Bien au-delà des récits, plus ou moins romancés, de traite des blanches de nos enfances …
Ce serait, selon l’historien américain Robert C. Davis dont le Figaro présente aujourd’hui le dernier livre …
Plus d’un million de personnes, des chrétiens donc et principalement des hommes habitant les côtes méditerranéennes du sud de l’Europe (notamment d’Italie et de France ou d’Espagne, dont le fameux Cervantes lui-même !) …
Qui entre 1530 et 1780 ont été vendus comme esclaves dans les marchés des grandes villes de la « Barbarie », Alger, Tripoli ou Tunis.
Razzias permanentes qui hanteront et traumatiseront pendant des siècles des villages entiers, comme en témoignent encore aujourd’hui ces inévitables tours de guet et la construction systématique sur des promontoires rocheux, faisant dos à la mer.
Mais aussi… la tête de Maure du drapeau corse !
Les conditions, souvent dans des sortes de bagnes publics, étaient particulièrement atroces (avoir des esclaves chrétiens étant apparemment une manière d’affirmer la primauté de l’islam), avec un taux de mortalité très élevé (autour de 15 % vs 10% pour la traite noire atlantique, mais jusqu’à… 80% dans la traite musulmane).
Certains razziés iront même jusqu’à se convertir à l’Islam et mener ensuite à leur tour des razzias contre leurs anciens compatriotes.
Sans parler de ces Occidentaux qui, comme par exemple l’ordre de Malte, se mirent à possédaient eux aussi leurs esclaves… musulmans cette fois !
Donc pas de « code noir » ici pour limiter les pouvoirs du maître musulman sur son esclave, même si les captifs pouvaient, à la différence de la traite africaine et moyennant rançon, échapper à leur captivité. Avec hélas (comme aujourd’hui en Afrique orientale ou dans les affaires de prises d’otages au Moyen-orient !) l’effet pervers, quand des institutions religieuses vont s’en mêler, de rendre l’affaire plus rentable pour les razzieurs, et donc… d’accentuer lesdits raids !
Jusqu’aux flottes de superpuissances comme l’Angleterre ou la France qui se virent forcées de payer des tributs aux deys (ou aux célèbres… Barberousses !) de la « Côte barbare » avec le même effet pervers d’inciter à la prise en otage de vaisseaux entiers !
Et il faudra donc attendre que le jeune état américain en ait assez de payer son million de dollars annuel et la création d’une flotte assez puissante – assistée des fameux Marines avec leur non moins célèbre hymne « To the shores of Tripoli » * – pour finalement arrêter tout ça, d’abord en 1805 puis finalement en 1815 !
Razzias en terres chrétiennes
Jacques de Saint-Victor
Le Figaro Littéraire
11 mai 2006
L’historien américain Robert C. Davis, rappelle que plus d’un million de chrétiens ont été asservis par les Barbaresques entre le XVIe et le XVIIIe siècle.
VOILÀ UN LIVRE savant qui fera date en ce lendemain de la journée commémorative de l’abolition de l’esclavage. L’étude de l’historien américain Robert C. Davis vient apporter un élément entièrement nouveau dans ce dossier en évoquant la traite dont les chrétiens furent victimes par les arabo-musulmans en Méditerranée du XVIe et XVIIIe siècle. Son travail, le premier d’une telle ampleur, renouvelle la connaissance que l’on peut avoir de l’esclavage, ce crime contre l’humanité dont la liste des pratiques ne finit pas, hélas, de s’allonger. On connaît bien aujourd’hui, notamment grâce aux travaux d’histoire globale d’Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, la traite des Africains par les Blancs, tout comme celle des Noirs par les Arabes. Mais celle des chrétiens par les musulmans restait, en revanche, totalement ignorée.
