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‘The Bitter Draught of Slavery.’ Image depicting a Barbary slave caught by pirates from North Africa.

Remembering the Barbary Slaves: White Slaves and North African Pirates


Much attention and condemnation has been directed towards the tragedy of the African slave trade, which took place between the 16th and the 19th centuries. However, another equally despicable trade in Barbary slaves was taking place around the same time in the Mediterranean. It is estimated that up to 1.25 million Europeans were enslaved by Barbary corsairs and their lives were just as pitiful as their African counterparts. They have come to be known as the white slaves of Barbary.

Map of Barbaria from the 17th century where a trade in white Barbary slaves was rampant. (Public domain)

Slavery is one of the oldest trades known to man. We can first find records of the slave trade dating back to the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon in the 18th century BC. People from virtually every major culture, civilization, and religious background have made slaves of their own and enslaved other peoples. However, comparatively little attention has been given to the prolific trade in Barbary slaves that was carried out by pirates, or corsairs, along the Barbary coast (as it was called by Europeans at the time), in what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Keep in mind that beginning around 1600 AD, anyone travelling in the Mediterranean faced the real prospect of being captured by the corsairs, taken to Barbary Coast cities and being sold as a slave.

The Sacking of Baltimore: Barbary Slaves from Ireland

Not content with attacking ships and sailors, the corsairs also sometimes raided coastal settlements in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, and even as far away as the Netherlands and Iceland. They landed on unguarded beaches, creeping up on villages in the dark to capture their victims. Almost all the inhabitants of the village of Baltimore, in Ireland, were taken in this way in 1631. As a result of this threat, numerous coastal towns in the Mediterranean were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants until the 19th century.

Captured victims arrive on the Barbary coast

Captured victims arrive on the Barbary coast to be sold as slaves. (kinnas/DeviantArt)

The raiding of the coastal village of Baltimore on Ireland’s southwest coast is one of the more horrific acts performed by the Barbary corsairs. At 2.00 a.m. on June 20, 1631, over 200 corsairs armed with muskets, iron bars, and sticks of burning wood landed on the shore of Baltimore and silently spread out, waiting at the front doors of the cottages along the shoreline and the homes in the main village. When a signal was given, they simultaneously charged into the homes, pulling the sleeping inhabitants from their beds. Men, women and children, 107 in all, were dragged onto ships and began the long voyage back to Algiers.

Upon arrival, the citizens of Baltimore were taken to slave pens before being paraded before prospective buyers, chained and nearly naked. Men were typically used for labor and women as concubines, while children were often raised as Muslims, eventually forming part of the slave corps within the Ottoman army.

‘The Slave Market’ by Otto Pilny, 1910. (Public Domain)

The Rise of the Barbary Corsairs

In the 13th and 14th centuries, it was Christian pirates, primarily from Catalonia and Sicily, that dominated the seas, posing a constant threat to merchants. It was not until the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century that the Barbary corsairs started to become a menace to Christian shipping. Around 1600 AD, European pirates brought advanced sailing and shipbuilding techniques to the Barbary Coast, which enabled the corsairs to extend their activities into the Atlantic Ocean, and the impact of Barbary raids peaked in the early to mid-17th century.

While the trade in Barbary slaves is typically portrayed as Muslim corsairs capturing white Christian victims, this is far too simplistic. In reality, the corsairs were not concerned with the race or religious orientation of those they captured. Slaves in Barbary could be black, brown, or white, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, or Muslim. The corsairs, on the other hand, were not only Muslim. English privateers and Dutch captains also exploited the changing loyalties of an era in which friends could become enemies with the stroke of a pen.

"One of the things that both the public and many scholars have tended to take as given is that slavery was always racial in nature,” said historian Robert Davis, author of ‘ Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy.’ “But that is not true," he added. In comments which may stoke controversy, Davis claims that white slavery had been minimized or ignored because academics preferred to treat Europeans as evil colonialists rather than as victims.

The Barbary slave trade

The Barbary slave trade is typically depicted as Muslims capturing white Christians, such as in the artwork above, but this is not entirely accurate. (Western Spring)

Life as a Barbary Slave

The slaves captured by the Barbary pirates faced a grim future. Many died on the ships during the long voyage back to North Africa due to disease or lack of food and water. Those who survived were taken to slave markets where they would stand for hours while buyers inspected them before they were sold at auction.

After purchase, slaves would be put to work in various ways. Men were usually assigned to hard manual labor, such as working in quarries or heavy construction, while women were used for housework or in sexual servitude. At night the slaves were put into prisons called bagnios that were often hot and overcrowded.

However, by far the worst fate for a Barbary slave was being assigned to man the oars of galleys. Rowers were shackled where they sat, and never allowed to leave. Sleeping, eating, defecating and urinating took place at the seat. Overseers would crack the whip over the bare backs of any slaves considered not to be working hard enough.

A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs

A sea fight with Barbary corsairs. (Public domain)

The End of the Barbary Corsairs

Corsair activity began to diminish in the latter part of the 17th century, as the more powerful European navies started to force the pirates to cease attacking their shipping. However, it wasn’t until the first years of the 19th century that the United States of America and some European nations began to fight back more fervently against the Barbary pirates.

In the early 19th century Algiers was frequently bombarded by the French, Spanish and Americans. Eventually, after an Anglo-Dutch raid in 1816 on Algiers, the corsairs were forced to agree to terms which included a cessation of the practice of enslaving Christians, although slave trading of non-Europeans was allowed to continue.

Occasional incidents continued to occur until another British raid on Algiers in 1824, and finally a French invasion of Algiers in 1830, which placed it under colonial rule. Tunis was similarly invaded by France in 1881. Tripoli returned to direct Ottoman control in 1835, before finally falling into Italian hands in the 1911 Italo-Turkish War. The slave trade finally ceased on the Barbary coast when European governments passed laws granting emancipation to slaves.

