To the Shores of Tripoli: an Appreciation of Google

The more closely you look at anything, the more interesting it becomes. For the hedgehogs among us, this can be a problem — when you’re trying to fit the petty details into the one big thing, you want the details to be controllable. But for us foxes sniffing around, the farther the details take you, the more fun it is. Like some of my other pieces, this one is a Googling exercise. Teachers of undergraduates learn to hate Google, but Google is no worse than any other incomplete and corrupted archive (which is all of them), and it’s easier to use than the others.

The Shores of Tripoli

America was a trading nation from the beginning, and during the first two decades of its existence the Barbary states of the Maghreb (the SW shore of the Mediterranean) preyed on American shipping. These pirates played the British and the French off against one another, and once American ships were unprotected by the British, they were fair game. In 1785 two American ships were captured, and the majority of the members of their crews eventually died in captivity. For about twenty years the still-weak US used a combination of tribute, ransom, and diplomacy to deal with the pirates, but Thomas Jefferson was always unhappy with this approach, and when he became President he chose war.

Piracy of this robber-baron type is characteristic of any period without an overarching political order, and the Barbary states presented themselves as charging a fee (“protection rent”) for the service of protection from piracy — even though they themselves were the pirates. During the struggles between the great European empires in the early modern period piracy was rampant, and the imperial nations freely used pirates (rebaptized “privateers”) against one another. (The long struggles for control of the Mediterranean and Black seas between Venice and Genoa, and later the Ottomans and Spanish,  are a similar case, and the Athenian founders of Western Civilization played this game whenever convenient). In the late eighteenth century it was the long war between the French and the British which enabled the pirates to practice their trade, and the losers were the smaller states. At one point the US was working with the Sweden, Portugal, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Malta, and Morocco to settle the problem, but found the British and French to be dragging their feet. (After the defeat of the French in 1815, the Maghreb was fairly quickly pacified.)

In 1801 the US refused to pay increased tribute to the small state of Tripoli (on the western coast of present-day Libya), and Tripoli declared war. This is the Tripoli of the Marine Hymn — the “Halls of Montezuma” ( properly Moctezuma) represent Mexico City during the Mexican War. The US sent a fleet which might have gained a fairly easy victory if one of its ships, the USS Philadelphia, had not run aground in 1803,  leaving its crew in Tripolitan hands. It took a number of bold American moves to bring the war to a relatively successful conclusion which ended the  tribute payments, and even so it was necessary to ransom the crew.

Reuben James and the USS Reuben Jameses

Reuben (sometimes Ruben) James was one of the first American heroes of the Tripoli campaign. When the USS Philadelphia was captured, the American commander realized that it would be dangerous to leave it in enemy hands, so Lt. Stephen Decatur and 70 volunteers were sent (in a captured Tripolitan ship renamed the Intrepid) on a bold raid to destroy the Philadelphia. This raid was successful, and when British Admiral Lord Nelson heard of the raid, he called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” In this fight one Reuben James made his name by protecting Decatur from one of the pirates, and he went on to long career in the US Navy and ships were eventually named after him.

The first Reuben James, built in 1919, was sunk on October 31, 1941 while escorting a convoy off Newfoundland (even before the US officially entered WWII). It was the first American ship sunk in that war, and this was the ship about which the song was written. A second Reuben James was launched in 1942 and served through the war, being decommissioned in 1947. The third Reuben James was launched in 1985 and figures in Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October. Apparently there will always be a Reuben James.

Lt. Somers and the USS Somers

Lieutenant Richard Somers was the inadvertent suicide bomber. After the Philadelphia had been destroyed, a plan was hatched to refit the Intrepid as a floating bomb. The plan was to sail the bomb into the Tripoli harbor and abandon it before it exploded, but it exploded prematurely: 

In September, 1804, Lieutenant Somers was given charge of the Intrepid, a bomb ketch that had been filled with explosives and was to be sailed into the harbor at Tripoli and set to explode in the centre of the enemy fleet after the crew had abandoned her. Unfortunately, the Intrepid exploded before she could reach her intended position, killing Somers and his entire crew.

In 1842 the navy launched a 259-ton brig named after Lt. Somers; this was the ship on which the mutiny took place. There also have been three more Intrepids, most recently a WWII aircraft carrier.

The USS Somers, Herman Melville’s cousin, and Billy Budd

In late 1842 the USS Somers left New York for the west coast of Africa. The ship’s nominal mission was not an important one — it was primarily being used as a training ship, and was crewed mostly by young novices. There were only two commissioned officers on board, the junior of whom was Herman Melville’s older cousin, the 30-year-old Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort.