Ce que Davis appelle « l’autre esclavage » a pourtant touché un nombre considérable de chrétiens. Contrairement à ce qu’avait cru Fernand Braudel, qui avait minimisé le phénomène dans ses travaux sur la Méditerranée, ce serait plus d’un million de personnes, principalement des hommes habitant les pourtours de la Méditerranée, qui ont été vendus comme esclaves dans les marchés d’Alger, de Tripoli ou de Tunis, les principales villes de ce qu’on appelait alors la Barbarie. On est loin du tableau anecdotique d’une Angélique livrée aux Barbaresques pour sa beauté. La plupart des victimes furent d’ailleurs principalement des hommes, venus d’Espagne, de France et surtout d’Italie. Avant l’étude de Davis, ce phénomène n’avait jamais pu être chiffré. Professeur d’histoire sociale italienne à l’université de l’Ohio, l’auteur a consacré de longues années d’étude à ce phénomène qui a marqué pendant des siècles les populations du sud de la Méditerranée, notamment celles qui étaient les plus proches des Etats barbaresques et qui ont été en butte à des razzias très fréquentes (ainsi subsistent sur les côtes méditerranéennes ces tours destinées à informer les populations d’une razzia imminente). Le danger était permanent. L’auteur rappelle que les musulmans conservaient au XVIe siècle des bases dans certaines îles de la péninsule italienne, comme Ischia, au large de Naples… De nombreux villages, construits sur des promontoires rocheux, faisant dos à la mer, portent témoignage du traumatisme de ces populations locales qui pouvaient, à l’aube, être capturées par des bateaux surgissant en silence de la brume. Les plus durement frappés furent les marins, les marchands et les modestes pêcheurs de ce qu’il était alors convenu d’appeler « la mer de la peur » !
Les conditions de vie des esclaves chrétiens ont été souvent effroyables, particulièrement dans les bagnes publics, où il régnait un climat de violence sexuelle. Mais, à la différence de la traite africaine, les captifs pouvaient, moyennant rançon, échapper à leur captivité. Des institutions religieuses vont d’ailleurs se spécialiser en Europe pour racheter ces malheureux, comme les Trinitaires ou les Mercédaires. Aussi les esclaves chrétiens n’ont-ils pas fait souche en terre d’Islam. Pourtant, ils y restèrent en moyenne près d’une dizaine d’années, quand ils n’y mouraient pas tout simplement (le taux de mortalité y était élevé, autour de 15 %). Certains préférèrent se convertir à l’Islam et mener ensuite à leur tour des razzias contre leurs anciens compatriotes.
Mais les récits des chrétiens ont parfois été romancés, ce qui explique que pendant longtemps on a négligé ce type d’esclavage. On sait désormais qu’il faut le considérer avec attention. Ainsi peut-on lire Captifs en Barbarie, ce récit poignant d’un jeune mousse anglais, Thomas Pellow, capturé au XVIIIe siècle en Méditerranée et vendu comme esclave au terrible sultan Moulay Ismaïl, qui l’utilise, avec des milliers d’autres chrétiens, à la construction de son palais gigantesque. Racontée par le journaliste anglais Giles Milton, cette histoire, certes anecdotique, complète la magnifique étude de Robert C. Davis qui rappelle qu’il n’y eut en Barbarie aucun pendant du célèbre « code noir » pour venir limiter les pouvoirs du maître musulman sur son esclave.
Esclaves chrétiens Maîtres musulmans
L’esclavage blanc en Méditerranée (1500-1800)
de Robert C. Davis
Editions Jacqueline Chambon, 333p., 22 €.
Captifs en Barbarie. L’histoire extraordinaire des esclaves européens en terre d’Islam
de Giles Milton
Noir sur blanc, 301 p., 25 €.
Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau : «Un esclavage qui n’a pas laissé de traces»
Propos recueillis par J. S.-V.
Le Figaro Littéraire
le 11 mai 2006
L’historien, qui a publié chez Gallimard une somme qui fait autorité sur les traites négrières, commente les découvertes de Davis sur l’esclavage des chrétiens.
LE FIGARO LITTÉRAIRE. – L’étude de Robert C. Davis montre que l’esclavage des chrétiens par les musulmans en Méditerranée n’a rien d’un phénomène anecdotique.
