the merchants of Tripoli declared theirs an independent city-state – following the lead, no doubt, of the various pirates who had seized other coastal towns and refused to pay tribute to the Hafsid Caliph.

Things didn't change much in Cyrenaica after Saladin overthrew the last Fatamid Caliph in 1171; the place had been so desolated by the Hilalian invasions that the main source of income was protection rackets set up to exploit Maghribi pilgrims that needed to pass through on their way to Mecca.  Things were similar in the Fezzan: there, the Bani Khattab had, like the Garamentes long before them, staked out claims on the oases along the trans-Saharan trade routes.  Invaders from Chad and Morocco wore at Khattabi power until finally, by the early 1500s, the last of their strongholds had fallen to the Marzuq-based, Ottoman-friendly line of Muhammad al-Fazi.

You Just Knew There'd Be Ottomans

The 1500s might have been Spain's golden age of Atlantic seafaring, but in the Med they were constantly butting heads with the Ottoman Turks, whose sick-man-of-Europe status was still at least three centuries in the future.  In 1510, as part of an effort to forestall Ottoman-sponsored piracy, the Spanish captured, looted, and burned Tripoli, then used the rubble to build a naval fortress.  Fourteen years later, they turned the fort over to the well-traveled Knights of St. John of the Hospital Rhodes Malta.

The inability of the Spaniards to hold Tripoli for themselves was due in part to an end-run perpetrated by one Khair ad Din (or, to the Spanish, "Barbarossa") and his likewise red-bearded brother, who seized Algiers in 1510 and proceeded to pledge loyalty to the Turks.  Ottoman authority in the central Maghrib strengthened over the next few decades: the knights were driven off African shores in 1551, and the following year the sultan promoted Draughut Pasha, a Turkish pirate captain, to the rank of governor, and charged him with the responsibility to pacify the tribes around Tripolitania and in the Fezzan.  Draughut very publicly noted how difficult it was to conquer a people who "carry their cities upon their backs," but by the 1580s, the tribes had at least pledged not to attack the Turkish coast.  The Ottomans wisely never tried to exert authority over the Berbers of the Fezzan, and they sort of wrote off Cyrenaica, as well – they installed a Bey ("commander") at Benghazi, but made no effort to revitalize the ancient Greco-Egyptian center of medical studies and healing herbery.

The Sultan was very laissez-faire with regard to his North African holdings.  As the LoC Countrystudy describes,

The Ottoman Maghrib was formally divided into three regencies-- at Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. After 1565 authority as regent in Tripoli was vested in a pasha appointed by the sultan. The regency was provided a corps of janissaries, recruited from Turkish peasants who were committed to a lifetime of military service. The corps was organized into companies, each commanded by a junior officer with the rank of dey (literally, "maternal uncle"). It formed a self-governing military guild, subject to its own laws, whose interests were protected by the Divan, a council of senior officers that also advised the pasha. In time the pasha's role was reduced to that of ceremonial head of state and figurehead representative of Ottoman suzerainty, as real power came to rest with the army.

Intrigue and advancement-by-assassination were common, and in 1611, the janissaries made their play for the whole ball of wax.  Usurping the regent, they took control of the government (leaders retained the title "Dey") and proceeded to run their region as autonomously as one might expect in a far-flung hinterland.

A Central Front in the War on Piracy

Of all the once-flourishing towns and cities of the Libyan coast, only Tripoli (pop. 30,000) survived as something of an urban center at the dawn of the 18th century.  Seaport, slave market, and increasingly a haunt for pirates, the city's distinct populations reflected its invasion-ridden past:

  •     Moors - urban Arabs:  the majority of the population
  •     Deys - Turks and renegade Berber and Arab supporters:  Only a few hundred in number, but they controlled the government, such as it was.  By 1711, bloody coups were so common that very few Deys ever lasted more than a year in office.
  •     Khouloughlis - offspring of Turkish soldiers and Arab women: The "sons of servants" were well-respected, holding high administrative offices and providing the officer corps for local sipahi (Ottoman provincial auxiliary) cavalry units.  Socially speaking, they were a segregated caste, living outside the city walls in an oasis neighborhood called a menshisa.  The Moors, who saw the Khouloughlis as more locally-oriented than the Ottomans, liked them more than they did the Turks.
  •     Moriscos and Jews - descendents of Muslims and Jews kicked out of Spain at the end of the reconquista in 1492.:  Together with the Jewish population, moriscos formed the core of bazaar life as merchants and craftsmen.  Some of the moriscos became well-known (and widely feared) as pirates.
  •     Europeans - small community of traders and counsels:  Enclaves representing various European powers and interests were scattered about the city.  As time went on – and especially during the pirating heyday of the 17th century – these counsels became the diplomatic point men and main ransom-payers during corsair-related hostage negotiations.
  •     Corsairs - pirates, privateers, and coastal warlords:  The 1600s were the high water mark (as it were) of Mediterranean piracy, especially after the switch from oar- to sail-powered vessels.  The prevalence of pirates operating openly out of ports like Tripoli meant that in reality, (as Wikipedia puts it) "from 1659 onwards, these African cities, although nominally forming part of the Ottoman empire, were in fact anarchical military republics which chose their own rulers and lived by plunder."

