Whites have forgotten what blacks take pains to remember.
reviewed by Thomas Jackson
s Robert C. Davis notes in this eye-opening account of Barbary Coast slavery, American historians have studied every aspect of enslavement of Africans by whites but have largely ignored enslavement of whites by North Africans. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters is a carefully researched, clearly written account of what Prof. Davis calls “the other slavery,” which flourished during approximately the same period as the trans-Atlantic trade, and which devastated hundreds of European coastal communities. Slavery plays nothing like the central role in the thinking of today’s whites that it does for blacks, but not because it was fleeting or trivial matter. The record of Mediterranean slavery is, indeed, as black as the most tendentious portrayals of American slavery. Prof. Davis, who teaches Italian social history at Ohio State University, casts a piercing light into this fascinating but neglected corner of history.
A Wholesale Business
The Barbary Coast, which extends from Morocco through modern Libya, was home to a thriving man-catching industry from about 1500 to 1800. The great slaving capitals were Salé in Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli, and for most of this period European navies were too weak to put up more than token resistance.
The trans-Atlantic trade in blacks was strictly commercial, but for Arabs, memories of the Crusades and fury over expulsion from Spain in 1492 seem to have fueled an almost jihad-like Christian-stealing campaign. “It may have been this spur of vengeance, as opposed to the bland workings of the marketplace, that made the Islamic slavers so much more aggressive and initially (one might say) successful in their work than their Christian counterparts,” writes Prof. Davis. During the 16th and 17th centuries more slaves were taken south across the Mediterranean than west across the Atlantic. Some were ransomed back to their families, some were put to hard labor in north Africa, and the unluckiest worked themselves to death as galley slaves.
What is most striking about Barbary slaving raids is their scale and reach. Pirates took most of their slaves from ships, but they also organized huge, amphibious assaults that practically depopulated parts of the Italian coast. Italy was the most popular target, partly because Sicily is only 125 miles from Tunis, but also because it did not have strong central rulers who could resist invasion.
Large raiding parties might be essentially unopposed. When pirates sacked Vieste in southern Italy in 1554, for example, they took an astonishing 6,000 captives. Algerians took 7,000 slaves in the Bay of Naples in 1544, in a raid that drove the price of slaves so low it was said you could “swap a Christian for an onion.” Spain, too, suffered large-scale attacks. After a raid on Granada in 1566 netted 4,000 men, women, and children, it was said to be “raining Christians in Algiers.” For every large-scale raid of this kind there would have been dozens of smaller ones.