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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Captives of the Barbary States
By Cindy Vallar

Between 1628 and 1634, Barbary corsairs seized eighty French ships and enslaved 1,331 men and women. During six months in 1636, they captured more than one thousand Englishmen.  Spain and Italy lost approximately one-fifth of their population in the seventeenth century to corsair raids.  The youngest and best-looking boys became pages in the palaces.  Beautiful women were given as gifts to the sultan, for his harem.  Gunners, seamen, and shipbuilders were especially prized as slaves.

Barbary slaves rarely escaped captivity, and often lost all hope of ever seeing home again.  A few were ransomed, but oftentimes payment took a long time to arrive. Theoretically any captive could gain release if someone paid his ransom.  When word reached home of their captivity and the ransom demand, someone had to raise the money.  If the family had wealth, that was a simple task, but most captive sailors possessed little wealth and their families had little hope of amassing the money except through charitable donations.  In 1643, seven women petitioned the English Parliament to allow churches to take up collections for two months in order to raise the necessary funds because they had had no luck raising the money themselves.  “[T]heir husbands and others were taken by Turkish pirates, carried to Algier, and there now remain in miserable captivity, having great fines imposed on them for their ransoms.”

In 1631 a galley arrived in Algiers after having raided Baltimore, Ireland.  Aboard were eighty-three captives, including children.  Father Pierre Dan, a priest who negotiated ransoms, described the selling on an Irish family at the slave mart. “It was a piteous sight to see them exposed for sale at Algiers, for when they parted the wife from the husband, and the father from the child; then, say I, they sell the husband here, and the wife there, tearing from her arms the daughter whom she cannot hope to see ever again.” (Wheelan, page 21)  The priests, sometimes called Redemptionists, purchased the freedom of 15,500 captives between 1575 and 1769.

When captives arrived in port, they were paraded through the streets in chains and wore few clothes.  The local ruler inspected them, choosing the best for himself.  The rest were taken to bagnios, public bathhouses used as holding pens, until they were sold at public auction.  The price a slave commanded was based on how much relatives would pay to ransom him.  If the slave was male, his profession also influenced the price. Barbary slaves came from all walks of life.  A list of those ransomed in 1694 from Algiers included carpenters, gunners, gunsmiths, coopers, sailmakers, surgeons, sailors, traders, fishermen, and priests.

While slaves suffered throughout their bondage, the initial days were the worst, for that’s when the corsairs attempted to break them.  In 1623 Richard Morris received such rough treatment that “many small bones and splinters had to be taken from his head.” (Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption, page 16)  When James Wodsworth refused to work, they flogged him until he lost the use of his left arm for awhile.

In 1541 Luis del Marmol of Granada served as a cabin boy aboard one of the ships in Charles V’s expedition against Algiers.  When the ship was taken, Luis spent almost eight years as a Moroccan slave.  His years in captivity made him an authority on Africa, and in 1667 he published a two-volume set entitled L’Afrique de Marmol, which was about the military campaigns and descriptions of Barbary, Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Sahara.

Government officials interviewed slaves who were ransomed, exchanged, or escaped from the Barbary Coast.  They had no interest in the slaves’ suffering.  They sought more important information.  What ships had the corsairs taken?  How many of the slave’s countrymen were held with him or her?  How much was the ransom demand?  Who had colluded with the Moors?  Who had converted to Islam?  How prepared militarily were the Barbary cities?

While the captives answered these questions, some published accounts of their enslavement.  John Fox, an Englishman from Suffolk, spent nearly fourteen years in captivity.  He and his shipmates were “no sooner in them [galleys] but their garments were pulled over their ears and torn from their backs, and they set to the oars.” When he and others escaped, they killed twenty-four Turks and freed 266 other prisoners.

Richard Hasleton spent five years as an Algerian galley slave.  When his ship wrecked on Formentera in 1587, he was imprisoned in a Spanish jail and tortured during the Inquisition.  In escaping that brutality, he ended up again captured by the Barbary corsairs and enslaved.  He returned to London in 1593 after being ransomed.  Two years later he published an account of his capture and enslavement by Barbary corsairs. “…I was stripped of my clothes.  Then presently was I commanded to the poop to talk with the captain, who inquired of me whether I was a merchant.  Which because I would not confess, he gave me fifteen strokes with a cudgel and then put me in the galley’s hold, where I was six days, taking very little sustenance, lying in extreme pains by reason of my hurts which I had received in the fight, and with anguish for my hard hap [misfortune].”

Jean Marteille de Bergerac, himself a slave around 1701, described what it was like to oar a galley.  “Think of six men chained to a bench, naked as when they were born, one foot on the stretcher, the other on the bench in front, holding an immensely heavy oar [fifteen feet long], bending forwards to the stern with arms at full reach to clear the backs of the rowers in front, who bend likewise; and then having got forward, shoving up the oar’s end to let the blade catch the water, then throwing their bodies back on the groaning bench.  A galley oar sometimes pulls thus for ten, twelve, or even twenty hours without a moment’s rest.  The boatswain…puts a piece of bread steeped in wine in the wretched rower’s mouth to stop fainting, and then the captain shouts the order to redouble the lash.  If a slave falls exhausted upon his oar (which often chances) he is flogged till he is taken for dead, and then pitched unceremoniously into the sea.” (Lane-Poole, page 215)

Taken captive in September 1575, Miguel de Cervantes, who later wrote Don Quixote, spent five years as a slave.  He attempted escape several times, but never succeeded.  An equally well-known person in later life, who spent time as a slave, was Saint Vincent de Paul.  In 1605 he was a professor at the University of Toulouse.  On his return from selling an inheritance in Marseille, three corsair galleys attacked his ship.  An arrow wounded De Paul, who later said it was a “reminder for all my life” of his time as a Barbary slave.  When the corsairs boarded the ship, they “hewed our pilot in a thousand pieces to avenge the loss of one of theirs.”  In Tunis the captives “paraded through the streets…where we were brought for sale and having gone round the town five or six times with chains on our necks, we were brought back to the ship that we might eat and in this way show the merchants that we had received no mortal injury.  When this was over, they brought us back to the market place, where the merchants came to see us…making us open our mouths to see our teeth, feeling our sides, examining our wounds, making us walk, trot and run, making us carry weights and fight so as to gauge the strength of each of us, as well as a thousand other forms of brutality.” (Captured by Pirates, pages 932, 933)  Sometime after Vincent de Paul escaped his enslavement, he founded the Daughters of Charity to aid those in need, convicts, and galley slaves.  He became a saint in 1737.

The Barbary Corsairs
Famous Barbary Corsairs

If you’d like to read more about slavery in the Barbary States, I recommend these books:

Captured by Pirates. Fern Canyon Press, 1996.
Clissold, Stephen. The Barbary Slaves. P. Elek, 1977.
Cruelties of the Algerine Pirates. 1816.
Lane-Poole, Stanley. Story of the Barbary Corsairs. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.
Pellow, Thomas. History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow, in South Barbary. Garland, 1973.
Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England. Columbia University Press, 2001.  [Includes the accounts of John Fox (1598), Richard Hasleton (1595), John Rawlins (1622), Joseph Pitts (1704), Parliamentary Ordinance (1643)]
Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805. Carroll & Graf, 2003.
White Slaves, African Masters. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

© 2004 Cindy Vallar
Originally published  1 October 2004

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