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Slavery—White, Black, Muslim, Christian

The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic

by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker
Beacon, 433 pp., $30.00

Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa

by Lamin Sanneh
Harvard University Press, 291 pp., $29.95


The origins of African slavery in the New World cannot be understood without some knowledge of the millennium of warfare between Christians and Muslims that took place in the Mediterranean and Atlantic and the piracy and kidnapping that went along with it.1 In 1627 pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa raided distant Iceland and enslaved nearly four hundred astonished residents. In 1617 Muslim pirates, having long enslaved Christians along the coasts of Spain, France, Italy, and even Ireland, captured 1,200 men and women in Portuguese Madeira. Down to the 1640s, there were many more English slaves in Muslim North Africa than African slaves under English control in the Caribbean. Indeed, a 1624 parliamentary proclamation estimated that the Barbary states held at least 1,500 English slaves, mostly sailors captured in the Mediterranean or Atlantic.2

The historian Robert C. Davis concludes that between 1580 and 1680 some 850,000 Christian slaves were taken in chains to the Maghreb. The number of enslavements would surely exceed a million if we move down a century to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the question of enslaved white American sailors became a central issue of foreign policy for the administrations of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Only a tiny percentage of Christian slaves were ransomed or converted to Islam; the few who were fortunate enough to get away complained of being fed “nothing but bread and water,” of being treated “like dogs,” and of being whipped while working as galley slaves or as carriers of heavy rocks in building or repairing public works. Their rate of mortality equaled that of African slaves on the infamous Middle Passage.3

This large-scale enslavement of Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not lead to movements against slavery as an institution. In fact, some of the ransomed European slaves engaged in their own slaving raids against Muslims as a form of revenge.4 Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe (published in 1719) is on a mid-seventeenth-century slave-trading vessel bound for Guinea when he himself is captured and enslaved by a “Turkish rover of Sallee [Salé]” off the northwest coast of Africa. After two years of enslavement, Crusoe escapes, shoots and kills one naked black “savage,” and is then rescued by a humane and charitable Portuguese slave-trading captain, who takes Crusoe to Brazil, where for four years he makes a small fortune as a slaveholding planter.

I do not mean to suggest that the Muslim enslavement of Christians evoked no opposition whatever to slavery. Benjamin Franklin was not the first but simply the most famous man to turn the enslavement of whites by Barbary pirates into a strong and clever antislavery argument; he mocked a proslavery speech in Congress by comparing it to a fictional 1687 speech of the Divan of Algiers defending the “plundering and enslaving” of Christians. But that was in 1790, in the last month of Franklin’s life, well after cultural and intellectual changes had already launched antislavery movements in England, America, and France.5 It is most unlikely that Franklin would have dreamed of writing such a piece in his young manhood, when he in fact owned and sold Negro slaves.

In the preceding centuries, before the rise of humanitarian reform, including the antislavery movement, the continuing enslavement of Christians by Muslims and of Muslims by Christians actually conditioned both groups to accept the institution of slavery on a wider scale and thus prepared the way for the vast Atlantic slave system. In the fifteenth century, for example, Portuguese leaders saw the enslavement and baptism of black Africans as a continuation of the centuries-old reconquest of Iberia and crusade against the Moors.

The question at issue—and a question addressed in terms of capitalism and class in The Many-Headed Hydra —is how we are to account for the later shipment of millions of African slaves to Iberia, the Atlantic Islands, and then the New World. Lasting for some 423 years, this was history’s greatest involuntary movement of a people, a coerced transport that had a central place in the creation of the modern world.

The enslavement of foreign and alien peoples was a fundamental part of the remarkable expansion of Islam and the later expansion of Christian Europe. By 869 CE the Arabs had transported enough black slaves from East Africa to the Persian Gulf to ignite an extensive revolt on the tidal flats in the Tigris-Euphrates delta in what is now Iraq. The so-called Zanj slaves had been working in regimented gangs to reclaim this abandoned marshland, remove the mineral deposits, and prepare the subsoil for cultivation. They killed thousands of Arab men, enslaved countless women and children, and even threatened Baghdad before they were finally crushed in 883.6 Despite this traumatic memory, the conquest of much of northwest Africa by the Berber Muslim Almoravid dynasty in the eleventh century brought the Arabs increasing numbers of black slaves, who were forced to do the heaviest and dirtiest work, including labor in underground mines. While some Muslim slaves had remarkable privileges and power, the testimony of redeemed white galley slaves reminds us of the dangers of romanticizing the many forms of bondage under Muslims and sub-Saharan Africans which never received scrutiny from abolitionists, who only began to appear in the late eighteenth century and who concentrated on the evils of slavery in limited parts of the world.

