It was on this day in 1801 that the Original Star Ship Enterprise boldly went where no American had gone before.
“It would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war,” Thomas Jefferson professed to President John Adams, who without a Navy to employ, had become ruminative in his approach to the brutal Barbary pirates reeking havoc on American merchantmen.
The American people, Jefferson chief among them, convulsed impulsively, when even the faintest whiff of oppression threatened their liberty. Great Britain could certainly attest to that.
Even before Jefferson took the oath of office to become the 3rd president of the New United States, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli sent a message to the newly elected president demanding $225,000. A sum which amounted to a significant portion of the yearly budget for the fledgling American nation.
Without the reach and firepower of a Navy, Adams, and George Washington before him, had little choice but to pay tribute to the Barbary States who had been extorting payments from European nations for hundreds of years. The tributary emoluments made to the ruling Pasha’s and Dey’s of the North African nations totaled in the several hundred’s of millions in today’s currency.
By the late 18th century, Great Britain was paying Algiers alone nearly $2,000,000 a year in tribute; the Dutch, much less powerful, close to $40,000,000; and the Spanish, whose defensive prowess had diminish precipitously, were required to pay an astounding $220,000,000 in todays dollars to avoid the depredations of the unmerciful and ever covetous Barbary Pirates.
Though the problem presented itself thousand’s of miles distant from American shores, Jefferson could not simply ignore Karamanli’s demand. He had to decide to pay or fight. For their part, the American people had become highly reliant on Mediterranean trade in goods and produce, and could ill-afford to have their merchant ships commandeered by the Muslim corsairs.
Though Jefferson had just defeated Adams in the bitter election of 1800, his erstwhile friend (they would reconcile later in life) had been kind enough to build him a Navy – and Jefferson intended to use it. The newly inaugurated commander-in-chief sent a message back to the Pasha, which in a word, spelled “No!” The Tripolitan leader, upon receiving Jefferson’s refusal responded by cutting down the Stars and Stripes in front of the U.S. Consulate, the Barbary mode of declaring war.
Jefferson, having dealt with the Barbary leaders since the revolution, knew what the response would be, and had already order Adams’ Navy to depart, well before getting his reply. The USS Enterprise, a ship built the year before and which would have several flattering iterations in the centuries to come (including the most decorated ship of World War II and the one piloted by the fictitious Captain James T. Kirk), set sail for the Mediterranean along with a squadron of new American warships.
Just a few months later, on this day, August 1st in 1801, Thomas Jefferson, with John Adams’ foresight and Captain Andrew Sterett with his crew of 90 courageous men, won the first battle in the war on terror.
And Captain Kirk, inspired by their heroism, would have the perfect name for his starship.
Below is a contemporary account in Washington’s City’s National Intelligencer & Advertiser from 1801. It is worth the time to read it:
Yesterday captain Sterrett, commander of the schooner Enterprize, part of the Mediterranean squadron, arrived here, with dispatches for the Secretary of the Navy.
Captain Sterrett is bearer of dispatches from commodore Dale, which exhibit a detailed account of the proceedings and situation of the Mediterranean squadron.
On the 1st of August, the schooner Enterprize, commanded by captain Sterrett, and carrying 12 six pounders and 90 men, bound to Malta for a supply of water, fell in with a Tripolitan cruizer, being a ship of 14 six pounders, manned by 80 men.
At this time the Enterprize bore British colours (the British were paying tribute). Captain Sterrett interrogated the commander of the Tripolitan on the object of his cruize. He replied that he came out to cruise after the Americans, and that he lamented that he had not come alongside of some of them. Captain Sterrett, on this reply, hoisted American, in the room of British colours; and discharged a volley of musquetry; which the Tripolitan returned by a partial broadside.—This was the commencement of a hard fought action, which commenced at 9 am and continued for three hours.
Three times, during the action, the Tripolitan attempted to board the Enterprize, and was as often repulsed with great slaughter, which was greatly increased by the effective aid afforded by the Marines. Three times, also, the Tripolitan struck her colours, and as often treacherously renewed the action, with the hope of disabling the crew of captain Sterrett, which, as is usual, when the enemy struck her colours, came on deck, and exposed themselves, while they gave three cheers as a mark of victory.
When for the third time, this treacherous attack was made, captain Sterrett gave orders to sink the Tripolitan, on which a scene of furious combat ensuded, until the enemy cried for mercy.
Captain Sterrett, listening to the voice of humanity, even after such perfidious conduct, ordered the captain either to come himself, or to send some of his officers on board the Enterprize. He was informed that the boat of the Tripolitan was so shattered as to be unfit for use. He asked, what security there was, that if he should send his men in his own boat, they would not be murdered?
After numerous supplications & protestations the boat was sent: The crew of the Tripolitan was discovered to be in the most deplorable state. Out of eighty men, 20 were killed, and 30 wounded. Among the killed were the second lieutenant and Surgeon; and among the wounded were the Captain and first lieutenant. And so decisive was the fire of the Enterprize that the Tripolitan was found to be in a most perilous condition, having received 18 shot between wind and water.
When we compare this great slaughter, with the fact that not a single individual of the crew of the Enterprise was in the least degree injured, we are lost in surprise at the uncommon good fortune which accompanied our seamen, and at the superior management of Captain Sterrett.
All the officers and sailors manifested the truest spirit, and sustained the greatest efforts during the engagement. All, therefore, are entitled to encomium for their valour and good conduct. The marines, especially, owing to the nearness of the vessels, which were within pistol shot of each other, were eminently useful.
After administering to the relief of the distresses of the wounded Tripolitans, and the wants of the crew, Capt. Sterrett ordered the ship of the enemy to be completely dismantled. Her masts were accordingly all cut down, and her guns thrown overboard. A spar was raised, on which was fixed, as a flag, a tattered sail; and in this condition the ship was dismissed.
On the arrival of the Tripolitan ship at Tripoli, so strong was the sensations of shame and indignation excited there, that the Bey ordered the wounded captain to be mounted on a jack ass, and paraded thro’ the streets as an object of public scorn. After which he received 500 bastinadoes (a form of corporal punishment in which the soles of ones feet are repeatedly lashed).
So thunderstruck were the Tripolitans at this event, and at the apprehended destruction of their whole marine force, that the sailors, then employed at Tripoli on board of cruisers that were fitting out by the government, all deserted them, and not a man could be procured to navigate them.
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