Slaves, Muslim Masters:
White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast,
and Italy, 1500–1800
Robert C. Davis Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; 246 pp.; $35.00.
As 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
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 fuelled 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
labour in north Africa, and the unluckiest worked themselves to death as
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.
The appearance of a large fleet could send the entire population inland,
emptying coastal areas. In 1566, a party of 6,000 Turks and Corsairs sailed
up the Adriatic and landed at Fracaville. The authorities could do nothing,
and urged complete evacuation, leaving the Turks in control of over 500
square miles of abandoned villages all the way to Serracapriola.
When pirates appeared, people often fled the coast to the nearest town,
but Prof. Davis explains why this was not always good strategy:
“More than one middle-sized town, swollen with refugees, was unable to
withstand a frontal assault by several hundred corsairs, and the re’is
[corsair captain], who might otherwise have had to seek slaves a few dozen
at a time along the beaches and up into the hills, could find a thousand or
more captives all conveniently gathered in one place for the taking.”
Pirates returned time and again to pillage the same territory. In
addition to a far larger number of smaller raids, the Calabrian coast
suffered the following increasingly large-scale depredations in less than a
10-year period: 700 captured in a single raid in 1636, 1,000 in 1639 and
4,000 in 1644. During the 16th and 17th centuries, pirates set up
semi-permanent bases on the islands of Ischia and Procida, practically
within the mouth of the Bay of Naples, from which they took their pick of
When they came ashore, Muslim corsairs made a point of desecrating
churches. They often stole church bells, not just because the metal was
valuable but also to silence the distinctive voice of Christianity.
In the more frequent smaller raiding parties, just a few ships would
operate by stealth, falling upon coastal settlements in the middle of the
night so as to catch people “peaceful and still naked in their beds.” This
practice gave rise to the modern-day Sicilian expression, pigliato dai
turchi, or “taken by the Turks,” which means to be caught by surprise
while asleep or distracted.
Constant predation took a terrible toll. Women were easier to catch than
men, and coastal areas could quickly lose their entire child-bearing
population. Fishermen were afraid to go out, or would sail only in convoys.
Eventually, Italians gave up much of their coast. As Prof. Davis explains,
by the end of the 17th century, “the Italian peninsula had by then been prey
to the Barbary corsairs for two centuries or more, and its coastal
populations had largely withdrawn into walled, hilltop villages or the
larger towns like Rimini, abandoning miles of once populous shoreline to
vagabonds and freebooters.”
Only by 1700 or so, were Italians able to prevent spectacular land raids,
though piracy on the seas continued unchecked. Prof. Davis believes piracy
caused Spain and especially Italy to turn away from the sea and lose their
traditions of trade and navigation—with devastating effect: “At least for
Iberia and Italy, the seventeenth century represented a dark period out of
which Spanish and Italian societies emerged as mere shadows of what they had
been in the earlier, golden ages.”
Some Arab pirates were skilled blue-water sailors, and terrorized
Christians 1,000 miles away. One spectacular raid all the way to Iceland in
1627 took nearly 400 captives. We think of Britain as a redoubtable sea
power ever since the time of Drake, but throughout the 17th century, Arab
pirates operated freely in British waters, even sailing up the Thames
estuary to pick off prizes and raid coastal towns. In just three years, from
1606 to 1609, the British navy admitted losing no fewer than 466 British and
Scottish merchant ships to Algerian corsairs. By the mid-1600s the British
were running a brisk trans-Atlantic trade in blacks, but many British
crewmen themselves became the property of Arab raiders.
Life Under the Lash
Land attacks could be hugely successful, but they were riskier than
taking prizes at sea. Ships were therefore the primary source of white
slaves. Unlike their victims, corsair vessels had two means of propulsion:
galley slaves as well as sails. This meant they could row up to any becalmed
sailing ship and attack at will. They carried many different flags, so when
they were under sail they could run up whatever ensign was most likely to
gull a target.