As Europeans began their post-Norse expansion into the Atlantic, the Spaniards in particular had no compunctions about enslaving and exterminating the “olive-skinned” inhabitants of the Canary Islands, the Guanches. Somewhat later but still before Columbus’s voyages, the Portuguese increasingly relied on black African slave labor for their sugar plantations in Madeira and especially Sâo Tomé, in the Gulf of Guinea. As part of their religious warfare against Catholicism, the English slaughtered and dispossessed many thousands of Irish, and in the seventeenth century shipped large numbers of Irish captives to the New World as virtual slaves. Yet contrary to the impression Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker give in The Many-Headed Hydra, the Irish sent to the Caribbean were never chattel slaves. They were sold, the economic historian David Eltis writes, “as indentured servants with a maximum term rarely exceeding ten years,” and after being freed in accordance with a contract or agreement they usually became integrated into white society. By 1729 the Irish had become the leading slave owners in the Caribbean colony of Mont Serrat.7

Eltis has raised the interesting question why Europeans did not enslave fellow Europeans and ship them by the millions to the New World. As an economist, he argues that such a policy would have been far cheaper than purchasing and transporting African slaves. In contrast to the enslavement by pirates in the Mediterranean, moreover, it is easy to forget that virtually all African slaves were first enslaved by fellow Africans. The men, women, and children sold to Europeans in exchange for textiles, metal goods, guns, liquor, cowry shells, and other commodities were, for the most part, slaves under African laws. As Eltis points out, Europeans, for their part, had no qualms about killing, torturing, dismembering, and burning at the stake tens of thousands of other Europeans, or, as Linebaugh and Rediker emphasize, forcibly impressing thousands of sailors whose lives were hardly better off than those of slaves.

Since slavery and Norse slaving raids had been ubiquitous in the early Middle Ages, what accounts for the prohibition, in Western Europe at least, against enslaving prisoners of war, criminals, vagrants, and vagabonds? (The English were unable to enforce a Vagrancy Act of 1547 prescribing slavery for the wandering unemployed, though the Mediterranean nations employed what Linebaugh and Rediker term “a motley crew” as galley slaves.)

Debate continues over the reasons for the surprisingly swift ending of slavery in northwest Europe, the first “free soil” in the world.8 But any full understanding of the origins of New World slavery must begin with the expansion of Islam from Arabia to India and across northern Africa and Spain to the Pyrenees (by 719 CE), and the resulting centuries of warfare as well as trade between Christians and Muslims. The Muslims, like the much smaller domestic populations of Jews, provided European Christians with a sharply defined Other (in this they were analogous to the “barbarians” who were the ideal slaves for ancient Greeks, although in the eyes of the more learned medieval Muslims it was Europeans who were the “barbarians”).

It therefore seems reasonable to argue that, in addition to separate local conditions, it was the Crusades and the reconquest of Iberia that began to give Western Europeans a sense of a common Christian brotherhood, symbolized by the impropriety of enslaving one another even when engaged in bitter wars. Following the Christian reconquest of Toledo from the Moors in 1085, and the launching of the First Crusade in 1096, papal propaganda spread through Western Europe, inciting hatred of both the Muslims and the Jews (who were considered to be collectively enslaved to Christian states). By the Fourth Crusade of 1202–1204 and the victorious Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, slavery within European countries and the traditional dichotomy between slaves and free persons in Western Europe were giving way to more hierarchical but “freer” societies, especially in England and France. Yet as Charles Verlinden has shown in great detail, along with the continuing enslavement of Moors, Venetian and Genoese merchants established a booming slave trade from Black Sea ports, purchasing thousands of Georgians, Armenians, Circassians, Mingrelians, and other Caucasian peoples who were classified as infidels even if they were eventually baptized.9

Italian merchants sold such “Slavs” (the Latin sclavus is the root of slave, esclave, escravo), along with Greeks and Turks, in Muslim markets as well as in Christian Crete, Cyprus, Sicily, and such Spanish regions as early-fifteenth-century Valencia. A few “white slaves” appeared even in late-sixteenth-century Spanish Havana, though the Portuguese sold increasing numbers of black African slaves to Seville and Valencia in the second half of the fifteenth century, especially after the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, redirecting the attention of slave traders from the Caucasus to sub-Saharan Africa.10

