Extraordinary Barbary Wars-Era, United States Naval Officer's POW Diary, Ca 1803-1805

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Journal containing approx. 131 pp of descriptive entries written by a naval officer serving aboard the US Frigate Philadelphia during the First Barbary War. In exciting detail, he records his capture and experiences as a POW under the control of a greedy bashaw on the North African coast from 1803 until 1805. The journal reads like a novel with stories of pirates, an intense naval battle, intrigue, love, betrayal, a daring escape attempt, and more. Outlandish as the account may seem, other published works by fellow prisoners confirm almost every detail. This important journal, however, has not been published.

The unidentified author dramatically begins:

Twelve years I have been a wanderer, a solitary wanderer on the earth; separated from life, children, relations, and friends, alone, thou' in the midst of company, and tho', in the course of that time, I have experienced critical situations, reduced circumstances, and the most painful dilemmas…It is an affair of great concern to the publik who, at a future day may require of me as well as of others, an account of it, I feel myself under a kind of obligation to commit to writing…from my memory a circumstantial statement of it: as far, at least as respects the loss of the Frigate Philadelphia and the consequent captivity of her Captain, officers and crew, amounting to one/three(?) hundred and seven persons.

The First Barbary War, also known as the Tripoli War, began as an action against practiced state-supported piracy that robbed the United States, Sweden, and other European traders of its valuable goods. Trade giants Great Britain and France approved of the measures taken by Tripoli and other North African countries because it nearly eliminated competition from other rising economic powers. Thomas Jefferson tried in vain to create a conglomeration of weaker European navies to protect themselves and United States’ ships from attack. Piracy persisted until finally, in 1801, the United States retaliated by raising a navy of six ships to fight against the Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli. The frigate Philadelphia was one of the ships built specifically for the conflict, and, in 1803, fell during the Second Battle of Tripoli Harbor. The author of the journal described the event:

On Monday, October 31st, 1803 at 9:00 a.m. being seven leagues to the Eastward of Tripoli…We immediately made sail in chase, and about ten, being within random shot and perceiving [a ship] was armed, began firing on her from the first and second division, larboard side. …. The ship ran aground, helpless in the face of constant fire…

With no way of defending themselves against capture, the crew furiously tried to salvage what they could from the ship. The author agonized on what he could save. He pocketed 30 doubloons and stuffed his wife's letters in his jacket.

Bainbridge commanded the crew to drill holes in the ship's bottom, dampen the gunpowder, set fire to the sheets, and throw all other weapons thrown overboard before surrendering.

The men took the captain and superior officers to their leader, the bashaw. They were interned in a prison, deprived of every enjoyment of life, mere existence accepted and cut off from all communication with the rest of mankind (January 1, 1805).

Unfortunately, the crew's attempts to destroy the ship failed. Later that month, enemy sailors repaired the holes and used the Philadelphia in battle. Too great of a prize to remain in enemy hands, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr. and a party of volunteers from another ship boarded the Philadelphia under the cover of night, while pretending to be a ship in distress. They boarded the ship and set it on fire while its crew languished in Tripoli.

The author of the journal writes lengthy stories of betrayal, theft, intrigue, and a brave escape attempt that would have succeeded if the rescue boats were in position. Rather than risk their lives, the escapees returned to the prison without raising any suspicion. The journal ends Sunday, June 10, 1805, with a description of an ongoing negotiation between the captain and their warden.

Supplementary research included with the lot suggests that the author of the diary is Keith Spence. The identification is based on a letter he copies in his journal addressed to Mrs. Spence and son. However, The Huntington Library in California has a collection of Kenneth Spence’s family papers, including letters to his wife during his imprisonment. After further inspection and comparing the handwriting of the journal to Spence's papers, we determined that this is not the diary of Kenneth Spence but another officer on board.

Provenance: N. Flayderman and Co., Inc.

Condition: The diary remains mostly intact with some damage to the binding, toning of the paper, and a few loose pages.

EST $ 6000 - 8000

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This item is part of Historic Firearms & Militaria 2-Day Live Auction
 Wednesday, Nov 2, 2016 | 10:00 AM  Eastern
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Extraordinary Barbary Wars-Era, United States Naval Officer's POW Diary, Ca 1803-1805
Extraordinary Barbary Wars-Era, United States Naval Officer's POW Diary, Ca 1803-1805
Lot number: 5
Seller: Cowan's Auctions
Event: Historic Firearms & Militaria 2-Day Live Auction
Ends: Wednesday, November 2 | 10:00 AM  Eastern

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