A good-sized merchantman might yield 20 or so sailors healthy enough to
last a few years in the galleys, and passengers were usually good for a
ransom. Noblemen and rich merchants were attractive prizes, as were Jews,
who could usually scrape up a substantial ransom from co-religionists. High
clerics were also valuable because the Vatican would usually pay any price
to keep them out of the hands of infidels.
At the approach of pirates, passengers often tore off their fine clothes
and tried to dress as poorly as possible in the hope their captors would
send to their families for more modest ransoms. This effort would be wasted
if the pirates tortured the captain for information about passengers. It was
also common to strip men naked, both to examine their clothes for sewn-in
valuables and to see if any circumcised Jews were masquerading as gentiles.
If the pirates were short on galley slaves, they might put some of their
captives to work immediately, but prisoners usually went below hatches for
the journey home. They were packed in, barely able to move in the filth,
stench, and vermin, and many died before they reached port.
Once in North Africa, it was tradition to parade newly-captured
Christians through the streets, so people could jeer at them, and children
could pelt them with refuse. At the slave market, men were made to jump
about to prove they were not lame, and buyers often wanted them stripped
naked again to see if they were healthy. This was also to evaluate the
sexual value of both men and women; white concubines had a high value, and
all the slave capitals had a flourishing homosexual underground. Buyers who
hoped to make a quick profit on a fat ransom examined earlobes for signs of
piercing, which was an indication of wealth. It was also common to check a
captive’s teeth to see if he was likely to survive on a tough slave diet.
The pasha or ruler of the area got a certain percentage of the slave take
as a form of income tax. These were almost always men, and became government
rather than private property. Unlike private slaves, who usually boarded
with their masters, they lived in the bagnos or “baths,” as the
pasha’s slave warehouses came to be called. It was common to shave the heads
and beards of public slaves as an added humiliation, in a period when head
and facial hair were an important part of a man’s identity.
Most of these public slaves spent the rest of their lives as galley
slaves, and it is hard to imagine a more miserable existence. Men were
chained three, four, or five to an oar, with their ankles chained together
as well. Rowers never left their oars, and to the extent that they slept at
all, they slept at their benches. Slaves could push past each other to
relieve themselves at an opening in the hull, but they were often too
exhausted or dispirited to move, and fouled themselves where they sat. They
had no protection against the burning Mediterranean sun, and their masters
flayed their already-raw backs with the slave driver’s favorite tool of
encouragement, a stretched bull’s penis or “bull’s pizzle.” There was
practically no hope of escape or rescue; a galley slave’s job was to work
himself to death—mainly in raids to capture more wretches like himself—and
his master pitched him overboard at the first sign of serious illness.
When the pirate fleet was in port, galley slaves lived in the bagno
and did whatever filthy, dangerous, or exhausting work the pasha set them
to. This was usually stone-cutting and hauling, harbor-dredging, or heavy
construction. The slaves in the Turkish sultan’s fleet did not even have
this variety. They were often at sea for months on end, and stayed chained
to their oars even in port. Their ships were life-long prisons.
Other slaves on the Barbary Coast had more varied jobs. Often they did
household or agricultural work of the kind we associate with American
slavery, but those who had skills were often rented out by their owners.
Some masters simply turned slaves loose during the day with orders to return
with a certain amount of money by evening or be severely beaten. Masters
seem to have expected about a 20 percent return on the purchase price.
Whatever they did, in Tunis and Tripoli, slaves usually wore an iron ring
around an ankle, and were hobbled with a chain that weighed 25 or 30 pounds.
Some masters put their white slaves to work on farms deep in the
interior, where they faced yet another peril: capture and re-enslavement by
raiding Berbers. These unfortunates would probably never see another
European for the rest of their short lives.
