Historical IronyApril 9, 2009
Update: Captain Bainbridge has been redeemed! It took 206 years but his soul can finally rest knowing he positively contributed to the mission of combatting the pirate threat to U.S. merchant vessels. In case you hadn’t heard, Navy SEALS, operating on board USS Bainbridge, killed three of the four pirates and rescued the U.S. Captain being held hostage. Of course, if Bainbridge had done his job right the first time…but nonetheless, a great day for the Navy!
Does anyone find it ironic that the ship the Navy dispatched to the Somali coast to deal with the pirate threat is the USS Bainbridge, a ship named after a Navy Captain who in 1803 ran his ship aground while pursuing pirates off the coast of Africa?
As a quick reminder, Captain William Bainbridge was a U.S. Navy Captain who in 1803 was ordered to sail as part of a squadron of Navy ships to deal with the pirates based out of Tripoli who were harassing U.S. merchant vessels. This problem was not new, and for many years the pirates would capture U.S. merchant vessels and demand that a ransom be paid. The U.S. government would always pay the ransom and simply considered this ‘tribute’ as part of the cost of doing business. Eventually, the U.S. had enough, and President Jefferson (who, ironically, had been elected on a campaign of diminishing the Navy) ordered the construction of a naval fleet big enough to dispatch to the Mediterranean to stop the pirate attacks. Captain Bainbridge was appointed Captain of the USS Philadelphia, a 44 gun frigate, and along with several other vessels under the command of Commodore Preble, set sail for the Mediterranean.
Once they got there, the squadron met with little success, as the pirates would continually evade the U.S. ships by sailing close to shore, where the deep draft of the U.S. vessels prevented them from pursuing. (They could have used a Littoral Combat Ship!) Things finally came to a head one day when Captain Bainbridge decided he had had enough, and ordered the Philadelphia to pursue the pirates who were fleeing to shore. Sure enough, the Philadelphia hit an uncharted reef and ran aground. Despite the best attempts of the crew to free the ship, the Philadelphia was stuck fast, and it wasn’t long before the pirates came back, boarded the ship, captured the crew, and claimed the ship for their own.
So, not only was Bainbridge responsible for running his ship aground, he was also responsible for allowing the enemy to capture his vessel, free it, and take it for their own. To give you an idea of what a 44 gun frigate would equate to today, it would be equivalent to the pirates capturing one of our aircraft carriers. This was a huge deal and could very well have dramatically altered the balance of power in the region. Fortunately, a daring young Lieutenant named Stephen Decatur serving under Commodore Preble came up with the brilliant plan of sneaking into the harbor where the Philadelphia was moored, climbing on board while disguised as pirates, and setting the ship on fire so it could not be used against them. Think of the rebels trying to attack the death star, but without being able to use the force. That’s what these guys were doing. In the end the plan worked, and Decatur and his crew escaped back to their ships after successfully destroying the Philadelphia. The Barbary Wars continued for several more years, but the pirate threat was largely defeated and U.S. naval might had been shown to the world. Admiral Nelson, the British hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, is noted to have referred to Decatur’s raid as, “The most daring act of the age.” Nice.
So, if history is any guide, what is going to happen is that the USS Bainbridge will run aground while pursuing these pirates, and the Navy will have to dispatch USS Decatur (under the command of the USS Preble, of course) to go and rescue them. If I were the Captain of the USS Bainbridge, I would be incredibly mindful of the historical forces in play. Captain Bainbridge may not have had GPS, but with this much as stake, I wouldn’t be taking any chances!