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?
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.