Sep 182012

Clissold, Stephen. The Barbary Slaves. Elek Books, 1977 Gbooks

Up until now, I had focused most of my attention on Atlantic slavery as an source for BDSM fantasies, but there are other influences that go back centuries. The older some historical event is, the more it has decayed into myth. It underlies more recent events. Abolitionists used Orientalist and Gothic ideas to talk about American slavery and in doing so harkened back centuries to Barbary Coast slavery, when Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East. It was a roughly two-century period marked by Christian Europe’s relative rise as a world power and Muslim Northern Africa’s relative decline.

Clissold opens with an anecdote in 1593, in which a Spanish priest, Father Jeronimo Gracian (who was also a close friend of St. Theresa of Avila), captive of Barbary pirates had the sign of the Cross burned onto the sole of his foot, a bit of symbolic magic for a safe journey.

That a Christian should be forced to trample the symbol of his faith under foot and pray for the success of the infidels was a bitter reminder that his world had been suddenly and disastrously turned upside down. [Pg.1]

Note also that this fits into the world upside down idea, as well as a mark of initiation. A Christian would have been prepared to view such physical torments in terms of martyrdom.

Another account from a few decades later, from Emanuel d’Aranda, described being captured as being dumped into a completely unfamiliar, arbitrary world.

The corsairs swarmed on deck and d’Aranda found himself confronted by a soldier in Turkish dress who addressed him in Flemish but turned out to be a renegade Englishman. ‘Patience, brother, ’tis the fortune of war,’ his captor exclaimed as he stripped him. ‘My turn today, yours tomorrow!’ Passengers and crew were rounded up and transferred to the pirate ships whilst a prize crew was put aboard the merchantman. ‘I seemed like one in a dream, and the figures moving around me strange ghosts inspiring fear, wonder and curiosity. They wore strange clothes, spoke strange tongues […] bore strange arms, and made strange gesticulations when they prayed.’ such were the captives’ sensation of fascinated horror and foreboding as they were carried off to Algiers and slavery. [Pg.2]

The captive is entering a highly liminal state.

Many if not most captives were killed eventually. Slaves on the Barbary coast could return to their lives in Europe, via the payment of ransoms, exchange of captives, or escape. Miguel de Cervantes, a young soldier best known as the future  author of Don Quixote, was a slave from 1575 to 1580. A fellow captive described him as a hero to his fellow slaves, helping them, withstanding tortures and making several unsuccessful escape attempts before his ransom was paid. [Pg. 62-63, 117] Barbary slavery was the space for heroism and high drama.

Barbary Coast slavery and Atlantic slavery were fundamentally different institutions. African captives had no one to pay their ransoms, and no way across the colour line even if they were freed.

Cordoba and other principal cities had their ma’rid where the human merchandise was examined along lines which the slave-dealers were to follow, though with less sophistication, in the slave-marts of Barbary. Women were generally prized more highly than men, and were classified in two categories; the ‘distinguished’ or first class (murtafa’at) and the ‘common’. They were examined, before being offered for sale, by a female inspector (amina) who kept a meticulous record, which was then specified in the purchase contract, of the physical attractions (nu’ut) and defects (uyub) of each human chattel. Handbooks listing these good and bad qualities were specially composed to facilitate this delicate task. [Pg.8]

Women were generally respected [by corsairs]; if young, they would command the highest prices in the market or be released only for commensurate ransoms. [Pg.36]

Women captives were treated more decorously, the distinguished and attractive amongst them being confined in a latticed apartment where they could be inspected with greater intimacy. Joseph Pitts, an English slave who accompanied his master on travels to other Moslem lands, observed that in the Cairo slave-market

although the women and maidens are veiled, yet the chapmen have liberty to view their faces, and to put their fingers into their mouths to feel their teeth; and also to feel their breasts. And further, as I have been informed, they are sometimes permitted by the sellers (in a modest way) to be searched whether they are Virgins or no.


(Not sure how you can test for virginity “in a modest way”.)

