European slaves in the Moroccan slave market  

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ghking
 ghking
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05/04/2019 10:03 pm  

up a slave to a cruel Moroccan sultan until he makes his daring escape sounds like an exploit out of some Boys' Greatest Adventures book. But the tale of Thomas Pellow is not only true, it's also just one of the stories of thousands of Europeans and Americans who were seized from ships, and sometimes from their beds in coastal villages, by pillaging Barbary corsairs and sold in the slave markets of North Africa. "White Gold" by Giles Milton is, as its subtitle describes, "the extraordinary story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's one million white slaves."

 
 

It's no exaggeration. It is an extraordinary story, a sort of "Lawrence of Arabia" in chains, stitched together from the memoirs of people like Pellow, Arab historians and consular officials. Written in the voice of a raconteur rather than a historian, it often reads like a full-blooded thriller: "The pale dawn sky gave no inkling of the terror that was about to be unleashed."

Thomas Pellow was an 11-year-old boy who sailed with his uncle, Capt. John Pellow, but the ship was captured by corsairs and the crew found itself slaves to Morocco's Sultan Moulay Ismail, forced to work on his pleasure palaces, sometimes 15 hours a day, flogged by his African slave drivers.

Meanwhile, back in England, a succession of monarchs proved remarkably impotent in trying to free their citizens. Several half-hearted attempts at buying the slaves back and at treaties to end slavery proved futile. Moulay Ismail sneered at the English king for being beholden to Parliament. Another problem for Pellow was that the British crown was interested in buying back only slaves who had remained Christian. Pellow had converted to Islam under duress, been circumcised and even gotten married. As an apostate, he should have ended up outside the mercy of his sovereign.

 

But Pellow had some advantages. Having been captured at an early age, he had adjusted to his new world of slave drivers, eunuchs and harems. Fluent in Arabic, he proved to be an invaluable interpreter for some of the emissaries sent by the British court to reason with Moulay Ismail.

 

In this age of Western conflict with Islam, the story of Pellow and his fellow captives is even more fascinating. These European slaves were not just pawns in a great imperial game of naval muscle flexing. There was a definite religious component. The sultan rejoiced when he was able to force or persuade the slaves to convert to Islam. One of the converts, John Ward, vowed to "become a foe to all Christians, bee a persecuter to their trafficke, and an impoverisher of their wealth." Moulay Ismail even demanded that his Western royal counterparts convert to Islam.

Ismail, who ruled for decades, comes off as an autocratic, almost psychotic despot in Milton's account. He makes his grand entrance in a gilded chariot drawn by a harnessed band of his wives (he allegedly had 4,000 concubines) and eunuchs. He is diabolically temperamental, lopping off the head of a slave who helps him onto his horse, holding court in bloodstained robes, killing his son -- but devoutly religious at the same time. Milton acknowledges that Arab historians saw him somewhat differently, as an admired "prince of believers" who tamed the whole of the Maghrib (Morocco). But he obviously relies far more on the slaves' accounts and Western historians for his depictions of the sultan and his subjects. So Capt. Ali Hakem is "fearsome" and the Moors are typically "jeering, hostile." The story is fascinating despite these broad, blood-thirsty brushstrokes because Pellow experiences more in 23 years than most men do their entire lives.

Milton is a gifted storyteller, but he never strays from history into novel. It must have been tempting to imagine Pellow's life back in England after his daring escape from Morocco. But Pellow left little account of his readjustment, and the reader is left wondering as well. Nor, in his efforts to make a hero out of Pellow, does Milton seek to impose 21st century values on him. When he is first offered a dark-skinned African wife, Milton relates, Pellow recoils in horror.

The Western slave trade in Africans is, in fact, the other side of the coin in this story of Islam's white slaves. Even as the courts of Europe fulminated against their hapless citizens rotting in squalid prisons in Morocco and Algeria, thousands and thousands of Africans were being forced to march from the interior of Africa to ships bound for the Americas and the Caribbean. The harrowing voyages were probably as nightmarish as anything Pellow experienced. In fact, writes Milton, "for many, being bought by a Moroccan slave dealer would have been infinitely preferable to being sold into slavery in North America."

European slaves in the Moroccan slave market

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