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July 03, 2004

The Lost Slaves

Recently I came across a fascinating little piece of history, one not even taught much in schools outside, I suspect, of Cornwall - if there! Not many people beyond that area would know (I certainly didn't!) about the slaver raids on Cornwall and the North Devon coast in the 17th and early 18th Centuries. These were Barbary Pirates who were based mainly at Salé near Rabat in Morocco. At one point they had occupied Lundy Island and flew the flag of Islam there while they made free capturing ships and crews and raiding the coastal harbours and villages for women and children as slaves.

Crews of ships were actually more valuable than the cargo as far as these raiders were concerned, as they had a higher market value as slaves. Typically, the politicians of the day didn't do much - it was too far from London to be noticed.

In all, over 3,000 people were enslaved from this small corner of the United Kingdom in 1640, alone, and to this must be added many more snatched from the Biscay coast, Portugal, and Spain. One boy, Thomas Pellow, aged 11, a cabin boy on his uncle's ship captured by Barbary pirates off Cape Finisterre spent 23 years before he finally escaped and returned home to Cornwall where he wrote his memoires. If his story is typical of others of this period it would have been particularly difficult to survive, let alone escape.

The story of Thomas Pellow is a fascinating one. This boy found himself a slave to the son of the notorious Sultan Ismail (among whose more charming habits was to personally decapitate the slave holding the stirrup of any horse he mounted - to prove his prowess with a blade!) and then, when the sultan's son was executed on the orders of the Sultan, to the Sultan himself. Only his quick wit and his ability to ensure that he stayed clear of the Sultan's killing rages allowed him to survive. During this time he was (as a child) flogged until he converted to Islam - something he had no hesitation in renouncing as soon as he escaped during the civil war that followed the Sultan's death.

It was not until the 19th Century and the British domination of the seas that the Barbary pirates were in effect smashed. As late as the 1790's Barbary Pirates were seizing ships in the Channel and the entrance to the Irish Sea, but coastal defences (built to defend against France!) were also having their effect, yet still fishermen and coastal traders were being carried off as slaves. It took several fleet actions against their bases and the destruction of their ships to put a stop to this ghastly trade, yet I do not ever hear an acknowledgement of the suffering of these victims among all the blather about how the "evil Europeans" "master-minded" the enslavement of Africans. As this book makes clear, it was the Barbary Pirates near cousins who did the land based business in the Niger, Gambia, Ghana, and Cameroon areas, ably aided and abetted by the local tribal rivalries.

Perhaps our Cornish brethren ought to start a campaign for compensation from the oil-rich North African descendants of the Barbary pirates. After all, many of those descendants will have Cornish, Irish, French, Basque and Spanish blood derived from enslaved girls taken into harems, enslaved men and boys forced into labour. The anti-European "all Western history and wealth is based on exploitation" brigade should look a little more closely at the cultures they seem to think were our victims. Maybe, just maybe, if they are really capable of putting two and two together and coming up with the right answer, they may just realise that these so-called "victims" were even more exploitative than ours.

Somehow though I doubt we will ever see such an admission. Perhaps, too, it is time to start teaching this aspect of history to a wider audience and to ensure that a proper balance is seen by the next generation of this period of history. After all, slavery is still practiced, though not by the supposedly "evil" West, but, unsurprisingly, by the adherents of Islam in the Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere in the Middle East. It may have a new name and a new face, but it still involves the denial of the most basic dignity of the human being, the right to change one's employer, the right to one's own income from one's own efforts.

Children and women are regularly seized in Christian Southern Sudan and sold to wealthy men and women in the North and the surrounding countries. These children and women are then forced to work for their owners and frequently to convert to Islam. They have no hope of returning to their own families and friends and are often far removed from their homes. The practice in some Arab countries of hiring Filipinos and Indians as "domestic" labour - frequently through an "agent" and then refusing to pay salaries, depriving them of passports and identity documents so that they cannot escape or report their situation is the same thing under another guise.

Those who consider the West so exploitative had better take off the rose-tinted spectacles and look closely at what their favourite "victims" are really up too. As I said earlier, I doubt that they will ever admit they may have the tale the wrong way round.

Posted by The Gray Monk at July 3, 2004 09:21 AM


Excellent post. The West has no monopoly on evil and every civilization has at one time or another had it's moments that some would rather forget.


Posted by: JDM at July 3, 2004 05:46 PM

Other slave trades from North (Europe) to South (Africa/Arabia) occurred. Captured Irish were sold by the Vikings to work the (present day) Iraqi silver mines. They often were transported overland in (present day) Russia/Bulgaria. 9th century timeframe, I believe.

Being of Irish descent, I have joked several times about petitioning Iraq for compensation ...

I had never heard of the Thomas Pellow biography before. I'll try to check it out. So many books, so little time.


Posted by: Adriane at July 4, 2004 08:48 AM

I have been told these stories from a young age by my grandparents, it is refreshing to see them in print, as , when I repeat them to people, I am often regarded as quite insane. Owen Phippen is one of the heroes of this time , having spent 7 years as a slave in Algiers from 1620-1627 he and 10 other (cornish) slaves began a cruel fight with 65 african algerians in their own ship, which lasted 3 hours, in which 5 of his company were slain, yet God made him captain and he overcame his captors and despatched them into the sea, took command of their ship, and with his fellow prisoners, sailed back to europe. On reaching Cartegena in Spain, the King , having heard the tale of his heroic deeds in defeating the african pirates, sent for him to Madrid and offered him to join the spanish admiralty(if he would turn papist) for a considerable sum. Yearning for his native Cornwall, Owen politely declined the generous offer, sold the ship for £6000 and got a ride back to England and spent the rest of his days back in his beloved homeland (Lamorran).

Posted by: Richard at October 8, 2004 12:22 PM