This post was written by Connor Balough
Between the 16th and middle of the 18th century, the height of slave ownership in the world was not the United States, but Africa, where slavery has existed longer than anywhere on Earth. In fact it was so bad, America’s first war was over it.
European slaves were acquired by Barbary pirates in slave raids on ships and by raids on coastal towns from Italy to the Netherlands, as far north as Iceland and east into the Mediterranean.
The Ottoman eastern Mediterranean was the scene of intense piracy. As late as the 18th century, piracy continued to be a “consistent threat to maritime traffic in the Aegean”.
For centuries, large vessels on the Mediterranean relied on galley slaves supplied by North African and Ottoman slave traders
Ohio State University history Professor Robert Davis describes the White Slave Trade as minimized by most modern historians in his book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500–1800. Davis estimates that 1 million to 1.25 million white Christian Europeans were enslaved in North Africa, from the beginning of the 16th century to the middle of the 18th, by slave traders from Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli alone (these numbers do not include the European people which were enslaved by Morocco and by other raiders and traders of the Mediterranean Sea coast), and roughly 700 Americans were held captive in this region as slaves between 1785 and 1815.
Sixteenth- and 17th-century customs statistics suggest that Istanbul’s additional slave import from the Black Sea may have totaled around 2.5 million from 1450 to 1700. The markets declined after the loss of the Barbary Wars and finally ended in the 1800s, after a US Navy expedition under Commodore Edward Preble engaging gunboats and fortifications in Tripoli, 1804 and later when after a British diplomatic mission lead to some confused orders and a massacre; British and Dutch ships delivered a punishing nine-hour bombardment of Algiers leading to an acceptance of terms. Finally ending when Algeria was conquered by France. The Kingdom of Morocco had already suppressed piracy and recognized the United States as an independent country in 1776.
After a revolt in the mid-17th century reduced the ruling Ottoman Pashas to little more than figureheads in the region, the towns of Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and others became independent in all but name. Without a large central authority and its laws, the pirates themselves started to gain much influence.
In 1785 when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, they asked him what right he had to take slaves in this way. He replied that the “right” was “founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise”.
Pirate raids for the acquisition of slaves occurred in towns and villages on the African Atlantic seaboard, as well as in Europe. Reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, England, Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, and as far north as Iceland exist from between the 16th to the 19th centuries. It is estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves in Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli during this time period. The slave trade in Europeans in other parts of the Mediterranean is not included in this estimation.
Famous accounts of Barbary slave raids include a mention in the diary of Samuel Pepys and a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore, Ireland, during which pirates left with the entire populace of the settlement. The attack was led by a Dutch captain, Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, also known as Murad Reis the Younger. Janszoon also led the 1627 raid on Iceland. Such raids in the Mediterranean were so frequent and devastating that the coastline between Venice to Malaga suffered widespread depopulation, and settlement there was discouraged. In fact, it was said that this was largely because “there was no one left to capture any longer.”
The power and influence of these pirates during this time was such that nations including the United States of America paid tribute in order to stave off their attacks. Supplies from the Black Sea appear to have been even larger. A compilation of partial statistics and patchy estimates indicates that a little fewer than 2 million Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles were seized from 1468 to 1694. Additionally, there were slaves from the Caucasus obtained by a mixture of raiding and trading. 16th- and 17th-century customs statistics suggest that Istanbul’s slave import from the Black Sea may have totaled around 2.5 million from 1450 to 1700.
In the first years of the 19th century, the United States of America and some European nations fought and won the First Barbary War and the Second Barbary War against the pirates. The Barbary Wars were a direct response of the British, French and the Dutch states to the raids and white slave trade by the Barbary pirates, which ended in the 1830s when the region was conquered by France. The white slave trade and markets in the Mediterranean declined and eventually disappeared after the European occupations.
After an Anglo-Dutch raid in 1816 on Algiers immobilized most of the Pirate fleet, the Dey of Algiers was forced to agree to terms which included a cessation of the practice of enslaving Christians, although slave trading in non-Europeans could still continue. After losing in this period of formal hostilities with European and American powers, the Barbary states went into decline.
The Barbary pirates did not cease their operations, and another British raid on Algiers took place in 1824. France invaded Algiers in 1830, placing it under colonial rule. Tunis was similarly invaded by France in 1881. Tripoli returned to direct Ottoman control in 1835, before falling into Italian hands in the 1911 Italo-Turkish War. As such, the slave traders now found that they had to work in accordance with the laws of their governors, and could no longer look to self-regulation. The slave trade ceased on the Barbary coast in the 19th and 20th centuries or when European governments passed laws granting emancipation to slaves.
The word razzia was borrowed via Italian and French from Algerian Arabic ghaziya (غزية “raiding”), originally referring to slave raids conducted by Barbary pirates.