The Forgotten Slave Trade: The White European Slaves of Islam
Yorkshire/Philadelphia: Pen & Sword Books, 2020
Simon Webb’s excellent new work The Forgotten Slave Trade demonstrates how the story of Islam’s centuries-long trade in white slaves has been almost entirely removed from white people’s folk history. Historians and scholars may still be aware of it, but sadly, not the average educated white person. Webb reminds us that the enslavement of whites by Muslims occurred over hundreds of years, victimized millions, and was as brutal and cruel as the enslavement of blacks by European whites, if not more so.
This aspect of slavery has had a profound — and quite fascinating — impact on history which we are still feeling today, although most do not realize it. Webb calls this current popular ignorance “cultural erasure,” something I referred to as “The Great Forgetting” in my 2016 review of Peter McLoughlin’s book Easy Meat, which is about Muslim grooming gangs in Britain. Webb argues that by no longer teaching the long and bitter history of white servitude in the Ottoman Empire, our elites are instilling baseless feelings of guilt among whites and unfounded feelings of entitlement and resentment among blacks and Muslims. This, of course, is a dangerous state of affairs.
Webb offers a brief history of slavery beyond the scope of his book, and points out that the practice — unlike murder, adultery, theft, and fraud — had never been roundly condemned by any society until relatively recently. No ancient religion forbids it, and nowhere in the ancient record do we find references to slavery that find the institution unnatural or unremarkable. Webb calls slavery the “default setting” of civilization, and in Europe before the rise of Islam, slavery was mostly white-on-white.
During the Middle Ages, the Vikings founded the Irish cities of Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford in order to facilitate the trade of white English slaves. Ancient Rome, of course, had a voracious appetite for slaves — almost all of whom came from Europe. Webb estimates that, due to the short life expectancy of slaves back then, Rome needed to acquire half a million new slaves every year. Simple math tells us that the 12.5 million or so black slaves who were transported across the Atlantic over three and a half centuries would have been surpassed in Rome in a mere 25 years.
The Muslim trade in white slaves however, was predicated on the tenet of Islam which prohibits the enslavement of fellow Muslims. This was an injunction from Muhammad himself, and so was considered by Muslims everywhere to be the word of Allah. This meant that Muslims had to search beyond their borders for slaves and acquire them through conquest; and, like Rome, they did so greedily. In the fourteenth century, the Ottomans developed the system of devshirme in order to construct the perfect slave population — which at first consisted of children:
During the devshirme, a word meaning gathering or harvest, representatives of the sultan scoured Greece and the Balkans every five years, aiming to take healthy and intelligent boys between the ages of eight and 14. . . . They were taken to Constantinople, where they were circumcised and then converted to the Muslim faith. It will be observed that once again, it was the Slavs who were the victim of slave raids, for that is what the devshirme effectively was. The children were seized from the countries which make up modern-day Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece.
These children, ultimately known as Janissaries, proved better able to forget their roots and grow into ideal Islamic soldiers than captured men who had wives and children of their own. They started out as bodyguards for the Sultan, who sought protection from his Muslim rivals, but, in one of the great ironic twists of history, grew to wield even more power than the Sultan himself. For centuries, these elite white slaves of the Ottoman Empire were able to depose and assassinate sultans and replace them with rulers more to their liking.
Just as ironically, for 250 years after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Sultan preferred enslaved or formerly-enslaved European-born Grand Viziers — the Ottoman equivalent to prime minister — to Turkish ones. These served as insurance against rival Turkish factions, and were often at the mercy of the Janissaries as well. In fact, one reason the Ottoman Empire expanded so rapidly in the seventeenth century was because one class of European slaves, led by the Grand Vizier who belonged to the Albanian Koprulu family, had conspired against another (the Janissaries):
The Koprulu family were engaged in trying to reduce the power of the Janissaries and as part of this strategy had created various diversions abroad, with the aim of occupying the Janissaries with actual fighting, rather than have them sitting around intriguing against the throne in the coffeehouses of Constantinople. Expeditions took place to the Ukraine and the outer edges of the empire, in an attempt to find ways both to keep the Janissaries busily engaged and also to curry favour with the sultan by adding to his already swollen and overstretched empire. The siege of Vienna was part of this move.