Men were also seen in danger of sodomy, for fear that they would become corrupted and addicted, making them easy converts to Islam, or so the Christians believed. Father Haedo, a Benedictine monk in late 16th century Algiers, spoke of men keeping male concubines (garzones). “Many Turks and renegades, when full grown and old, not only have no wish to marry but boast that they have never known a woman in all their lives.” (Pg.43) The aforementioned Joseph Pitts wrote about homosexual affairs, with men slashing their arms to prove their love for boys (pg.43), or even Muslim women taking advantage of their male slaves, using the punishment to blackmail their men for fear of being beaten, beheaded or burned alive. (Pg.43-44) D’Aranda told a story about how Muslim women would poison inconvenient husbands to death. (Pg.44) Laugier de Tassy told tales of lascivious women smuggling their paramours in drag into their public baths. (Pg.45) Another tale tells of a Frenchman sold to a master who bred mulatto slaves, and kept a bevy of sixteen African women in a farm in Algiers. The French captive was locked up in the harm with food and drink. After six days, he was taken away and sold, exhausted. (Pg.47)

Not all Christians went so easily. Young Thomas Pellow reportedly withstood enough torture to kills seven men before he gave in to his master, and even then he called upon God to forgive him. “I seemingly yielded, by holding up my finger…” (Pg.89-90) Christian girls were also in peril (virtue in distress). One English girl sent to Muley Ismael “resisted his persuasions to turn Moslem and capitulated only after being handed over to the sultan’s Negresses who whipped her and tormented her with needles; ‘so he had her washed and clothed her in their fashion of apparel and lay with her; ‘” (Pg.90) (The erotica writes itself.)

There were other liminal figures, renegade Christians who at least made a show of converting to Islam and who conducted raids on Europe to kidnap people and take them to Barbary. (Pg.28) Centuries later, the “white slavery” scares of the late 19th century would echo this. This was a different form of initiation from the Christian captive.

There, in the alien world of Islam, amongst the traditional foes of his faith and people, he would be given another name, don different clothes, acquire a new identity and profess a new allegiance. It would cost him, the Church warned, the loss of his immortal soul. [Pg.86]

Captives returned to Europe were obliged (sometimes forcefully) to participate in rituals that re-enacted their capture, trials and redemption (the ritual cycle of separation, liminality and integration.)

One the successful conclusion of the redemption, the ransomed captives themselves would appear in the procession to show that the money had been well spent and to incite the faithful to give even more generously. Sometimes theatrical representations or tableaux were staged to depict their miseries and their deliverance by the Redemptionists. [Pg.110]

[…] the ex-slaves were expected to remain for a time at the disposal of the Redemptionist Fathers who vied with each other in staging the most moving and elaborate spectacles. Floats were sometimes constructed representing galleys manned with slaves toiling at the oars. Father Dan is credited with embellishing the processions with daintily dressed children representing angels, or as turbaned Turks leading along their captives on slender chains. [Pg.115]

Some writers maintain that the spectacles were over-dramatized, and the participants made to march through the towns dragging chains the like of which they never had to wear in captivity. [Pg. 116]

Some redeemed slaves had to spend years on arduous pilgrimages, pray daily, wear their prison garb and not cut their their hair so they resembled their former appearance, and refrain from gambling, swearing or frequenting brothels. They were symbols of the idea that Christian faith could survive even the worst.

This extended well into the 19th century. Americans were collecting money to liberate white slaves in North Africa while millions of Africans toiled in the cotton fields.

Much was seen “through a glass, darkly”. Many of the anecdotes Clissold relates have that whiff of orientalist fantasy about them. In the popular imagination, Barbary coast slavery was an opportunity for derring-do, tests of faith, or sexual deviance. The small fraction of women  captured (about 1 per cent) generally ended up in harems, which were a fertile space for erotic fantasies.

Just how accurate these observations were is impossible to say, but they were part of the belief that the Orient was a place where anything was possible, and sexual relationships that were forbidden in Christian Europe were widespread. Byron’s adventures of Don Juan in the harem and Burton’s Sotadic zone were just late entries into this line of thought.

These are the details that filtered into sexual fantasies that survived centuries later, e.g. The Lustful Turk, John Norman’s Gor novels, the third book of Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy, etc. We can see the contradictions of Orientalism at work here: Oriental women are somehow both sheltered and lascivious, slaves and murderous, feminine yet aggressive, virginal yet sexually skilled. No matter how nonsensical such ideas are, put them in “the Orient” and people will believe them.

And the Orient is still being used as a space for sexual fantasy. Witness this recent Playboy pictorial, from a Tumblr full of such images:

A little costume jewellery, some cushions and curtains, a few filmy sheets of fabric, and you’re in the Orient.

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