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


While I can see the need to try to justify something in regards to slavery building things (and somehow justify its usefulness?) please at least be accurate... Especially since you seem so concerned with accuracy.

Newest research into the pyramids has concluded that old thoughts (and Hollywood) had it wrong. The skills required to build the pyramids were just not available in the form of slaves. The high level of craftsmanship combined with the attention to detail were provided by skilled craftsmen over decades rather that the pop culture image of slaves under the whip. Try using some current study... Which is what the authors were attempting.

History is written by the victory, but the truth is usually much more complex.

Looked after by doctors and dentists does not mean they weren't slaves. Slaves in the American south were looked after by doctors and dentists from cradle to grave -- no one claims they weren't slaves.

Hi I refer to your comment about slavery and cannot agree with your statement " and is responsible for some of the greatest achievements in history. The Roman aqueducts, the Egyptian pyramids"" recent evidence suggest's that the builders of the Egyptian Pyramids were actually well locked after with doctors and even dentists provided

While I wouldn't dare to touch a comment such as "slavery wasn't always such a bad thing," I would add as a corollary to the comments about slaves in Greece during the classical period the following. Slaves in both Greece and Rome during the Classical period were used for a great many purposes, including pedagogy. Virtually all tutors were slaves. These were typically men of great learning who were bought for the purpose of privately educating the young elite (there was no public education).

Indeed, the very word "pedagogue" derives from the Greek paedogogos, or trainer of youth, who was always a slave (some university level educators might argue that virtually nothing has changed). In any event, some of these highly educated fellows eventually were manumitted (which was often a possibility if their service was pleasing), and became celebrated as writers, especially of comedy, as the master/slave comedic routine was a long celebrated device in both Attic Greek and Golden Age Latin, and who better to develop it than those who had been slaves themselves?
Ergo, in Greece there was Menander, who gave rise in Rome to Plautus and Terence. The latter, incidentally, was of African origin, although very obviously raised in a Roman colonial environment of very high distinction. There is conflicting evidence regarding his ethnicity, but he was likely a mixture of Berber and sub-Saharan African.
Classical era slavery, contrary to popular belief, was rarely lifelong, at least in theory; it was the rampant disease of the era, which tended to hit both free and enslaved equally, that killed the majority before manumission was a consideration (usually 5-10 years).
Slaves of the Classical era were normally extremely cheap, and typically traded as war gains. Unless the slave in question happened to be some warlord's son, daughter, or wife, he/she was virtually worthless, and traded accordingly. There was, however, a minor consideration for learning, which could only be demonstrated upon purchase, typically, because they were usually sold as commodities, in lots, separated by gender.

That needed saying Scruffy, and you told it like it is. In fact, if you do not take the feelings of others into account and adhere strictly to what is observable then the overall human condition for the greatest number of people has degraded in the absence of Slavery. Our global situation is precarious right now, at best, who knows what will happen to the idea of individual liberty that exists presently. I can tell you now, it exists on moral and economic subsidy and when the resources run low, and they will, and when patience is worn thin, also a certainty, then we will see. Logic tells me 5000 years trumps 200 and my "feelings" tell me I hope I'm holding the long end of the stick.


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