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


Hmmm. We must be talking about two completely different articles of which you are the author. The first paragraph of the article _I read_ began with, "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. The vast majority of those enslaved were from the central and western parts of Africa, sold to European slave traders and transported to the New World." So those few sentences were clearly talking about something totally different than what they plainly stated...about blacks being enslaved *by whites*? Those sentences, in your opening paragraph, sound pretty black and white to me (double entendre intended).

So here's where it becomes conditional: If it truly was not your intention to conveniently "forget" a historical truth, especially one of such magnitude, then I postulate that you are another young face in a sea of unwitting youth whose views and mindset have been surreptitiously, and intentionally, skewered by the media you grew up with. The media has picked and chosen what part(s) of a truth it reports since its inception into society. And the media has become racially biased, especially over the last two to three decades, by eagerly reporting when a black person is harmed by a white, even if it's been in self-defense. It's labeled a racially motivated hate crime. But flip the roles, with the exact same situation, and no one even gives it a second thought if a black person harms\kills a white person. This type of askew reporting has finally warped the aspects, perspective and perceptions of our youth to see white-on-black crimes as horrific, while black-on-white crimes are "the norm" or somehow okay.

And our media-warped society has now adopted some very racially-reversed mindsets. For example, it's now apparently socially acceptable for a black person to address another black person as the dreaded "N-word," but if a white person does it, it's immediate racism, regardless of the situation or circumstance. Now, before you hit the REPLY button, actually go back and read what I just said in that last sentence. One color is saying that people of their *same* color can do something that people of *another* color should not be allowed to do...and these people's opinion are based solely on the color of the other person's skin. That, Ms. Holloway, is racial prejudice, not racism.

On the flip-side of my proposed conditional, if you do not truly believe that you have allowed the media to warp your perspective into this racially myopic mindset, then, and only then, do I feel that was there an obvious slant geared toward recognizing the enslavement of blacks *by whites,* while at the same time obfuscating that those selfsame blacks were sold *by blacks* to those whites. If a person is going to bring black slavery into an issue about white slavery, the more historically, and accurate, correct way to have begun that article would have been with the simple inclusion, "The vast majority of those enslaved were from the central and western parts of Africa, sold *by their own countrymen after having been captured in battle or raids,* to European slave traders..."

I do, however, wish to take a moment to commend you on your obvious intelligence and the correct use of grammar, punctuation and spelling. With computers now an integral part of society, there is absolutely zero excuse for published articles, albeit online or hard copy, to contain any grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors. And yet it's become disgustingly rare to find an online article with both structure and cohesion that contains no grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. Thank you for that breath of fresh air.

In closing, and finality, if someone is going to paint an historical picture of such a sensitive subject, Ms. Holloway, they need to use a finer brush with fewer to no broad strokes.

aprilholloway's picture

As I previously said, the article was not about black slavery. If you think this article is about "obfuscating the truth", you must be new around here and not realize what we are all about. 

Yes, the subject was intentionally avoided. The last thing the author, or anyone interested in obfuscating the truth, wants anyone else to know is that blacks sold blacks into slavery. It wasn't whites who went to Africa and 'took them from their homes.' It's called "history." And like it or not, it's also the truth.

aprilholloway's picture

It was not 'convenient' to lightly touch on the African slave trade, it was intentional.  This article was written to focus on one specific aspect of slave history, one that is lesser known.  The African slave trade is another whole subject altogether and requires an article of its own.  


...and echoes of my thoughts. I also find it very "convenient" that the author only lightly brushes upon the fact that Africans were sold as slaves and then moves on - no further information is provided (yet more ignoring facts for the sake of sugarcoating). What the author very conveniently *forgot* to mention is it was actually other Africans who sold their fellow countrymen into slavery - generally tribesmen captured during battle and or raids. So basically, blacks sold blacks to _others_...not just whites.

Slavery is a very old tradition, at least that fact wasn't conveniently *forgotten*, and is responsible for some of the greatest achievements in history. The Roman aqueducts, the Egyptian pyramids, and countless other creations, are the direct result of slave labor. People seem to forget this and focus, instead, on the "horrors" of only the slavery of blacks over about two hundred years instead of the entire history of more than 4,000 years of slavery. And let's be fair about this, slavery wasn't always such a bad thing. In both Egypt and Rome, slaves were actually treated quite well if they behaved. They were provided food, shelter, clothing and protection in return for them service. Additionally, in ancient Greece, a slave could actually work his or her way out of servitude and become a property, and even business, owner. In fact, the Greeks had a far different view of slaves and slavery. You weren't automatically a lesser person just because you were a slave. And capitol crimes such as murder were handled differently. If a person murdered another, the murderer was sentenced to seven years of indentured servitude to the family of the victim. This isn't to say that the murderer might not meet with an untimely demise, but slavery, in general, has had a very long existence and encompassed a multitude of both cultures and races.

It would be a welcome breath of fresh air if people could actually focus on the *entire* history of slavery, instead of the convenience of one small chunk of time that suits their agenda, as well as stop demanding, expecting and clamoring for restitution from the descendants of slave owners who have never actually wronged the descendants of slaves.


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