‘Lawrence of Arabia’ Meets ‘Master & Commander’ – A Conversation with the Author of ‘Fort Enterprize’

Fans of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series will feel right at home in the pages of Kevin Emmet Foley’s new historical novel about the First Barbary War: Fort Enterprize. MHN has this exclusive interview with the author. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“I’m drawn to obscure but important historical events, which is why I became interested in Eaton’s ‘enterprise.'”

Fort Enterprize by Kevin Emmet Foley.

THE YEAR IS 1803. The American frigate USS Philadelphia runs aground on a reef while chasing pirates off the mouth of Tripoli harbour. Guns from a shore battery open fire on the stranded warship as her crew try desperately to refloat the 36-gun vessel. Fearing for the lives of his sailors, the Philadelphia’s captain quickly strikes his colours. By day’s end, the 300-man crew are taken ashore in chains where they become slaves of Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli. Outraged by such a humiliating defeat, President Thomas Jefferson orders secret agent William Eaton and a Marine lieutenant by the name of Presley O’Bannon on an unbelievable mission to topple Karamanli and free the American captives. What follows is one of the most extraordinary yet lesser-known expeditions in the history of American arms. It’s also the premise of Kevin Emmet Foley’s rousing new novel Fort Enterprize. MHN recently caught up with with the author to talk to him about this fast-moving and thoroughly enjoyable book, as well as the war during which it’s set.

Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon leads the marines at the 1805 Battle of Derna. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: What can you tell us about the story behind Fort Enterprize?

Foley: America was a relatively new and not very powerful country at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century and still recovering from the bloody and costly war of independence. America did, however, have thriving trade with Europe. When America merchantmen entered the Mediterranean Sea, however, they could fall prey to pirates from Algiers, Tunis, Morocco and Tripoli in modern-day Libya unless annual tribute was paid to the individual regents of these city-states. It was quite a protection racket for a long time. “Hey, nice merchantman you have there. I’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”

As the new president, Thomas Jefferson strongly believed paying tribute to pirates was a terrible stain on America’s national honor. He decided to use what naval power he had to punish the regents, a decision that led to the improbable capture of one of America’s most powerful frigates, the Philadelphia, and the enslavement of her 300 crewmen by Tripoli’s brutal regent, Yusuf.

A map of the Barbary states, circa 1805. (Image source: WikiCommons)

With few options left, Jefferson seizes on a plan proposed by William Eaton, his former emissary to Tunis. Eaton, a charismatic figure and veteran of the Revolutionary War and Northwest Indian War, tells Jefferson he will sail to Alexandria in Egypt and locate the brother of Tripoli’s regent, Hamet Bey, the rightful heir to Tripoli. Eaton will then raise a mercenary army and march 500 miles across the Sahara Desert to assault and capture Tripoli’s easternmost city, Derna. Once he does, it can be used a base to topple Yusuf, free the 300 American hostages, and replace Yusuf with America’s friend, Hamet. Yes, this actually happened in 1805!

MHN: Your previous novel was a western. Why did you decide to set your next work during the First Barbary War?

Foley: My first novel, Where Law Ends, is a retelling of the Montana Vigilantes legend, but based entirely on facts. I’m drawn to obscure but important historical events, which is why I became interested in Eaton’s “enterprise” when I learned about it. It’s like Lawrence of Arabia meets Master and Commander. I imagined what it must have been like for Eaton and his noble and loyal sidekick, Marine Lt. Presley O’Bannon, when they arrived in Egypt on their unlikely and even impossible secret mission to free American hostages and change the regime in Tripoli.

Hundreds of captured American sailors were enslaved by the ruler of Tripoli. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: Do you think this is a forgotten chapter of American history? 

Foley: Unfortunately, much of American history is forgotten, which I think is why we tend to repeat our mistakes. While the First Barbary War has been the subject of many books, a fictionalized version of Eaton’s enterprise, which was actually quite pivotal, has seldom if ever been told.

MHN: Describe the research that was involved in bringing this story to life.

Foley: Eaton was a prolific journalist. He wrote down many of his thoughts and feelings in the dairies he kept, which I explored online. In addition, I relied on several non-fiction works to tell the story of Philadelphia’s capture and the profound shock waves it sent through Jefferson’s administration. What I like about historical fiction is placing the reader in the time and place. I imagine, for example, Eaton and O’Bannon trudging around Alexandria trying to find Hamet and then recruiting and leading a mercenary army on their improbable and even impossible overland march.

The USS Philadelphia is captured off Tripoli. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: How much creative license did you take with your main characters O’Bannon and Eaton?

Foley: I stuck to what is known about both, but expanded their characters to give the readers a better idea of the kind of men they were. O’Bannon was strong, dutiful and resourceful, the quintessential U.S. Marine. Eaton was flamboyant, an egotist, but also a natural-born visionary and leader. Both men were, above all, loyal American patriots.

For centuries, the Barbary pirates were the scourge of the Mediterranean.

MHN: Tell us about your villain, Peter Lisle, aka Murat Rais.

A Scotsman, Lisle “turned Turk” in the parlance of the day. That is, after he was captured aboard a merchantman by Tripoli pirates, he converted to Islam to avoid enslavement. He eventually learned Arabic and married into Yusuf’s family, rising to “Grand Admiral” of Tripoli’s pirate fleet of corsairs. In my story, Reis becomes O’Bannon’s sworn enemy, although that never really happened.

MHN: For anyone who knows the story of the Barbary Wars and the Battle of Derna, will the novel leave them with a new understanding of these events?

What many readers may not know about is the political subterfuge that took place to undermine Eaton’s secret mission even as he was embarked on it.

Foley’s next book will focus on German U-boats. (Image source: WikiCommons)

MHN: We here at MHN really enjoyed Fort Enterprize. What periods will you explore in future books?

I have written an unpublished thriller set in Ireland at the very beginning of World War Two. It’s based on an unfounded rumour about German U-boats refueling on neutral Ireland’s west coast. I am also currently working on a novel about a little-known but catastrophic battle that took place during the Korean War and I’m sketching out a novel I’d like to write about William Eaton’s adventures with Mad Anthony Wayne during the Northwest Indian War, which took place in modern-day Ohio against the Miami Indians.

MHN’s ‘Fort Enterprize’ Draw…


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