The Shores of Tripoli: Lieutenant Putnam and the Barbary Pirates

Written by James L. Haley
Review by Thomas j. Howley

An award-winning historian who also writes fiction can be expected to deliver excellence, and Haley doesn’t disappoint. In reply to currently popular British historical naval novels, he introduces us to young American Lieutenant Putnam. In 1801, Putnam is fourteen and already starting his career in action against the Barbary pirates along the North African coast. Gaining in experience and heroically blooded in battle as a boy, he is eventually transferred to the famous frigate U.S.S. Constitution. Then the historically accurate action really explodes as Putnam is intimately involved in the bombardment of Tripoli, the land battle at Derna, and the later rescue of American sailors and civilians from slavery. Throughout, he struggles to maintain his relationship with his hometown sweetheart.

With poignant echoes of today’s horrors with terrorism, the book sadly reminds us this conflict is not new. The descriptions of life at sea and the skills needed to survive are illustrative. Haley is brutally honest about unequal conditions for common seamen versus officers, and especially how, even then, U.S. government officials could be so cynical and self-serving. Yet there are heroes like young Lieutenant Putnam, General William Eaton, and especially Navy Captain Edward Preble, along with many more entrancingly admirable men and strong women.

The novel concludes with a dramatic, event-filled ending which brilliantly sets the stage for the following books in this new series. It makes painfully clear Barbary pirates were not the only threat to the infant U.S. republic. European powers, especially the British, were hovering like vultures. This wonderful book is, in historian Barbara Tuchman’s words, “a distant mirror.” An absolute must read.