Trading of White European Slaves by the Barbary Corsairs

Trading of White European Slaves by the Barbary Corsairs

By FFI Contributing Editor Dr Radhasyam Brahmachari


Who were the Barbary Corsairs:

It is well known that from 17th to 18th centuries, the European nations began their endeavors to colonize many Asian and African countries. For example, in 1600 AD, the British East India Company was incorporated in London that started colonizing India after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 AD. But many do not know that a century before, many of these European nations were under the threat of piracy by the Barbary corsairs. These Barbary pirates used to intercept commercial vessels in the sea, loot the merchandise as booty and at the same time kidnapping white Europeans sailors as slaves to be sold in the slave markets of the Middle East and other Muslim countries. In addition to mid-sea piracy, they used to launch raids in the coastal villages of Europe and capture both male and female Europeans and forced slavery on them.

The term Barbary States is used for the Muslim States of North Africa like of TripolitaniaTunisiaAlgeria, and Morocco and the pirates operating from these Barbary States were known as Barbary corsairs. Previously, these states were vassals of the Ottoman Empire, but from the 16th century, Tripolitania, Tunisia, and Algeria were turned into autonomous provinces of the Turkish Empire. The piracy carried on thereafter by the Muslims of North Africa began as part of the wars against Spain and in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Turkish hold on the area grew weaker, the raids became less military and more commercial in character. The booty, ransom, and slaves that resulted from attacks on Mediterranean towns and shipping and from occasional forays into the Atlantic became the main source of revenue for local Muslim rulers.

All the major European naval powers made attempts to destroy the corsairs, and British and French fleets repeatedly bombarded the pirate strongholds. Yet, on the whole, countries trading in the Mediterranean found it more convenient to pay tribute than to undertake the expensive task of eliminating piracy. But towards the end of the 18th century, the power of the piratical states diminished. The United States and the European powers took advantage of this decline to launch more attacks. And after the Napoleonic wars, European fleets intensified their war against the pirates and practically destroyed pirate gangs.

Finally, in 1816, Lord Exmouth with an Anglo-Dutch flotilla put an end to the naval power of the Dey of Algiers, signaling the end to the menace of Barbary corsairs. [Dey was the title given to the rulers of the Regency of Algiers (Algeria) under the Ottoman Empire from 1671 onwards. Twenty-nine deys held office from the establishment of the deylicate in Algeria until the French conquest in 1830. The dey was chosen by local civilian, military, and religious leaders to govern for life and ruled with a high degree of autonomy from the Ottoman sultan. The rule of the deys came to an end on 5 July 1830, when Hussein Dey (1765–1838) surrendered to invading French forces.] [1]

An ultimatum from the European Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1819) compelled the Dey of Tunis to give up piracy. The Tunisian fleet was subsequently sent to help the Ottomans in Greece and was destroyed (1827) at the battle of Navarino. In 1830, France, after a three-year blockade of Algiers, began the conquest of Algeria. The Ottoman Turks were able to reassert (1835) direct control over Tripolitania and end piracy there. About the same time the sultans of Morocco, who had

occasionally encouraged piracy, were forced by France, Great Britain, and Austria to give up plans to rebuild the Moroccan fleet, and North African piracy was at an end”, says a historian. [2]

Slave trade by the Barbary Corsairs:

The Barbary Slave Trade was mainly confined to the slave markets which flourished on the Barbary Coast, or modern day MoroccoAlgeriaTunisia and Western Libya between the 16th and 19th centuries. As it has been mentioned above, that these markets prospered while the states were nominally under Ottoman rule, but in reality were mostly autonomous. These Barbary pirates used to capture black African slaves, but they were more interested to capture white European slaves for a better demand for them. Although the slave markets were filled by peoples from many places, they were distinct from other slave markets because they sold both black African and white European slaves, acquired through piratical raids on ships and coastal towns and villages.

A potential buyer is inspecting the private parts of a female slave

But the markets declined after the loss of the First and Second Barbary wars and ultimately ended in the 1830′s when the entire area came under French rule. The Barbary States ultimately turned into colonies of France.

