Lit Bits

TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI: A Rat's Tale

Scurvy Bastard drawing

Editor's note: Recent developments in Libya and the ongoing piracy crisis in Somalia have sparked a revival of historical interest in the early 19th century U.S. war against the Barbary pirates. What follows is a recently discovered eyewitness account of certain celebrated events that took place in 1803-04.

AYE, Scurvy's me name. Lieutenant Scurvy Bastard, and proud to be serving in the United States Navy, thank'ee very much. I joined into the Navy back in 1798, during the war with France, when there weren't much navy to speak of. Me dad were anxious then for me to join a merchant vessel, as he had done, but I told him I saw no high adventure in it. With all the fat American merchantmen roaming the sea, I reckoned there was bound to be a real rat's navy to protect them all from the ravages of privateers and such.

The Frenchies proved me right, of course, and I saw a good deal of action aboard USS Constitution, commissioned new under Capt. Sam Nicholson. We cruised the West Indies mostly and I rose right fast and was commissioned lieutenant within two years. I put together a tough, hard-fighting crew that was among the best of man or rodent, and we had ourselves one hell of a time.

After the peace with France though, things simmered down quick and I had a hard time keeping me boys together. We stayed aboard Constitution for most of a year sitting in mothballs alongside a wharf in Boston with nothing much to do and little to eat. I had to set the boys to scavenging ashore, which always sets a proper ship's rat to feeling low and unworthy. Worst of all was me first mate, Mr. Skull, a big one-eyed rat I'd signed aboard with several others in the Indies. He were mighty proud and strong and had much of the crew agitated about jumping ship.

I was nervous enough that I was counting on me paws just who I could trust to stay aboard and could think of no others beyond old Doc Plague and young Billy Breeze. Me worst fears were realized when Mr. Skull and many others came and cornered me one day in a gun bay with cutlasses drawn.

Scurvy bastard and crew

"Now, Mr. Skull," I says all calm like. "What be the meaning of this here?"

"Ey, lieutenant-man," answers Skull. "There be no harm in speaking with us."

"Methinks you can speak just as well with your weapons up," I says.

"That we can," muttered Skull, and he motioned for the others to be putting up their swords. "We mean no harm, but me and these boys have come to a decision."

"And what might that be?"

"That we ain't be staying board this ship no more, man. There ain't no grub here and we be tired of hearing our bellies growl. Meaning no disrespect, but we aim to ship out tonight on that merchantman there across the wharf. And if you be trying to stop us, we be running you through."

So saying, Mr. Skull laid his paw upon his scabbard and gave me a long hard look in the eye.

Now me tail were in a crack, as it were. Me mind were racing trying to reckon how I might convince these lads not to desert the service. And what saved me was the heavy clomp-clomping sound overhead of big human feet moving across the deck.

"That's it, right there!" I cries out, pointing straight up with me paw. "She's active again. They're getting her ready to ship out."

"Ey, man," says Skull. "Maybe once around the harbor to be sure she still floating. But methink me and the boys will still be crossing that wharf tonight."

"No, lads," I exclaimed. "This ain't no trip around the bay. Word has it there be trouble in the Med and we be shipping out to the Barbary coast."

"No, man. That ain't no fight," says Skull. "We be hearing it be nothing more than a blockade, which be even worse than sitting here on this damn wharf."

"Sure, it's just a blockade now," I answered. "But if they be activating Constitution, they must be fixing to make a fight of it. Just give me a few hours and I'll be finding out for certain."

"You take as much time as you want," sneered Mr. Skull as he skulked off with the others. "We be shipping out tonight whichever way."

 

Me and the Commodore

I set off quick for the quarterdeck to reconnoiter and sure enough me heart was bursting with joy at the sight of it. Chandlers coming aboard with new spars and rigging and sails. Gunner's mates rolling big barrels of powder up the gangway and heaving great chests of shot into the hold. A whole human crew swarming over her making ready for what looked to be one serious cruise.

