Friday, April 08, 2011

Action of 16 May 1797

Danish air forces are currently engaged in combat operations in Libya, but this is not the first time we've been there. 214 years ago at Tripoli a Danish naval squadron was victorious over a Tripolitan squadron that outnumbered them in terms of the number of vessels. The reason why was simple enough, the Bey of Tripoli, Sidi Yussuf was what is today known as a Barbary pirate, and despite the 'gift ships' with which the Europeans were wont to pay off the Muslim pirates of North Africa, Sidi Yusuf was enslaving Danish merchant sailors anyway (since they were Christians they were fair game for him) so Denmark sent Captain Lorenz Fisker in the heavy frigate Thetis (40 guns) to Tripoli to put a stop to his infernal capers.

The first attempt failed so Captain Steen Andersen Bille (who would one day become Prime Minister of Denmark) was sent in the heavy frigate Najaden (40 guns) along with Captain Charles Christian De Holck in the brig Sarpen (18 guns). At Malta, which was then held by Napoleon, to whom the Danes were allied, the Danish squadron hired a Xebec frigate of six guns and manned it with a crew drawn from their own ships. History doesn't record the name of the Xebec, which is unfortunate as Xebecs are a most interesting ship type. Command of the hired vessel was given to one of Sarpen's officers, a Lieutenant Hans Munck.

The squadron sailed from Malta and made a rendezvous with Thetis off Lampedusa (the island which is currently swamped with immigrants from Tunisia seeking entry into Europe, much to the annoyance of the Italians who own the island). Fisker transferred command of Danish forces in the Mediterranean to Bille and then sailed for home. It must have been frustrating for Bille to watch Fisker leave with the Thetis but he pressed on and on the 16th of May Najaden sailed into the Tripoli harbor and opened fire on the six armed vessels the Danes found there. The Tripolitan forces consisted of the 28-gun xebec Meshuda, two other xebecs of similar size and three smaller vessels.

Although the Danish cannon fire caused extensive casualties among the Tripolitans, they nevertheless managed to get close to the Danish vessels and almost managed to board Najaden. Hoppe's deft maneuvering forestalled defeat. Although the two smaller Danish ships were more of a hindrance than a help, the Tripolitans retreated after two hours. Danish casualties were one killed and one wounded

Captain Bille then blockaded Triploi and effectively stopped its trade. Subsequent negotiations resulted in a peace treaty on 25 May where Denmark agreed to continue to pay tribute, but at a reduced rate and Bille was able to buy the freedom of the Danish prisoners.

A febec frigate of the period

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