By Janet Levy
Today, institutional slavery conjures images of pre-Civil War Southern ownership of African slaves. However, slavery is an ancient practice dating from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, as well as early Amer-Indian empires in Mexico and Central America. It was also well established and ideologically sanctioned in the Muslim world from the days of Mohammed.
Concurrently with African enslavement in the Americas, a flourishing slave trade existed from 1500 to 1800 of white Christian Europeans by the Muslims of North Africa’s Barbary Coast. In his book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, Ohio State history professor Robert Davis takes a close look at this rarely discussed aspect of modern history.
Originating from the life of the Prophet Mohammed, slavery is deeply embedded in Islamic law and tradition. Muslims are required to follow the teachings of Mohammed, who was a slave owner and trader. Further, a large part of the sharia – in the Sunna of Mohammed and the Koran – is dedicated to the practice of slavery. Muslim caliphs typically had harems of hundreds of slave girls captured from Christian, Hindu, and African lands. Slavery is still practiced today in several Muslim countries and glorified by present-day jihadist groups.
In Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, Davis describes how, from 1500 to 1800, Muslim corsairs from the Barbary Coast systematically enslaved white Christians from Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Iceland, Great Britain, Ireland, and Greece. The Muslims raided ships at sea and attacked coastal villages in an activity called “Christian stealing.” During that time, Davis explains, the Mediterranean had a reputation as the sea where people vanished: fisherman or sailors on board boats, shepherds tending flocks, farmers toiling near the shore, and townspeople, including women and children, living in coastal communities. Coastal dwellers and those who traveled by ship constantly risked capture, violence, and exploitation at the hands of Barbary Coast Muslims.
As part of this jihad against Christianity begun in 1500, piracy and slaving were the main instruments used to deprive infidel communities of useful, productive citizens and to acquire booty. Davis estimates that during three centuries of Muslim predation, as many as 1.25 million Europeans were permanently and stealthily removed from their families and communities.
Stalked and entrapped victims would find themselves in a North African slave market within a few days of capture or on a longer voyage as their captors pursued additional booty. Often, the pirates would reappear at the victims’ home port waving a truce flag and displaying to distraught relatives victims available for ransom. Wealthy captives could be freed within a few days or several months, while the less fortunate might be consigned to years of slavery or death in captivity. In addition to required labor, many slaves were forced to steal or sell water to pay for their primitive living quarters and pitiful food allotment.
From his research, Davis concluded that Muslim captives had about a 50% chance of being ransomed at some point. Meanwhile, only about half the captives survived the first five years of enslavement under the harsh living and working conditions they endured.
Davis compared the benefits for Muslim corsairs of capturing victims on ships versus those on land. Single ships rarely yielded as much booty as land raids, but they offered greater potential to acquire skilled tradesmen and seamen. Plus, those on board ships could often be coerced to divulge the location of stowed valuables and the wealth status of passengers. Passengers aboard ships were generally wealthier than fishermen and townspeople residing on land and were easier and better prey for ransom demands.
By far the worst kind of Muslim bondage was galley slavery. Three to five captives were chained by their wrists to an oar and by their ankles to a bench bolted to the ship’s floor. Each ship, propelled mainly by rowing, required 150 to 300 men, who were forced to row often while receiving crippling blows from sticks. Galley slaves, who basically worked themselves to death to help their masters seize more slaves, rowed shirtless, received pitifully meager rations, and typically fouled themselves at their stations, while being tormented by rats, fleas, and various parasites.
Female captives served either as sex slaves in a harem or as domestic servants confined to household duties. Many concubines converted to Islam and were never ransomed. Young or adolescent boys were retained for military or sexual service.
According to Davis’s research, the extent of the Barbary Coast slavery enterprise was so significant that fully one quarter of the population of Algiers were slaves during this period. The entire existence of the city was predicated on piracy and slave running. In Tunis and Tripoli, 10 to 20% of inhabitants were slaves.
Some European coastal communities became virtual ghost towns as residents fled to escape the perils of seafaring Muslim corsairs, Davis writes. Slave raids caused long-term and significant economic distress for affected communities, and hefty ransom demands rearranged property relationships. A villager who rescued a family member might be forced to relinquish title to land, a house, or a boat and find himself in the unenviable position of working the land or on the boat he had previously owned prior to his relative’s captivity. Further, in ravaged European communities, churches were preoccupied with raising funds to rescue enslaved community members. Churches made constant, desperate attempts to acquire donations to free those in bondage.
Given the insights from Davis’ research and the condoning of infidel enslavement under Islamic doctrine, it is not surprising that within the Muslim world, no widespread call for the abolition of slavery has ever been issued. In fact, slavery still exists in Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, and Sudan. Pressure to end the practice came from the West. Not until as late as 1962 did Saudi Arabia, responding to U.S. pressure, officially abolish slavery. Today, we see that the Islamic State uses Islamic doctrine to justify the kidnapping and enslavement of Christian and Yazidi women and children, even issuing a Koran-sanctioned edict about the permissibility of sexual intercourse with pre-pubescent girls.
Davis’s important research on white Christian slavery by Muslims helps shed some light on this continuing practice. Unfortunately, although the West has long abolished the practice of institutional slavery, ideological precepts enable the practice to continue, often undisputed, in parts of the Muslim world.