Prof. Davis points out that there was no check of any kind on cruelty:
“There was no countervailing force to protect the slave from his master’s
violence: no local anti-cruelty laws, no benign public opinion, and rarely
any effective pressure from foreign states.” Slaves were not just property,
they were infidels, and deserved whatever suffering a master meted out.
Prof. Davis notes that “all slaves who lived in the bagnos and
survived to write of their experiences stressed the endemic cruelty and
violence practiced there.” The favourite punishment was the bastinado,
in which a man was put on his back, and his ankles clamped together and held
waist high for a sustained beating on the soles of the feet. A slave might
get as many as 150 or 200 blows, which could leave him crippled. Systematic
violence turned many men into automatons. Slaves were often so plentiful and
so inexpensive, there was no point in caring for them; many owners worked
them to death and bought replacements.
The slavery system was not, however, entirely without humanity. Slaves
usually got Fridays off. Likewise, when bagnomen were in port, they
had an hour or two of free time every day between the end of work, and
before the bagno doors were locked at night. During this time, slaves
could work for pay, but they could not keep all the money they made. Even
bagno slaves were assessed a fee for their filthy lodgings and rancid
Public slaves also contributed to a fund to support bagno priests. This
was a strongly religious era, and even under the most horrible conditions,
men wanted a chance to say confession and—most important—receive extreme
unction. There was almost always a captive priest or two in the bagno,
but in order to keep him available for religious duties, other slaves had to
chip in and buy his time from the pasha. Some galley slaves thus had nothing
left over to spend on food or clothing, though in some periods, free
Europeans living in the cities of Barbary contributed to the upkeep of bagno
For a few, slavery became more than bearable. Some trades—particularly
that of a shipwright—were so valuable that an owner might reward his slave
with a private villa and mistresses. Even a few bagno residents
managed to exploit the hypocrisy of Islamic society and improve their
condition. The law strictly forbade Muslims to trade in alcohol, but was
more lenient with Muslims who only consumed it. Enterprising slaves
established taverns in the bagnos and some made a good living
catering to Muslim drinkers.
One way to lessen the burdens of slavery was to “take the turban” and
convert to Islam. This exempted a man from service in the galleys, heavy
construction, and a few other indignities unworthy of a son of the Prophet,
but did not release him from slavery itself. One of the jobs of bagno
priests was to keep desperate men from converting, but most slaves appear
not to have needed religious counsel. Christians believed that conversion
imperilled their souls, and it also meant the unpleasant ritual of adult
circumcision. Many slaves appear to have endured the horrors of slavery by
seeing it as punishment for their sins and as a test of their faith. Masters
discouraged conversion because it limited the scope of mistreatment and
lowered a slave’s resale value.
Ransom and Redemption
For slaves, escape was impossible. They were too far from home, were
often shackled, and could be immediately identified by their European
features. The only hope was ransom.
Sometimes, the opportunity came quickly. If a slaving party had already
snatched so many men it had no more room below deck, it might raid a town
and then reappear a few days later to sell captives back to their families.
This was usually at a considerable discount from the cost of ransoming
someone from North Africa, but it was still far more than peasants could
afford. Farmers usually had no ready money, and no property other than house
and land. A merchant was usually willing to take these off their hands at
distress prices, but it meant that a captured man or woman came back to a
family that was completely impoverished.
Most slaves bought their way home only after they had gone through the
ordeal of passage to Barbary and sale to a speculator. Wealthy captives
could usually arrange a sufficient ransom, but most slaves could not.
Illiterate peasants could not write home and even if they did, there was no
cash for a ransom.
The majority of slaves therefore depended on the charitable work of the
Trinitarians (founded in Italy in 1193) and the Mercedarians (founded in
Spain in 1203). These were religious orders established to free Crusaders
held by Muslims, but they soon shifted their work to redemption of Barbary
slaves, raising money specifically for this purpose. Often they maintained
lockboxes outside churches marked “For the Recovery of the Poor Slaves,” and
clerics urged wealthy Christians to leave money in their wills for
redemption. The two orders became skilled negotiators, and usually managed
to buy back slaves at better prices than did less experienced liberators.
