The figure could easily have been as high as 1,250,000

You know that experience of finding out about some large significant bit of history that you knew nothing about? Especially the kind that involves misery and death for a great many people? Especially the kind where the misery and death are at the hands of other people?

Martin Robbins just pointed out one in comments on a public Facebook post so I went away to Google and found an informative BBC article from 2011.

The fishermen and coastal dwellers of 17th-century Britain lived in terror of being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa. Hundreds of thousands across Europe met wretched deaths on the Barbary Coast in this way. Professor Robert Davis investigates.

Hundreds of thousands?? I did not know that. How did I not know that?

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.

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 gives 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.’

Here is the whole entry.

Back to Robert Davis in the BBC article:

According to observers of the late 1500s and early 1600s, there were around 35,000 European Christian slaves held throughout this time on the Barbary Coast – many in Tripoli, Tunis, and various Moroccan towns, but most of all in Algiers. The greatest number were sailors, taken with their ships, but a good many were fishermen and coastal villagers. Out of all these, the British captives were mostly sailors, and although they were numerous there were relatively fewer of them than of people from lands close to Africa, especially Spain and Italy. 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’.

here are no records of how many men, women and children were enslaved, but it is possible to calculate roughly the number of fresh captives that would have been needed to keep populations steady and replace those slaves who died, escaped, were ransomed, or converted to Islam. On this basis it is thought that around 8,500 new slaves were needed annually to replenish numbers – about 850,000 captives over the century from 1580 to 1680.

By extension, for the 250 years between 1530 and 1780, the figure could easily have been as high as 1,250,000 – this is only just over a tenth of the Africans taken as slaves to the Americas from 1500 to 1800, but a considerable figure nevertheless. White slaves in Barbary were generally from impoverished families, and had almost as little hope of buying back their freedom as the Africans taken to the Americas: most would end their days as slaves in North Africa, dying of starvation, disease, or maltreatment.

I just plain didn’t know this. I knew about the Muslim slave trade within Africa, and I knew Barbary pirates existed, and I knew Christians were taken prisoner during the various wars, but I had no idea that Barbary pirates enslaved people on this scale.

It’s startling.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    Fascinating look back into our history. Of course, as with the glamour animals for those animal-identifiers, we tend to be more interested in people we regard as similar to ourselves. A great many of us here, from what pics are available, are of European ancestry, and given the US’s status as a former British colony, we’re retained strong ties to our former parent country, not least sharing the same basic physical characteristics and language.

    As a counterpoint, I’ll point out that almost 7 million people have been killed in the Congo in a conflict that has been going on since 1998 (so a mere 17 years), and the US has contributed to this conflict. But nobody seems to care…I guess black lives DON’T matter.

  2. says

    Except as I just said, I had no idea about this. None. I just plain didn’t know that large numbers of Europeans were enslaved from the 16th through the 18th century. So no, this is not an example of being more interested in people we regard as similar to ourselves and these are Europeans so we’re more interested. This is the opposite of an example of that.

  3. Pen says

    Did you know that many of the British so-called indenturers shipped out to the American colonies at the same period were kidnapped and taken against their will? Or that Oliver Cromwell forcibly sent a vast number of Irish to the West Indies? Or that it was virtually routine to press-gang men into work as sailors in the first place?
    At any rate, this particular drain of slaves towards the Arab world in the 17th century is said to have virtually depopulated large regions of Central Europe in particular. Britain, on the other hand, suffered something of a population crisis due to the aforementioned forced indenturing thing.
    So, while we’re on the subject, did you know that native slavery in Britain had almost died out by the time of the transatlantic slavery phenomenon, but not quite. Mostly unbeknown to their compatriots, a small number of British mining families were still enslaved to mine owners from baptism to grave.

  4. says

    I did know about press gangs, and almost mentioned them but decided to focus on the case at hand. The other two I think I knew at some point.

    The mine slaves…no, I didn’t, although I think I heard something very like it on BBC World just the other day and meant to follow it up but forgot.

  5. says

    If historical fiction counts, I knew a little bit about this by way of Neal Stephenson (and for that matter, Voltaire).

    Humans are such horrible shits. I’m identifying as a cat from now on (they can be nasty in their own way, but it takes a strongly social animal to be nasty to its own kind on an industrial scale).

