Slave trade has been the oldest trades carried out by man. It has dehumanized its victims ever since it began. Once such phase of slave trade was Barbary slave trade that placed millions of European Christians under Turks as slaves.
Nothing Less than Horror
The Turks captured their people in the death of the night, while they were “peaceful and still naked in their beds.“This gave rise to the Sicilian expression, “pigliato dai turchi“, meaning “taken by the Turks“; in other words, “to be taken by surprise while asleep or distracted“.
History is filled with tragedies that fell upon man. One such tragedy that has repeatedly shown its ugly side from time to time is slavery. Many were not spared at the hands of slavery, which claimed the lives of the old, young, men, and women alike.
We have often read and learned about those who were abducted from the African continent and transported all over Europe, America, and the Caribbean islands. But little is known or spoken about the slavery carried on by the Barbary pirates on the coastline of Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco.
Origin, History, and Facts
Slavery has been going on long before African slaves were brought into slave markets around the world. Around the early 1600s, many British and European ships were seized and plundered of all their goods especially their most valuable commodity―the people on the ships. Many coastlines of England, France, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain were raided in the death of the night, leaving behind deserted beaches and empty houses. These savage abductions were being carried out by Barbary pirates or Corsairs, i.e., the Turks. Those captured were shipped in inhumane conditions and were brought to the pirate’s hometown, where they were sold off as slaves.
Slaves were often paraded through the streets for the public to see. These Barbary slaves were inspected, forced to perform for their perspective buyers, and branded.
Men were made to jump to prove that they weren’t lame. Both men and women were often stripped naked to see their health and sexual value.
Men were checked for circumcision to know if they were Jews. Clothes were inspected to see if anything valuable was stitched into them. Their ear lobes were inspected to see any sign of piercing, which indicated to their slaves being rich back on their land.
Healthy slaves were sent either for hard manual labor or back on the galleys/ships. However, if found unfit, they were left to wander the streets and beg for money.
Their facial hair or hair on their heads, both being an important part of their identity, was shaved off to further humiliate them.
Those who were sent back on the ship had a far worse fate than the ones performing hard labor. Two to five men were shackled together by their feet with their hands to the oars and made to man the oars of the galleys. They were not allowed to move from their place. They often slept, ate, urinated, and defecated on their seat. Those who managed these rowers often cracked their whips or bull’s pizzle on the bare backs of these slaves. Once on the port, these slaves were condemned to bagno and other work that the Pasha or ruler sent them.
Women, on the other hand, were used for housework. But if a woman was beautiful, she was reserved to serve her masters in sexual servitude.
Though most slaves boarded at their master’s residence, many were sent to bagnios/bagno or baths, which were hot and overcrowded warehouses.
Slaves usually got a Friday off along with a couple of hours free for themselves each day. This is when they got to earn some money, with which they could pay off rent at the bagnos and for food.
Even though the slaves worked at the bagnos, they had to pay a fee for filthy lodging and disgusting food.
Some household or agricultural slaves were rented or sent out by their masters. These slaves had to bring back a certain amount of money, a sum of which was returned to the master or else they were severely beaten. These slaves usually wore an iron ring around their ankles, which was strapped to a heavy chain.
This was a very religious era, wherein the slaves had a great desire to confess and receive unction. Therefore, the pasha saw to it that at any given time, there were at least to priests at the bagno.
Unlike their confessions back home, the slaves had to pay the pasha for the priest’s services. Thus, many slaves were often left without any money to pay for their food or clothing.
Slaves often considered converting into Islam. Converting into the Islamic religion would change a few things for them. For instance, though they would stay slaves, but the rules did not remain as rigid. However, the pasha was left with fewer slaves to exploit, and so the priest’s job was to keep the slaves from converting.
Slaves were often worked to death, and their lives had little to no value. In fact, research has it that the price of slaves was so low, that they believed they could “swap a slave for an onion“, and there were so many slaves at any given time, that if one died, they could easily be swapped by another. Hence, these slaves were worked to death.
Islamic culture and law forbade any trade in alcohol, but was lenient when it came to consumption. Many slaves established small taverns in bagnos and made themselves quite a living, catering to Muslim drinkers. If the slaves were exceptionally gifted, highly profitable for their masters, and valuable to his master, he could be rewarded with mistresses and property.
Catholic Churches tried to buy back their people who were enslaved by the Barbaries. Parishioners were encouraged to provide for the money and locked collection boxes were set up in order to raise money for the ransom of poor slaves.
On the other hand, Protestant countries had a more aggressive approach towards the pirates. During Charles II’s reign, several galleys were ceased by the Royal Navy, while European countries bombarded many slave ports, especially their main port in Algiers in the early to mid-1800s. Europe and America began fighting frequently against the Barbary pirates. They came up with a treaty that abolished Christian slave trade; however, non-European slave trade was allowed to continue.
In 1830, the French invaded Algiers and later Tunis and placed it under colonial rule. However, soon after capturing Tripoli, it was returned to the Ottoman, which was then captured by Italy. And so, the Barbary slave trade ceased for good.