Still, there was never enough money to free many captives, and Prof. Davis
estimates that no more than three or four percent of slaves were ever
ransomed in a single year. This meant that most left their bones in the
unmarked Christian graveyards outside the city walls.
The religious orders kept careful records of their successes. Spanish
Trinitarians, for example, went on 72 redemption expeditions in the 1600s,
averaging 220 releases each. It was common to bring the freed slaves home
and march them through city streets in big celebrations. These parades
became one of the most characteristic urban spectacles of the period, and
had a strong religious orientation. Sometimes the slaves marched in their
old slave rags to emphasize the torments they had suffered; sometimes they
wore special white costumes to symbolize rebirth. According to contemporary
records, many freed slaves were never quite right after their ordeals,
especially if they had spent many years in captivity.
How many slaves?
Prof. Davis points out that enormous research has gone into tracking down
as accurately as possible the number of blacks taken across the Atlantic,
but there has been nothing like the same effort to learn the extent of
Mediterranean slavery. It is not easy to get a reliable count—the Arabs
themselves kept essentially no records—but in the course of ten years of
research Prof. Davis developed a method of estimation.
For example, records suggest that from 1580 to 1680 there was an average
of some 35,000 slaves in Barbary. There was a steady loss through death and
redemption, so if the population stayed level, the rate at which raiders
captured new slaves must have equalled the rate of attrition. There are good
bases for estimating death rates. For example, it is known that of the
nearly 400 Icelanders caught in 1627, there were only 70 survivors eight
years later. In addition to malnutrition, overcrowding, overwork, and brutal
punishment, slaves faced epidemics of plague, which usually wiped out 20 to
30 percent of the white slaves.
From a number of sources, therefore, Prof. Davis estimates that the death
rate was about 20 percent per year. Slaves had no access to women, so
replacement was exclusively through capture. His conclusion: “Between 1530
and 1780 there were almost certainly a million and quite possibly as many as
a million and a quarter white, European Christians enslaved by the Muslims
of the Barbary Coast.” This considerably exceeds the figure of 800,000
Africans generally accepted as having been transported to the North American
colonies and, later, to the United States.
The European powers were unable to stop this traffic. Prof. Davis reports
that in the late 1700s, they had a better record of controlling the trade,
but there was an upturn of white slavery during the chaos of the Napoleonic
American shipping was not exempt from predation either. Only in 1815,
after two wars against them, were American sailors free of the Barbary
pirates. These wars were significant operations for the young republic; one
campaign is remembered in the words “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine
hymn. When the French took over Algiers in 1830, there were still 120 white
slaves in the bagno.
Why is there so little interest in Mediterranean slavery while
scholarship and reflection on black slavery never ends? As Prof. Davis
explains, white slaves with non-white masters simply do no fit “the master
narrative of European imperialism.” The victimization schemes so dear to
academics require white wickedness, not white suffering.
Prof. Davis also points out that the widespread European experience of
slavery gives the lie to another favourite leftist hobby horse: that the
enslavement of blacks was a crucial step in establishing European notions of
race and racial hierarchy. Not so; for centuries, Europeans lived in fear of
the lash themselves, and a great many watched redemption parades of freed
slaves, all of whom were white. Slavery was a fate more easily imagined for
themselves than for distant Africans.
With enough effort, it is possible to imagine Europeans as preoccupied
with slavery as blacks. If Europeans nursed grievances about galley slaves
the way blacks do about field hands, European politics would certainly be
different. There would be no grovelling apologies for the Crusades, little
Muslim immigration to Europe, minarets would not be going up all over
Europe, and Turkey would not be dreaming of joining the European Union. The
past cannot be undone, and brooding can be taken to excess, but those who
forget also pay a high price.