Olivier PÉTRÉ-GRENOUIL-LEAU. – En effet, c’est l’un des apports de ce livre, qui ouvre une nouvelle piste dans le champ des études sur l’esclavage. Jusqu’à présent, en dehors de quelques spécialistes, on pouvait penser que la captivité des chrétiens par les barbaresques relevait de la simple anecdote. Les récits de captivité, à commencer par celui de Cervantès, contribuaient à cette légende car ils étaient souvent romancés. Et il était surtout très difficile de se faire une idée de l’ampleur du phénomène. L’étude de Davis donne pour la première fois une analyse chiffrée. On se rend compte qu’il s’agit d’un esclavage d’assez grande ampleur qui est resté longtemps ignoré. Pour le XVIe siècle, le nombre des esclaves chrétiens razziés par les musulmans est supérieur à celui des Africains déportés aux Amériques. Il est vrai que la traite des Noirs ne prendra vraiment son essor qu’à la fin du XVIIe siècle, avec la révolution sucrière dans les Antilles. Mais, selon Davis, il y aurait eu environ un million de Blancs chrétiens réduits en esclavage par les barbaresques entre 1530 et 1780.
C’est un chiffre impressionnant.
Certes. Mais il ne faut pas se focaliser sur la question des chiffres, afin d’établir une sorte d’échelle de Richter des esclavages. Ce que le travail de Davis permet d’affirmer, c’est que cet esclavage des chrétiens entre le XVIe et le XVIIIe siècle renvoie à une réalité non négligeable. Rien de plus. S’il est resté pour une large part ignoré, c’est qu’il n’a pas laissé beaucoup de traces. Les esclaves blancs étaient en effet principalement, à 90%, des hommes, qui ne faisaient pas souche en terre d’Islam, à l’inverse des Africains aux Amériques. C’est aussi que le questionnement est souvent premier en histoire (on se pose des questions, puis l’on recherche les sources permettant éventuellement d’y répondre) et que cet esclavage n’a pas beaucoup intéressé les historiens.
L’asservissement des Blancs par les musulmans n’est-il pas cependant assez différent de celui subi par les esclaves africains aux Amériques ?
Il est différent à plusieurs titres. Tout d’abord, cet esclavage ne répond pas à la même logique. Au départ, les barbaresques se livrent à des opérations de course et de piraterie sur les côtes de la Méditerranée, comme c’est l’usage chez certains peuples marins depuis la plus Haute Antiquité. On avait pris l’habitude depuis l’époque byzantine de rédiger des traités prévoyant l’échange réciproque d’esclaves. Puis, les chrétiens se mobilisant pour «racheter» leurs proches tombés en esclavage, l’affaire devint plus rentable pour les razzieurs. C’est paradoxalement cette perspective financière qui accentua les raids musulmans à partir du XVIe siècle. En devenant directement et assez facilement monnayables, les esclaves devinrent des proies plus séduisantes que les navires ou les cargaisons. Les barbaresques se mirent alors à multiplier leurs razzias sur les côtes de la Méditerranée, notamment en Italie du Sud. Dans le cas de la traite transatlantique, l’esclavage répondait à un autre but : fournir une main-d’oeuvre bon marché aux colonies. Les Noirs ne pouvaient être rachetés mais seulement – rarement – se racheter eux-mêmes. Ils firent souche en Amérique, ce qui ne fut jamais le cas des chrétiens.
Il n’y a donc pas eu de traite proprement dite.
On ne devrait pas en effet parler d’une «traite» des Blancs car les musulmans cherchaient de l’argent plus ou moins rapidement, ils ne se sont pas livrés à un trafic de main-d’oeuvre. Au bout de quelques années, les esclaves chrétiens étaient soit rachetés et ils rentraient chez eux, ou ils disparaissaient. Le taux de mortalité était assez fort. Autour de 15%, selon Davis.
Certaines pratiques laissent penser que cet esclavage répond aussi à une volonté d’humilier les chrétiens, la préfiguration d’une sorte de «choc de civilisation» ?
Il peut y avoir eu un arrière-plan de lutte religieuse entre l’islam et la chrétienté. Avoir des esclaves chrétiens était une manière d’affirmer la primauté de l’islam. Mais ce critère n’était pas prioritaire, il pouvait simplement devenir un facteur aggravant dans certains cas. Les esclaves chrétiens ont d’ailleurs été traités d’une manière très différente selon les cas. Ils avaient des fonctions très variées. C’est là un trait distinctif entre les serfs, toujours attachés à la glèbe, et les esclaves. Certains ont servi comme domestiques, d’autres comme ouvriers agricoles, beaucoup ont moisi dans des bagnes.
Quand cette pratique a-t-elle cessé ?
