Presented with the word “slavery,” what comes to your mind? If you are an American, it is surely the race slavery that was a feature of life here for 250 years, that continued through the early decades of the Republic in some states, and that caused divisions that led to the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our history.
That is as it should be. We naturally think of our own country first. Slavery, however, has been a feature of life in many societies all over the world, from the most ancient times down to the present day. There is hardly a place that has not been touched by it; hardly an ethny* that has not been subjected to this greatest of all indignities at one time or other. It was the memory of seeing English children in the slave market at Rome that inspired Gregory the Great to set about the conversion of the English; and I used to tease my Irish Republican friends — back when such things were still relevant, I mean, before they all got jobs trading financial futures — with the historical fact that in early-medieval Ireland, “British slave girl” was a unit of currency, equivalent to three cows.
We all sort of know this stuff in a piecemeal way, but now and then you read something that makes it vivid to you. I’ve had just that experience the last couple of days, reading Robert Davis’s 2003 book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters. The book is an account of the enslavement of untold numbers of European Christians by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast, that stretch of the North African shoreline currently under the sovereignty of Algeria, Tunisia, and western Libya. The phenomenon had its greatest flourishing in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it continued down to the early 19th century. American sailors were captured and enslaved in the early years of the Republic — a contributing cause of the Barbary Wars. That was very nearly the last gasp of the Barbary slavers, though.
We have accustomed ourselves to think of the race slavery of the Americas as being worse than the indiscriminate slavery of the ancient world. The slaves of old Rome looked no different from free citizens. In fact, when one of the emperors had the idea to make slaves wear some kind of distinctive dress, his advisers dissuaded him by pointing out that it might not be a good idea to let the slaves see plainly how numerous they were … Under race slavery, by contrast, what you were — the color of your skin — marked you out as suitable for slavery.
The Mediterranean slavery of the 16th and 17th centuries fell somewhere between those two. It was not race slavery, but nor was it indiscriminate. It was religious slavery. The human beings kidnapped and sold by the Barbary pirates were fair game because they were Christian. A Christian slave on the Barbary Coast could attain his freedom by converting to Islam, and many did so.
There was in fact, says Prof. Davis, something of religious revenge in the depredations of the Muslim slavers. The slave trade really got going after 1492, the year the last Muslims were expelled from Spain — what Osama bin Laden calls “the tragedy of Andalusia.” Says the author: “In Barbary, those who hunted and traded slaves certainly hoped to make a profit, but in their traffic in Christians there was also always an element of revenge, almost of jihad — for the wrongs of 1492, for the centuries of crusading violence that had preceded them, and for the ongoing religious struggle between Christian and Muslim that has continued to roil the Mediterranean world well into modern times.”
One of the most impressive parts of Prof. Davis’s book is his computation of the numbers of Europeans enslaved by these Muslim raiders. Combing through the historical sources, he concludes that there were about 35,000 enslaved Christians on the Barbary Coast at any one time. He then sets about estimating attrition rates. Slave numbers declined through four causes: death, escape, redemption (i.e. by ransom), and conversion to Islam. Davis gets annual rates from these causes of 17 percent, 1 percent, 2-3 percent, and 4 percent, respectively. This implies a total number of slaves, from the early 1500s to the late 1700s, of one to one and a quarter million. This is an astonishing number, implying that well into the 17th century, the Mediterranean slave trade was out-producing the Atlantic one. Numbers fell off thereafter, while the transatlantic trade increased; but in its time, the enslavement of European Christians by Muslim North Africans was the main kind of enslavement going on in the world.
Christians were captured by two methods. First, there was the seizing of ships by straightforward piracy. The ship itself became a prize along with its crew and passengers. Second, there were raids on the coasts of European countries. Spain, France, and Italy were worst affected, but the pirates sometimes ventured further afield. In 1627 they kidnapped 400 men and women from Iceland.
The victims in either case would be taken back to one of the Barbary ports — the main ones were Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli — and sold in a slave market, by auction. They ended up either as the domestic slaves of private persons, or as slaves owned by the state, to be put to work rowing galleys, or constructing public works. The first of these two fates was usually preferable, as there was some chance of humanity from a private owner. Prof. Davis’s account of the lives of galley slaves is hard to read, and state slaves employed on public works were not much better off. There was no large-scale private-enterprise slavery as in the plantations of the Old South. The North African states had little commercial culture.
