LIBYA – The recent destruction in Tripoli of the Karamanli tomb and with it some of Libya’s history.
News that Salafists have recently destroyed the Karamanli graves in Tripoli came as something of a surprise. To many this event may pass without the comment it deserves. Libya has a rich history and the Libyan people have for too long suffered under the yolk of foreign governments. The Ottomans, for example, ruled Libya from the arrival of the corsair Dragut in 1551 until the Italians superseded them in 1911.
The long course of Ottoman rule in Triopli was interrupted by an extraordinary interlude when a local dynasty seized power and exercised it, nominally on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan, for a century and a quarter. The dynasty was in power when the first war between the USA and Libya occurred.
The first native of Libya to rule Triopli was Ahmed Karamanli. He emerges into history in 1711. Tradition has it that the Karamanli family was founded by a corsair from Caramania, who came to Tripoli with Dragut, married locally and settled in the menshia, that is the cultivated oasis which surrounded the walled city. The tradition, as ever, may be a dramatized version of the truth.
The first Karamanli to seize power in Tripoli was the commanding officer of the Tripoli version of the famous Ottoman ‘feudal’ cavalry, known as the Khuloghlis. The name, incidentally, is derived from the Turkish ‘kul-oghli’, meaning son of slaves. Kuloghli service bore some similarities to feudal knighthood.
In 1711 the official Ottman governor of Tripoli was Khalil Pasha. His rule was shaky and he was opposed by the commanders of his Janissary troops. Eventually one of them, Mahmoud Dey, unseated him and turned his attention to the subjugation of the Kuloghlis commanded by the popular Ahmed Karamanli. It was an error. Ahmed Karamanli, leading a horde of Berbers and the local Kuloghlis, marched into the city and became the Bashaw of Tripoli, Misurata, Benghazi, Derna and Muzurk and nominal overlord of the tribes in the interior. He and his descendants ruled their regency from 1711 to 1835.
The city state of Tripoli was for many years a nest of corsairs. By maintaining a small navy of shallow draft vessels, often manned by Christian renegades, the rulers of Tripoli were able to pursue a lucrative trade in state sponsored piracy. Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers were together known as the Barbary States. History is not without complaints about the Barbary pirates and their depredations around the Mediterranean shores and their preying on merchant vessels. Tripoli was the lesser of the three Barbary States, with the smallest corsair fleet
The state sponsored piracy led to a war with the USA. When the thirteen colonies in America made their famous declaration of independence, they lost the protection of the British Royal Navy. American merchants sent their ships out into the oceans to find as much trade as they could. Those of their ships which ventured into the Mediterranean were harassed by the Barbary Pirates from the pariah states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. So bad were the depredations that in 1794 the US Congress authorised the construction of a navy to defend American trade.
An American consul, Cathcart, was stationed in Tripoli and, via him, the US offered the Bashaw an annual payment of 18.000 dollars, plus a present of 4,000 dollars, to buy off the corsairs. The Bashaw, Yusuf Karamanli who ruled from 1795 to 1832, was sure that the fledgling US Navy was too weak to attack Tripoli and therefore decided to provoke the US Congress into making a more generous settlement. He demanded a yearly subsidy of 250,000 dollars and an immediate present of 25,000 dollars. As Cathcart was unable to pay, Karamanli chopped down the flagpole at the American Consulate. This amounted to a declaration of war, so Cathcart left Tripoli. Karamanli’s confidence that the Americans would avoid war and offer him a larger bribe was misplaced.
The US President, Thomas Jefferson, was under some pressure to deal with the Barbary corsairs. He despatched a small navy squadron commanded by Commodore Richard Dale with limiting rules of engagement. There followed a protracted period when the fledgling US Navy patrolled the Mediterranean in an ineffective effort to limit the attacks on its merchant shipping by the corsairs.
In 1803, the US sent a third squadron to the Barbary Coast. It was commanded by Commodore Edward Preble, who had the frigates Constitution and Philadelphia, the brigs Siren and Argus and the schooners Enterprise, Vixen and Nautilus at his disposal.