  6. Arkady says

    It’s noticeable if you visit a lot of small towns on the mediterreanean coast in France and Italy (and probably other countries that I haven’t been to) that the churches are built like fortresses, massively thick stone walls and no windows. My parents have been to Corsica and Sardinia and noticed that almost none of the old towns or villages seemed to be on the coast.

  7. anbheal says

    What I always fear in the wake of such histories is for the other shoe to drop. Namely, using these vague tales and undocumented estimates as a “Gotcha” bit of punditry, every time blacks or Muslims decry American and European oppression. But wait, David Brooks will smarm, you did it just as badly to us, so why can’t we claim an equally oppressed victim status??? Then Mel Gibson will make a movie about swarthy Moors terrorizing nice Christian virgins on the coast of Kerry. This fits a very corrosive narrative, almost to a tee. I bet we’ll be hearing more about this.

  8. wrpinpnw says

    The Barbary slave trade was still active enough in the early 19th century to provoke the first American war. President Jefferson refused to pay ransom for captive Americans and sent the Navy instead — thus the bit about “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn. If Mr. Gibson is looking for jingoistic material, he could do worse. I’m honestly a bit surprised that it hasn’t already been done.

    So, yeah, the very first declared war in U.S. history was fought against the enslavement of (mostly) white men, at the behest of Mr. Sally Hemings. Ironies abound.

  9. wsierichs says

    I only recently heard about the Barbary enslavement of peoples from Great Britain. A friend of mine who is a history buff, like me, mentioned it in the context of a group of us playing a game.
    This historical fact, however, does not offset, much less justify, the enslavement of Africans in Britain and its U.S. colonies and the later U.S. One reason is that one founding principle of the U.S. was the supposed equality of everyone under the law. The fact that black slavery continued – with increasing efforts in the 19th c. to make it more difficult to free a slave or for free blacks to live in various places – and that women were denied basic rights, much less legal equality only means that the U.S.’s founders did not live up to the ideal they preached, not that the existence of the ideal means we can ignore it simply because it was not practiced even though preached.
    Several relevant facts:
    In 1772, British judge Lord Mansfield (essentially the chief justice of England) rules in James Somerset(t) vs. Charles Stewart that slavery was illegal in England because slavery, which had once existed but had died out, was of such a nature that it could be revived except by an act of Parliament, which Parliament had not done.
    Mansfield’s opinion overturned three previous rulings by British judges in the 17th century that because “Negroes” were pagans, “Christians” could lawfully enslave them and their offspring. This goes back to a bible passage about the Israelites being allowed to permanently enslave non-Israelites and their descendants, whereas Israelite slaves had to be freed about 7 years.
    Africans brought as slaves to the U.S. colonies initially were treated as indentured servants, just like whites, to be freed after 7 years. The colonies only began making this servitude permanent in the mid-17th c., a legal change upheld by the English court rulings but reversed by Mansfield.
    Finally, the word “slave” comes from Slav because Christian crusaders captured so many pagan Slavs during centuries of annual campaigns in northern and NE Europe, the Slavs then being sold, often to Muslim traders, that Slav became a synonym for forced labor. So the Europeans who created slavery in the U.S. were, from their perspective, were merely giving the “Slav” treatment to Africans. It was only the development of Enlightenment ideas about human freedom and equality that turned slavery into a controversial institution.

  10. says

    anbheal @ 8 – you bet we’ll be hearing more about this because of what? Certainly not my blogging about it, and it’s not current news anywhere else. The BBC piece is from 2011, as I said. We haven’t heard more about it before, so why would we hear more about it now?

  11. Kengi says

    And then there’s the current slave trade in places like Brazil:

    “This is the slavery road, along which thousands of poor workers are trafficked, threatened, beaten and made to work without pay on farms or down coalmines or deforesting the jungle. It has happened for decades and — despite efforts to combat it — is still commonplace in the world’s eighth-largest economy.”

