The Islamic Slave Trade – and Some of Its Prominent Victims

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The Islamic Slave Trade – and Some of Its Prominent Victims

We hear a lot about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but very little about the Islamic one, which enslaved 20 million black Africans, with another 80 million dying en route. And how many people know that over one million Europeans were also enslaved, including Miguel de Cervantes?

We hear a lot about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but very little about the Islamic one, which enslaved 20 million black Africans, with another 80 million dying en route. And how many people know that over one million Europeans were also enslaved, including Miguel de Cervantes?

A sequel to “Reformation of Islam is Long Overdue,” published in Humanist Perspectives, Autumn 2019, issue 210, pp. 22—31.

And if we venture to earlier times, there is the Islamic slave trade, which lasted from 650 CE to the mid-twentieth century, and during which up to 20 million blacks were enslaved and an additional 80 million were kidnapped but perished en route… And let’s not forget that the Muslim slave trade also involved raids on coastal Europe and enslaved between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans between 1530 and 1780.

Sophie Dulesh, HP 210, p. 24. 

According to Wikipedia: 

Slavery in the Muslim world first developed from the slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia… The Arab slave trade was most active in West Asia, North Africa, and Southeast Africa…In the early 20th century (post-World War I), slavery was gradually outlawed and suppressed in Muslim lands, largely due to pressure exerted by Western nations such as Britain and France. [In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, but the practice persists as abolition is rarely enforced despite being criminalized in 2007 and 2015.] However, slavery claiming the sanction of Islam is documented at present in the predominantly Islamic countries of the Sahel and is also practiced in territories controlled by Islamist rebel groups. It is also practiced in countries like Libya and Mauritania despite being outlawed…   Bernard Lewis maintains that though slaves suffered on the way before reaching their destination, later, many received good treatment and some degree of acceptance as members of their owners’ households. 

On September 26, 1575, while returning to Spain after fighting in the Battle of Lepanto and other military campaigns against the Turks, [Miguel de Cervantes] was captured by Barbary pirates off the Catalan coast and taken as a slave to Algiers, then a part of Ottoman empire.

It is of interest that among the many enslaved European captives of the time was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (29 September 1547 –22/23 April 1616*). He is regarded by many as the greatest writer and his Don Quixote is commonly considered the first and best-written novel in modern fiction. It has been translated into over 140 languages and is, after the Bible, the most widely translated book in the world. Its influence on the language has been so great that Spanish is often called la lengua de Cervantes. Lothario, originally the proper name of a character in Don Quixote, has become a trope of  common discourse in many European languages for  an unscrupulous seducer of women. Lothario is the close friend of another Don Quixote character, the Florentine nobleman Anselmo, who becomes obsessed with testing his wife’s fidelity and talks Lothario into attempting to seduce her.

In 1569, aged 22, Cervantes moved from Spain to Rome to work as a chamber assistant to a cardinal and to study Renaissance architecture and art; the influence of Italian literature is obvious in his work. Then he enlisted in an infantry regiment of the Spanish navy. On September 26, 1575, while returning to Spain after fighting in the Battle of Lepanto and other military campaigns against the Turks, he was captured by Barbary pirates off the Catalan coast and taken as a slave to Algiers, then a part of Ottoman empire. After almost five years in captivity and four unsuccessful escape attempts,  Cervantes was released on payment of a ransom by his parents and the Trinitarians, a Catholic religious order to which he had belonged, and returned in Madrid in 1580. Don Quixote was published in 1605.

Cervantes’ life-changing experience in slavery left indelible traumatic impression on all his later works; in particular, it produced the Captive’s Tale in Don Quixote,….

Cervantes’ life-changing experience in slavery left an indelible traumatic impression on all his later works; in particular, it produced the Captive’s Tale in Don Quixote, which narrates: “Although hunger and scant clothing troubled us… nothing troubled us as much as constantly hearing and seeing my master’s remarkably and exceptionally cruel treatment of Christians. Each day he hanged someone, impaled someone, cut off someone’s ears…” (chapter XL). Twenty-five  years later, Cervantes was still haunted by images from his captivity: “cages of all sizes… Christian captives, galley slaves and female prisoners…”

Another European captive in the dungeons of Algiers, from 1577 to 1581, was a  Portuguese, Antonio de Sosa. While sailing to Sicily  to take possession of the post of dean in the cathedral of Agrigento, he was enslaved by Berber corsairs and taken to Algiers along with 268 others. In Algiers, he became the best friend of Cervantes and later was his first biographer. De Sosa was known for obsessively reading, writing, and recording every bit of information obtained from Christian slaves and their captors, which he later used in his book Topography and General History of Algiers.

Yet another captive … was Thomas Pellow (1704 –1745), a Cornish author best known for his extensive narrative The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow in South-Barbary, which chronicles his experiences during his 23-year-long captivity.

Yet another captive – 136 years later –  was Thomas Pellow (1704 –1745), a Cornish author best known for his extensive narrative The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow in South-Barbary, which chronicles his experiences during his 23-year-long captivity. He was only eleven when Barbary pirates attacked his uncle’s ship aboard which he was sailing and took him captive in the summer of 1716. The young boy Pellow was soon given by the sultan to his son, Muley Spha. Instead of beating Pellow, as was his custom, Spha wanted to convert him to Islam, promising him a better life. After Pellow rejected all the bribes and temptations, Muley Spha began to torture Pellow, keeping him as a prisoner in irons for several months and severely bastinading him every day.  After months of  torture, Pellow was forced to convert. Sultan Moulay Ismail ordered his son to let Pellow go to school to learn Arabic. When Spha disobeyed this order, he was summoned by the sultan and killed right before Pellow’s eyes.

Many other stories, written and oral, of  the Arab slave trade were recorded and are awaiting further research. 

* April 22/23, 1616, is also the date of death of William Shakespeare. But Shakespeare’s death was recorded in England according to the Julian calendar, while Cervantes died in Spain, which three decades earlier had adopted the Gregorian calendar (still used today), which was 10 days ahead of the Julian calendar. So, although both men died on the “same day,” Cervantes died ten days before Shakespeare.  

References 

1. Garces, Maria Antonia (2002) Cervantes in Algiers. A Captive’s Tale. Vanderbilt University Press. 

2. Vitkus, Daniel (ed.) (2001) Piracy, Slavery and Redemption, Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England. Columbia University Press.

3.  Milton, Giles (2005) White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam’s One Million White Slaves. Macmillan. 

 

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