The high cost of labor
By Steven Martinovich
When the average person thinks of slavery it will likely be in reference to the 20 to 30 million Africans placed into bondage by the American and Islamic slave trade. It's less well known that one million Europeans were made slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries by Islamic slave traders in northern Africa. Motivated by a desire for profit and hatred of Christendom, countless Europeans vanished in the slave markets of Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and Morocco, most of whom were never seen or heard from again.
Using the remarkable story of a young slave named Thomas Pellow, enslaved for over two decades, as his framework, Giles Milton tells their sad story in White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves. Theirs was a brutal world where life spans were often measured in months and backbreaking labor was their only reward for living another day. Much as Africans were in North America, European slaves were merely an economic unit in this world, worth something only as long as they could work.
As Milton relates, the 17th century saw Europe besieged by the Barbary corsairs. Not content with hijacking shipping in the Mediterranean, the pirates made frequent raids as far north as Britain and Norway. Even Americans traveling to Europe found themselves enslaved. Ships were captured, villages looted and the citizenry taken away to be sold at North African slave markets. In 1716, 11-year old Thomas Pellow was one of those taken after pirates intercepted his ship. For the next 23 years Pellow was property of none other than Sultan Moulay Ismail, the psychotic ruler of Morocco.
Pellow was an extraordinary young man. Although he had dropped out of school to join his uncle's ship, Pellow was a bright and spirited child. His obvious talents caught the eye of Ismail to whom he eventually became a personal servant. Forced to convert to Islam, Pellow quickly picked up the language and customs of his captors. As favored as he was, however, he lived in a dangerous world. Ismail's hair-trigger temper condemned courtier and slave alike to death for even the smallest error. Among his past times was personally killing the objects of his rage. Proximity brought Pellow advantages other slaves didn't have but it also turned his life into a daily gamble.
Though tens of thousands of Europeans toiled away in Africa, the European powers were largely unable to do much about it. Economically it was difficult to raise enough money to liberate more than a few slaves, presuming governments were willing to do so, and nor where they able to effectively defend their citizens from raids. While they occasionally sent envoys and reached treaties with Ismail to stop further raids and slaving, those agreements were either ignored by the pirates or eventually torn up by the mercurial sultan. Ultimately the European slaves were left to their own devices.
And as a convert to Islam -- even if under torture -- that particularly applied to Pellow. As a convert he was considered an apostate and automatically lost his British citizenship. Left to fend for himself, Pellow made the occasional escape attempt -- which would have cost him his life had he been caught -- before finally successfully doing so in 1739. So changed was he by his time and experiences as a slave that upon his return to England his own family didn't recognize the stranger that returned to the small fishing village of Penryn. His amazing story was preserved in a memoir he later wrote, one that Milton draws extensively on to tell his story.Milton has penned a page-turner that's both compelling and balanced. Other lesser writers would have undoubtedly used a book like White Gold as a polemic to advance a pet cause but Milton clearly knows that a good story should stand on its own. White Gold is a fascinating glimpse into a history that most of us are unaware of, serving to educate but also to honor the countless victims who disappeared without a trace in the North African slave markets.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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