Slaves of a Different Color

Welcome to 2020. The New York Times wins a Pulitzer Prize for its “1619 Project,” which depicts slavery as a distinctly American phenomenon and as the very foundation of American civilization. For several weeks, a half-dozen all but unreadable books seeking redefine the concept of racism hover at or near the top of the bestseller lists. Meanwhile, the cities of America become battlegrounds in a race war waged by young people, many of whom think that America invented the institution of slavery.

This is but one of many historical facts about which they’re wrong. The truth is that fewer than 4 percent of the slaves who were transported across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa ended up in the territory of what is now the United States. More slaves were shipped to the small island of Barbados than to the vast areas that started out as British North America and then became the United States. 

The same applies to Trinidad and the Windward Islands (Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Dominica, and Martinique). Ditto the Guianas (now Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana). Ditto the Spanish-speaking mainland of Latin American. Over 8 percent of transatlantic African slaves—twice the number sold between Maine and Georgia—were sold in St. Domingue, a French colony in what is now Haiti. Over 8 percent of slaves also ended up in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. The largest numbers of all are for Jamaica (over 11 percent) and Brazil (over 30 percent). 

In recent years, as schools and universities increasingly focus on racial issues, young Americans’ heads are filled with heaps of information—much of it from books like A People’s History of the United States—about the American legacy of racism and, in particular, the history of slavery and Jim Crow. But virtually none of them know that the slaves who were shipped to the present-day United States were a small fraction of the victims of the African slave trade.

Ignorance also surrounds another aspect of slave history. The other day I posted on Facebook a quotation from Thomas Sowell. “More whites were brought as slaves to North Africa than blacks brought as slaves to the United States or to the 13 colonies from which it was formed. White slaves were still being bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire, decades after blacks were freed in the United States.” 

Facebook users responded in disbelief. “This can’t possibly be true! What’s he talking about?” commented one, whose Facebook page identified him as a “senior research fellow.” Another, a filmmaker, wrote: “Seems dubious.” 

In fact, the white slave trade was a terrifying reality for generations of Westerners from the 1400s to the 1800s. Several sovereign North African entities—the Sultanate of Morocco, and the independent Ottoman provinces of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—were all active in the capture and sale of European and American slaves. Some whites were taken from ships on the high seas in acts of piracy; others were captured during coastal raids on the European mainland and Newfoundland. 

The slaves were sold at auctions in ports located along the shores of North Africa, known at the time as the Barbary coast because the inhabitants were predominantly Berbers. The largest of these markets were in Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli; Algiers, the biggest of them all, contained at least 25,000 white slaves at any given time between 1550 and 1730. 

Most of these captives were never heard from again. One rare exception was Robert Adams, who, captured in the 1620s, “managed to relay news to his parents in the West Country” of England, informing them that he was working at a mill in Salé, Morocco, “from morninge untill night, with chaines uppon my legges, of 36 pounds waights a peece.” 

Much of this information is drawn from Giles Milton’s invaluable White Gold (2004), which also chronicles the mostly half-hearted efforts by various European monarchs to redeem white slaves. In 1625, Charles I sent John Harrison to Salé to negotiate for the release of slaves there, but he came back with only 190 of the thousands that had been sold in that city. In 1646, the English Parliament sent a merchant named Edmund Cason to buy back slaves. In 1682, a Moroccan ambassador, Kaid Muhammed ben Haddu Ottur, was dispatched to England to negotiate the return of slaves. While there, he was taken up by London society, which found him exotic, and was treated to a round of parties, fêted at Oxford and Cambridge, and made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society. Nothing came of the negotiations.  

In 1698, the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, notorious for his involvement in the Salem witch trials, wrote “A Pastoral Letter to the English Captives in Africa,” in which he assured the captives that he and his brethren in New England were distressed about their plight, but quickly went on to admonish them “that whatever Miseries you undergo, you may not, in a vain Hope of Deliverance from those Miseries, Renounce the Christian Religion.” Because if they convert to Islam, they may well be treated with even greater barbarity by their oppressors; or else “the Jealous God” will smite them “with such Horror of Conscience . . . as would be more Intollerable than all the Torments that you ever yet Endured.” But even if they somehow manage to evade punishment in this life, they’ll assuredly experience “the Vengeance of Eternal Fire in the World to come, where the Smoke of your Torments will Ascend for ever and ever.” As far as I know, there is no record as to whether the captives in North Africa found Mather’s words comforting. 