I waited an hour or so for things to settle some, then made me way down through the bulkheads to the great cabin. Who else was I finding there but old Ed Preble, who I saw aboard once or twice during the French war, when he was a captain commanding a 14-gun revenuer name of Pickering. Except now he were made up with a commodore's braid on his shoulder, which made me feel right proud to think I might serve aboard my first flagship and help to formulate naval strategies for an entire squadron of ships.

I stepped out smart, fixing to report myself ready for duty, but the commodore at once shrieked like a woman when he saw me and set in chasing me about the cabin making like he were going to clump me hard with a pistol butt. He got me cornered up on the starboard side before I finally caught me wind and yelled out loud as I could: "Lt. Bastard reporting for duty, sir!!!"

Lt. Scurvy Bastard reports for duty

"Great Caesar's ghost!" cries the commodore. He froze stock still and let the pistol drop from his hand, which were a great relief to your narrator, who were getting weary of both rats and humans trying to shuffle off his mortal coil.

The commodore kept standing rock solid, as though in the trance of a mesmerist, so I at once started in talking and explaining about rats on ships. How on a warship even rats had to do their duty to God and country. How fierce and loyal me and me boys were and how we stood ready, willing, and able to serve under the commodore's command.

Commodore Edward Preble

After some minutes this started to gybe with Commodore Preble and he returned my salute, shook me paw with his finger, and treated me polite and proper. He asked about the rats in me company and about our numbers and training. And after I answered all these questions, I asked if I might pose one to him.

"Why certainly, Lt. Bastard," he answers, and he set down and looked me over up close.

"I'm needing to know your orders, sir, and the nature of this cruise," I says to him real frank. "Some of me boys are at the end of their enlistments and be threatening to string me up if don't give some answers."

"Sounds like you have a command problem," says the commodore kind of stern.

"Well, rats is different from humans, sir," I explained.

The commodore stroked his chin and thought on that. "Yes, I guess they are," he says. Then he stroked a little more and swore me up and down to secrecy and explained how President Jefferson had ordered him personal out to the Barbary coast to relieve Commodore Rodgers of his command and reinforce the blockade of Tripoli.

"Just a blockade, sir?" I asked kind of wistful.

"No, Lt. Bastard," he answers proud. "In addition to Constitution, I shall bring to the Mediterranean six other ships with 104 guns between them, and with the reinforced fleet, and with authority from the President to purchase a gunship flotilla in Italy, I shall be empowered to launch a raid against the port of Tripoli."

"A full raid, sir?"

"Yes, lieutenant. With more than enough blood and guts to keep you and your rodents happy."

"Thank you, sir," I cries and then went off as fast as I were able to give the boys the word.

Turned out they wasn't needing much convincing, as they was already fat and sleepy from munching what food had already come aboard. I told them of my interview with the commodore and how we was on a raid to the Barbary coast, with many prizes to be had and much paw-to-paw fighting against big Tripolitan pirate rats, and they cheered hearty like the true rodents they were. Even Mr. Skull were having to admit it sounded like too much fun to walk away from.

 

On the Barbary Coast

Unfortunately, we was a long time getting off that damn wharf. Turned out Constitution were needing a new copper bottom and much other fixing besides before she could sail. But it weren't too hard for me to keep the boys together now and we helped what we could with the work. Finally we had her ready and cleared Boston near the middle of August.

We had an easy crossing, with fair wind and weather much of the way, except for one storm that caught us to windward of the Azores. She caught us real squall like with too much canvas on, and the main tops'l lift jammed in its block, and one of the human crew were smashed dead to the deck trying to clear it so we could get the tops'l in.

The wind were getting ever stronger and were looking to carry off the whole mainmast, and the human crew weren't too eager to get back up and work her clear. I at once volunteered that me and me boys could handle it and we swarmed aloft in but a moment and chewed through the lifts with our teeth and so sent the yardarm safely down to where the humans could furl the tops'l. Commodore Preble said he never thought rats could be so handy aboard a ship and gave us all an extra ration of rum. Old Doc Plague had thrice more than his share, as were usual, and he passed out cold for three days straight, which were a record even for him.