Weird Historical Sidenote:  A couple of notes on names – first, "Barbary Coast" doesn't derive from the word "barbarian," but rather from the medieval French term for "land of the Berbers."  "Corsair" is likewise French, derived from a royally-signed document called a Lettre de Course which authorized privateering operations against foreign merchant vessels.  The phrase, literally translated, means "racing document," which is a sort of 17th century neocon euphemism – the "race" in this case means to catch up with fleeing foreigners.

At first, the pirates worked close to shore, using slave-rowed galleys.  European mercenaries and adventurers "contractors" introduced lanteen sails, which cut down significantly on the logistical needs of ship captains ("reises"), gave them much better speed and maneuverability, and vastly increased their range.  Barbary pirates raided villages on the coasts of Iceland, Ireland, and the Atlantic side of Spain, and so terrorized Italy and the Adriatic that captives and shipwreck victims were immediately put to death.  An entire corporate economy was structured around piracy, with investors purchasing and outfitting ships commanded by trusted reises, who then shared proceeds with shareholders and crew after ensuring that the Dey or Bey got his 10% off the top

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket   Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

They hunted in coordinated packs (as opposed to their Caribbean counterparts, who usually had only one or two ships) under powerful leaders – one, Murat Reis (a/k/a Jan Janszoon), is said to have been over one hundred years old at the time of his death.  At first backed solely by the Porte (Ottoman government), the Barbary Pirates soon found themselves in demand as power-balancers among the various kingdoms in Europe.  This led to a system of payoffs, bribes, and tributes between European governments and the eternally shifting power structure on the North African coast.  Eventually, reprisals by the Euro-states corralled the worst of the piracy, but the pirates' reputation for terror kept the protection money rolling in for a long time to come.  It also led to the U.S.A.'s first foreign war.

The Founding Fathers Versus Muslim Terrorists Pirates

When the U.S. won independence from England in 1783, it also relieved the mother country of the need to protect American shipping from meddlesome influences like, say, the Barbary Pirates – whose first capture of an American ship came the very next year, off the coast of Morocco.  It took six months of negotiations and $60,000 in cold hard cash, but the prisoners were released and trade started up again (Weird Historical Sidenote: In 1778, Morocco had become the first independent nation to recognize the U.S.  What did they have to lose?).  Things weren't nearly so easy to resolve in Algeria, where pirates captured two American ships in 1785.

The crews and passengers on these ships, Maria out of Boston and Dauphine out of Philadelphia, were enslaved and forced to work on fortifications around the harbor of Algiers (this was a relatively common tactic – the miserable conditions made for more pleading letters home, which resulted in higher ransoms more quickly paid).  The U.S., still operating under the Articles of Confederation, dispatched Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson and Ambassador to Britain John Adams to meet with an Algerian/Tripolitanian representative in Paris in 1786.  It was during this period that he came to own the Koran so famously used in the swearing-in ceremony of Representative Keith Ellison in 2007.

Jefferson was no appeaser – he fully realized that paying off the corsairs would only result in greater demands in the future – but neither was he the theocratic, anti-Muslim crusader that some wingnut mouth-breathers would have us believe.  The Wikipedia entry for Barbary Pirates includes a quote, reputedly from Jefferson's report to the Continental Congress, that paints the Barbary Pirates in a very jihadist light, but the citation has all the earmarks of something that's been bouncing around the right-wing echo chamber for a while – the footnote in the Wikipedia article, for example, goes to an unfootnoted essay on the National Review Online website. has a treatment of the urban legends surrounding Jefferson's relative dhimmitude – though your resident historiorantologist encourages you to do a little research and find out if Jefferson really said that Muslims consider it their duty and right to enslave infidels.