On évoque encore cette question en 1815 au congrès de Vienne. Mais, dès le début du XIXe siècle, les avantages de la course et de la piraterie ont considérablement baissé et cette pratique va disparaître. En conclusion, je reprocherai surtout au travail de Davis de n’avoir pas assez inscrit cette traite dans le cadre de l’esclavage en Méditerranée. C’est ainsi que des Occidentaux, je pense par exemple à l’ordre de Malte, possédaient eux aussi des esclaves musulmans. Il faudra d’ailleurs attendre l’invasion de Malte par Bonaparte pour qu’ils soient libérés…
* Voir les paroles du célèbre hymne des Marines:
From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.
First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title of United States Marine.
Our Flag’s unfurled to every breeze from dawn to setting sun.
We have fought in every clime and place, where we could take a gun.
In the snow of far off northern lands and in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job, the United States Marines.
Here’s health to you and to our Corps, which we are proud to serve.
In many a strife we’ve fought for life and never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy ever look on heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.
Voir enfin l’ouvrage de l’historienne britannique Linda Colley (« captives »):
as late as 1715 the British army was no larger than that commanded by the king of Sardinia, while at the same period there were at least 20,000 British civilians enslaved in the Barbary sultanates of north Africa.
William Dalrymple is fascinated by Linda Colley’s forgotten tales of British defeats in India and north Africa in Captives
Saturday November 9, 2002
Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850
by Linda Colley
438pp, Cape, £20
However embarrassed we may be by our former Raj heroes – those Havelocks and Napiers swaggering imperiously on their plinths in Trafalgar Square or staring portentously, ossified and khaki-clad, all the way up Whitehall – we still tend to think of them as rather manly men: the sort of outdoor types who would not flinch from a 500-mile route march in the midsummer tropical heat, and who would know what to do with a Gatling gun when faced with hordes of marauding Others. Yet according to Linda Colley’s brilliant, subtle and important new book, Captives, there was a time when Indians looked on their would-be British rulers in a very different and much less flattering manner; when they thought of the British military as effeminate, indeed as little better than eunuchs.
Colley’s thesis is that the unprecedented military success and world political and economic domination achieved by the Victorian British has blinded us to the smallness and vulnerability of Britain in the preceding two and a half centuries: after all, she points out, as late as 1715 the British army was no larger than that commanded by the king of Sardinia, while at the same period there were at least 20,000 British civilians enslaved in the Barbary sultanates of north Africa.
It is significant that this surprises us as much as it does: it is as if the Victorians colonised not just one quarter of the globe, but also, more permanently, our imaginations, to the exclusion of all other images of the British encounter and collision with the wider world, from the Elizabethan period onwards. Colley shows the extent to which tales of British weakness and defeat at the hands of sophisticated Muslim states in north Africa, the Middle East and India have been consciously edited out of the historical record.
So, for example, we remember our various military triumphs in and around Bombay but have performed a collective act of amnesia about another far more important colony gained at the same time (1661) – Tangier, part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, with its bowling greens, pubs and Anglican churches. It was once the pride of Britain’s intended Mediterranean empire, but was humiliatingly lost to the Moroccans in 1684, despite unprecedented investment by the crown in its defences.
Hence also our failure to remember many other British military defeats and losses such as the catastrophic defeat of the armies of the East India Company by Tipu Sultan at Pollilur in 1780, only a few months before the equally disastrous surrender of Yorktown and the loss of America.
Pollilur led to the slaughter of an entire army and the capture of one in five of all the British soldiers in India. No fewer than 7,000 British men, along with an unknown number of women, were held captive by Tipu in his sophisticated fortress of Seringapatam. Of these more than 300 were circumcised and given Muslim names and clothes. Even more humiliatingly, several British regimental drummer boys were made to wear ghagra cholis and entertain the Mysore court as nautch girls.
At the end of 10 years’ captivity, one of these prisoners, James Scurry, found that he had forgotten how to sit in a chair or use a knife and fork; his English was « broken and confused, having lost all its vernacular idiom », his skin had darkened to the « swarthy complexion of Negroes » and he found he actively disliked wearing European clothes. This was the ultimate colonial nightmare, and in its most unpalatable form: the captive preferring the ways of his captors, the coloniser colonised.
