Book cover of Prisoners of the Bashaw: The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803–1805 by Frederick Leinerby Frederick Leiner

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. 

Interview with the Author

Podcast art for Preble Hall from U.S. Naval Academy MuseumPreble Hall 
Prisoners of the Bashaw: Frederick Leiner
5/14/23         52 min


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