The effect on the European coastal populations was dramatic. Entire areas were depopulated. The author even sketches out an argument that the culture of baroque Italy was determined in part by a turning inward from the terrors of coastal life — from the “fear of the horizon” that afflicted all the regions subject to slave raiding. He tells us (he is Professor of Italian Social History at Ohio State University, by the way) that to this day there is an idiom in Sicilian dialect to express the general idea of being caught by surprise: pigliato dai turchi — “taken by the Turks.” The distress of those left behind, deprived of a husband or father, is painful to read about.
A side benefit of their work, for the slavers, was the opportunity to extract a ransom from the family of a well-born captive. Many European families beggared themselves to pay ransom for a family member taken by the slavers. The novelist Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, unfortunately had a letter from the Duke of Alba on him when he was captured at sea by slavers in 1575. This caused his captors to think his family must be very rich, and they demanded a hefty ransom that Cervantes’ family could not pay. The novelist was ransomed at last, after five years’ captivity, by the Trinitarians, one of the religious orders that made the ransoming of Christian slaves a part of their mission.
There was in fact an entire Mediterranean sub-economy based around the ransoming of slaves, which Europeans felt to be their Christian duty, and a proper object of charity, and which orders like the Trinitarians and Mercedarians made their main business. This sometimes had unintended consequences. Willingness to pay ransom on the part of nations, for example, encouraged the slavers to ask higher ransom prices for citizens of those nations: “By 1700 there is the clear beginning of an inflation spiral that would lead to ransoms more than doubling by the 1760s. Moreover, nations that let it be known that they were disposed to buy back their enslaved citizens more or less promptly ran the further risk of making prime targets out of their own ships and citizens — as the United States would find to its immense cost in the 1790s.” No wonder economics is called “the dismal science.”
It is an astonishing story, much too little known. I shall never feel the same about Rossini’s opera L’Italiana in Algeri.** Prof. Davis’s book is full of all sorts of odd little sidebar facts and stories. Having been captured and sold at the slave market in Algiers, for example, a European might then be “sold on” to one of the trans-Sahara caravans, to end up the slave of a black African master. It may have happened — I am speculating; Davis does not discuss this — that such a slave might then have been swept up in one of the intra-African slave raids and ended up on the West African coast in a batch offered to European slavers …
There is a sex angle, too. Though only 5-10 percent of enslaved Christians were female, attractive young men and boys were believed, apparently with justification, to be in danger from the “horrid desires” and “abominable sins” of the Muslims, homosexuality in early-modern Europe being believed to be a particularly Muslim tendency. European religious commentators seem in fact not to have been able to make up their minds which was the greater peril for young male captives: sexual degradation, or religious conversion (i.e. to Islam).
The whole ghastly business has left few traces. There having been so few female slaves, Europeans seem to have contributed little to the North African gene pool, though our author notes that: “By the late 1700s visitors were noting how ‘the inhabitants of Algiers have a rather white complexion’ …” The dreadful bagnos — prisons, essentially — where state-owned slaves were confined when not working or out on the galleys, are all gone. Nothing like the barracoons of the West African coast survives in North Africa. Even the great public works the slaves toiled at, like the harbor mole of Algiers, have been replaced by modern structures.
This whole terrible episode in European history has been forgotten. Is there any chance we might persuade the Muslim nations of North Africa to erect modest monuments to the million or so European Christians who suffered and died as slaves of their ancestors? My guess would be: no chance at all.
* When I used this word in a book recently, my editors grumbled. “Don’t you mean ‘ethnic group’?” they asked. Possibly; but five keystrokes beats twelve in my book (if you see what I mean), and two syllables trumps three. And no, I didn’t make it up. It is the term used by Pierre van den Berghe in his book The Ethnic Phenomenon. Van den Berghe is a very respectable academic sociologist, and if “ethny” is good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
** Nor, since I’ve wandered into cultural references, about George Chambers, Sr.’s fine painting The Bombardment of Algiers.