The image of the British defeat at Pollilur, painted on the walls of Tipu’s summer palace at Seringapatam, is brilliantly interpreted by Colley as showing how Mysore’s victors viewed the surrounded and defeated British at the moment the British defeat became certain: « The white soldiers all appear in uniform jackets of red, a colour associated in India with eunuchs and women, » writes Colley. Moreover the British are « conspicuously and invariably clean shaven. Neatly side-burned, with doe-like eyes, raised eyebrows and pretty pink lips, they have been painted to look like girls, or at least creatures that are not fully male. »
Colley is certainly on to something here: a few years later, another British soldier of the time, General Charles « Hindoo » Stuart, campaigned for British troops to be encouraged to grow extensive facial hair as otherwise their masculinity would not be taken seriously by their Indian enemies, noting that until he himself grew a beard, « mendicants supplicated me, for charity, by the appellation of Beeby Saheb [Great Lady], mistaking my sex from the smoothness of my face. »
Captives is at once a human tale of the forgotten and marginal individuals – « common seamen and private soldiers, itinerants and exiles, convicts and assorted womenfolk » – involved in a succession of little-known British defeats and captivities, and a wider meditation on the character and diversity of Britain’s incipient empire. Using the rich and revealing source of captivity narratives as a way of unlocking some of the central truths about British weakness, smallness and vulnerability, she shows how the British rise to world domination was neither smooth nor inevitable.
She also dramatically highlights the human cost of that expansion. The lives of ordinary British men and women were completely disrupted in the process of imperial adventures overseas: men like John Rutherford, captured in North America, who for a while became a Chippewa warrior; or Sarah Shade, an East India Company camp follower, who became one of Tipu’s captives at Seringapatam.
Colley is especially good on those who after capture fell hopelessly under the spell of India or Islamic north Africa, and entered what in those days must have seemed like a parallel universe, responding to their travels and captivities with a profound alteration of the self, slowly shedding their Britishness and Christianity like an unwanted skin, and adopting Islamic dress, studying Islamic teachings and taking on the ways of the Moroccan or Mughal governing classes they would in time come to replace. In particular, she shows how many British captives converted to Islam in India and north Africa: both the Moroccans and the Mughals were able to field entire regiments of European renegade converts to Islam.
It is at this point perhaps that Colley’s methodology limits her vision. By concentrating principally on captivity narratives (a genre much studied in American universities but relatively neglected in Europe) she misses the possibly more interesting point that until the mid-19th century many Europeans chose of their own free will to convert to Islam and take on eastern ways, without necessarily becoming captives first.
This had always been the case: as early as the mid-17th century, the English ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, Sir Thomas Shirley, complained about the large number of « roagues, & the skumme of people whyche are fledde to the Turke for succour & releyffe ». The fact was, as Shirley pointed out in one of his dispatches, that the more time Englishmen spent in the east, the closer they moved to adopting the manners of the Muslims: « conuersation with infidelles doeth mutch corrupte, » he wrote. « Many wylde youthes… in euerye 3 yeere that they staye in Turkye they loose one article of theyre faythe. »
Islam overcame the English as much by its sophistication and power of attraction as by its power to seize and enslave. In 1606 even the English consul in Egypt, Benjamin Bishop, converted and promptly disappeared from public records. The same was true in Mughal India: within a few years of the East India Company establishing itself in Agra, the company’s most senior official in India had to break the news of « ye damned apostacy of one of your servants, Josua Blackwelle », who had « privately conveighed himselfe to the Governor of ye citty, who, being prepaired, with the Qazi and others attended his comeing; before whome hee most wickedly and desperately renounced his Christian faith… and is irrecoverably lost ».
Nor was it just Islam that lured the British out of their sola topees: « Hindoo » Stuart (he of the smooth cheeks) firmly believed he had become a Hindu (though it is technically impossible to convert to Hinduism) and took to travelling around the country with a team of Brahmins who used to attend his idols and dress his food, to the astonishment of at least one memsahib recently arrived from England: « There was here an Englishman, born and educated in a Christian land, » wrote Elizabeth Fenton in her journal, « who has become the wretched and degraded partaker of this heathen worship, a General S- who has for some years adopted the habits and religion, if religion it be named, of these people; and he is generally believed to be in a sane mind. »
Despite the occasional errors and inaccuracies, especially in the Indian section (there was, for example, no such person as the Begum Sumru Sardhana – Sardhana was the begum’s capital, not her name), Captives is a major work: a complete reappraisal of a period, strikingly original in both theme and form, mixing narrative and fine descriptive prose with analysis in an entirely fresh and gripping way. It is at once clever and perceptive, making you look afresh at themes and subjects you took completely for granted. It will undoubtedly confirm Colley’s reputation not only as one of the most exciting and original historians of her generation, but also one of the most interesting writers of non-fiction around.
