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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Frigate “Philadelphia” Captured by the Turks

By William Ray (1771–1827)

[Born in Salisbury, Conn., 1771. Died at Auburn, N. Y., 1827. Poems … With a brief sketch of the Author’s Captivity and Sufferings, etc. 1821.]

ON the 31st day of October, early in the morning, a sail was discovered on our larboard bow, and orders were immediately given for chase. She hoisted Tripolitan colors and bore away, making in-shore towards Tripoli. The white walls of our destined place of confinement soon hove in sight. Every sail was set, and every effort made to overhaul the ship, and cut her off from the town. The wind was not very favorable to our purpose, and we frequently had to wear ship. A constant fire was kept up from the Philadelphia, but to no purpose. We were now within about four and a half miles from the town, and Captain Bainbridge, not being acquainted with the harbor, having no pilot nor correct chart, trusted implicitly to Lt. Porter, who had been here before, and who professed to be well acquainted with the situation of the harbor. We, however, went so close in that the Captain began to be fearful of venturing any further, and was heard to express his apprehensions to Lt. P., who made answer that there was no danger yet, and that he would give them a few shots more. A few moments afterwards, and just as our ship was preparing to wear away, she struck upon the shoals and remained fast. I was writing in the wardroom at the time, and hearing a tremendous bustle on deck ran up the hatchway to see what was the matter. I saw at once that the ship’s bow lay up partly careened, and that she was aground. She lay in a posture exactly as I had dreamed of seeing her a few nights before, and the moment I saw her, the dream recurred to me in a very striking manner. Dismay was visible in every countenance. The sails were put aback, the top-gallant sails loosened, three anchors thrown away from the bows, the water in the hold started, and the guns thrown overboard, excepting a few abaft to defend the ship against the attacks of the gunboats, three of which were now under way from the wharves. Her foremast was also cut away; but all to no effect.

One gunboat only was able to gain a position where she could reach us, and this began and continued to spit her fiery vengeance; but they fired too high, and hit nothing but the rigging. The stern of our frigate was partly demolished to make way for our guns to bear upon the enemy the better, but all was unavailing. It was about twelve o’clock when the frigate struck the shoals. We continued firing at the gunboats and using every means in our power to get the ship afloat and annoy the enemy, when, a little before sunset, the Eagle of America fell a prey to the vultures of Barbary—the flag was struck—and, what is worse, struck to one Tripolitan gunboat! We had boarding pikes, battle-axes, muskets and bayonets, cutlasses and pistols, dirks and tomahawks, boarding nettings, and everything else to defend ourselves with; there were more than three hundred of us on board. We might, I humbly beg leave to think, have kept off the enemy for that night,—and behold, the next morning, as I have always been told by the Tripolitans, the ship was afloat! How this act was justified by the court-martial that afterwards investigated the subject, is not for me to say. I know, however, that it was thought by many of the warrant, and all the petty officers, as well as by the whole crew, to say the least of it, an unnecessary and premature surrender. The fact was, the enemy were so dastardly, that after the flag was struck they dare not, for they did not, come to take possession of their prize, until our boat was sent and convinced them that it was no farce, no trick, and that the U. S. frigate Philadelphia of forty-four guns had actually struck her colors to one Tripolitan gunboat! And yet we must not indulge the idea that Capt. Bainbridge was a coward, by any means. I suppose it was feared that, when night came on, the enemy would venture out in full force, and probably overpower us, giving no quarter.

While the boat was gone, the ship was scuttled, and everything destroyed or thrown overboard, that could be of any use to the enemy,—all hands were called to muster on the quarter-deck,—Capt. Bainbridge read a clause in the articles of war stating that our wages would be continued while prisoners of war, encouraged us to hope for a ransom, and advised us to behave with fortitude and circumspection while amongst our barbarous captors. About sundown, the boats of the enemy came alongside, boarded us, hurried us into their boats, and commenced their plunder—stripping us of all our clothing, except shirts, trousers, and hats. I had some pieces of gold which an officer had given me, in my vest pocket; which I at first refused to give up, but one of the pirates, pushing the muzzle of a cocked pistol hard against my breast, soon brought me to terms. When we approached the shore, we were thrown headlong into the waves, foaming from a high breeze, when the water was up to our armpits, and left to strangle, or get ashore as we could. At the beach stood a row of armed janizaries, through which we passed, amidst cursings and spittings, to the castle gate. It opened, and we ascended a narrow, winding, dismal passage, which led into a paved avenue lined with grizzly guards, armed with sabres, muskets, pistols, and hatchets. Here we halted again a few moments, and were again hurried on through various turnings and flights of stairs, until we found ourselves in the presence of his majesty, the puissant Bashaw of Tripoli. The throne on which he was seated was raised about four feet from the surface, inlaid with mosaic, covered with a cushion of the richest velvet, fringed with gold, bespangled with brilliants. The floor of the hall was of variegated marble, spread with carpets of the most beautiful kind. The person of the Grand Bashaw made a very tawdry appearance. His clothing was a long robe of blue silk embroidered with gold. His broad belt, ornamented with diamonds, held two gold-mounted pistols and a sabre with a golden scabbard, hilt, and chains. On his head he wore a large white turban, decorated in the richest manner. His whole vestments were superb in the extreme. His dark beard swept his breast. I should suppose him to be about forty, is rather corpulent, five feet ten inches in height, and of a manly, majestic deportment. When he had satiated his pride and curiosity, the guard conducted us into a dreary and filthy apartment of the castle, where there was scarcely room for us to turn round, and where we were kept for nearly two hours, shivering in our wet clothes, and with the chills of a very damp night. The Neapolitan slaves, of whom the Bashaw had more than one hundred and fifty, brought us dry clothing to exchange for our wet, and we sincerely thanked them for their apparent kindness, expecting to receive ours again when dry; but the trickish scoundrels never returned our clothes nor made us any restitution. Our clothing was new, and what they brought us in exchange was old and ragged. We were next taken to a piazza nearly in front of the Bashaw’s audience hall, where we lodged for the night. It was open on one side to the cold winds of the night, and, as many of us had wet clothes on, not having exchanged them, add to this the gloomy prospects before us, it will not be imagined that we enjoyed very comfortable repose.