Book on Christians Enslaved by Muslim in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, The Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2003).

This is another book I order for me reading about non-European forms of slavery, and particularly the enslavement of Europeans. I feel this is unjustly neglected and that the understandable concentration of the transatlantic slave trade has distorted the public understand of history as global phenomenon. One of the arguments the abolitionists had to face from the pro-slavery camp was that slavery was universal and had been a part of nearly every culture since ancient Egypt. It has also, in my view, created a distorted view in which Black enslavement by Whites is somehow seen as unique, and that the White European invasion and conquest of much of the rest of the world is somehow seen as inevitable. White are somehow seen as uniquely racist, imperialist and evil, as expressed in ideologies like Afrocentrism and Critical Race Theory. But this was not the case. Whites also suffered enslavement, and Europe was for centuries under threat from a militant and expansionist Islam, which also enslaved Black Africans and had its own ideology of racism.

The book’s blurb runs:

“In this book Robert C. Davis uses many new historical sources to re-examine one of the least understood forms of human bondage in modern times … the systematic enslavement of white, Christian Europeans by the Muslims of North Africa’s Barbary Coast. Far from the minor phenomenon that many have assumed it to be, white slavery in the Maghreb turns out, in Davis’ account, to have had enormous consequences, ensnaring as many as a million victims from France and Italy to Spain, Holland, Great Britain, the Americas and even Iceland in the centuries when it flourished between 1500 and 1800. Whether dealing with the methods used by slavers, the experience of slavery or its destructive impact on the slaves themselves, Davis demonstrates the many, often surprising, similarities between this ‘other’ slavery and the much better known human bondage suffered at the very same time by Black Africans in the Americas.”

The book is divided into three parts. Part II has chapters on the number of people enslaved and slave taking and slave breaking. Part II is on the Barbary states, and slave labour and slave life, Part III is on Italy, described as the home front. The final chapter is ‘celebrating slavery’. This appears to be about how the slaves themselves tried to reconcile their condition theologically by seeing it as a punishment from God.

As with the other books I’ve done no more than glance at it so far, but I was struck by this remark from an old Sicilian lady in the 20th century that shows the memory of raiding and enslavement still persisted into her lifetime:

“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… The next day it was the same thing, and there was always the bitter song, as you could not hear other than the lamentations and invocations of the mothers and the tears that ran like rivers through all the houses.” (174).

I’ve thought for a very long time that so many of the racism and Islamophobia in Europe is just a simple case of White racism against Blacks and Brown people, developed from imperialism and the slave trade, but also due to the memory of a real threat from Turkish and Muslim imperialism and slaving. And I do think that the attitudes that promoted the Islamic enslavement of White Christians still persist in that section of the Muslim community, chiefly Pakistani, that raped and abused White girls in grooming gangs.


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