Giles Milton in White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam’s One Million White Slaves explores a fascinating and little-known history. Much has been written about the slave trade organized by Europeans to purchase slaves in Africa for transportation to their plantations in the New World. Largely forgotten is the fact that slavery existed in many other parts of the world, involving millions of victims. Among these victims would be Europeans captured and enslaved by Muslim corsairs.
For centuries, the wars between Christians and Muslims in the Mediterranean region had produced captives who were forcibly enslaved. The sleek war galleys that alternately protected or preyed upon shipping were driven by slaves chained to their oars. This continued a grim maritime tradition in the Mediterranean Sea that could be traced back to the days of the Romans. The Islamic world, however, nourished a demand for slaves that went beyond such military needs. The Ottoman Turkish sultans required a constant supply of Christian boys to be disciplined into their elite regiments of janissaries. Arab slavers maintained a trading network that spanned continents. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Muslim raiders from the North African ports of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Sale preyed on European shipping lanes and seacoasts. They were known collectively as the Barbary pirates. Throughout the Muslim world, these corsairs were celebrated as heroes, waging jihad against the infidel. The raiders themselves were happy to combine piety with the pursuit of plunder.
At the peak of their pride and power, the Barbary pirates ranged outside the Mediterranean into the North Atlantic and as far as the English Channel. No European at sea, or who lived near the sea, was safe. Even Americans, trading with the mother country, were attacked and carried off to North Africa. Despite the burgeoning military strength of Europe in the age of Louis XIV and the duke of Marlborough, the Europeans proved unable to mount an effective defense against these piratical depredations. Incompetence, disunity, and distraction on the part of their governments all combined to leave the people of Europe vulnerable to the Barbary raiders. To the extent that the European governments considered the plight of their captive subjects, they pursued appeasement of the pirates, offering bribes for safety and purchasing slaves from their captors. Thus the Barbary pirates became the terror of their age. They took on the grim role played by the Vikings in an earlier period. Across Europe, people living near the water prayed to God for deliverance from the Moors.
One of the many victims of the Barbary pirates was a young Cornish boy named Thomas Pellow. After enduring twenty-three years as a slave in Morocco, he would live to escape and dictate the story of his experiences. Milton makes brilliant use of Pellow’s narrative as a window into the cruel treatment of European slaves in North Africa. He places Pellow’s account into a rich historical context, with digressions on such topics as Moroccan palace politics, European efforts to ransom Christian slaves, and European attitudes toward slaves who mitigated their conditions by converting to Islam. The result is a truly engrossing read. Milton brilliantly alternates between microcosm and macrocosm in his book, and he delivers a moving meditation on the surprising capacity of some people to endure in the face of fearsome tribulation.
Thomas Pellow, at the age of eleven, signed on as a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship captained by his uncle. Aside from Pellow and his uncle, the crew consisted of just six men. They were carrying a load of salted fish from England to Catholic Italy. Their ship was unarmed. At the time that they departed England in 1715, shippers were under the impression that the Royal Government had concluded an agreement with the sultan of Morocco. Unfortunately for Pellow and his shipmates, this diplomatic rapprochement had fallen through. On the voyage home, in the summer of 1716, off the coast of northwest Spain, two shiploads of Moroccan corsairs from Sale attacked and captured their vessel. Two other British ships were taken with them. In all, fifty-two English mariners were made prisoners. They were confined in the holds of the pirate ships and carried off to Sale. While the two corsair vessels were becalmed off the sandbar that guarded the harbor of Sale, the prisoners were almost unexpectedly rescued. A British warship suddenly hove into sight, firing at the pirates. The two corsair ships broke up on the sandbar, throwing pirates and captives together into the water. Then the British ship sailed away as...
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