It is misleading to think of “racial slavery” as a wholly New World phenomenon. By the mid-1400s, Sicilian notaries were recording the arrival of sclavi negri, or “black Slavs,” transported by desert caravans to the Mediterranean, and in Portugal the word for slave was often mouro, guineu, or negro. Much earlier, the Arabic word for slave, ‘abd, had come to mean a black slave and in some regions the word could refer to any black whether slave or free. Arabs were the first people to make extensive use of black African slaves, with a resulting anti-black racism in some Arab regions. And the Portuguese and Spanish were quick to follow suit in the fifteenth century, when black Africans increasingly dominated the slave markets from Lisbon to Madeira and Valencia. When Columbus on his third voyage in 1498 advocated replacing local Indian labor—which he found unreliable—with African slaves, he referred to the large number of black slaves in parts of Spain (he had lived for ten years in Madeira, where slavery was almost totally racial).

  1. 1

    Although very few works on New World slavery make this point, the late John W. Blassingame, in a brilliant insight, compared the acculturation of American black slaves with the acculturation of Europeans who were enslaved by Arabs and Turks and who became so degraded that they would kiss the feet of their masters and quickly move out of the path of any oncoming Muslim. See The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, revised and enlarged edition (Oxford University Press, 1979), Chapter 2.

  2. 2

    David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 57–58.

  3. 3

    Robert C. Davis, “Counting European Slaves on the Barbary Coast,” paper given in Boston on January 5, 2001, at an American Historical Association session on “The Forgotten Slavery: Christian and Muslim Captivity in the Early Modern Era,” at which I was the commentator. I am much indebted to Professor Davis for sending me a fuller version of his important paper. While his statistics are necessarily tentative and somewhat speculative, they are based on a careful and cautious examination of existing sources. Professor Davis estimates that only 3 to 4 percent of the Christian captives were ransomed, but that their rate of mortality, coupled with a small number of conversions and manumissions, was so high that as many as 25 percent had to be replaced by Muslim raids and captures each year. While the English as well as the Christian Mediterranean states enslaved North African Moors, this practice was carried out on a much smaller scale and over a more limited period of time.

  4. 4

    Gillian Weiss described cases of liber-ated French captives who became slave traders in her paper “Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century French Narratives of Barbary Captivity,” given at the “Forgotten Slavery” session described above. Even black slaves in the New World could become very wealthy slaveholding planters if they were fortunate enough to buy or win their freedom. Thus April Ellison, who changed his name to William when he became a free maker and repairer of cotton gins, became one of the largest slaveholders in nineteenth-century South Carolina. See Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South (Norton, 1984). There were many more such cases in Louisiana and especially in French St. Domingue, where former slaves or their descendants owned around 100,000 slaves.

  5. 5

    I have tried to illuminate these cultural and intellectual changes in my The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, revised edition (Oxford University Press, 1988; originally published by Cornell University Press, 1966).

  6. 6

    See my account in Slavery and Human Progress (Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 5–8.

  7. 7

    Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery, pp. 76, 236–238 (e-mail from Eltis, January 31, 2001).

  8. 8

    For an imaginative and mostly non-economic explanation, see Ruth Mazo Karras, Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia (Yale University Press, 1988).

  9. 9

    In 1366 the priors of Florence, who had previously given their approval to the import and sale of infidel slaves, explained that by “infidel” they had meant “all slaves of infidel origin, even if at the time of their arrival they belong to the Catholic faith”; and “infidel origin” meant simply “from the land and race of the infidels” (Iris Origo, “The Domestic Enemy: The Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries,” in Speculum, Vol. 30 (July 1955), pp. 334–335).

  10. 10

    Verlinden, L’Esclavage dans l’Europe médiévale; tome premier: Péninsule Ibérique, France (Bruges, 1955); L’Esclavage dans l’Europe médiévale; tome deux: Italie—Colonies italiennes du Levant, Levant latin—Empire byzantin (Ghent, 1977); Verlinden, “L’Origine de ‘sclavus’—esclave,” Archivum latinitatis medii aevi, Vol. 17 (1943), pp. 97–128; Debra Blumenthal, “Implements of Labor, Instruments of Honor: Muslim, Eastern and Black African Slaves in Fifteenth-Century Valencia,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 2000; Origo, “The Domestic Enemy,” pp. 321–351.

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