White Slaves, African Masters
|Author||Paul Baepler (Editor)|
|Subject(s)||Islam, American history, slavery|
|Publisher||University Of Chicago Press|
White Slaves, African Masters illuminates a subject once well-known in the history of the West but which is now somewhat neglected: the enslavement, over several centuries, of tens of thousands of white Christian Europeans and (later) Americans in Muslim North Africa -- or the so-called “Barbary” states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Tripoli. Over the course of 10 centuries, tens of thousands of these unfortunates became the possessions of Muslims in North Africa courtesy of the feared Barbary pirates. These pirates cruised the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in search of European and, later, American ships to pillage and plunder.
Edited by a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Paul Baepler, this book focuses on first-person accounts of American Christians who served as slaves to high-ranking Muslim officials in North Africa. Baepler also provides fascinating background commentary that puts the narratives into historical perspective. He includes two “fictional” narratives of female captives. (According to Baepler, Christian women captives of the Barbary states – unlike male captives – usually did not publish their testimonies under their real names, due to the fact that many of them had been “dishonored” by service in the harems of Barbary potentates.)
As Baepler notes in his introduction, Christian slaves of European ancestry were hardly an uncommon phenomenon in the Barbary States. The Barbary pirates were excellent seafarers and, from the Coasts of North Africa, sailed as far north as Iceland (where they went ashore and captured 800 slaves during one incident) and as far West as Newfoundland, Canada, where they pillaged more than 40 vessels at one time. By 1620, reports Baepler, there were more than 20,000 white Christian slaves in Algiers alone, and by the 1630s that number tolled more than 30,000 men and 2,000 women. The most famous of all white Christian Europeans to serve as a slave in the Barbary States was probably Miguel de Cervantes, the great Spanish author of the “Don Quixote” epic, who was taken as a slave in the late 1500s.
An Important Source of Revenue
European and (later on) American slaves appeared to have been important source of foreign revenue for the local economies for several centuries. First, European and (later) American governments paid huge sums in “tribute” to the Muslim governments in exchange for “peace treaties” that were supposed to halt the pirate attacks on their trading and naval ships. Those nations who did not pay suffered the consequences. Second, enslaved Europeans and Americans were often redeemed for a handsome ransom. And third, even if the Muslim governments received no “tribute” or ransom, they still benefited from the unpaid labor of their captives.
Baepler quotes a Barbary Coast maxim that illustrates the viewpoints of the pirates and their sponsoring states: “The Christians who would be on good terms with [the Barbary States] must [either] fight well or pay well.”
The first-person narratives reproduced in this book do not support the often-repeated contention that slavery was somehow a more human institution in the Islamic world than it was in the European colonies of the New World.
By and large, the Christian slaves were poorly fed and housed, existing, by one account, on a meager ration of two slices of bread and a small quantity of beans per day. Clothing – and medical care -- was provided by sympathetic free Europeans living in North Africa; slave-owners provided nothing. Spanish Catholic priests even built a large hospital in Algeria to look after ill and dying Christian slaves.
The most popular punishment was the “bastinado” – hundreds of blows on the soles of the feet with a thick wooden truncheon. For more severe offenses, such as attempting to escape or ridiculing the Muslim religion or prophet, slaves were executed in particularly cruel ways: by crucifixion, burning at the stake or impalement on huge iron hooks until death. The narrators of these slave accounts witnessed many acts of brutality toward the Christian slaves, as well as toward the general North African populace ruled over by the elite: the beys, deys and bashaws of the Barbary States.
Baepler quotes from, but does not include, the narrative of one James Riley, an American Barbary captive of the early 1800s who published a book about his experiences upon returning to the United States. The book became an influential “best-seller” in the young nation of the USA and influenced those Americans who worked for abolition of the shameful practice of Black African slavery in the Southern States of the USA. Riley’s book was said to have greatly influenced one young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who, as 16th president of the United States, signed the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in the U.S. in 1863.
As for the Barbary pirate slave trade, it continued sporadically up until the dawn of the 20th Century, and was not abolished until military and economic pressure was applied by the colonial powers of Europe (with, in some cases, assistance from the military might of the USA).