We made Gibraltar by 12 September, whereupon the commodore immediately learned from our diplomats that the Moroccans was acting up again and was making pirate raids on our shipping. Right after the diplomats come off the ship, I made down through the bulkheads to see Commodore Preble about it and found him pacing in his cabin, stroking on his chin as hard as ever.

"It's a delicate situation," Lt. Bastard," he says to me. "We can't move against Tripoli while the Moroccans are threatening every one of our supply ships that comes through the straits."

"Why, commodore sir," I answers, "I don't see much to them Moroccans. I reckon if we just show them what we got they be simmering down fast enough. They probably don't know we have half as many ships as we're now having with all these new reinforcements."

This set the commodore to thinking some more, and pretty soon he were smiling right smug like. "Yes, Lt. Bastard," he says. "You might just be right about that."

And I were right, of course. The commodore sent frigate Philadelphia, 36 guns, and sloop Vixen, 12 guns, on ahead to Tripoli to get up the blockade again, and meanwhile we waited at Gibraltar for the rest of the squadron to appear. Soon as they were in, we made a rendezvouz first week of October right off Tangier, which were the capital of Morocco.

It so happened the Emperor of Morocco himself, Muley Soliman, were marching his army into town the very day we showed up. Soon as he set eyes upon us he marched his boys right down to the beach real fierce like they would swim out and swarm over us. But the commodore set us to clearing decks for action right quick, and as soon as he saw we was rolling out the cannon, the Emperor got friendly real fast and invited us ashore for dinner. We stayed about a week, and me and me boys had a fine time lolling about with harem rats while the commodore and some diplomats signed a new peace with Morocco that cost us no tribute.

Scurvy bastard in the harem

Now we could get on with getting at the Tripolitans, who were our main enemy. Commodore Preble had us up anchor and head east for Malta, where he figured to set up a new supply base, seeing how the old base at Gib were so far from Tripoli. En route we hailed a Blimey frigate, Amazon, which were hunting for Frenchies, and she sent over a boat with a stern lieutenant who informed us our frigate Philadelphia had fetched up on some rocks while chasing a Tripolitan pirate ship too near the shore. Apparently, she were captured now and were getting fixed up by the pirates to come out against us.

This were a hard blow on the commodore, who were now worried serious about facing a 36-gun frigate chock full of Muslim fanatics, and he had me down to his cabin right fast for a gam on it.

"Lieutenant," he says to me, "this poses a serious threat to all our operations in this theater. With a ship that size in Tripolitan hands, I shall be prevented from launching a full raid on the harbor. Indeed, I shall be fortunate to maintain a respectable blockade."

"Yes sir," I answered from up on the table, where I were pacing out distances on the chart. "This be posing a bad fix on us for sure. Are ye thinking of any plans yet?"

The commodore picked me up, held me on the flat of his hand, and spied me closely. "All I can think is to send for more reinforcements and meanwhile try to draw out Philadelphia for a one-to-one fight with Constitution."

"That might work," I answered. "Or it might not. I be wondering why wait for them to fix up Philadelphia in the first place? Methinks it were best to get right on in there and burn her up quick. Not much risk in it if we send in but one small ship on a clandestine mission."

This set the commodore to pacing and stroking his chin simultaneous with one hand as he regarded me standing upon the other. After a while, he says maybe that were indeed the thing to do. I argued it some more with him and at last convinced him it were at least worth a try. If it didn't work, I told him, we could always try his plan anyways.

 

Me and Lt. Decatur Go On a Raid

Being a human, however, it were impossible for the commodore to set right out and do something quick. Me and me boys had our cutlasses sharp for action that very week, but the commodore were having to fiddle with his supplies and logistics. First we put into Malta and was making a base there, but the commodore got worrying his crews would be jumping to Blimey ships for more pay. So's we up and put into Syracuse, in Sicily, for a base, where them Blimey ships hardly went.

