The White Slaves of Barbary

The White Slaves of Barbary


Much attention and condemnation has been directed towards the tragedy of the African slave trade , which took place between the 16 th and the 19 th centuries. However, another equally despicable trade in humans 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.

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 BCE. 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 slave trade 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, beginning around 1600 AD.

Anyone travelling in the Mediterranean at the time faced the real prospect of being captured by the Corsairs and taken to Barbary Coast cities and being sold as slaves. 

However, 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, and crept 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 19 th century.

The Sacking of Baltimore

The raiding of the coastal village of Baltimore on Ireland’s South West coast is one of the more horrific acts performed by the Barbary corsairs.  At 2.00am on 20 June, 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. Twenty men, 33 women and 54 children were dragged into 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. 

Captured victims arrive on the Barbary coast

Captured victims arrive on the Barbary coast to be sold as slaves.

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 15 th 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 Barbary slave trade 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. And the corsairs were not only Muslim; English privateers and Dutch captains also exploited the changing loyalties of an era in which friends could become enemies and enemies friends 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 minimised 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. Image source.

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, defecation and urination took place at the seat. Overseers would crack the whip over the bare backs of any slaves considered not to be working hard enough.

Galley Slaves of the Barbary Corsairs

Galley Slaves of the Barbary Corsairs. Image source .

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.

Algiers was frequently bombarded by the French, Spanish and Americans, in the early 19th century. 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.

A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs

A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs, c. 1681. Image source .

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.

Featured image: A slave caught by Barbary pirates. Image source .


Slavery and White Guilt – James Eden. Available from:

Barbary pirates – Wikipedia. Available from:

African Slave Traders and their White European Slaves – Grumpy Opinions. Available from:

America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional Foe – The Library of Congress. Available from:

British Slaves on the Barbary Coast – BBC / Robert Davis. Available from:

New book reopens old arguments about slave raids on Europe – The Guardian. Available from:

When Europeans were slaves – Ohio State University.

From Baltimore to Barbary: the 1631 sack of Baltimore – History Ireland. Available from: 

By April Holloway


Problem is, slave trade was a common practice then. The Arabs were not being "racially discriminatory" in trading slaves of their own and those of others. Not a sound argument for White racism. :)

Tsurugi's picture

Hah. I said nothing about you or your ideology. The revisionist version of history you were citing, with its "blame America first" attitude, is certainly a product of the left, which is what I said.

Also, I am not a conservative.
Have a nice day :)

(The end of my sentence didn't show up)... quite indicative of what is so fundamentally wrong with our educational system, our American centrism, and the evident arrogance which being the only true world power has inflicted upon the population. As sad as these realizations are to me, at least they do explain why you believe it to be acceptible to attack a stranger for political beleifs which you assumed they hold with no real evidence to support that belief, rather than engage in civil discourse and debate.

I find your assumption that I am a liberal to be quite amusing, and sadly all too common for many conservatives, leading those who actually are of the liberal left to believe the stereotyped image of what conservatives think, feel and believe, not to mention highlighting some of the worst, such as the notion that conservatives display all of the the arrogance and ignorance they like to claim the liberal left posesses.
I am a libertarian, for the record. In fact, I'm so far right of conservatives in enough respects that my truly liberal sister- an English professor- believes me to be a greater evil in the world than our conservative Catholic parents, while my parents believe me to be so liberal as to warrant the dubious honor of holding the title of Black Sheep of the family.
I am highly educated, but really, sir, does it take a college degree to understand that human history goes back a lot further than the founding of the United States? I don't need to revise history because I'm actually speaking of its entirety, not merely the paltry 241 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed, or the 525 years since Columbus and his motley band of sailors stumbled upon the Carribean islands which you are referring to regarding the history of slavery. And by the way, slavery has been a part of the human condition for as long as historic records have been kept, meaning it was happening long before Christianity was founded. Tell me again how most slaves were evangelicised throughout human history, so I can make it crystal clear to all who read this that just as a blind squirrel can manage to find a nut now and then, so can ignorant and arrogant fools manage to compose responses to topics they believe themselves to posess superior knowledge of, when in reality, its remarkable they can even pronounce three syllable words. Frankly, I'm amazed that people like you are even allowed in public without a caregiver leading them by the elbow.
and I find your narrow views of both history and of people you do not know to be quite

Tsurugi's picture

"..they conveniently forget that in recent times (Europe, America) the slavers were supposedly Christians. The only rulers there was supposedly not to enslave fellow Christians...."

"In recent times?" The Barbary pirates were contemporary with colonial-era America. So what the hell are you talking about?

"...most slaves were never evangelized by Christian missionaries after capture...."

Wow. Possibly you have missed entire genres of music, like southern gospel? Christian music made awesome by african slaves? Which eventually became the blues, rock n roll, etc...ring a bell?(like a cowbell, maybe?)

What actually happened, in non-revisionist non-lerftard-koolaide-slurper non-hate-murica-first history, is the Christians believed it was their duty to bring the "lesser peoples" to the "true religion"; a sentiment that most today find repugnant and does not in any way paint early Americans or christianity in a positive light.


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