Preble ordered the frigate Philadelphia, commanded by Captain Bainbridge, to take up station off Tripoli and maintain a blockade. The Philadelphia was accompanied by the schooner Vixen for inshore action. The gales made it impossible for Vixen to maintain her station, so Bainbridge sent her off to patrol around Cape Bon.
Toward the end of October, Bainbridge spotted a number of Tripoli corsairs running for shelter from the gales. On 31st October, he engaged a corsair in the approaches to Tripoli harbour. He had men taking soundings and lookouts posted but he was caught out by the treacherous Kaliusa reef which rises abruptly from the sea bed. The 44 gun Philadelphia hit it at speed with a following wind, and she was stuck fast.
Karamanli’s renegade Scottish admiral, Peter Lyle, saw his chance and sent his corsair fleet out to pound away at the Philadelphia’s rigging. With his guns unable to reply, Bainbridge called a meeting of his officers and decided to surrender. For this, he has been roundly criticised.
The Tripolitanian boats ran alongside and the Philadelphia was boarded and her crew captured. They were landed below the castle at 10 o’clock at night, and were paraded through the city in their undergarments. The officers were imprisoned in the town, but the crewmen were thrown into the notorious dungeons below Tripoli’s castle. The 308 crew members of the Philadelphia were to remain in captivity for a long time.
When the tide turned, the Philadelphia was freed from the Kaliusa reef by the renegade Peter Lyle with a salvage crew. She was towed into Tripoli harbour and remained there as an embarrassment to the US Navy. She also posed a threat to the balance of sea power in the Mediterranean, should she be restored and manned by Karamanli’s navy. This and the incarceration of 308 of her sailors ensured that the USA would have to attempt to destroy the Philadelphia and free the sailors.
In the events which followed, there were legendry feats of heroism performed by American sailors and marines. The great courage shown here was, thus, more important to the history and fighting spirit of the US Navy and US Marine Corps than to the eventual release of the 308 prisoners.
Commodore Preble decided to destroy the Philadelphia. To do this he had to get a crew into Karamanli’s well-defended inner harbour, destroy the ship and escape. He needed good information about the harbour defences, the disposition of the Tripolitanian navy and the winds and tides in the harbour. Much of this he obtained from the prisoner Bainbridge and his officers who, strangely, were permitted to correspond with friends in the US fleet.
Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, USN, volunteered to lead the raid. For this purpose he was given a captured Tripolitania ketch, the Mastico, renamed the Intrepid, and the brig Siren. Decatur and his crew trained rigorously and on the 16th January 1805, after many difficulties, they began their attack. They disguised their ships as merchant vessels from Malta, but the Intrepid was loaded with explosives and fire making material.
At night they brought the Intrepid alongside the Philadelphia, which they boarded, and quickly overcame the watch crew, laid their explosives and combustibles and lit the fuses. They re-joined the Intrepid, but the alarm had been raised. They made their escape through a heavy artillery bombardment, but reached the harbour entrance.
As they left the harbour, the Philadelphia exploded and burst into flames which lit up the castle and the ships in the harbour. Decatur and his crew escaped aboard the Intrepid and the Siren to Syracuse in Sicily, and the admiration of their countrymen.
The sailors remained incarcerated in Tripoli despite a brilliant but unsuccessful amphibious assault on the eastern city of Derna by the fledgling US Marine Corps led by Consul William Eton and Lt Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon. USMC. This assault, aimed at what is nowadays know as a regime change, has since been commemorated in the famous line …from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…..’ which inspires the US Marine Corps to this day. The sailors were eventually repatriated when the US Government paid a substantial sum of money to Yusuf Karamanli.
When I had the privilege of living in Tripoli friends pointed out a white flag pole on the castle. They told me that it was made from one of the masts salvaged from the USS Philadelphia. Perhaps it was. Is it still there?
4th August 2012
(Paraphrased from Libya – The History of Gaddafi’s Pariah State by John Oakes and published by The History Press in 2011)