The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic
Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa
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,…
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