As a matter of fact, the slave trade had existed in North Africa since antiquity, with a supply of African slaves arriving through trans-Saharan trade routes. The towns on the North African coast, even during the Roman times, were famous for their slave markets, and this trend continued up to the medieval age. But it’s influence, along the Barbary coast, considerably increased in the 15th century when the Ottoman Empire took over as rulers of the area. With Ottoman protection and a host of destitute immigrants and Moorish refugees, newly expelled from Spain, the coastline soon became reputed for piracy. Crews from the seized ships were either enslaved or ransomed.[3]

Pirate raids for the acquisition of slaves occurred in towns and villages on the African Atlantic seaboard, as well as in Europe. Reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in Italy, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, Scotland as far north as Iceland exist from between the 16th to the 19th centuries. Between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves during this time period. Famous accounts of Barbary slave raids include a mention in the Diary of Samuel Pepys and a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore, Ireland, during which pirates left with the entire populace of the settlement. Such raids in the Mediterrean were so frequent and devastating that the coastline between Venice to Malaga suffered widespread depopulation, and settlement there was discouraged” says a study.[3]

Golden age of Barbary slavery:

As mentioned above, after the decline of the influence of the Ottoman Turks, in the mid 17th century, the towns of TripoliAlgiersTunis and others became more or less independent and the pirates started to gain much influence. Pirate raids for the acquisition of slaves occurred in towns and villages on the African Atlantic seaboard, as well as in Europe. Their area of operation, between the 16th to the 19th centuries, included the vast area starting from ItalySpainFrancePortugal, EnglandIrelandScotland as far north as Iceland. It is roughly estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves during this time period. Famous accounts of Barbary slave raids include a mention in the Diary of Samuel Pepys and a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore, Ireland, during which pirates left with the entire populace of the settlement.

Such raids in the Mediterrean were so frequent and devastating that the coastline between Venice to Malaga suffered widespread depopulation, and settlement there was discouraged. In fact, it was said that this was largely because ‘there was no one left to capture any longer. The power and influence of these pirates during this time was such that nations including the United States of America paid tribute in order to stave off their attacks.

Study by of Robert Davis:

Robert Davis, professor of history at Ohio State University, developed a scientific method to calculate the number of white Christians who were enslaved along Africa’s Barbary Coast, arriving at much higher slave population estimates than any previous studies had found. The research by Dr Davis suggests that a million or more European Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa between 1530 and 1780 – a far greater number than had ever been estimated before. [4]

Pirates from cities such as Tunis and Algiers – would raid ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, as well as seaside villages to capture men, women and children”, says Davis. The impact of these attacks by the Barbary pirates was devastating. France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships. Long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. At its peak, the destruction and depopulation of some areas probably exceeded what European slavers would later inflict on the African interior. Through most of the 17th century the English lost at least 400 sailors a year to the slavers. Even Americans were not immune. For example, one American slave reported that 130 other American seamen had been enslaved by the Algerians in the Mediterranean and Atlantic just between 1785 and 1793.

Much of what has been written gives the impression that there were not many slaves and minimizes the impact that slavery had on Europe. … Most accounts only look at slavery in one place, or only for a short period of time. But when you take a broader, longer view, the massive scope of this slavery and its powerful impact become clear”, says Davis.

The common notion is that, over the course of four centuries, the Atlantic slave trade was much larger – about 10 to 12 million black Africans were brought to the Americas. But the work of Dr Davis has revealed that, from 1500 to 1650, when trans-Atlantic slaving was still in its infancy, more white Christian slaves were probably taken to Barbary than black African slaves to the Americas. “It is useful to compare this Mediterranean slavery to the Atlantic slave trade that brought black Africans to the Americas. … 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 – that only blacks have been slaves. But that is not true”, says Dr Davis. “Enslavement was a very real possibility for anyone who traveled in the Mediterranean, or who lived along the shores in places like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, and even as far north as England and Iceland,” he adds.


The United States of America and some European nations fought and won two Barbary Wars against the pirates in the early years of the 19th century, After that, a joint Anglo-Dutch raid on Algiers in 1816 destroyed most of the Pirate fleet and the Dey of Algiers was forced to surrender and sign an agreement which included a cessation of the practice of enslaving Christians, although slave trading in non-Europeans could still continue.

Thus due to naval attacks by the European and American powers, the Barbary States went into decline. A consequent British attack on Algiers in 1824 brought an end to Barbary piracy. The menace was finally abolished in 1830 and 1831, when France took control of Algiers and Tunis respectively. The slave trade finally ceased on the Barbary coast when European governments passed laws granting emancipation to slaves.







Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800

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Posted by on Mar 19 2011. Filed under Op-Ed. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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