Slavery on the Barbary Coast

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The Slave Market of Algiers in the early 17th Century.

Often overlooked by modern historians is the length and magnitude of white enslavement by Africans that pre-dates the black African transatlantic slave trade. According to a study by Ohio State University history Professor Robert Davis and detailed in his book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800, between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in North Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries. This number relates to the slave trade in Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli alone (these numbers do not include the European people which were enslaved by Morocco and by other raiders and traders of the Mediterranean coast, such as the Ottoman Empire).[1][2] Supplies from the Black Sea appears to have been even larger. A compilation of partial statistics and patchy estimates indicates that a little fewer than 2 million Russians, Ukrainians and Poles were seized from 1468 to 1694. Additional there were slaves from the Caucasus obtained by a mixture of raiding and trading. Sixteenth and seventeenth century customs statistics suggest that Istanbul's slave import from the Black Sea may have totaled around 2.5 million from 1450 to 1700.[3]

Based in North Africa,the Barbary pirates raided ships traveling through the Mediterranean and along the northern and western coasts of Africa, plundering their cargo and enslaving the men. From at least 1500, the pirates also conducted raids along seaside towns of Italy, Spain, France, England, the Netherlands and as far away as Iceland, capturing men, women and children. The raids were so devastating that coastal areas were all but abandoned.

From 1500 to 1650, the number of white European slaves greatly exceeded black Africans taken as slaves to the Americas. Though slavery was prevalent in the Spanish colonies, black slavery was introduced to the English colonies in 1619, when the first documented Africans were brought to Jamestown, though the modern conception of slavery in the future United States did not begin in Virginia until 1660.[4]

Life for the white slaves in Africa was no better than the worst conditions of the black slaves in America. White slaves worked in quarries, mines and as rowers for the Barbary Pirates' corsairs.

The threat of enslavement was very real for anyone living or traveling in the Mediterranean and deserves more attention from scholars, says Robert Davis. “We have lost the sense of how large enslavement could loom for those who lived around the Mediterranean and the threat they were under,” he said. “Slaves were still slaves, whether they are black or white, and whether they suffered in America or North Africa.”[5]


The Barbary Wars were a direct response of the British, French and the Dutch states to the raids and white slave trade by the Barbary pirates which finally ended in the 1830s when the region was conquered by France. The white slave trade and markets in the Mediterranean declined and eventual disappeared after the European occupations. [6]

Slavery[edit]

Because of the large numbers of Britons captured by the Barbary States and in other venues, captivity was the other side of exploration and empire. Captivity narratives originated as a literary form in the 17th century. They were widely published and read, preceding those of colonists captured by American Indians in North America.[7]

Slave-taking persisted into the 19th century when Barbary pirates would capture ships and enslave the crew. Between 1609 and 1616, England alone had 466 merchant ships lost to Barbary pirates.[8]

US opposition[edit]

Commercial ships from the United States of America were subject to pirate attacks. In 1783, the United States made peace with, and gained recognition from, the British monarchy. In 1784, the first American ship was seized by pirates from Morocco. By late 1793, a dozen American ships had been captured, goods stripped and everyone enslaved. After some serious debate, the US created the United States Navy in March 1794.[9]

This new military presence helped to stiffen American resolve to resist the continuation of tribute payments, leading to the two Barbary Wars along the North African coast: the First Barbary War from 1801 to 1805[10] and the Second Barbary War in 1815. Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states had amounted to 20% of United States government annual revenues in 1800.[11] It was not until 1815 that naval victories ended tribute payments by the United States. Some European nations continued annual payments until the 1830s.[12]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Davis, Robert. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800.[1]
  2. ^ "When Europeans were slaves: Research suggests white slavery was much more common than previously believed", Research News, Ohio State University
  3. ^ The Cambridge World History of Slavery: Volume 3, AD 1420–AD 1804
  4. ^ "The Royal African Company – Supplying Slaves to Jamestown". Historic Jamestowne. NPS.gov. Retrieved June 8, 2011. 
  5. ^ "When Europeans were slaves: Research suggests white slavery was much more common than previously believed", Research News, Ohio State University
  6. ^ The Cambridge World History of Slavery: Volume 3, AD 1420–AD 1804
  7. ^ Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850, London: Jonathan Cape, 2002, pp. 9-11
  8. ^ Rees Davies, "British Slaves on the Barbary Coast", BBC, 1 July 2003
  9. ^ The Mariners' Museum: The Barbary Wars, 1801-1805
  10. ^ The Mariners' Museum: The Barbary Wars, 1801-1805
  11. ^ Oren, Michael B. (2005-11-03). "The Middle East and the Making of the United States, 1776 to 1815". Retrieved 2007-02-18. 
  12. ^ Richard Leiby, "Terrorists by Another Name: The Barbary Pirates", The Washington Post, October 15, 2001

External links[edit]