Europe and the Experience of Slavery

Europe and the Experience of Slavery March 15, 2019

ADDENDUM: I must report a ghastly synchronicity. This post concerns a historical theme that is anything but well known to non-specialists, so who thought it might be in the headlines? I wrote this post some weeks back, and it posted a few hours ago. In the hours since that posting, its contents have acquired a horrific relevance from the appalling terrorist attack in New Zealand, where Brenton Tarrant murdered dozens of Muslims. He left a manifesto explaining his actions as a response to what he described as Muslim aggressions and assaults through history, among which he listed the slaving activities that are the subject of this blog post. The atrocity was an act of “revenge on the invaders for the hundreds of thousands of death caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history … for the enslavement of millions of Europeans taken from their lands by the Islamic slavers … (and) for the thousands of European lives lost to terror attacks throughout European lands…” Were I writing the blog afresh, I would certainly have addressed and contested those claims at greater length, but I will here just present it as originally written and published.

I have been posting quite a bit on this blog on the theme of slavery. Americans and Europeans naturally focus on the horrors of the Transatlantic trade, for the excellent reason that their ancestors were (at least) complicit in that, and to varying degrees, their societies were built on that deeply tainted wealth. But in paying so much attention to that particular aspect of slavery, we lose the fact that such ventures were very common worldwide, and that many or most early societies depended on some form of slavery, and a slave trade. Over the centuries, the Islamic nations of the Middle East took millions of captives from black Africa, and those campaigns lasted until they were stopped forcefully by European powers in the late nineteenth century. That intervention, of course, does not in any sense make up for earlier European misdeeds or atrocities.

We also tend to forget just how often Europeans were victims of the slave trade, as much as perpetrators. And in saying that, no, I am not repeating the myth that early indentured servitude in the Americas was comparable to black plantation slavery. It wasn’t. I am talking here about slave trading that affected the European Christian heartland.

Let me begin with a notorious instance. At Midsummer, 1631, Barbary pirates from North Africa raided the Irish village of Baltimore, and took several hundred local people into lifelong captivity. Such a distant projection of Islamic power might seem extreme and even bizarre, but it was no such thing. Although that reality is forgotten today, the danger of Arab and Turkish assault remained a nightmare for the vast majority of Europeans throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and well beyond that date in some regions. If you have any European ancestors whatever, then they shared a common nightmare of such slaving enterprises.

By way of chronology, the critical dates were 1525-1526, when the pirate Barbarossa took Algiers, and pledged allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the Ottomans smashed the once great Christian state of Hungary, making Budapest a border city. At least until the 1680s, thoughtful Europeans speculated just how much further the Ottomans might extend their rule. The Christian victory at Vienna in 1683 provided some security, but Ottoman-sponsored banditry and slave-raiding deep into the Holy Roman Empire persisted long afterwards. Well into the nineteenth century, the outbreak of war in Central Europe spread the terror of fast-riding slavers through the towns and villages of the Habsburg territories – through what we would call the lands of Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Poland, southern Germany ….

Victorian Englishmen were quick to comment on their own country’s sense of rights and representative government when compared with the militarist and aristocratic societies of eastern and Central Europe. Well yes, but Britain had the advantage of being an island, and did not through the earlier centuries expect raids from Turkish slavers at a moment’s notice. Elites in Hungary or Poland or eastern Germany had no such luxury. Of necessity, those societies had to be militarized, constantly armed and trained to respond to attack. Ordinary people had to place their faith in the local lord in his castle on the hill, his armor, his soldiers, and especially his cavalry.

But the danger extended far beyond Central Europe, and afflicted Mediterranean lands. Many of the worst perpetrators were themselves Europeans, ex-Christians who converted to Islam to take advantage of the rich opportunities in piracy and slaving. From the Spanish word for these “deniers” of their faith, we get the word “renegades.”

Trading in Christian slaves was a major economic focus in Eastern Europe, with the Tatar Khanate of Crimea as the major perpetrators. The Crimean Tatars were another vassal of the Ottomans, and they ranged far across the Danube lands, Poland-Lithuania, and Muscovy, reaching as far as the Baltic. They supplied legions of slaves to the notorious markets surrounding the Black Sea, from where captives might find their way anywhere across south-eastern Europe, Persia, or the Middle East.

Nor were Christians safe in the distant Atlantic periphery. From Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and other centers, Barbary pirates regularly raided the coasts of Britain, France, and Ireland. In 1627, they seized eight hundred people from the coasts of Iceland. Only a handful of those victims ever returned home.

Through these centuries, many European nations and sub-national groups pursued war, violence and raiding, which was absolutely not the prerogative of any one side, or any religion. Yet military power gave a decisive advantage to Islamic forces, who seemed able to strike anywhere. Historian Robert Davis credibly estimates that the Barbary lands alone might have taken over a million Christian slaves between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

When Davis’s figures were first published, some historians argued that they were modest when set aside the numbers for the African trade to the Americas in the same period, which reliably estimates twelve million carried across the Atlantic. So, they protested, the European situation was barely one-twelfth that of the African trade. That response, though, is misleading, because the Barbary trade was only one component of a much larger European picture. In particular, it takes no account of the very large and quite distinct activities of the Crimean Tatars, and some of their slaving attacks claimed tens of thousands of Christian victims in single sweeps. Over the three century period 1500-1800, the Tatar total of Christian slaves must have exceeded three million. In reality, then, the likely total for Islamic slaving in Europe would have been considerably less than the African trade, but it was still very significant.

Unlike the African trade, Islamic slaving did not stop because of political or moral activism, or a change in religious sensibility in the perpetrator nations. In every instance, Islamic campaigns ended only because of the growing military might of Christian states, who used force ruthlessly. Key dates in this process included the Russian hegemony over the Crimean lands in 1774; and the growing Western naval pressure on the Barbary states. Americans naturally think of their own involvement in the two wars against the Barbary pirates between 1801 and 1815. The key event, though, was the combined British-Dutch bombardment of Algiers in 1816, which killed some seven thousand. Disliking the prospect of nation-building in conquered lands, the British strategy at this stage involved massive deterrent force, in what were termed “butcher and bolt” attacks. Ultimately, Algerian-based slaving only ended when the French occupied the whole country in 1830.

When we write the history of Europe between 1780 and 1830, we naturally focus on such revolutionary events as the political upheavals in France, and the economic upsurge in Great Britain. But the continent’s liberation from endemic Muslim assaults was no less critical or revolutionary a development in these very same years.

Reading this whole dreadful story, one response might I suppose be to think grimly of the supposed evils of Islam as a faith, but Europeans in general – and Christians in particular – are in no position whatever to cast stones at anyone else for slave trading. This is not about Christians or Muslims. It’s about people as sinful human beings, people who have the right to treat others as objects or property, and exercising that murderous power to the maximum capacity.

Instead, I suggest a totally different lesson, and one that is useful for pedagogy. In an ideal world, we would respond to accounts of suffering regardless of the nature of the victim, and how much they resemble us. In practice, we tend to be more sympathetic with victims with whom we can identify easily, and the story I am telling here offers real potential in that way. If you are a white person who wants to imagine the vile nature of slavery, then place yourself in the minds of one of those enslaved ancestors – someone very much like yourself, someone white and Christian. Then try to comprehend the terror of the experience, the bitter suffering, and the destruction of your life and family. Then realize that that was exactly what was happening in contemporary Africa. It’s a sobering exercise.

A version of this article appeared in Chronicles magazine in March 2018, under the title “Islam, Europe and Slavery”.


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