Top Image: ‘The Bitter Draught of Slavery’ (1885) by Normand Ernest. Image depicting a Barbary slave caught by pirates from North Africa. Source: Public Domain

By Joanna Gillan

Updated on February 02, 2021.


Carroll, R. March 11, 2004. “New book reopens old arguments about slave raids on Europe” in The Guardian. Available at:

Davis, R. February 17, 2011. “British Slaves on the Barbary Coast” in BBC. Available at:

Eden, J. August 21, 2013. “Slavery and White Guilt” in Western Spring. Available at:

History Ireland. 2021. “From Baltimore to Barbary: the 1631 sack of Baltimore” in  History Ireland. Available at: 

“Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827” in Library of Congress. Available at:



Just a few quibbles. You're right to point out the Barbary slave trade was not black and white. Then again, that can be said of any subject; "it's not that simple". But it's equally wrong to suggest Race and religion were somehow not factors.... Race and religion were crucial, though things were more complicated (as they always are). Muslims targeted Christians from Europe as a way to wage jihad. That was stated in their own writings: religious duty to send slave raids into infidel lands every year. It was a highly profitable trade, but the moral justification was religious. Christians also took Muslims captive as retaliation, not so much as part of a crusade, but as a reaction to Barbary raids. But the victims were targeted for being Muslim. The division here was along religious lines, Islam Vs Christianity.

The Europeans who participated in the Barbary slave trade, you correctly describe as opportunists. You didn't mention they were "renegades"; Europeans who converted to Islam. So again, their motives were partly opportunism, pursuing wealth and adventure they would be denied back home. But also the religious zeal of the new convert, or at least the need to give their fellow Muslims the impression of being zealous new Muslims, as apostasy was punished with a cruel execution.

It's true that Muslims were forbidden from enslaving Muslims. The one exception I've read about was when the Moroccan sultan Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif decided to enslave Sub Saharan black boys and men to serve as his personal army. These Africans tribes had converted to Islam centuries before the rise of Moulay Ismail. It should not have been permitted. It was done for political reasons; Moulay Ismail wanted foreign warriors loyal only to him, this way bypassing the divided loyalties of local Moroccan and Berber tribes. But the reason the enslavement of black Muslims was tolerated, despite complaints from religious authorities, seems to be purely racial. Black people were commonly viewed as inferior to Moroccan and Arabs. Ironically, Moulay Ismail granted his black slave army an authority and status that surpassed that of local Moroccans in his service.

A final observation about race not being a factor in the Barbary slave trade: look at the prices at which slaves were trafficked. Black non-Muslim slaves (not talking about the black Muslims who were exclusive to the sultan) were sold at much lower prices than white slaves, as a rule.White Europeans were sold at higher prices. Young white women who were pretty and were literate or could sing were sold at the highest prices. In order to drive up the price of a black female slave, the owner would try to bleach her skin and drape her in pink, to downplay the way she normally looked.

Race was a factor. Religion was a factor.

Pablo P

Pete Wagner's picture

With regard to the institution of slavery, there are many distinctions.  The primary one, from the cultural standpoint, is the means and methods by which the person becomes a slave.  The type of slavery described in this article implies that women and children were essentially taken/stolen/kidnapped from their villages.  This method often occurred, where the village men were out on a hunt, away from the villages, which then had little means of defense.  The dark-haired/Semitic captors, seeking fair-haired/Gentile slaves (let’s call it honestly), understood this dynamic, and the tactic continued even into the 19th Century with the Ottomans raiding Finnish villages for concubines and (to-be) eunuchs.  Let’s clearly differentiate the evilness of this compared to slavery by other means, such as due to economics, war or political structure, where factions of people (born into poverty) become slaves, often locally ‘sold’ into it, to serve the financial or political interests of another.  

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Joanna how dare you lie. Muslims were not part of the slaves as Muslims could not/ can not enslave other Muslims, most non Muslims slaves converted to Islam to escape slavery. This type of lefty rhetoric is rewriting history to suit your virtue signalling nonsense. You are an embarrassment to the field. Funny how it's always psychologists, sociologists and people with bs degrees that want to talk like they're the most qualified about things outside their field. You are on the wrong side of history child.

Beachsider's picture

@miked- thanks for that info. and I would also like to point out that the origin of the word Slave is from Slav :- ie. Slavic. There seems to be little written about this.
The Assyrians regularly fought the barbarian people on that border calling them 'the people from who knows where' and nodoubt enslaving them. The Romans took slaves wherever they conquored, of course and cared nothing about ethnicity or skin pigmentation it seems.
Here in West Africa, Ghana, a local writer informs us that the 'Moors' were transporting about 8,000 slaves a year up through the Sahara dessert to what is now Morroco long before, during, and even after, the Europeans turned up (Portugese - built Castle St.George del Mina 1483 - Saint George of the Mine; though sad for them there was no gold on the Coast- quickly went on to round the Cape to India and across to Carribean where they worked the natives to death - so had to replace them with Africans. Thus the Transatlantic Slave Trade was born. They mostly supplied Brazil with millions of slaves - hardly reported now - and they had a franchise to supply slaves to Spanish Colonies too ! )

These numbers are deeply understated. There is a reference from Poland [published in research made by writer Dr Andrew Bostom] which claimed that 3 million people in Poland was raided by muslims into slavery. And that's only in Poland... so imagine how huge the numbers must have been in countries far closer to the Islamic conquest, like Italy, Greece, Spain, France....


Joanna Gillan's picture


Joanna Gillan is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. 

Joanna completed a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) degree in Australia and published research in the field of Educational Psychology. She has a rich and varied career, ranging from teaching... Read More

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