Much attention and condemnation has been directed towards the tragedy of the African slave trade, which took place between the 16th and the 19th centuries. However, another equally despicable trade in humans was taking place around the same time in the Mediterranean. It is estimated that up to 1.25 million Europeans were enslaved by the so-called Barbary corsairs, and their lives were just as pitiful as their African counterparts. They have come to be known as the white slaves of Barbary.
Slavery is one of the oldest trades known to man. We can first find records of the slave trade dating back to The Code of Hammurabi in Babylon in the 18th century BCE. People from virtually every major culture, civilization, and religious background have made slaves of their own and enslaved other peoples. However, comparatively little attention has been given to the prolific slave trade that was carried out by pirates, or corsairs, along the Barbary coast.
Anyone traveling in the Mediterranean at the time faced the real prospect of being captured by the Corsairs and taken to Barbary Coast cities and being sold as slaves.
However, not content with attacking ships and sailors, the corsairs also sometimes raided coastal settlements in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, and even as far away as the Netherlands and Iceland. They landed on unguarded beaches, and crept up on villages in the dark to capture their victims. Almost all the inhabitants of the village of Baltimore, in Ireland, were taken in this way in 1631. (Ancient Origins)
The Barbary slave trade (White Slave trade) flourished on the Barbary Coast of North Africa between the 15th and 19th centuries. This area is modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and western Libya. European slaves were captured by Barbary pirates in raids on ships and coastal towns from Italy to Spain, Portugal, France, England, the Netherlands, Ireland and Iceland.
Men, women, and children were captured, to such a devastating extent that vast numbers of seacoast towns were abandoned. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Christian pirates, primarily from Catalonia and Sicily posed a constant threat to merchants. But the Barbary corsairs became menaces with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
Slaves in Barbary could be black, brown or white, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim. And the corsairs were not only Muslim, there were English privateers and Dutch captains.
Many slaves died on the ships during the long voyage back to North Africa due to disease or lack of food and water. Those who survived were taken to slave markets where they would stand for hours while buyers inspected them before they were sold at auction.
Men were assigned to hard manual labor in quarries or for heavy construction, while women were used for housework or in sexual servitude. At night the slaves were put into prisons called ‘bagnios’ that were often hot and overcrowded.
The worst fate for a Barbary slave was being assigned to man the oars of galleys. Rowers were shackled where they sat, and never allowed to leave. Sleeping, eating, defecation and urination took place at the seat. Overseers would crack the whip over the bare backs of any slaves considered not to be working hard enough.
Europeans sometimes attempted to buy their people out of slavery, but no real system emerged before around 1640. Corsair activity began to diminish in the latter part of the 17th century, as the more powerful European navies forced pirates to cease attacking their shipping. In the 19th century, the United States of America and some European nations began to fight back more fervently against the Barbary pirates.
Algiers was frequently bombarded by the French, Spanish and Americans. After an Anglo-Dutch raid in 1816 on Algiers, the corsairs were forced to agree to terms which included a cessation of the practice of enslaving Christians, although slave trading of non-Europeans was allowed to continue.
“One of the things that both the public and many scholars have tended to take as given is that slavery was always racial in nature,” said historian Robert Davis, author of Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy. “But that is not true,” he added.
In comments which may stoke controversy, Davis claims that white slavery had been minimized or ignored because academics preferred to treat Europeans as evil colonialists rather than as victims. (Ancient Origins)
The notion that slavery is or was an attrition of humanity remains a subject matter that is moot to different scholars. Indeed the term ‘slavery’ has and still is a word that connotes deep resentment for many as it conjures a picture of tortuous pain and suffering against the refusal of those enslaved to wishes forced upon them.
In the period of the Barbary trade, people were captured and forced to work and were made to suffer inhumane circumstances. Muslims, Africans as well as other mercenaries were involved in this business It was purely economic by those involved and not always attached to a racist umbilical cord. Indeed many of the great cities, monuments and wonders of the world were built by’ slave labor’. And not all ‘slaves’ were treated inhumanely either.
“In both Egypt and Rome, slaves were actually treated quite well if they behaved. They were provided food, shelter, clothing and protection in return for them service. Additionally, in ancient Greece, a slave could actually work his or her way out of servitude and become a property, and even business, owner. In fact, the Greeks had a far different view of slaves and slavery. You weren’t automatically a lesser person just because you were a slave. And capitol crimes such as murder were handled differently. If a person murdered another, the murderer was sentenced to seven years of indentured servitude to the family of the victim. This isn’t to say that the murderer might not meet with an untimely demise, but slavery, in general, has had a very long existence and encompassed a multitude of both cultures and races.’ Scruffy Nerfherder
Eckhart Tolle was quoted to say.. “Dogmas are collective conceptual prisons. And the strange thing is that people love their prison cells because they give them a sense of security and a false sense of ‘I know.’ Nothing has inflicted more suffering on humanity than its dogmas.”