· William Dalrymple’s book, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th-Century India is published by HarperCollins
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006
Extrait de son entretien sur le site de Princeton :
British identity also seems to be in jeopardy in Captives (2002). What is the book about, and what inspired you to write it?
In part this project was inspired by my reading of American history. American historians have written about captives for a long time, typically captives held by Native Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The British have not really studied this aspect of their past.
I wanted to write about the British Empire, but not in the usual way. The standard narrative of the empire involves Brits going abroad, taking various countries captive, invading them, and being dominant until they are forced out. I wanted to alter that picture. Britain was a small country with a limited army, its forces stretched very thin over the world as its empire grew bigger and bigger. Between 1600 and 1850 tens of thousands of Britons were taken captive by foreigners. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise: if you intrude violently into another person’s territory, captive-taking is one of the results. I thought that by exploring what happened to these people I could construct a rather more nuanced picture of what the empire was like, and I could show the weakness and vulnerability of the British, not just the strength and aggression. I looked at cases of captivity in the Mediterranean and North Africa, in India, in Afghanistan, and in North America. I also wanted to revise standard imperial history in another way. Histories of the British Empire have generally focused on elite groups–« generals, politicians, the major merchants and investors, and so forth. The big people. In fact, the majority of the people involved in making the empire were poor whites, and their experiences have hardly been written about. I also showed that a surprising number of these individuals were not involuntary captives. Some crossed over to the other side deliberately. A lot of the people I was writing about had been driven into the army or navy against their will. Many decided after being captured that their new circumstances were an improvement over the old. There were Brits who joined Native American communities in North America. In North Africa quite a few British captives converted to Islam and some married local women. There were British soldiers in India who ended up serving Indian princes. These kinds of stories had tended to be brushed under the carpet when the empire was still in existence–« this wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted in the history books.
Unlike your previous books, Captives is global in scale. Was this a challenging book to write?
It was a tremendous challenge. I was only able to do it because in 1998 I won a Leverhulme Research Professorship, which gives you five years to do your own work. I was able to do masses of reading outside my area of specialization. I also spent a lot of time visiting the places I was writing about. Unless you have some sense of geography, of just how huge these expanses of land were that the Brits tried to move into, you don’t fully understand what a fraught business this often was. And I wasn’t looking at empire in the late 19th century, when many things were mechanized and you had the telegraph; I was looking at the 17th and 18th and early 19th centuries, when for the most part you couldn’t move faster on land than a horse. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to reconstruct the experiences of these people unless I had a better sense of the geography.
Your current project also concerns a British captive.
Yes, right now I’m working on a shorter book that follows the life of a single woman. It started as a spin-off from Captives, although it has become more than that. Quite a few former captives, those who made it back, went on to publish accounts of their experiences. So there is a lot of written evidence from these people, although you have to sieve it with care. As I was working on this very broad book, Captives, I came across a lot of personal stories that I had to compress. I decided that when I finished, I wanted to take a single person and devote a short book to his or her story. I chose a woman named Elizabeth Marsh who was taken captive in the Mediterranean in 1756 by Moroccan corsairs. Later she wrote a book about her experiences in captivity in Morocco. As I did research on this woman I discovered that she had had an extraordinary life. She was conceived in Jamaica and was probably of mixed race; she spent time in Minorca and Gibraltar, as well as North Africa; she and her husband went bankrupt in the 1760s (after buying land in Florida) and moved from London to India, where she wrote a travel narrative; and she even had connections with the Pacific! People in the mid-18th century were becoming much more conscious of what we might call proto-globalization, the way that different parts of the world were impacting on one another and migration among the continents was increasing. My new book follows the life of Elizabeth Marsh as a way of exploring these global currents. All these trends are concentrated in her life, and thanks to her writings I was able to write a deeper book about the topic. The book also comes back to questions of identity, as I guess all my books do. What happens to your sense of who you are when you are uprooted from where you came from? And not just once, but repeatedly?
