Secondary Secondary History

Secondary History – The White Slave Trade

We all teach about the triangular slave trade, but how many of us teach about the White Slave Trade?

In June 1636, seven boats fishing off the Cornish coast were taken by the “Turks” and their crews, around 50 men in total, and were carried away as captives. The same Turkish vessels had just previously taken 5 boats off the fishing port of Looe. The men that put to sea were never seen again. This was only one of many examples of the actions of Barbary Pirates, from Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli who, for several hundred years, raided shipping and coastal towns across Europe for slaves. Admiralty records show, between 1609 and 1616, 466 British ships were attacked in this way. It is estimated that, between 1580 and 1680, nearly one million European men, women and children were captured and taken into slavery by Muslim rulers.

Slaves were captured for work and for ransom. Those that survived the sea trip to North Africa were auctioned off on arrival. Men were often put to work in the galleys – capturing more slaves – and in mines; in hard manual labour. Life was often brutal and short. Women were often kept as servants or in harems. Samuel Pepys records in his diary in February 1661 spending an evening in a tavern talking to two men recently returned from slavery.

In 1645, the English Parliament was so concerned about the condition of slaves held there that they sent Edmund Casson to Algiers who managed to ransom 244 slaves. Arriving in September 1646, he paid about £40 per head for men, but women cost at least double that! From time to time naval expeditions were sent against the Pirates, and peace treaties were signed and broken. Charles II and his strong Navy were more successful in dealing with the problem. Tunis, for example, was bombarded in 1675, and Algiers made peace after similar bombardments in 1682, 1683 and 1688, and Tripoli in 1686.  It was only after 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars and a return to more peaceful conditions that the threat of the Barbary Pirates was finally removed.

Was it a race issue, or a religious issue, or a trade issue? Certainly the peak of the Barbary Pirates coincided with Muslim dominance in the Mediterranean, and the attraction was to capture Christian slaves to work for Muslim rulers. Their dominance also coincided with rivalries – both religious and political – between leading European powers. But it is a fascinating and fairly well documented episode that is rarely taught in schools.

Alf Wilkinson
CPD Manager for the Historical Association and previously National Strategist for Key Stage 3 History. Alf has over 30 years history teaching experience and was lead author for Collins Key Stage 3 History resources.

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