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Heather Dugmore: The White Slaves of Africa

Heather Dugmore: Author, writer and farmer. Not necessarily in that order.
Heather Dugmore: Author, writer and farmer.

This is one of those “wow” stories we sometimes get to publish on Biznews.com. Heather Dugmore is quite obviously a voracious reader and fascinated by history. A subject which reminds us that what we experience today is not always normality. And that our perceptions are often rooted by events which happened long, long ago. Growing tension between Western Democracies and Islamic militants have turned the spotlight back onto a period of a few hundred years ago when the boot was very much on the other foot. In this superb piece Heather reminds us of something unthinkable to most Africans today – that millions of Europeans were themselves enslaved by what was then the global power. – AH            

By Heather Dugmore

We are keenly aware of the atrocities of the black slave trade in Africa, but not many know that there was also an active white slave trade on the continent between the 1600s and 1800s.

In 2014 we would hope that all trade in people is confined to history but this is not so. The trade, now called ‘human trafficking’, which includes people of every creed and colour, remains a highly lucrative and thriving industry.

The United Nations has identified it as one of the fastest-growing and most profitable illegal industry in the world, second only to drug trafficking. The UNs’ latest estimate is that at any one time some 2.5 million people are being trafficked. Human trafficking networks are currently earning annual profits of around US$32billion.

The UN crime-fighting office estimates that 80% of those trafficked are being exploited as sex slaves, the rest are trafficked for slave labour, including in homes and sweatshops. Two out of every three victims are women.

As you read this historical account of the white slave trade that I am about to share, bear in mind that there are still millions of people all over the world, living in unspeakable circumstances, hoping against the odds that someone will respond to their plight and rescue them.

They are living in terror, just as the sailors, fisherman and coastal dwellers of England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and beyond, lived in terror between the 1600s and 1800s.

Jean-Leon Gerome's Slave Market oil on canvas circa 1866
Jean-Leon Gerome’s Slave Market oil on canvas circa 1866

During this time over 1.25million British and European citizens were captured by North African slave traders and taken in chains to the great slave markets of North Africa.

Prodded and examined like livestock, the white slaves were sold to the highest bidder.

White men, women and children were regarded as ‘white gold’ by the ruling classes of North Africa’s Barbary States (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) and fetched a handsome bounty. Accordingly, North African pirates known as the ‘Barbary Corsairs’ ruthlessly hunted them from their homes and sold them as slaves.

Compounding the captives’ misery was religion. The rulers of North Africa were part of the expansive Islamic Ottoman Empire that had declared war on the Christian world. The white slaves, being Christian, were despised as spiritual enemies and treated as vermin.

This account of these hapless souls, I hasten to emphasise, is not about Islam versus Christianity or black versus white; it is about what human beings do to each other irrespective of creed or colour in the name of ideology, power, money and greed.

Several historians have written about the epoch of white slavery in Africa; some have retraced the steps of the white slaves from their homes where they were captured, and to which most would never return.

In White Gold author Giles Milton gives a vivid account of the white slave trade, based on letters and manuscripts that survived from the time, several written by slaves. In one account Milton describes how in July 1625 a fleet of over twenty ships manned with Barbary pirates arrived in the thick sea mist and headed up the coast of Cornwall.

“The flags on their mainmasts depicted a human skull on a dark green background – the menacing symbol of a new and terrible enemy.”

Many coastal communities were completely destroyed. In 1625 the mayor of Plymouth estimated that the pirates destroyed 1000 fishing boats and a similar number of villagers were carried off into slavery in one summer alone.

Amongst the most notorious slave markets at the time was the souk in the walled city of Sale in Morocco. Milton visited Sale, walking the same path “trodden by wretched European slaves – men, women and children whose steps were slowed by the weight of their iron chains and shackles”.

Once sold, most disappeared without trace, subjected to a living hell, as described by slave Robert Adams who was captured in the 1620 and put to work at a mill “like a horse from morning until night”. He said the slaves’ quarters comprised an underground dungeon with no light except for a small hole, where 150 to 200 of them were forced to live in their own excrement. Their daily diet consisted of a piece of bread and water. Their matted hair and ragged clothes were riddled with lice and fleas, and they were brutally beaten daily.

The manuscript of a Cornish boy from Penryn named Thomas Pellow who was captured at sea in 1715 at the age of 11, which Milton quotes in his book, offers valuable insight into the persecution of the white slaves. He became a personal slave to the Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, in the imperial capital of Meknes. Despite being subjected to a botched circumcision operation after he was forced to convert to Islam (known as ‘turning Moor’) and thrashed senseless on many occasion, he survived to tell his tale. In 1737 at the age of 33, after 23 years in captivity Pellow managed a successful escape.

He explained that one of the Sultan’s many perverted pastimes was to marry off his slaves. He was particularly fond of mulattos or mixed race slaves and started his own “breeding programme”, matching white male slaves with black North African women while white women slaves were incarcerated in his harem and forced to breed. He would line up his slaves and citizens and call out “that one, take that one”.

The British and European families of the captured slaves begged the church, the crown and associated authorities in their respective countries for help, but often met with a callous lack of concern.

The white slave trade continued well into the 1800s when the United States of America, Britain and several European nations finally came together and fought and won two wars against the Barbary pirates.

The Barbary empires went into decline from then onwards but the white slave trade continued, albeit to a lesser extent, even after France took control of Algeria and Tunisia in 1830 and 1831, and Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. At the same time European governments passed laws granting emancipation to slaves.

As Europe’s power increased it gradually diminished the power of the sultans, North African merchants and slave traders. Italy ultimately took control of Libya (Tripoli) in 1911 and one year later Morocco became a protectorate of France.

The people in the coastal villages of Britain and Europe could finally live in relative peace, but not for long. Within a few years another demon had raised its head that led to another era of mass slaughter and brutality, human against human. We called this World War I.

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