"Lydia Bailey" -- a Book Worth Reading

Lydia Bailey”, by Kenneth Roberts, Doubleday & Co., 488pp. (1947)

Why read a book written nearly 75 years ago about events around 220 years ago? First, because it is a fascinating fast-paced ripping-yarn type of story full of vivid descriptions of people and places, with the author credibly intertwining his fictional characters with real persons & events. Second, because it gives today’s reader pause for thought – the same official incompetence & mendacity we see around us now was unfortunately alive and well little more than a decade after the adoption of the US Constitution.

The protagonist of the tale is one Albion Hamlin, a farmer/lawyer in Maine, born in 1773 into a family which remained loyal to the English crown during the American Revolution and suffered accordingly in the aftermath. Hamlin studied law before becoming a farmer.

In 1800, Hamlin very reluctantly agreed to represent a newspaper publisher who had been accused under Congress’s recently-passed Sedition Law which effectively made it a crime to criticize the ruling Federalist Party. While preparing for the trial, Hamlin became fascinated with a portrait of the publisher’s niece, the eponymous Lydia Bailey, who had died of Yellow Fever in Haiti. The trial was a politicized farce, and ended with Hamlin being jailed along with his client.

Escaping from jail, Hamlin went to Washington DC to pursue a case related to the French Spoliation Claims, which stemmed from France having seized American ships in retaliation for the refusal of Congress to live up to the terms of the first treaty it ever approved. During his researches, Hamlin learned that Lydia Bailey had in fact not died. He resolved to sail to Haiti and find her.

In late 1801, he reached Haiti – shortly before the arrival of the invasion force sent by Napoleon to reconquer that colony after its successful rebellion. As a brutal war began, Hamlin managed to find Lydia Bailey, rescue her from a dangerous situation, and marry her.

The couple sought to escape from Haiti, made difficult by the French embargo on the island. By nefarious means, they managed to get a ship across the Atlantic to France. Unfortunately, when they arrived in the Mediterranean, the ship was captured by Barbary pirates. Hamlin and Lydia were taken to Tripoli, enslaved, and given to the Bashaw, the ruler of Tripoli. This Bashaw was a very nasty character who had seized control by kicking out his brother (the rightful ruler) and imprisoning his brother’s children as hostages. The Bashaw decided to use Lydia as teacher for those children, while Hamlin was separated from her and sent to labor in a market garden.

Over the following two years, Lydia’s place in the ruler’s fortress gave her opportunities to learn about diplomatic maneuvering, and she found ways to smuggle information to Hamlin. He, on the other hand was well-placed in his coastal garden to witness the disastrous effort of the US Navy to stop the Barbary pirates. In 1803, the frigate Philadelphia sailed up to Tripoli in a threatening manner. The captain drove his ship onto the rocks and promptly surrendered. The sailors were held for ransom and treated brutally.

Through complex machinations, Hamlin and Lydia were eventually rescued from slavery and enlisted in a scheme promoted by the US to replace the evil Bashaw with the rightful ruler, his much more humane & reasonable brother. In 1805, they were with a small force US Marines along with a little army recruited by the Bashaw’s brother in Egypt when it succeeded in capturing the town of Derna east of Tripoli. With the aid of gunnery support from the US Navy, these forces defeated the Bey’s army sent to recapture the town. Tripoli was wide open to assault and replacing the evil ruler with his brother. But an envoy of the US State Department snatched defeat from the jaws of victory – shamefully abandoning the Bashaw’s brother and his forces, ordering the US Navy to withdraw, and paying ransom to the Bashaw for the imprisoned sailors.

Hamlin & Lydia escaped to France, but with a bad taste in their mouths.

The book was suggested by David Foster at chicagoboyz.net. His review can be read here:
Book Review: Lydia Bailey, by Kenneth Roberts – Chicago Boyz

Although this is a rather old book, I was able to obtain an excellent copy through Alibris.com for little more than the cost of postage. Read it!


Some things never change.


Almost everything Kenneth Roberts writes is worth reading - even seventy years after he wrote it. It will still be worth reading a century from now.