Monday, April 27, 2009

Piratical Precedents


On a wall in the Colonel's study an oddly-handled sword and its scabbard hang crossed beneath a wood carving of the Marine Corps' eagle, globe, and anchor. The uniquely designed sword has been the exclusive ceremonial accoutrement of U. S. Marine officers for nearly two centuries, but its history is far longer than that.

In the 9th Century, the leaders of the Islamic Abbisid caliphate headquartered in Baghdad, worried that their military strength was not sufficient to maintain their regional dominance, created a caste of slave warriors the predominance of which were initially acquired from slave-holding nomadic Turks. Over the next century, these Mamelukes, from the Arabic word mamluk, meaning "owned," distinguished themselves in military service to their masters and began to assume positions of great responsibility in their armies.  

In the early 870s, one of these slave generals staged a coup, seized power from the weak representative of the caliphate in Egypt, and rapidly brought the region stretching from Egypt to Syria under his control. This first Mameluke dynasty ended in 905 when another slave army from Baghdad invaded and regained control of Egypt and Palestine.

A succession of different dynastic caliphs continued to maintain their military supremacy in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions with their elite Mameluke armies, continually replenished by recruits and slaves acquired from Central Asia. By the middle of the 13th Century, the Mamelukes are at the height of their power and influence and a Mameluke general once again seized power in Egypt, this time from a weakened descendant of the great Saladin. 

Coincident with this uprising to the West, the successors of Genghis Khan expanded the Mongol Empire from the East into Europe and the Middle East. Mameluke armies over the next century are among a minority of military forces able to withstand the Mongol tide and win significant battles against them. From the Mongols, the Mamelukes adopted effective battlefield tactics and weapons, among them a slightly curved, simply-handled, broad-bladed sabre descended from a common weapon of the Ming dynasty. The Mamelukes combined features of this sword with features of the scimitar carried by their Central Asian ancestors and the result was the samshir, from the Persian word for a lion's claw.

Mameluke warlord rule, with caliphate figure heads, continued in North Africa and the Middle East until finally snuffed out by the expanding Ottoman Empire in the early 19th Century. Mameluke military influence, particularly mostly-ceremonial weaponry, continued to predominate throughout the region.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson, the gun-owning, former anti-government extremist author of the treasonous Anglo-American colonial declaration of secession from the British crown, assumed the office of President of the United States. One of the first foreign policy challenges of his administration was the prevalence of piracy taking its toll on American shipping in the Mediterranean. Corsairs, based in what is today Libya, continued a tradition that dated back thousands of years in the Mediterranean -- seizing merchant shipping cargoes and holding the ships and their crews for ransom. 

Consumed by war on the continent, European nations found it more practical to pay the ransoms and "protection tribute" than to divert military resources to deal with the states (the Kingdom of Morocco and the Barbary States--Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis) sanctioning the piracy. 

American administrations under Washington and Adams also paid ransom and tribute. 

When Jefferson refused to pay an increased tribute demanded by the Pasha of Tripoli, the Barbary despot declared war on the United States and seized several American merchant ships and crews. Jefferson sent a U. S. Navy squadron to deal with the situation, but a blockade of the port of Tripoli and anti-piracy patrols in the Mediterranean were ineffective.

Realizing that regime change was required to remedy the situation, the Americans sided with the deposed former ruler of Tripoli, Hamet Karamanli, and a small contingent of Marines joined a company of mercenaries hired by Hamet in an expedition to retake the Tripolitanian throne. Led by American Marine First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon, the force trekked 600 miles across the Libyan desert, stormed the citadel at Derne, Tripoli, and raised the American flag over the city on April 27, 1805. 

It was the first United States land operation on foreign soil. 

Gratified, Hamet presented O'Bannon with a Mameluke sword.

Proclaimed an American Hero on his return, O'Bannon left military service and although a native of Virginia, entered politics in Kentucky, serving in the state house and senate.

Ever vigilant to add laurel and lore to our tradition, the Marine Corps immortalized O'Bannon's feat in the Marines' Hymn, and adopted a facsimile of O'Bannon's Mameluke sword gift as the ceremonial side-arm of its officers.

From Baghdad to Somalia -- what goes around, comes around. Want to deal most effectively with a particularly thorny problem? Dig it out by the root.
Post a Comment