Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Should The Islamic World Apologize For Slavery? - Part 2


<<<< Part 1 here


The experiences of those who became Muslim slaves are best described by those who later managed to escape. One such individual was Joseph Pitts of Exeter, Devon. In 1678 when he was 15 years of age, he was captured as his boat left the estuary of the river Exe. Sold at Algiers, he spent 15 years as a slave. His first master was violent and cruel, but he later was sold to a more benign patron.  Pitts had taken the route of conversion to Islam, and after accompanying his second owner on a trip to Mecca, he was freed.  In 1704, his account of his experiences was published, under the title: A true and faithful account of the religion and manners of the Mahommetans.  An edition from 1731 included an early illustration of the Ka'aba at Mecca.


 In 1662, an account of life as a slave in Algiers came from a Flemish captive, Emanuel d'Aranda. He wrote that on September 12, 1640 he had been sold in an Algiers slave market which was customarily used to sell Christians. Aranda became a galley slave of the pasha or dey of Algiers. He described Algiers as the place "where the miseries of Slavery have consum'd the lives of six hundred thousand Christians, since the year 1536, at which time Cheredin Barberossa brought it under his own power."


 In the year that Aranda's account was published, an outbreak of plague killed off at least a third of the 30,000 inhabitants of the slave pens of Algiers.  Plague continued to break out in the cities every few years - killing half the 750 slaves of Tripoli in 1675.


 European governments sought to buy off the rulers of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, and thus encouraged continuation of the trade.  In 1640, a group of 3,000 British seamen who were slaves in Algiers sent a petition to the British government, which described their conditions, "withal suffering much hunger, with many blows on our bare bodies with which their cruelty many (not being able to undergo) have been forced to turn to their Mahomotest sect and devilish paganism."


 In 1643, the British parliament ruled that "collections should be made in the several churches within the City of London and Westminster and the borough of Southwark."  Three years later, Britain sent Edmund Cason to ransom back slaves in Algiers.  Cason found at least 750 British slaves, but claimed that far more had "turned Turkes through beatings and hard usage".  Cason could afford to ransom only 244 slaves.


 Parishes around Britain raised money to pay for hostages - Burford, Oxfordshire raised 8 pounds and 2 shillings in March 1680.  Other parishes in the same county raised funds  In the same year, Begbroke parish raised seven shillings and eight pence "For the release of Mary Ackland, Margaret Courtney, Andrew Malpas and Thomas Owsley."  Parish records from Eynsham, Oxfordshire, state that in August 1680, 108 villagers gathered the sum of one pound and 12 shillings "towards the African Brief".


 Though European governments paid ransoms and made treaties with the leaders of the Barbary regencies, the treaties were rarely honored, and the predations did not stop.  In the second half of the 17th century, plundering of coastal villages lessened, but ships continued to be targets.  In 1645, the first ship from the American colonies was captured by xebec, a fourteen-gun vessel from Massachusetts.

 Slaves were subjected to cruel punishments, such as the widely practiced bastinado.  Here an individual was held upside down, while the soles of his bare feet were beaten till raw.  In February 1661, Samuel Pepys recorded tales of this punishment in Algiers, which he had heard from sea captains in a London tavern.  Bastinado was a common punishment under the Ottomans (pictured), officially disappearing only with the demise of their Empire in 1924.  Slaves would be beaten as an inducement to become Muslim.  Some slaves were forcibly circumcised, even if they had not converted.  Converts were subjected to this operation publicly, though conversion did not guarantee freedom.  As Joseph Pitts noted: "I have known some that have continued slaves many years after they have turned Turks, nay, some even to their dying day."


 When Moulay Ismail came to power in Morocco in 1672, the country was still a regency of the Ottoman Empire.  In 1679, 1682 and from 1695 - 1696 Moulay Ismail fought the Ottomans, finally gaining official independence.  From the port of Sal??, his corsairs would travel far and wide, looking for captives and booty.


 Moulay Ismail embarked on ever more complex building plans at Meknes.  He was inspired by tales of the palace at Versailles, constructed since 1668 by Louis XIV of France. The French king had good relations with the sultan, based on their common enmity with Spain.  Louis sent military instructors to Morocco, but this did not prevent Moulay Ismail filling his slave-pens with Frenchmen caught at sea.  These joined Dutch, Norwegian, English, colonial American, Spanish and Irish captives.


 The sultan ruled through fear.  Francois Pidou de Saint-Olon was a French ambassador at Meknes. He wrote in 1694 that during his 21-day stay, he counted up to 47 people who had been slaughtered on Moulay Ismail's orders.  Pidou said that in the first two decades of his reign, the sultan had killed 20,000 people. 


Moulay Ismail constructed massive stables, held up by sandstone columns, designed to house 12,000 horses.  Pidou wrote: "He did not even have the decency to present himself before me at the last audience that he granted me, being seated on a horse at the gate of his stables and having his sleeves still bearing the blood of his two principal blacks, whom he had just executed with sword blows."


 Moulay Ismail had a personal guard made up of black slaves, who had been taken from sub-Saharan Africa when aged about 11.  These were called bukhari, as they were made to swear their allegiance to the sultan over a copy of the Hadiths of Sahih Bukhari.  His slave-soldiers were raised to be fiercely loyal.  In later years, as Moulay Ismail became toothless and dribbling, his falling sputum was caught in handkerchiefs by these black courtiers.