Giles Milton tells at length the story of Thomas Pellew, who was captured at sea at the age of eleven in 1715. He was imprisoned and tortured for months by his owner, the son of the Sultan of Morocco, who promised him a life of ease if he converted to Islam; he finally succumbed, but the abuse continued. Later, still a slave acting under orders, Pellew led an army of the Sultan’s slaves into battle against rebel forces; still later, he was part of a “slave-gathering expedition” in Guinea. In 1738, after 23 years of captivity—and escape attempts—Pellew finally made it to freedom, securing passage to Europe on a trading ship and ultimately returning to his native village in the West Country. 

Probably the most famous person ever enslaved by the Barbary pirates was Miguel de Cervantes, who was taken captive in 1575 after serving in the Battle of Lepanto and other naval engagements in the Mediterranean. He spent the next five years in prisons in Algiers, a story told by Maria Antonia Garces in her 2005 book Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale. Garces hypothesizes that it was the trauma of those years that turned Cervantes into a great writer. In any event it seems likely that his experience as a slave helped inform the episode in Don Quixote in which the eponymous knight frees a group of galley slaves, not to mention the later appearance of a former slave of North African Muslims. (Ironically, a statue of Cervantes in San Francisco was defiled a few weeks ago by heroic anti-slavery crusaders, who wrote the word “bastard” on the plinth.)

During the later phase of the white slave trade, European powers paid large sums to the North African powers to protect their citizens from enslavement. After the United States declared its independence, it refused to make such payments, which resulted in the taking of American seamen by Arab pirates. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met in London with the ambassador from Tripoli to discuss the matter. When they asked why Tripolitanians would “make war upon nations who had done them no injury,” the ambassador replied “that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

In 1803, having since become president, Jefferson resolved to fight white slavery with military power. He sent the Marines to North Africa, where, under the command of William Eaton, U.S. Consul in Tripoli, they blockaded ports, attacked fleets, and won the decisive 1805 Battle of Derna. For a long time Eaton’s name was famous, his memory celebrated half a century later by the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier in “The Storming of Derne”:

The tale is one of distant skies;

The dust of half a century lies

Upon it; yet its hero’s name

Still lingers on the lips of Fame.

Men speak the praise of him who gave

Deliverance to the Moorman’s slave,

Yet dare to brand with shame and crime

The heroes of our land and time, – 

The self-forgetful ones, who stake

Home, name, and life for Freedom’s sake.

This was the First Barbary War; along with the Second Barbary War of 1815, and naval actions by Britain and France, it radically diminished the Islamic trade in white slaves, which finally came to a total end as a result of technological improvements in Western ships and armaments and the French colonization of North Africa. 

As noted, all of this was unknown to several of my Facebook cohorts. Their expressions of incredulity didn’t cease until a historian showed up on the thread and assured them that there had indeed been white European and American slaves in North Africa. Some of them were content to express their astonishment. Others, however, were quick to try to cut the revelation down to size. The American trade in black slaves, one maintained, was larger than the North African trade in European and American slaves. (In reality, about 600,000 slaves were shipped to the 13 colonies and the United States, whereas the number of whites sold into slavery in Africa was somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million.) 

Another asserted that the white slaves on the Barbary coast were better treated than the black slaves in the American South. (The accounts quoted in Milton’s book certainly do not support this claim.) “Not all slavery is the same,” insisted one commenter, whose point seemed to be that the enslavement of whites by Muslims in the Maghreb could not possibly  have been as bad as the enslavement of blacks by whites in the American South. And another dismissed the whole subject with these words: “If Thomas Sowell thinks it, it’s wrong.” 

All of which underscore the fact that for some social justice warriors nowadays, inconvenient truths are no match for ideological zeal. 

Another inconvenient truth on this subject, of course, is that slavery still exists around the world, especially in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; the areas where it’s least common are Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Today, in other words, very few whites own slaves, while an extraordinary number of black people do. But that’s a politically incorrect story for another day.  

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