Secretary of State Jefferson, One-World-Order kind of guy that he was, sought to form up a kind of League of Nations to protect against Barbary terror, but was embarrassingly forced to admit that the United States wouldn't be contributing any tonnage to the cause.  The idea died in its infancy, only to be replaced by a more militant one: if the U.S. couldn't count on the protection of its allies, and wouldn't make monetary deals with the bad guys, then we'd just have to build a naval force of our own.  The Navy Act of 1794 was duly passed and signed into law by President Washington, and six frigates were commissioned to be built.  The most famous of these, U.S.S. Constitution, is still with us today.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

As Jefferson wrote in a December, 1786 letter to Yale president Ezra Stiles,

"From what I learn from the temper of my countrymen and their tenaciousness of their will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them."


To the Shores of Tripoli

Jefferson got angrier and angrier as the 1790s wore on – in 1795 alone, the US paid more than $1 million for the return of 115 men, vast naval stores, and a frigate – and by the time he was President himself, he was ready to tell the pirates to get bent.  This he did when Tripoli demanded nearly a quarter million dollars in protection money in 1801 (and declared war on the US when TJ wouldn't pay), by dispatching a small squadron of frigates and support ships to the Mediterranean.  Concerned for their own welfare, Algiers and Morocco broke off their alliances with Tripoli, and the final dissolution of the Barbary States began in earnest.

Jefferson pursued the unpopular, undeclared war for four more years, but most of the action was in 1803 and 1804.  While much of America's attention was focused on the manifest destiny of the Louisiana Purchase, the crew of the USS Philadelphia found themselves prisoners of the pasha of Triopoli, and Jefferson dispatched an agent named William Eaton and a handful of Marines to Egypt in order to organize a land attack.  Meanwhile, a fleet under Commodore Edward Preble compelled Morocco to withdraw from the hostilities, and another task force took its sweet time in coordinating support for Eaton's T.E. Lawrence-anticipating performance.

In Cairo, Eaton hired about 500 men (around 400 Arabs and 100 European and American "contractors") to complement his 8 U.S. Marines, and set out toward the Cyrenaican seaport of Derna through the Egyptian desert.  The ostensible reason for the expedition was the return to the pasha's throne in Tripoli a guy named Hamet, who'd been run out of town by his younger, meaner brother.  Hamet and Eaton held the occasionally-mutinous army together through an epic trans-Saharan march, and descended upon Derna on April 27, 1805.  They were supported in this action by naval gunfire from the U.S. Navy ships Hornet and Argus, and the rousing success of their storming of the fortifications led to the first raising of the American flag over an enemy fortification on the other side of the Atlantic.

An army dispatched from Tripoli (ie., Hamet's brother) approached Derna, and there was skirmishing for a couple of weeks.  Eaton and Hamet (really, Eaton more than Hamet) favored fighting their way through the ragtag force and marching on Tripoli straightaway, but news arrived that a deal had been reached with the pasha regarding the release of the Philadelphia hostages – and that since U.S. interests were now met, there would be no need to support Hamet's bid for the throne.  America paid $60,000 for each hostage; Eaton termed the American negotiator, Colonel Tobias Lear, a traitor; Hamet went into exile in Syracuse, his wife still a part of his brother's harem; and William Eaton returned to a hero's welcome.  The King of Denmark presented him with a gold box, and Massachusetts, "desirous to perpetuate a remembrance of heroic enterprise," hooked him up with 10,000 acres of free land.  Lawrence of Arabia-like to the bitter end, he never did really forgive himself for his country's screwing over of Hamet.

Jefferson reported both the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the calming of hostilities with the Barbary States in his 1806 address to Congress, but America went right on paying tribute for nearly another decade before stamping out the tribute payments once and for all.  In 1815, Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur led attacks on Algiers that brought the last of the shakedown artists to heel, and though European countries continued to pay protection money into the 1830s the era of the Barbary Pirates was rapidly coming to an end.

Historiorant must this diary.  Tune in tomorrow night – same bat-channel, around the same bat-time – for an installment on how 19th-century imperialism played out in Libya, as well as the impact WWI aircraft and WWII Panzers had on the nascent country.  Till then, let's Monday-evening-quarterback the Jefferson Administration!


Battle between the British frigate HMS Mary Rose and seven Algerine pirates, 1669.

17th century Barbary galleys, Pirate at

Maps per citation in Ancient Libya

Originally posted to History for Kossacks on Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 05:51 PM PDT.

Also republished by oo.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site