  12. karmacat says

    Getting rid of slavery is like whack-a-mole. It is discouraging and frustrating

  13. Blanche Quizno says

    @7 Arkady – what you’ll also notice if you peruse the older churches is that not only do they have all the features of fortresses and garrisons, but they were often built on the sites of earlier Roman forts! These “churches” were often built in strategic locations that were difficult for common people to get to; some (like Talmont-sur-Gironde on the coast of France) were even built before there were any people living nearby! Also, large “churches” with accompanying large “monasteries” were often at strategic locations (like at the fork of a river, or overlooking a valley, or any promontory) where the local population was small – only a few hundred to a thousand or so, while the local monastery attached to the big church/cathedral had the capacity to house *hundreds* of “monks”. These buildings look indistinguishable from barracks, and in the past, monks functioned as soldiers, as in the Albigensian Crusade. What was apparently a domestic peace-keeping function has been whitewashed into something entirely different, but as you noted, the architecture is a dead giveaway.

  14. Blanche Quizno says

    The private prison industrial complex has become a new source of domestic slave labor. Prisoners are *forced* to work, for pennies an hour. These prisons have promoted themselves to large corporations that previously offshored their manufacturing to countries like Mexico, Bangladesh, India, and China, where labor could be had for pennies per hour, advertising that the corporations can now bring their manufacturing operations home to the US, where they can pay the same pennies-per-hour for labor, but they won’t have to pay for overseas shipping. Proportionately far more people of color are locked up in these slave-labor prisons. And this is going on right here at home.

  15. quixote says

    I’d never heard about this historical instance either. Always kind of startling to realize people have done huge things you’ve had not inkling of.

    That all people everywhere can be crap I did know, like everyone else.

  16. rjw1 says

    Few people in the West seem to know anything about the very long period from the 7th to the early 19th century when Europeans were victims of Muslim slave traders. The notion of Europeans as always the predator dominates the historical narrative and of course it suits many propagandists. I’ve sometimes found it difficult to convince some people that this atrocity ever occurred at all. The only instance that I can remember in the MSM where the subject of Europeans as victims of slavery was mentioned, was in the British program “Coast”. The Ottomans also enslaved huge numbers of Eastern Europeans, particularly women, probably more than the so-called ‘Barbary’ pirates, there are many books on the subject.

  17. Erp says

    The mine slaves might be better described as mine serfs as they were bound to the work and could not be separately traded. They had to be paid and children were not automatically bound though conditions were such that many had to bind themselves. In addition they retained the ancient right of a year and a day (i.e., if they weren’t regained within a year and a day, they were free). The system formally existed from 1606 until 1799 in Scotland (but not England).

    England had another system where miners were bounded each year for a year (in return for a small bounty) that lasted until 1872.

    There is an interesting 1897 paper at

    The extent of Barbary pirate raids on the British Isles seems to be exaggerated by some though it certainly existed (e.g., the raid of Baltimore, Ireland in 1631). Most were taken from seized ships and fishing boats. I think the Christian navies dependent on galleys (e.g., Spain, the Papal States, France, etc.) did the same to ships from Muslim countries (aka prisoners of war, though most galley slaves were probably convicts). One difference between this slavery and that of the Americas is that conversion to their owner’s religion often improved the lot of the slaves and sometimes led to freedom and even high rank (the leader of the raid on Baltimore, Murat Reis (born Jan Janszoon) was one such convert).

  18. wsierichs says

    Ophelia Benson at 11:
    I was not implying anything. I was simply trying to make myself as clear as possible.

  19. arthur says

    Cervantes , author of Don Quixote among other works, was a slave in Algiers for five years, following his capture by Cosairs.

  20. says

    I grew up reading The Sea Hawk (Sabatini) and consequently absorbed a few accounts of Barbary pirates. They were impressive mariners, to say the least!

  21. Helene says

    White slavery in both senses.

    Unlike what is occurring in Brazil, which is economic slavery or indentured labour and more akin to serfdom, there is still real (conquest or descent) slavery in the Sahel, in particular Mauritania, where it was “officially” outlawed in 2007… something I only learned about from the woman who runs a Mauritanian restaurant I frequent.

  22. says

    I want to know more about that too. Getting tempted to try to collect all the slavery places.

    Myself I prefer to call that mess in Brazil slavery, even though it’s not descent slavery, because not calling it that seems too euphemistic. I get that it’s different from conquest or descent slavery though.

