‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ – Walter Benjamin
There have been literally thousands of books written about the horrors and barbarities of the African slave trade as well as the subsequent treatment of slaves in North America. This is as it should be. But we often forget that slavery has always been with us since ‘civilisation’ arose. One only needs to remember that the people who would become the Jews were enslaved in Egypt before Moses led them to the ‘promised land’, where they could then slaughter and enslave others. Slavery has very little to do with colour and all to do with power, war and economics. There is hardly a society anywhere in the world which has not had slaves and many where de facto and sometimes even de jure slavery still exists. Here I want just to touch briefly on the ‘white slavery’ practiced by the Moslems of North Africa for over a thousand years. It’s a subject that was made all the more poignant for me when I discovered that my own 8th great grandfather, a Lancastrian mariner called Thomas Rimmer, was captured in the late seventeenth century by the Barbary corsairs and spent sixteen and a half years as a slave in North Africa.
The Vikings weren’t only rapists and pillagers; they weren’t in fact any more brutal than others at the time. The Vikings were also great long-distance traders. One of the principal things they traded was slaves. They took slaves from England, from France and from everywhere they could and then they brought them to the numerous slave markets long established in Europe, there generally to be on-sold to the Moslems who, starting in the seventh century, had conquered much of the Middle East and North Africa from the Romans. Like the Romans themselves the Moslem descendants of Mohammed were dependent on slave labour. It didn’t matter to them the race or colour of their slaves. All that mattered was that they were the victorious people and the slaves, in whatever way, had been subjugated or captured. In England in the eleventh century the brutal Norman invaders had found active ‘white’ Anglo-Saxon slave markets still in existence, particularly in Bristol. The ultimate buyers were usually the Moslems in North Africa. Most of these unfortunate white slaves were, like slaves of all colours and at all times, rarely ever to return home, and had to suffer unbearable cruelty in their often short lives.
Over the coming centuries the white slave trade continued, but as various European countries managed to repress this trade, and as the various states in North Africa became more powerful at sea, the emphasis switched to the Moslems snatching white slaves from European ships in the Mediterranean and by making raids along the coasts of Europe. These slave raiders are known to history as the pirates or corsairs of the Barbary Coast. The historical consciousness of countries such as Spain and Italy have been seared with the memory of the Barbary corsairs and the countless thousands of their compatriots grabbed from their ships and homes to serve as slaves in Moslem galleys and palaces.
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.
“The unfortunate southerners were sometimes taken by the thousands, by slavers who raided the coasts of Valencia, Andalusia, Calabria and Sicily so often that eventually it was said that ‘there was no one left to capture any longer’”. What is not as generally well known is that the slave-seeking Barbary corsairs roamed much wider: to northern France, the British Isles and even to Iceland. Their heyday was in the seventeenth century, though as many American white slaves were to find to their cost it extended well into the nineteenth century. The Reverend Devereux Spratt – ‘carried off in April 1641 for several years’ bondage in Algiers, while attempting a simple voyage across the Irish Sea from County Cork to England’ wrote:
When we had arrived [in Cork], I made a request to Lord Inchaquoin to give me a passport for England. I took boat to Youghal and then embarked on the vessel John Filmer, which set sail with 120 passengers. `But before we had lost sight of land, we were captured by Algerine pirates, who put all the men in irons.
Professor Robert Davis writes:
In the first half of the 1600s, Barbary corsairs – pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa, authorised by their governments to attack the shipping of Christian countries – ranged all around Britain’s shores. In their lanteen-rigged xebecs (a type of ship) and oared galleys, they grabbed ships and sailors, and sold the sailors into slavery. Admiralty records show that during this time the corsairs plundered British shipping pretty much at will, taking no fewer than 466 vessels between 1609 and 1616, and 27 more vessels from near Plymouth in 1625. As 18th-century historian Joseph Morgan put it, ‘this I take to be the Time when those Corsairs were in their Zenith‘. Unfortunately, it was hardly the end of them, even then. Morgan also noted that he had a ‘…List, printed in London in 1682’ of 160 British ships captured by Algerians between 1677 and 1680. Considering what the number of sailors who were taken with each ship was likely to have been, these examples translate into a probable 7,000 to 9,000 able-bodied British men and women taken into slavery in those years.
It was in this period, probably around 1680, that my 8th great grandfather Thomas Rimmer was taken as a slave. Thomas was a Lancashire mariner who was most likely captured by the Barbary corsairs while aboard ship somewhere in the Irish Sea. In the churchyard of Saint Cuthbert’s church in Churchtown (Southport) in Lancashire there is a plaque which reads:
Here Lyeth the Body of Thomas Rimmer Mariner who was captive in Barbary sixteen years and six Months who departed this life the Sixth of January the Sixty first year of his age in the year of our Lord 1713
Sometimes the corsairs even took whole villages:
Not content with attacking ships and sailors, the corsairs also sometimes raided coastal settlements, generally running their craft onto unguarded beaches, and creeping up on villages in the dark to snatch their victims and retreat before the alarm could be sounded. Almost all the inhabitants of the village of Baltimore, in Ireland, were taken in this way in 1631, and other attacks were launched against coastal villages in Devon and Cornwall.
Samuel Pepys, the famous English diarist, gave a vivid account of an encounter with two men who’d been taken into slavery, in his diary of 8 February 1661:
…to the Fleece tavern to drink and there we spent till 4 a-clock telling stories of Algier and the manner of the life of Slaves there; and truly, Captain Mootham and Mr Dawes (who have been both slaves there) did make me full acquainted with their condition there. As, how they eat nothing but bread and water…. How they are beat upon the soles of the feet and bellies at the Liberty of their Padron. How they are all night called into their master’s Bagnard, and there they lie.
There are many first-hand accounts of the experiences of white European slaves in Moslem North Africa, told in some of the references I give at the end. One summary has this to say:
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.
In his excellent book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters (Palgrave Press) Robert Davis tells us: “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… 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.
It has been estimated that just between 1530 and 1780 there were probably in excess of 1,250,000 white slaves taken from Europe to North Africa. While many Catholic countries tried to raise funds to secure the return of these slaves (occasionally with some success), the northern protestant countries (including Britain) generally left them to rot. One can only speculate how Thomas Rimmer was eventually able to return to his Lancashire home after sixteen and a half years as a slave in Barbary? It’s doubtful that his family had sufficient money to ransom him, if they even knew where he was. Perhaps if he had been a galley slave he was freed by the Royal Navy or another European navy when they captured a corsair ship? We don’t know. The story of the white slaves in North Africa needs to be better known, as indeed does the story of ‘white slaves’ at home (see here) or even the de facto white slaves taken in their thousand to toil alongside the unfortunate negro slaves in America. As I mentioned at the beginning, slavery and oppression have almost nothing to do with colour, race or religion and all to do with the naked exercise of power.
Slaves in Barbary could be black, brown or white, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim. Contemporaries were too aware of the sort of people enslaved in North Africa to believe, as many do today, that slavery, whether in Barbary or the Americas, was a matter of race. In the 1600s, no one’s racial background or religion automatically destined him or her for enslavement. Preachers in churches from Sicily to Boston spoke of the similar fates of black slaves on American plantations and white slaves in corsair galleys; early abolitionists used Barbary slavery as a way to attack the universal degradation of slavery in all its forms