Slavery. Images of Africans chained together and pushed into European vessels come to mind. They are boarding the ships on the west coast of Africa, at the start of a long journey across the Atlantic. Many starve to death, die of disease, or perish due to other reasons. It is a horrific episode in human history. To this day, Europeans and Americans alike bear the guilt of our ancestor’s actions.
Approximately 15 million Africans became slaves due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Every child learns about this in school, everyone knows about this suffering of the Africans. Yet, today, I’d like to highlight a less known episode of slavery. The slavery of the Europeans in North-Africa.
The Holocaust being of greater horror and death toll than the Armenian genocide, does not mean the Armenian genocide is not worth talking about. Similarly, even though the European slaves amounted to a ‘mere’ one million, it does not mean that therefore it is not worth discussing. Did you know already that there were approximately 1.000.000 European slaves taken to North-Africa?
Slavery in Europe
It is common knowledge that the ancient Romans had slaves. It is known that many Europeans in the middle ages had little personal liberties. Moreover, the English word of ‘Slave’ comes from the name of the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, as they have a long history of being taken as slaves. The Slavs were taken by the Viking raiders, who would sell them on the slave markets of the Eastern Roman Empire and of the Islamic Caliphate. The Vikings also took Western European captives as slaves, though in relatively small numbers. Furthermore, the Viking raids ended at the start of the 2nd millennium.
The Ottomans would terrorize the Balkans after their capture of Constantinople. Bulgarians, Romanians, Macedonians and so on, all the Christians in the Balkans supplied slaves for the Ottoman Empire. However, this slavery was restricted to the Balkans, and it did not affect the rest of Europe.
The fact that until the 19th century Europeans were being captured and taken as slaves, is hardly known. Any European living on the coast, or daring to board a ship, was under threat of being attacked by the Barbary pirates. It was a slave trade that started around the middle ages, after the Muslims had captured North-Africa.
The Mediterranean Sea, once referred to as ”Our Sea” by the Roman Empire, was now a battlefield. The Christian nations were in a near constant war with the Ottoman Empire and its protectorate occupying the modern-day Algeria and Libya; the Barbary States. A fitting etymological coincidence as one might argue they were indeed barbaric.
After the reconquest of Spain was completed in 1492, the Muslims were expelled to Morocco. As the fighting on land had ceased, the fighting on the sea in the form of piracy and coastal raids increased. Although Morocco was not a part of the Ottoman Empire, and had its own sultan, they differed little in their views on slavery.
Before the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa to the New World had started, the trading of European slaves in the Islamic world was already a lucrative business.
One of the most telling accounts of this brutal slavery, comes from an English boy called Thomas Pellow. He preserved his story thanks to his escape after 23 years of slavery. Once he returned to England, he authored a book about the story of his life. At the age of 11, in 1716, he started his career as a sailor. On his maiden voyage he was captured, along with the rest of the crew, by Moroccan pirates.
The pirates transported Thomas and the other European slaves to the slave pens of the Sultan. After arriving to the pens, he found himself in a hopeless position. Guards would force the men to perform hard physical labour. Thomas would, just like the others, work from sunrise to sunset. African guards would beat them relentlessly when they would not work hard enough. Many starved to death due to lack of nutrition and absolute exhaustion. The Sultan would sentence many to death for whatever whimsical reason he would have at that moment.
There was the option of death, escape, or wait for your government to pay the ransom required to set you free. Ransoms generally set on extortionate amounts, amounting to more than a person’s life wages.
There was one other way to get out of performing this arduous labour. You could convert to Islam. Not only did this mean you would certainly go to hell, but it also meant your government would no longer attempt to set you free. The government did not care about those that had turned to Islam, the so-called renegades.
After a long series of torture, Thomas Pellow, on the brink of death, converted to Islam. His life was a bit easier now, as he moved from bricklayer to soldier. The Sultan used the renegades as his private military force that he would use to attack those that rebelled against him. His personal bodyguard consisted of Sub-Saharan Africans fiercely loyal to him. They too were slaves, but as they were indoctrinated by childhood they were proud of their position and did not consider themselves as slaves.
Many Europeans converted and never saw their homelands again, blending into Moroccan society. Despite some slaves being freed, most that did not convert would die in the slave pens.
As Thomas served as a soldier at the court, he witnessed the arrivals of new slaves. He witnessed the punishment slaves endured. He witnessed the cruelty bestowed upon them. Men would be sawed in two, starting between the legs working up to the head. Emissaries from other countries were burned alive. Slaves had their necks broken. Life, in the court of the Moroccan Sultan, had no value whatsoever.
Let us admit that the Europeans suffered in Morocco. They suffered in Algeria. They suffered in Tunisia. And they suffered in Libya. Around one million Europeans ended up as slaves in this region. Some would die within days, others within months, and some would struggle on for decades. It is a gross offence to these lost souls to ignore this part of history.
When did it End?
The end of this slavery did not come out of voluntary compassion towards the slaves, as it had done in Europe and the United States. There were no debates in the Islamic world whether or not this was morally the right way to treat other humans. There had been no enlightenment, no humanism that set life as having intrinsic value.
No, it did not end until the combined powers of the European navy sailed to the coastal cities of North Africa and bombarded them relentlessly.
Napoleon’s defeat created a new opportunity. Europe found itself in a period without war, but with experienced armies. They sent a fleet to the Barbary States and used force to make the local rulers submit to their will. Only the threat of death and complete destruction of their empires convinced the Muslim rulers of North Africa that slavery should be abolished.