Et celui du non-spécialiste Giles Milton (« White gold »):
From Publishers Weekly
For this harrowing story of white captives in 18th-century Morocco, Milton (author of the highly praised Nathaniel’s Nutmeg) draws primarily on the memoir of a Cornish cabin boy, Thomas Pellow, who was taken by Islamic pirates in 1716 and sold as a slave to the legendarily tyrannical Sultan Moulay Ismail. Pellow remained in Morocco for more than 20 years, his family barely recognizing him when he at last escaped home. Placing Pellow’s tale within wider horizons, Milton describes how, during the 17th and 18th centuries, thousands of European captives were snatched from their coastal villages by Islamic slave traders intent on waging war on Christendom. Put into forced labor and appalling living conditions, they perished in huge numbers. As a pragmatic convert to Islam, Pellow fared better, earning a wife who bore him a daughter. Milton includes Pellow’s years as a soldier in Moulay Ismail’s army and draws out his cliff-hanging escape back to England. Pellow’s sensational tale dominates the book, and though rendered in seductively poised prose, in the end it feels short on ideas and argument. Milton also fails to cite other historians working in this area (a prime example being Linda Colley). 16 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW; 2 maps.
From The Washington Post’s Book World/washingtonpost.com
Giles Milton’s new book is a fascinating account of a long-forgotten era when an awful menace terrorized the coastal waters of North Africa. In the 17th and 18th centuries, countless vessels leaving the coasts of Europe and colonial North America were seized at sea by bands of Barbary corsairs, who confiscated their cargo and dragged their hapless crews to the shores of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli to be sold into slavery.
Based primarily on narratives published by freed or escaped slaves, White Gold recounts the story of Thomas Pellow, who at age 11 joined the crew of an English trading vessel, the Francis, as a cabin boy and merchant’s apprentice. Pellow’s ship left Cornwall in 1715, carrying a cargo of salted pilchards to trade in Genoa. Upon setting sail for home, the Francis was overtaken by a band of « fanatical corsairs of Barbary » who, in a « deranged fury, » boarded the ship, overpowered its unarmed crew and seized its precious cargo of Italian wares meant for sale in England. But the merchandise was a mere pittance compared to the real prize of the ship: its crew.
In the early 1700s, the trade in European slaves was a booming business throughout North Africa, even though, in size and scope, it did not compare to Europe’s own immensely profitable African slave trade. According to Milton, nearly 1 million Europeans passed through the markets of coastal towns like Salé, on the north coast of Morocco, where they were auctioned off to the highest bidder. For better or worse, Pellow’s crew was spared such humiliation and instead marched directly to the imperial city of Meknes, where they were ceremonially presented as gifts to the cruel and capricious sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail.
Being a strong and hearty young boy, Pellow immediately caught the attention of Moulay Ismail and was initiated into the sultan’s personal retinue of servants. Pellow spent the next 23 years as a slave at the imperial court, where he was routinely beaten and starved, forced to convert to Islam and ultimately placed at the head of the sultan’s armies. Through a series of fortunate accidents, Pellow not only managed to survive his ordeal but eventually escaped back to England to publish his adventures for a captive audience.
Although narratives like Pellow’s have long been dismissed as part of a genre of deliciously scandalous « Orientalist » fantasies wildly popular with the British upper classes, Milton notes that European and Arab chronicles of the time have corroborated many of the events and experiences recounted in these fanciful books. Perhaps. But White Gold would have been better served by a critical analysis of these sources. Far from providing any such criticism, Milton seems to accept these fantastic narratives as gospel.
This tendency is perhaps most apparent in his description of Moulay Ismail, who comes across in the book as comically evil. The sultan’s whimsical brutishness (at one point, he elaborately tortured and executed a cat that had snatched and killed a rabbit), his supernatural sexual appetite (he is reported to have had 10,000 concubines), and his limitless capacity for wickedness (he took particular pleasure in greeting guests while drenched in the blood of slaves he had personally dismembered) are reminiscent of the oriental depravities caricatured in The Arabian Nights, popularized in Europe by Antoine Galland’s hugely successful French translation of 1704-1717.
