“General” Eaton And His Improbable Legion


Ever since America had achieved independence, her relations with the Barbary predators had been an open scandal. Yet people at home argued that all Europe’s relations with them had been an even greater scandal from way back; so why should we rush in with arms where older and greater nations preferred not to tread? Ever since the Arab conquests of the eighth century, the Mediterranean had been a feuding ground between Arab corsairs and Christian traders (often with their own corsairs attached). It had been thought that with the rise of British and French power in the inland sea, the Moslem marauders under their Turkish suzerains would finally be brought to book. Yet nothing of the sort had happened. The European powers, locked in struggle with each other, had found it cheaper to buy off the pirates than to fight them. By 1800, this unheroic great-power arrangement had taken on the additional advantage ot turning Barbarian eyes upon other, weaker Western nations less able to pay such blackmail—particularly upon the United States, whose Mediterranean commerce was booming.


Indecisive, isolated, and anxious not to risk its small Meet, the United States had first signed up with the robber barons of Morocco lor protection, purchasing peace and exemption from capture lor a trifling $25,000. Relieved Americans thought these terms a bargain. But then came the Dey of Algiers, who, having taken several of oui ships and crews, demanded and got an outright ransom of $640,000, plus an annual tribute to the value of $20,000 in the form of naval stores, including ammunition that could be used against us. This in turn aroused the lust of the next neighbor along the line, the Bey of Tunis, who demanded gilts exceeding $100,000 if his buccaneers were to be called off. Finally came the Pasha ol Tripoli, who proclaimed that amid this general shakedown he was not to be left out, either.

It was into this den of thieves that Pickering sent Eaton, a Horid, corpulent, rugged man, with instructions to try to get the Tunisian chieftain to modify his terms; this might in turn mollify Tripoli. President John Adams, usually a proud personage, penned an obeisant introduction for his new emissary to the pirates’ lair that, began: “To the most Illustrious and most Magnificent Prince, the Bey, who commands the Odgiac of Tunis, the abode of happiness, and the most honored Ibrahim Dey and Soliman, Aga of the Jani saries, and Chief of the Divan of all the Elders of the Odgiac.” Since the illustrious prince also had a particular fondness for jewels, Eaton was to reassure him that plenty would soon be on their way, if only he would reduce some of his other demands. Here were some personal gifts that United States Minister Rufus King in London was charged with purchasing to grace the ruler’s abode of happiness:

For the Bey:

1 Fusee [musket] six feet long, mounted with gold, set with diamonds

4 [of the same] set with gold mounting, ordinary length

1 pair of Pistols, mounted with gold, set with diamonds

4 pair ol Pistols, mounted with gold

1 poniard, enamelled, set with diamonds

1 diamond Ring

1 gold repeating watch, with diamonds, chain the same

1 gold snuffbox, set with diamonds

6 pieces of brocade of gold

30 pieces superfine cloth of different colours

6 pieces Satin, different colours

But even before Consul Eaton arrived at Tunis to confer about these and other fine points of tribute, he was to stop oil en route at Algiers to pay respects to that principality’s ruler and check up on how our agreement on foreign aid was going there. How an American tribute-bearer was received in Algiers in the year 1798 is best described in Eaton’s own words. After being led through a maze of dimly lit palace corridors, he was instructed to remove his shoes before being admitted to the sublime presence. Then, “we were shown to a huge, shaggy beast, sitting on his rump, upon a low bench, covered with a cushion of embroidered velvet, with his hind legs gathered up like a taylor, or a bear. On our approach to him, he reached out his fore paw as if to receive something to eat. Our uuide exclaimed, ‘Kiss the Dey’s hand!’ ”


Eaton’s description went on sardonically: “The animal seemed at that moment to be in a harmless [mood]: he grinned several times; but made very litlle noise.” Then lhe newly arrived consul erupted: “Can any man believe that this elevated brute has seven kings of Europe, two republics, and a continent, tributary to him, when his whole naval force is not equal to two line of battle ships? It is so.”