The whole time I were saying for the raid to get off quick before the pirates fixed up Philadelphia, but the commodore said he had to wait on supplies and less wind from the north. Besides, he were somehow getting letters through some diplomats from Bill Bainbridge, captain of Philadelphia, who were now a prisoner in the Tripoli jail. Apparently that jail had a good view of the harbor, and the letters said Philadelphia were fixing slow for want of timber. Meanwhile, we was keeping up the blockade and twice had Constitution on line for a good reconnoiter.

Finally about the end of January the commodore picked out Intrepid to be on the raid. She was a lateen rig ketch we had captured off the pirates, and we reckoned she wouldn't raise no suspicions upon entering the pirate harbor. The commodore also picked out Lt. Stephen Decatur to take her in, which were a grave disappointment to your narrator, who had hopes for being the very first rodent to command a U.S. Navy warship.

Stephen Decatur

I at once set out to have a gam with Lt. Decatur and found him easy enough in his cabin aboard sloop Enterprise, which were his original command. He were right glad to see me and weren't at all put off by my looks nor my species, as he had served with rats on other ships during the French war. He were a handsome lad without more than 20 years on him, with a smooth, narrow face and a boyish curl upon his forehead. Soon as I sees him I laid aside me grudge about not getting Intrepid and were thinking him just the man for the job.

"Lieutenant," I says to him straight out. "I put myself and me rodents at your disposal and would like to 'company you on your mission. I be thinking you might be needing us."

"Why, Lt. Bastard," he answers back polite. "I wouldn't even think of attempting it without you."

We finally set off from Syracuse on the night of 3 February with a crew all told of 105 aboard Intrepid, which were a tight fit, seeing how 84 of us was humans and only 21 were rats. We had along with us brig Siren, 16 guns, for an escort and disguised her as a merchantman so's not to raise suspicions. As it were, we arrived off Tripoli right quick and were anchored outside with Siren standing off by the night of 7 February.

Lt. Decatur were up for going right on in then and there, but there were a storm brewing up. We sent our boat in for a reconnoiter and found much rough water on the reef protecting the harbor. By midnight she were a gale something fierce, and we had to up and run off to the east. She blew for days and were making things right miserable aboard ship.

It weren't till the night of the 16th we was back off Tripoli again, with a light piece of wind and a fine young moon to take us in. The water were still rough on the west end of the reef, but we slipped through the main channel alright on the east side while Siren were standing off so's not to look associated with us. After we cleared the reef and were in the harbor proper, Lt. Decatur warned us to hold our pistols quiet except for urgent needs and dire straits. He also went over the plan once more, which were for the boarding party to carry Philadelphia's spar and gun decks right fast, then divvy into smaller parties and plant combustibles all over.

The breeze were getting so light it took us a good hour to ghost up close enough to Philadelphia to make her out clear. Whereupon we saw her topmasts were housed and she were stripped of canvas with her lower yards laid down on her gunwales. Her foremast were still down from wrecking on the rocks, and she looked to be carrying some 40 guns bristled out and cleared for action. This had us worried a bit, seeing how we had only four guns aboard Intrepid and was within easy range of the Pasha's castle and some other shore batteries sporting some 100 or more heavy guns between them.

The wind kept dying off, and by the time we was within 100 yards of Philadelphia it were looking like we might be coming up short. We had only a handful of crew on deck what were rigged out like Maltese sailors, with the rest all below waiting on the signal. I were up on Lt. Decatur's shoulder myself, right by our Maltese pilot, name of Catalano, who were manning the helm.

Then, on a sudden, there were a pirate voice from Philadelphia hailing us to announce our nationality.

"Maltese!" answers Catalano, who were fluential in pirate talk. "Our anchors were carried off in the storm and we ask permission to lay against your ship here for the night."

We heard some low pirate voices chewing on that for a bit, then one of them shouts: "Permission is granted."

