Dec 052012

Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800. Palgrave MacMillan, 2003 Amazon

What you might call “Mediterranean slavery”, of Christian Europeans captured through piracy or raids and enslaved in North Africa or the Near East, coexisted with Atlantic slavery, roughly paralleling the dates. While the numbers about Atlantic slavery are pretty solid, the numbers on Mediterranean slavery are far less so, and Davis is forced to piece together rough estimates from a variety of different sources.

Trying to pin down numbers of Barbary slavery is beyond the scope of this blog, and I don’t want to get into any kind of “oppression Olympics” about different slave economies. (Discussions of white slavery tend to bring out people with an axe to grind. One discussion of Barbary coast slavery on Fetlife included a post with a link to a white pride site. This included lengthy incoherent rants about the place of white people in history. One passage included an array of pictures of tribal people with facial tattoos or body modifications, followed by another array of white people with facial tattoos or piercings. The caption said that these white people took no pride in their heritage and were trying to imitate other races.)

Others argued that the Barbary coast slaves didn’t have it as bad as slaves in America, and their suffering was exaggerated by the various redemptive agencies for profit. The historical record suggests that some Barbary slaves had brief  and relatively comfortable terms, but many more died manacled to oars in the galleys.

What is clear is that Barbary coast slavery was a source of anxiety in Christian Europe for centuries, “…’corsair hysteria’, which gripped much of Europe during these centuries, a general panic fueled by a combination of fear and fantasy.” (Pg.5-6) Ever since the Moors were expelled from Southern Spain (the other big event of 1492), there was a centuries-long Cold War between Christian Europe and Islamic North Africa, each holding one side of the Mediterranean. Enslavement was one of the risks of travel by sea, and there were slaving raids on the coasts of Spain, southern France and the Italian peninsula. Even if raids occurred infrequently, it was a fear that lingered.

It’s important to remember that the majority of Christian slaves were captured sailors and others travelling by sea, and only a minority were female.

Overall, relatively few Christian females ended up enslaved in Barbary – some estimates place their proportion as low as 5 percent among the generality of European slaves there. Such female slaves as there were, though, were almost all taken in land raids, partly since women made up only a minuscule proportion of the passengers or crews captured on merchant ships, and partly because, according to some calculations, around three-eighths of all those captured on land were female. Women in the harems and households of Barbary appear to have been about eight to ten times more likely to have come from coastal villages than from captured shipping. It is not clear whether the corsairs actively sought them out in response to the market demand in Barbary for harm or domestic slaves, or whether women – as a rule slower than men and often burdened with their children – were simply easier to catch. [Pg.36]

The centuries-old Orientalist fantasy of white Christian women stolen away to suffer beautifully in harems has a certain slim measure of truth, but it was a small portion of the total picture.

Whether by conscious design or happenstance, enslavement function like a ritual separation and reintegration. Captives were suddenly and violently yanked out of their lives. “This initial turmoil and the fright it produced were only the first in a series of torments that either in effect or by design tended to break the new captives’ sense of individuality and willingness to put up resistance.” (Pg.52) Captives were often stripped naked and beaten. When they arrived in Barbary, “Some slaves reported being paraded through town… in a procession that effectively proclaimed their shame and social death. Since the arrival of new slaves was a sign of prosperity and an occasion of civic pride for all the townsfolk, the resident Turks, Moors, Jews, and renegades all turned out to cheer and taunt the newcomers.” (Pg.55) The iron rings fastened around their ankles and their shaved heads and beards were another step in this process.

One can discern in such treatment, besides the obvious need to give new slaves their own, distinctive look, a desire to further the process of breaking and demoralizing, now that they were indeed bonded to a master. As such, it resembled the first stages of boot camp for new soldiers, though in fact the experience in Barbary was if anything still more traumatic, since in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a great deal more of a man’s identity was wrapped up in his hair and beard. [Pg.59]

Then came the auction.

The experience of being haggled over in the market, “like they sell the animals,” was the key rite of passage into slavery, and it figures, more or less prominently, in virtually every captivity narrative. [Pg.59-60]

According to Dan, slaves could be stripped naked at this point, “as seems good to [the dealers], without any shame.” Their primary need was to determine whether a slave was worth buying primarily for resale – in particular for ransoming – or whether he (or she) might be more profitably employed as a laborer, artisan, or for domestic or (sometimes) sexual purposes. [Pg.61]

Slavery was a test of Christian identity. There was the constant temptation of converting to Islam, and Christians were very reluctant to dress in the Turkish fashion, seen as the garb of the traitorous renegade. (Pg.105-106) Retaining European attire was a mark of status.

This threat to identity was expressed in the sexual as well as the religious realm, and the two overlapped.

It would also appear… that the missionaries were at least as nervous that such young men would allow themselves to be seduced sexually as well as religiously, to become catamites even as they became Muslims. Indeed, many clerics, insofar as they had any notions of Islam, acted as if the two forms of seduction were closely linked: the Trinitarian Alfonso Dominici, writing in 1647, asserted that, among slaves, these “Giovanetti are all lost,” because

They are purchased at great price by the Turks to serve them in their abominable sins, and no sooner do they have them in their power, [then] by dressing them up and caressing them, they persuade them to make themselves Turks. But if by chance someone does not consent to their uncontrolled desires, they treat him badly, using force to induce him into sin; they keep him locked up, so that he does not see nor frequent [other] Christians, and many others they circumcise by force.