Indeed, by conflating these tales with history, Milton occasionally proves himself as gullible as the 18th-century audiences for whom stories like Pellow’s were originally written. For example, many European slaves certainly were forced to convert to Islam, either through torture or by being offered certain « privileges » (like food and shelter) as rewards. But Pellow’s account of his own forced conversion — in which his 11-year-old self patiently endures month after month of horrific torture, administered by the crown prince himself, with whom Pellow remarkably engages in a quasi-theological debate (in Arabic or English, one can’t tell which) before finally submitting to Islam — is so absurd that the reader is stunned to find Milton swallowing the tale whole.
That White Gold merely regurgitates Pellow’s « memoirs » is even more troubling because Milton enthusiastically adopts the outmoded vocabulary of the era, repeatedly referring in his book to « Christian » slaves and even « Christian » vessels being captured by « Muslim » pirates and sold to « Muslim » masters. Even the book’s subtitle, with its reference to « Islam’s One Million White Slaves » — obviously meant to cash in on contemporary fixations with the Muslim world — is an indication of Milton’s deliberately perverse terminology. Why, the reader wonders, is it not North Africa’s slave trade, rather than Islam’s? After all, this is the only region in the whole of the Muslim world where such a phenomenon occurred. And Milton never refers to Europe’s own slave trade, which enslaved 15 million Africans, as a « Christian » slave trade. Still, while such oddities should not be easily forgiven, particularly in our current climate, they do not spoil what is ultimately a fun and fanciful story from a little-known chapter in history.
Reviewed by Reza Aslan
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
The horrors of the transatlantic slave trade have been extensively documented in print and eloquently portrayed on film and television. But chattel slavery was a well-established African as well as European institution, and its victims were not exclusively people of color. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, the Barbary states of North Africa used Islamic pirates, or corsairs, to conduct slave raids, which fed the flourishing slave markets of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Many of the enslaved were white Europeans or North Americans captured at sea. Among them was Thomas Pellow, an 11-year-old English child who was seized in 1716 and served for 23 years as a personal servant to Sultan Moulay Ismail of Morocco. Milton relates Pellow’s compelling story as a triumph of wile, pluck, and endurance; but this is also a tale of great brutality and suffering, as Milton eloquently shows that all of the indignities one associates with European and American slavery were visited upon those held in North Africa. A riveting account. Jay Freeman
Simon Winchester, The Boston Globe
« [A] fascinating narrative. »
Praise from Britain for White Gold :
« White Gold is lively, and diligently researched, a chronicle of cruelty on a grand scale. An unfailingly entertaining piece of popular history. » –Sunday Telegraph
« [Giles Milton] is a popular, non-academic historian drawn to dramatic, even bizarre subjects, researched in highly enterprising ways, and told in a vividly swashbuckling style. An exciting and sensational account of a really swashbuckling historical episode, White Gold will do very well for this summer’s beach read. » –The Spectator
« White Gold delivers on its promise of exotic thrills. » –Rhoda Koenig, The Evening Standard
The true story of white European slaves in eighteenth century Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco
In the summer of 1716, a Cornish cabin boy named Thomas Pellow and fifty-one of his comrades were captured at sea by the Barbary corsairs. Their captors–Ali Hakem and his network of Islamic slave traders–had declared war on the whole of Christendom. France, Spain, England and Italy had suffered a series of devastating attacks. Thousands of Europeans had been snatched from their homes and taken in chains to the great slave markets of Algiers, Tunis and Salé in Morocco.
Pellow and his shipmates were bought by the tyrannical sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, who was constructing an imperial palace of such scale and grandeur that it would surpass every other building in the world, a palace built entirely by Christian slave labor.
Resourceful, resilient, and quick-thinking, Pellow was selected by Moulay Ismail for special treatment, and was one of the fortunate few who survived to tell his tale.
An extraordinary and shocking story, drawn from unpublished letters and manuscripts written by slaves and by the padres and ambassadors sent to free them, White Gold reveals a disturbing and long forgotten chapter of history.
About the Author
Giles Milton is the author of Samurai William (FSG, 2003), The Riddle and the Knight (FSG, 2001), Big Chief Elizabeth (FSG, 2000) and Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (FSG, 1999). He lives in London.