We all heaved some relief on hearing that and were setting in close to Philadelphia when the breeze went to nothing and left us becalmed but 20 yards off. Lt. Decatur stayed just as calm as them airs and manned up a boat real lazy like to carry a line over. Them pirates still wasn't suspicious, and they sent out a line on a boat of their own. The lines was bent together, then we started in hauling ourselves slow right up against the frigate.

We was just touching hulls when them pirates on a sudden somehow guessed us out. "Americanos! Americanos!" they cries all over the ship, and in a blink all our crew was up on deck.

"Board!" cries out Lt. Decatur in return, and we all swarmed over with cutlasses drawn.

Barbary Wars

It prides me to say it were me and me boys who was first over the rail, which were a good thing tactics-wise, because there was already a fair number of pirates on deck. We set right in jabbing them hard about the feet with our cutlasses, which had them looking down just long enough for our humans to get over clear. Lt. Decatur were right behind us, which were much to his credit, and soon we had them pirates all cornered up and confused in the foc'sle.

A right happy fight took place thereafter, with me and old Skull personally hacking the foot off one pirate so furious was we swinging our blades. Billy Breeze, though it were but his first fight, also did me proud by jumping off one human's shoulder and running his cutlass clear through the nose of the pirate leader. All told, we must have killed 20 or more without ever having to fire off a pistol.

Once we had the pirates cleared off, Lt. Decatur and the others set in to dragging powder and other combustibles aboard so's to set Philadelphia afire. While they was planting the stuff, me and me boys set off searching for pirate rats to fight. We was just getting mystified by their absence when I hears Mr. Skull shouting on deck: "Ey, Scurvy man! Up here quick or the whole raid be mash up!"

We was topside in a whisker and found them pirate rats had clambered out quiet on the lines holding the two ships together. Now they was chewing on them so's to set Intrepid adrift and trap us all aboard Philadelphia.

"After them, boys!" I shouts out, and we swarmed out on the lines to fight them paw to paw.

It were the most vicious battle of the night, with the lot of us rodents clawing on one another tooth and cutlass, never showing no quarter nor asking for it neither. Was three of our boys killed straight off, with me taking a good cut on me hindquarters and Billy Breeze getting half his tail chopped off. But we finally killed off the pirate rats, or dashed them off the ropes, and soon enough our humans had set their fires and was coming back aboard Intrepid. Lt. Decatur were the last off and jumped into the rigging just as we pulled away.

Burning Philadelphia

Most thankfully there were a light breeze now blowing from shore. With that and all the humans pulling hard on the sweeps we just managed to get clear before we caught afire ourselves. Still it were taking us a good half hour to get out of the harbor, and meanwhile the shore batteries all come alive and were after us hard with their cannon. Them pirates were terrible gunners, however, and though there was great geysers of spray all about us, weren't but one ball ever touched us and that passed harmless through our tops'l.

The real danger turned out were from Philadelphia, which had fire all on her hull and dancing up her rigging by now. When the fire set to her gun deck, it touched off her whole broadside of cannon straight at us. Most fortunately, the rain of ball just missed us. In but a moment her other broadside were set off in the opposite direction right into town, and we was all laughing about getting in the last licks.

Finally we was clear of the reef and setting back for Syracuse along with Siren. We whooped it up fine aboard Intrepid with some grog and all, rats and humans together. We was feeling mighty happy as now there weren't no excuse for Commodore Preble not to be launching a full raid against the pirates directly.

Early next morning Lt. Decatur called me and me boys together and thanked us personal for our outstanding valor and for our bravery and for saving the mission. It were the proudest moment of me entire naval career. But then Doc Plague, who were still in his cups, had to up and ruin it all by gurgitating all over the lieutenant's foot. Most fortunately, the lieutenant was having a good laugh about it and urged me most politely to think nothing of it.

(Stay tuned for the conclusion of this exciting tale in future transmissions from WaveTrain)

 

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