Irony and intrigue aside, the Islamic trade in white European slaves caused a tremendous amount of suffering and was the bane of the European population for several centuries. All Europeans living near the Mediterranean or Atlantic coasts, from Greece to Iceland, were well aware of the danger that Muslim barbary pirates, known as corsairs, posed. At any moment, scores of well-armed men from places such as Tunis, Algiers, or Morocco could storm a beach and snatch any Christian man, woman, or child from their home and have them on sale in North African slave markets in a matter of weeks. Even more vulnerable were seafaring men, especially fishermen and traders. Corsairs were known to commandeer ships and take entire crews as slaves. Webb cites Robert Davis’ count of over a million white Christian slaves taken in this manner between 1500 and 1800 (from Davis’ groundbreaking 2003 work, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters). I did the math: That amounts to 9-12 people snatched per day.
Webb makes the point that, while technically privateers, these corsairs were in fact agents of the Ottoman Empire. They served under the aegis of the local rulers of the Ottoman provinces in North Africa, and operated jointly in large fleets. In fact, they were often recruited by the Ottomans to help fight naval battles, such as the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. This practice allowed them to assault the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples in 1544 and haul off 4,000 white Christians to slavery. After failing to capture the island of Malta in 1551, Barbary corsairs took their frustrations out on the nearby island of Gozo, sacking it and taking 6,000 white Christians as slaves. Webb relays the tragic story of Bernardo Dupuo, one of the island’s defenders. After realizing that Gozo was lost, he killed his wife and two daughters rather than have them taken as slaves, and then fought to his death against the invaders.
Webb raises the issue of whether these corsairs should be considered pirates at all. While pirating on the high seas was certainly within their purview — and it is certainly convenient to refer to them as such — corsairs did things that pirates typically don’t do:
The great mistake in calling the corsairs sailing from the Barbary Coast ‘pirates’ is that this suggests that they were individuals operating for their own profit and advantage. They were not. Like any rational people, they wished to make a living, but they did so a part of a recognized strategic campaign, the object of which was the subjugation of Europe to the forces of militant Islam. . . . The assault on Malta illustrates beautifully the way in which the corsairs and their actions tied in neatly with the aims of the Ottoman Empire. Rather than being outlaws, they were really more like pioneers; testing the enemy defenses and discovering weak spots ahead of a full-scale military invasion by the official armed forces of the empire.
The horrors of Islamic slavery also do not escape Webb’s attention. Coming first to mind is the miserable life of a galley slave in the Ottomans’ service. While Christians would often set term limits on their rowers, the Ottomans tended to work theirs to death. These poor souls were permanently chained to their seats and were at the mercy of overseers with whips, obliged to relieve bladder and bowel where they sat. To say that you could smell an Ottoman warship a mile away was not an exaggeration. The only hope for freedom the galley slaves had was that their ship might be taken by Christians during a battle. This happened at Lepanto, where 12,000 Christian rowers were ultimately set free.
Of course, there was tremendous demand for attractive white women to populate the Ottoman Empire’s harems. Sexual slavery was commonplace throughout the Muslim world, and was a sign of wealth and power for those men who could afford concubines. Going hand-in-hand with concubinage was the need to protect these women from interlopers and to prevent their potential escape. Since no normal man with normal sexual appetites could be trusted with such a sensitive duty, the Muslims sought out eunuchs to do the job instead — and hence castration became an integral part of slavery in the Muslim world.
