Posted on Apr 11, 2021
The ancient Cornish fishing harbour of Looe, tranquil and idyllic, is a magnet for tourists, with its narrow winding streets - many of which are too narrow for even the smallest of cars - and its quaint fisherman’s cottages overlooking a spectacular seascape, giving visitors a first hand view of a long ago world.
But it wasn’t always so peaceful: for more than two hundred years Looe, and many other villages on the south-west coast of England, were subjected to barbaric raids by North African slave traders.
In one particularly vicious attack, in June 1625, whilst some townspeople had managed to flee as the slavers approached, 80 were captured, and the town was put to the torch.
It is a chapter of history that has been largely “erased”: an inconvenient truth that does not fit the currently accepted - but totally incorrect - narrative that slavery was a racially-based construct inflicted on black Africans by white colonialists.
In his book, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500–1800 (2003), Professor Robert Davis of Ohio State University challenges this narrative: “One of the things that both the public and many scholars have tended to take as given is that slavery was always racial in nature – that only blacks have been slaves. But that is not true. We cannot think of slavery as something that only white people did to black people.”
Over the course of four centuries, the Atlantic slave trade was much larger than the Barbary trade, with as many as 12 million black Africans taken to the Americas. However, Davis points out that from 1500 to 1650, when trans-Atlantic slaving was still in its infancy, more white Christian slaves were probably taken to Barbary than black African slaves to the Americas.
“Much of what has been written gives the impression that there were not many slaves and minimises the impact that slavery had on Europe. Most accounts only look at slavery in one place, or only for a short period of time. But when you take a broader, longer view, the massive scope of this slavery and its powerful impact become clear.”
Indeed, the economic impact on Cornwall, largely dependent, until relatively recently, on the fishing industry was substantial: the Barbary Corsairs, as the North African slavers were known, would regularly take fishermen from their boats. With as many as 60 slave ships off the south-west coast at any time men were afraid to go to sea and risk leaving their families at risk. White European women and children were highly sought after, commanding high prices in the slave markets of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Mortality rates amongst slaves were high, meaning that as much as 25% of the slave population needed to be replaced each year. It is estimated that as many as 1.25 million Europeans - referred to by author Giles Milton as "white gold" - passed through the Barbary Coast slave markets.
In December 1640 the problem had become such that the British Parliament established the Committee for Algiers to oversee the ransoming of captives. At that time it was reported that there were some 3,000 to 5,000 English people in captivity in Algiers.
Parliament charged one Edmund Cason esq., referred to in government records only as a “gentleman”, with negotiating - or rather paying for - the freeing of English slaves.
At that time, the going price was £30 for an adult male, with women and children fetching higher prices.
Cason “persuaded” (with a “gift” of £2500) Algerian ruler Pasha Yusuf II to order his subjects to sell their slaves to him, although many resisted, with some slaves being placed in the hands of Tunisians, who were not obliged by the Pasha’s edict.
Although he is largely forgotten, Cason devoted the final years of his life to freeing the slaves. His hope was to repeat his Algerian successes in Tunisia, but such were the numbers awaiting their freedom and a return to their homes in England, that time ran out on him and he passed away in Algiers on December 5th 1654, still awaiting money and ships from England.
The Barbary slave trade continued until 1816 when in a spectacular action the British and Dutch navies devastated the Barbary fleets, ending their reign of terror for good, and freeing more than 4,000 slaves.
Main image: By Otto Pliny - Otto Pliny, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...
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