After about two months at sea, when returning to the US by way of the West Indies,  the officers of the Somers, were told that a mutiny was being plotted. Its leader, the 22-year-old Philip Spencer, was the ne’er-do-well son of the Secretary of War, John Spencer, who had been put on the ship after a series of escapades had gotten him kicked out of college and had nearly gotten him expelled from the Navy. According to the report, Spencer’s plan was to take over the ship, get rid of the officers, and embark on a new career in the unstable West Indies: piracy.

Spencer and two other accused leaders of the conspiracy were hanged after a summary trial which may not have met the requirements of naval law, with Gansevoort one of the judges. This incident roused a controversy when the ship returned to port; those of the accused who had not been hanged were ultimately released, while the officers who presided at the court martial were exonerated after a trial and went on to distinguished military careers.

Many believe that this mutiny was the prototype for Melville’s Billy Budd (and perhaps also his story “Benito Cereno”, in which the slaves take over a slave ship).

The pro/anti-war song “Reuben James”

The song “Reuben James*” by Woody Guthrie (and others) became popular around 1960 as an anti-war song, but it had actually been written almost twenty years earlier, shortly after the sinking of the first Reuben James by a German U-boat, and during WWII the song was a patriotic pro-war song. The more ambiguous conclusion of the 1960 version had been added by Fred Hellerman of the Weavers:

Many years have passed and still I wonder why
the worst of men must fight and the best of men must die.

In fact, the album “Reuben James” had been an anti-war before: during the Stalin-Hitler Pact, when the American Communist Party was isolationist and anti-war, Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers included this song on an anti-war album which was withdrawn from circulation after the Germans invaded the USSR.

The secular Treaty of Tripoli

Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (unanimously approved by the Senate on June 10, 1797) read:

As the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims]—and as the said states have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This is a strong expression of secularism, and has been heavily used in recent political arguments. From the point of view of “original intent”, the unanimous ratification of this treaty a little more than a decade after the ratification of the constitution would seem to be strong evidence that the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation. On the other hand, a treaty is not part of the constitution, and this particular peace treaty was not a success — the Tripolitans relapsed into slaving and piracy, and we had to go to war against them more than once during the next few decades.


During this inquiry, Google has proved to be quite a useful tool and has helped me sniff out lots of good stuff, and my guess is that almost everyone who has read to the end has learned something interesting that they didn’t know before. However, I know no more than I did before about the question that got me started on this: the significance of Guert Gansevoort’s experience in the Somers for the author of Billy Budd.

One source (which I have not linked) asserts without evidence that Gansevoort, despite serving on the court which hanged the alleged conspirators, believed that they were innocent. Other sources claim that Gansevoort’s career and reputation suffered severely because of the incident — though the evidence I have seen is that his career, at least, did not. (Quite understandably, Gansevoort never spoke publicly about the incident.)

All this may seem pretty trivial, but I think that it casts an interesting light on American secular government, the Marine Hymn, the early history of the United States as remembered today, Billy Budd, and Pete Seeger’s song Reuben James, and it all was done in a rather short time just by Googling, and the links below show that it is possible to go even deeper by the same method. The sloppiness of Google and the wonderful first look given by Wikipedia throw up all kinds of connections, good and bad, and makes it possible for a discriminating Googler to find connections that might not have occurred to him any other way. Someone following these traces will ultimately will to do library or even archival work, and I even suggest a few books (which I had already read) at the very bottom. But Google is what made it possible.

Links and sources

Documents and maps relating to George Washington and the Barbary pirates.Jefferson and the Barbary pirates

The US and the Barbary Pirates

Reuben James, the song “Reuben James”, and the three ships called “Reuben James”

Lt. Somers and the Intrepid

Mutiny on the USS Somers

Legal aspects of the Somers mutiny

Melville, Billy Budd, Gansevoort, and other topics

History of the song “Reuben James”

“Songs for John Doe”

Unrelated Kenny Rogers “Reuben James” song

A Christian view on Article Eleven of the Treaty of Tripoli

A secular view of Article Eleven

Joel Barlow and the Treaty of Tripoli

Melville and Gansevoort:

Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (California, 1985).

Protection rent and piracy:

Lane, Frederic, Venice and History ,The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966.

Steensgaard, Niels, The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, Chicago, 1974.