  23. Pierce R. Butler says

    Pen @ # 3: … Oliver Cromwell forcibly sent a vast number of Irish to the West Indies…

    More specifically, his brother Henry, given Ireland to play with, sold somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish (the majority of them women, apparently because they were suspected of witchcraft and paganism) to slavers. Some claim they account for a Gaelic tinge in the West Indian accent; at least one history I’ve read suggests they contributed the dancing-around-a-pole component (reportedly unknown in Africa) to what we now call Voudoun (voodoo).

  24. Erp says

    Well slavery wasn’t abolished in Saudi Arabia until 1962 and a lot of what goes on there still looks like slavery.

    One can check out I note they define forced or early marriage as a form of slavery

    You might find Kathleen Simon, a prominent anti-slavery activist of the 1920s and 30s of interest.

  25. StevoR says

    @25. Helene : Of course we also has Daesh (IS-IL/S) now as modern day slavers too.

    See :

    (Plus I think I recall Ophelia Benson and other FTB bloggers writing about that here too?)

    There are so many Horrors in our collective human history and sadly, still too many in our present too albeit we might just maybe be trending in the right way over the centuries. I think we need to learn about these past horrors and do all we can to fight the present ones and prevent them happening in the future. Kinda axiomatic but still.

  26. johnthedrunkard says

    I’m a bit surprised Ophelia managed to miss this one. As mentioned before it was part of the background of the US’s first foreign war. Hitchens wrote several pointed essays about this after 2001; because the issue involves things like the Algiers Treaty (the one with Article 11, that begins: ‘As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; …) AND Jefferson quotes a statement from the bey of Algiers’ ambassador that piracy and the enslavement of Kaffirs was a religious duty for Muslims.

    On the coast of Ireland, the entire town of Baltimore was wiped away, in a single day: June 20, 1631.

  27. johnthedrunkard says

    And the Algiers/Maghreb ‘corsairs’ were at the outer edge of Ottoman power and command. I’ve never heard of the victims of their depredations being traded on toward the larger centers of the ‘Turkish’ economy.

    The scale of the slave trade in the Balkans, Ukraine, Armenia is another matter. The elite Ottoman military, the Janissaries, were an army of slaves, a ‘tax,’ part of the Islamic ‘tribute’ paid by occupied peoples. The Turks could ‘collect’ 20% of the children as slaves. The boys were ‘converted to Islam’ and put into barracks where they were used sexually and trained to serve the Porte when they were old enough.

    AND we are ignoring the enormous trade in Africans, which started half a millennium before the Atlantic Trade and persisted into the 20th century.

  28. Helene says


    But, but, but… how can that be? “Imperialism” and “racism” are by definition only western phenomena. And saying anything bad about Islam these days is “punching down”!

  29. says

    johnthedrunkard @ 30 –

    Well as I said in the post, I did know that Barbary pirates existed (so yes I knew about the Treaty and its key Jefferson statement). What I didn’t know was the massive scale of the kidnapping and enslavement. I didn’t for instance know that they raided coastal towns.

  30. says

    StevoR @ 31 – No, the source for the one I had just posted was Kengi @ 13. I heard something about contemporary slavery somewhere on BBC World (or possibly NPR but I really doubt it) the other day, but I don’t remember exactly what.

  31. rjw1 says

    @33 Helene,

    One of the Net’s numerous Islamic propagandists recently tried to convince me that the the Muslims attacked the Eastern Romans and Sassanids, conquered Spain and invaded India in self-defence.

    @34 Ophelia,

    Although the hairy Western barbarians usually get all the blame, Muslim slave raiding also contributed to the degradation of Greco-Roman civilisation in the Western Mediterranean because intercostal trade and contacts with the Eastern Empire were so severely disrupted. The Mediterranean, which was a highway in Roman times wasn’t really safe for Westerners until well into the 19th century.
    My money’s on the Ottomans enslaving far more Europeans than the Barbary pirates, the scale of their raids and the atrocities they committed far exceeded those of the North Africans.

  32. Al Dente says

    People who have read C.S. Forester’s “Hornblower” books will remember that Hornblower’s first ship was HMS Indefatigable, captained by Sir Edward Pellew. Pellew was a real person, a notable frigate captain and admiral in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, being ennobled as Lord Exmouth. After the wars were over, Exmouth commanded an Anglo-Dutch fleet against the Barbary states. His fleet bombarded Algiers and secured the release of 1,200 Christian slaves in the city. Exmouth said this was the naval action which gave him the greatest satisfaction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *