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Re: Coast and the Barbary Pirates

Presented with the word “slavery,” what comes to your mind?  If you are an American, it is surely the race slavery that was a feature of life here for 250 years, that continued through the early decades of the Republic in some states, and that caused divisions that led to the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our history. 

That is as it should be.  We naturally think of our own country first.  Slavery, however, has been a feature of life in many societies all over the world, from the most ancient times down to the present day.  There is hardly a place that has not been touched by it; hardly an ethny* that has not been subjected to this greatest of all indignities at one time or other.  It was the memory of seeing English children in the slave market at Rome that inspired Gregory the Great to set about the conversion of the English; and I used to tease my Irish Republican friends—back when such things were still relevant, I mean, before they all got jobs trading financial futures—with the historical fact that in early-medieval Ireland, “British slave girl” was a unit of currency, equivalent to three cows.

We all sort of know this stuff in a piecemeal way, but now and then you read something that makes it vivid to you.  I’ve had just that experience the last couple of days, reading Robert Davis’s 2003 book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters.  The book is an account of the enslavement of untold numbers of European Christians by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast, that stretch of the North African shoreline currently under the sovereignty of Algeria, Tunisia, and western Libya.  The phenomenon had its greatest flourishing in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it continued down to the early 19th century.  American sailors were captured and enslaved in the early years of the Republic—a contributing cause of the Barbary Wars.  That was very nearly the last gasp of the Barbary slavers, though.

We have accustomed ourselves to think of the race slavery of the Americas as being worse than the indiscriminate slavery of the ancient world.  The slaves of old Rome looked no different from free citizens.  In fact, when one of the emperors had the idea to make slaves wear some kind of distinctive dress, his advisers dissuaded him by pointing out that it might not be a good idea to let the slaves see plainly how numerous they were...  Under race slavery, by contrast, what you were—the color of your skin—marked you out as suitable for slavery.

The Mediterranean slavery of the 16th and 17th centuries fell somewhere between those two.  It was not race slavery, but nor was it indiscriminate.  It was religious slavery.  The human beings kidnapped and sold by the Barbary pirates were fair game because they were Christian.  A Christian slave on the Barbary Coast could attain his freedom by converting to Islam, and many did so.

There was in fact, says Prof. Davis, something of religious revenge in the depredations of the Muslim slavers.  The slave trade really got going after 1492, the year the last Muslims were expelled from Spain—what Osama bin Laden calls “the tragedy of Andalusia.”  Says the author:  “In Barbary, those who hunted and traded slaves certainly hoped to make a profit, but in their traffic in Christians there was also always an element of revenge, almost of jihad—for the wrongs of 1492, for the centuries of crusading violence that had preceded them, and for the ongoing religious struggle between Christian and Muslim that has continued to roil the Mediterranean world well into modern times.”

One of the most impressive parts of Prof. Davis’s book is his computation of the numbers of Europeans enslaved by these Muslim raiders.  Combing through the historical sources, he concludes that there were about 35,000 enslaved Christians on the Barbary Coast at any one time.  He then sets about estimating attrition rates.  Slave numbers declined through four causes:  death, escape, redemption (i.e. by ransom), and conversion to Islam.  Davis gets annual rates from these causes of 17 percent, 1 percent, 2-3 percent, and 4 percent, respectively.  This implies a total number of slaves, from the early 1500s to the late 1700s, of one to one and a quarter million.  This is an astonishing number, implying that well into the 17th century, the Mediterranean slave trade was out-producing the Atlantic one.  Numbers fell off thereafter, while the transatlantic trade increased; but in its time, the enslavement of European Christians by Muslim North Africans was the main kind of enslavement going on in the world...


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