 The tradition of allowing slaves to gain some status while remaining in servitude was a common practice of the Ottomans.  Janissaries were soldier-slaves who had some power and rank, but were not free.  The Ottomans had inherited this tradition from the earlier Abbasid Empire, where slave-soldiers were called Mamluks.  In the 9th century these had been soldiers captured in Central Asia, but eventually these were drawn from captive or bought children aged 12 to 14. Mamluks ruled Egypt from 1250 until their conquest by the Ottomans in the 16th century.  Moulay Ismail's elite bukhari were inheritors of a long Islamic tradition.


 It was customary for the Ottomans and their predecessors to have eunuchs who guarded the harems.  These too held some status within court hierarchy.  Often these were black slaves who had been bought or captured before puberty.  For the most part, these had all of their genitals removed while children.  Moulay Ismail, like other sultans, had an extensive harem to maintain. According to Francois Pidou, the harem contained 500 concubines.


 In 1715, an eleven-year old boy from Penryn in Cornwall made his first sea voyage on the Francis, where his uncle was captain.  The small vessel with a crew of only six was bound for Genoa, Italy  Near the Straits of Gibraltar the boat was attacked by corsairs, and 11-year old Thomas Pellow and the crew were taken to Sal?? .  Moulay Ismail was seventy when the crew of the Francis was captured.  His age did not prevent him from being able to lop off the head of a courtier or a stable hand with a single stroke of his scimitar.  If the sultan woke up in a murderous mood, he would wear yellow clothing.  Courtiers would become especially obsequious when Moulay Ismail appeared in yellow robes. At least two people were sawn in two on the sultan's orders.


 Thomas Pellow's experiences have been documented by Giles Milton in White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's One Million European Slaves.  Pellow was separated from his uncle and set to work polishing armor in the underground arsenal at Meknes, before becoming a slave of Moulay es-Sfa.  This man, a favored son of the sultan, tried to get the boy to convert and, when that failed, he ordered young Pellow to undergo bastinado and beatings.  The treatment was repeated for months until Pellow broke and "turned Turk".


 Pellow was young enough to learn Arabic fluently, and this ability would lead him to become of value to the sultan, as a translator when ambassadors and emissaries arrived to negotiate captives.  He became a guard of the outer harem and even a slave-soldier.  He was given a wife, by whom he had a daughter.  Moulay Ismail died in 1727, and the power struggle for succession led to national strife.  Pellow's wife and daughter died, and he remained a slave.  Strangely, one of his last duties was to act as a slaver, bringing Africans from Senegal to Morocco.  Pellow was not to escape until 1737, after 23 years of being a slave.


 Moulay Ismail's building works were extensive.  Walled gardens with mosques surrounded his ever-growing palace complex.  Ornate gateways faced travelers to Meknes, and the castellated ramparts encircled the city, all built with slave labor.  During his reign, numerous treaties to release slaves were made with European governments, but Moulay Ismail took their bribes and rarely delivered slaves.


 Thomas Pellow had been fortunate compared to those who were forced to work on the buildings of Meknes.  These were fed insufficient rations, with moldy flour used to create bread.  As well as being worked to exhaustion, they were forced to sleep in quarters which would flood in winter. Safety for workers was not a consideration for Moulay Ismail and many were crushed in accidents.  In 1755, much of the building work of the sultan was destroyed in a massive earthquake.  Two years later a new leader, Sidi Mohammed, ascended to the Moroccan throne. This ruler appeared more conciliatory to Western demands, and the Sal?? corsairs gradually went out of business.


 In the late 18th century, numerous peace treaties were made between Morocco and governments from Europe, with the US signing such a treaty in 1786.  In 1784 the US Congress had appropriated $80,000 to send as a tribute to the Barbary corsairs, who still operated from Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers.  Thomas Jefferson, US minister to France, was outraged that money should be paid to brigands, arguing that paying off pirates would only encourage more piracy.


In 1801, Tripoli demanded that the US pay a tribute of $225,000, followed by an annual payment of $25,000.  Jefferson had been inaugurated as president on March 4.  He refused to pay.  In May, the pasha of Tripoli declared war.  In late October 1803, the US frigate Philadelphia was taken in Tripoli harbor, with its captain and crew held as hostages.  Such state-sponsored terrorism, which had gone on for centuries, drew a fierce response.  Between 1803 and 1804, Commodore Edward Preble bombarded Tripoli five times.  Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a bold enterprise on February 16, 1804.  The USS Philadelphia was captured and burned, and though fired upon, not a man was lost from the US side.  On June 4, 1805, Tripoli signed a peace treaty with the US.


The dey of Algiers was still demanding that the US pay $60,000 for each of its American hostages.  The payments continued until 1815, when Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge led naval attacks against Algiers.  In May 1815, Decatur succeeded in the freeing of US captives at Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.


Finally in 1816 the British, who like other European nations had paid ransoms to Barbary "terrorists" for centuries, formed a coalition with the Netherlands.  Under the leadership of Lord Exmouth, a fleet arrived at Algiers in late August.  They launched a full-scale attack on Algiers harbor and city.  Within 24 hours, cannon fire had destroyed most of the Algerian fleet and much of the city.  Omar Bashaw, the dey of Algiers, capitulated.  The remaining 1,642 slaves were freed, and soon Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco announced that they too had officially abandoned slavery.  Lord Exmouth was from the same family that had sired Thomas Pellow a century earlier.


The rule of the Barbary corsairs was finally over.  But the proponents of Islamic slavery, which had lasted since the time of Mohammed, had no intentions of going away quietly.


Continued in Part 3

Adrian Morgan is a British based writer and artist who has written for Western Resistance since its inception. He also writes for Family Security Matters, Spero News and He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society.

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