Venure de Paradis called sodomy the vice à la mode dans Alger, and stories circulated about young male slaves who allowed themselves to become the “perpetual concubines” of local elite men. All the Barbary capitals – but especially Algiers – had open and flourishing homosexual subcultures…. [Pg.125]

Barbary was a zone of sexual and gender anarchy, one of those blank screens where outsiders can project their fantasies of freedom. This became inspiration for early exploitation porn.

Mascarenhas… claimed that the Turks brought their Christian slaves with them to the local bathhouses….

Mascarenhas’ narrative, as its translators remark, was originally published in 1627 as a pamphlet of around 100 pages…. Wors such as Mascarenhas’, which often provided their readers with lurid descriptions of homosexual practices in Barbary, may have done much to fix the popular European notion that the inhabitants of the Maghreb were in general “incorrigably flagitious … sayd to commit Sodomie with all creatures and tolerate all vices.” ….

That tales like Mascarenhas’ were so widely diffused may well have had another, unintended purpose, however, since such stories must have also brought the sexual culture of the regencies to the attention of Europeans with homosexual interests. One soon notices, in fact, how often the stories that circulated about homosexual activities in Barbary involved renegades…. It may not be too far fetched to conclude that some who voluntarily left Christendom, with its harsh strictures against homosexual practices, abjured and came to the Maghreb as much for what they saw as the region’s sexual liberality as for its economic or religious opportunities.


This raises the question of how much of this is true, and how much of this is fantasy of one kind or another.

Pierre Dan, for one, seems to have positively reveled in all the various sufferings imposed on Christian slaves in Barbary, and he presented his readers with a lengthy catalogue of the torments that their Muslim oppressors favored. Dan’s editors, no doubt mindful of the sales value of such visceral attractions, thoughtfully accompanied his proise with a set of grisly illustrations showing various slave-martyrs undergoing their passions – some crushed alive, some impaled, some burned, some crucified; different versions appears in the French and the Dutch editions. Such litanies of suffering were especially dear to Catholic commentators, but they also turn up in the slave narrations of Protestants: John Foss, for one, devoted an entire chapter to “The punishments which are common for Christian Captives, for different offenses.” [Pg.132]

Thus, Barbary slavery was grafted onto familiar martyr imagery. Modern day Europeans could have their faith tested by Turks in the same way as founders of the church were tortured by Romans.

In any case, there still existed a pervasive anxiety throughout Christendom about the subversive attractions of Islam, a collective horror that expressed itself through many different strands of conscious and unconscious dread. [Pg.156]

The Turkish bogeyman was still feared in later centuries, elevated to the status of myth. In the early 20th century, one Sicilian woman said:

The oldest [still] tell of a time in which the Turks arrived in Sicily every day. They came down in the thousands from their galleys and you can imagine what happened! They seized unmarried girls and children, grabbed things and money and in an instant they were [back] aboard their galleys, set sail and disappeared…. [pg.174]

The anxiety provoked by the threat of  Christians stolen away by Muslims, to be enslaved and even converted, had to be allayed by social ritual. Slaves often spoke of their condition as hell or purgatory. [Pg.176] Freed Barbary slaves were more-or-less forced to participate in elaborate and highly popular rituals of re-integration.They appeared publicly in processions, wearing the rags or uniforms they had worn as slaves and bearing symbolic broken chains. These processions could cost 5-10 times what had been paid for the slaves’ ransom, suggesting that the spectacle was more important than the reality. [Pg.181]

It was the custom of the Mercedarians, in the processions they staged in France and Spain, to clothe freed slaves in the rags they had worn in Barbary, also furnishing them with chains (broken, however) to carry along the processional route. In Italy, where the Trinitarians predominated, chains could also make their appearance, but the slaves seem to have been more typicaly tied together by rose and turquoise ribbons – the colors of the Trinitarian order – or they might carry olive branches. [Pg.182-183]

The structuring of these events… all speak of a ritual of reintegration, where those who had been stripped of their person hood and had been subjected to the social death of enslavement were visibly returned to their original status as free Christians. [Pg.183-184]

Just as the newly arrived slaves when first brought ashore in Barbary went through a time of liminality as they passed [through various owners], so these now ransomed slaves, while no longer belonging to a master, still remained in some ways the possession of the priests who had bought their freedom – as symbolized by the ribbons that they bore in place of chains during the processions. Such tacit bondage was especially true for those who had had to rely on charity for their ransoms…. [Pg.184]

This was to prove to them, and everybody else, that the former slaves were once again part of Christianity and the European social hierarchy, that the universe was ordered again.

It’s hard to believe today that Europe was ever threatened in this way, or that it would need such an elaborate mechanism to allay the fear. Nowadays, the image of galley slaves is used as a joke about the nature of work, and the image of women stolen away to serve in an harem is an erotic fantasy.

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