And the story gets worse. Since Muslims were forbidden to castrate their slaves, and Christians were strongly enjoined not to as well, some Christians in the early Middle Ages found an enterprising way to fulfill the demand for eunuchs in Muslim markets. They set up “castration houses” in places like Venice and Verdun, where they performed this hideous and often lethal operation on Slavic boys who were dragged in by Viking slavers. Since many Slavs had not yet converted to Christianity at that time, they were considered the perfect slaves by both Christians and Muslims — amounting to what is most likely the etymological origin of the word “slave.”
Another set of outsiders were the Jews, who could travel more or less freely among both Christians and Muslims and thus were ideally suited to serve as middlemen in trade between the two great populations. Naturally, trading slaves was part of the job:
As early as the late fifth century AD, a pope gave permission for Jews to bring non-Christian slaves into Italy, from where they were then sent to North Africa. Pope Gelasius was appointed Pontiff in 492 and from the first year of his reign was happy to see Slavs and Germans brought south, en route to Africa. This was the beginning of extensive Jewish involvement in the slave trade. Within a century or two, the Jews were accepted as being the chief slave traders between Europe and Africa and the Middle East. A large part of their trade was in young men who had been brought to southern Europe to be castrated and then sold to Arab markets as eunuchs.
While Webb does not single out Jews as particularly blameworthy among this rogue’s gallery of slave traders — which included not only Turks and Arabs but also the very white Vikings, Italians, Portuguese, French, and Spaniards –, he does point out repeatedly that the vast majority of this unspeakable practice’s victims were white. And they had it far worse than black slaves in the New World:
Just to remind ourselves of the situation at which we have been looking, for black slaves in America and the islands of the Caribbean, castration was a rare and terrible punishment inflicted in exceptional circumstances. The castration of white children in Europe who were to be sold into slavery in North Africa or the Middle East was, on the other hand, a regular occurrence which took place over a period of centuries.
Webb delves further into the history of this forgotten slave trade by describing the European responses to it, from the Danes ironically paying the Dane-geld to the Barbary states to those American Marines who sailed to “the shores of Tripoli” in 1801 to enforce the fair treatment of American shipping. He has a storyteller’s bent, and often leads the reader along fascinating tangents which give his history a catchy anecdotal edge. For example, he tells of Jan Janzoon, the Dutchman who, after being captured by corsairs, converted to Islam and became one of the most powerful and feared pirates of his day. He describes Helen Gloag, the beautiful Scottish woman who became Empress of Morocco. He recounts the story of the Republic of Salé, the short-lived African nation populated exclusively by corsairs. And there is also Jean le Vacher, the French consul whom the Algerians stuffed into a cannon and blew to bits in 1683 (and this horrific act led directly to the election of Charles de Gaulle as President of France over two and a half centuries later, as Webb explains). Most gratifyingly, Webb chronicles how the great European powers, after concluding their internecine Napoleonic wars, finally got down to the business of wiping out the corsairs and their slave trade once and for all.
We’re still feeling the ramifications of this conflict. The fall of the Barbary states led directly to European mass colonization of Africa, and the resulting decline of the Ottoman Empire left Muslim populations alongside Christian ones in Eastern Europe. Both states of affairs became sources of tremendous conflict during the twentieth century and beyond.
Above all else, Simon Webb wants us to remember that whites have as much historical claim to the legacy of slavery’s victims as any other race. We have suffered our share — perhaps more than others — and were the ones who spearheaded the relatively recent effort to abolish slavery worldwide. Thus, all double standards which empower non-whites while placing shame upon the heads of whites for slavery are dishonest, hypocritical, and illegitimate. He sees this double standard in his native Britain and wishes to end it. After describing how late many Muslim countries were to abolish the practice (the Ottomans in 1908, Morocco in 1922, Kuwait in 1949, Saudi Arabia in 1961, Oman in 1970, and Mauritania in 1976), Webb writes:
One cannot help but wonder why there have never been demands for the Muslim countries who hung onto slavery and the slave trade for so much longer than Britain, to admit their own culpability and perhaps issue some kind of mea culpa. After all, their own prosperity was founded upon the slave trade every bit as much as was that of Britain.
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