Posts Tagged ‘Don Quixote’

A History of White Slavery in North Africa and Condemnation of Black American Slavery

February 27, 2022

Charles Sumner, illustrated by E.R. Billings, White Slavery in the Barbary States (N.D.: Amazon).

I just finished reading this short history of White enslavement this week. It’s only about 81 pages, so not a detailed history of its subject. But it’s still very good. The Barbary pirates were a group of Arab Moslem raiders, who seized control of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripolitania in the mid-17th century. They then began raiding Mediterranean shipping and Europe from France, Spain and Italy to Britain and as far afield as Iceland. The captives were held to ransom. Some were given jobs to do. These included domestic servants and keeping taverns, or labouring in the fields. Otherwise were condemned to the infamous galleys. Europeans responded with a series of counterattacks intended to free the slaves and impose treaties on the rulers forbidding them from continuing the slave raiding. These held for only a few years until a new round of slaving began. They finally stopped in the early 19th century after counterattacks by the British and Americans and the French invasion of Algiers in the 1830s.

There’s no biographical information about Sumner, and the book’s blurb states only that it was first published in the 1853. It is clear from its content, however, that Sumner was ardent opponent of all slavery including that of Blacks in his own country, America. He begins by comparing the Barbary states and their slave economy with America’s, right down to both slave territories existing at roughly the same latitude. He then proceeds with a short history of slavery in the ancient world from the Old Testament through the ancient Greeks and Romans and Christian Europe, noting that the word ‘slave’ comes from the Slavonic ‘Slava’, ‘glory’, the Slavs’ own name for themselves, because they were the main source of slaves in Europe. He then states that it is thus quite natural that the Moslems followed their predecessors in practising slavery. The book describes the repeated raids on American and European shipping, the various campaigns of reprisals, chiefly by the French and Spanish, as well as resistance by the victims themselves. There were revolts of the White slaves in the various north African towns and mutinies by enslaved sailors, some of whom managed to escape back to Europe after overpowering their captors. at the same time, communities in Europe and America came together to prey for the deliverance of their loved ones from enslavement and raise money to pay the ransoms. These were not cheap. Sumner includes a schedule of the ransom demanded for various grades of sailor. The ransom for a captain was about $3,000 +. Quite often these payments ran into tens of thousands of dollars.

The raids also had an effect on European literature and culture. Cervantes based his description of north African slavery on his own experience as a slave there. And apart from Don Quixote, he wrote a series of plays intended to raise awareness of the plight of the slaves. And there were others producing plays and poetry, including Aphra Behn, the English female playwright, in her Oroonoko. Sumner celebrates these condemnations of slavery, including that of Bartolome de las Casas, the Spanish friar who protested against the enslavement of the Indigenous American peoples. He rightly describes them as abolitionists, though laments the one-sidedness in so many of their denunciations. They were all too often directly only against the enslavement of fellow Whites while remaining silent about that of Blacks and others races. He points out that Black American slavery was harsher and more brutal than that endured by the White slaves in the Barbary states. Some of these found themselves so well treated and became so prosperous at the jobs they were given, such as keeping taverns and shops, that they didn’t want to return home.

The book still condemns White enslavement in harsh terms, but also condemns the more brutal treatment of Blacks, whose enslavement the author also passionately argues against.