in North Africa
rarely returned from a life of horror after being
hijacked to their south. KEITH SUTER reports on an early
the 19th century, Britain boasted that it looked after
the rights of its citizens — no matter which country
or condition they found themselves in. Today, Britain,
the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other
countries have a network of consular officials to look
after their citizens who get into trouble overseas.
it was not always like that. In the 17th and early 18th
centuries, about a million Europeans and colonial
Americans were captured by pirates from north Africa:
Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. They were largely
left to die in slavery.
in Morocco were held in one of the world’s largest set
of buildings. The sultan’s palace in Morocco was built
— by slave labor to rival the newly built palace of
Versailles of the French King Louis XIV. The sultan was
intending to build a palace stretching for 480 km, from
Meknes to Marrakesh.
Africa’s wealth came partly from piracy and slavery.
Pirates captured passing vessels in the Mediterranean
and Atlantic, and between 1609 and 1616 they caught 466
English trading ships.
1645 the first American colonial vessel was attacked by
an Islamic pirate vessel. The crew managed to fight off
this assault, but many of their seafaring comrades were
not so fortunate.
pirates also attacked isolated unarmed coastal villages
in Britain and Europe. Fleets of their ships would
conduct hit-and-run operations and get away with their
humans and goods before a faraway national government
could retaliate. In the summer of 1625, the mayor of
Plymouth estimated that a thousand people had been taken
as slaves from his area.
people in England in 1625 knew what happened to the
victims. They disappeared without trace and most were
never heard from again.
King Charles I in that year sent an emissary to north
Africa to see what was happening. Eventually he was able
to buy some slaves out of captivity, and they stunned
the country with their stories of suffering and torture
the next century or so the piracy continued, with
occasional battles at sea. The pirates were better at
sailing and so often won their clashes. They could also
put ashore in north Africa and hide, with European naval
forces reluctant to give chase over land.
was big business. The cost of ransoming a white female
slave was more than most Londoners would earn in a
lifetime. It helps explain why the pirates were more
interested in ships’ crews than their cargoes. North
African sultans used the pirates as a source of wealth.
They also hoped that capturing large numbers of white
slaves would make European rulers take them more
wanted to hold European monarchs to ransom and force
them to send emissaries to beg for the return of their
people — for a price.
of the best-known stories of a white slave was that of
Thomas Pellow, an 11-year-old crew member of the Francis
that left Falmouth, in England’s West Country, in
was his first journey to sea.
cargo ship went to Italy and was returning when t was
caught by pirates in the Bay of Biscay. It was an
unarmed ship that stood no chance against the pirates,
and Pellow was taken into brutal slavery in north Africa
— the Muslim slave owners used to beat Christians for
was lucky because his owner wanted to convert him to
Islam rather than kill him. Conversion may have a saved
slaves’ immediate life, but it meant that they no
longer had any chance of being redeemed by their own
government, which regarded such converts as traitors.
pressure, Pellow converted to Islam.
was then given lighter duties in the sultan’s palace,
which gave him access to better food. The sultan then
married him off to one of the local women, with the hope
that the marriage would result in more slaves being
years, Pellow’s family in England had no information
about his fate. Even if they had, they had no money to
pay a ransom to buy him back. The owner of the Francis
was not worried about the fate of his former crew — he
could always recruit others. In 1719 the family received
news that Pellow was alive but that he had converted to
Islam. This meant that the English Government no longer
listed him as a slave they would like to buy out of
had no choice but to try to escape. This would be a
difficult undertaking because informers were scattered
across the country and his palace was five days’ march
from the Atlantic.
Pellow had some advantages. His palace job meant that he
was in reasonable health. He was also now a fluent
speaker of Arabic and had tanned skin, which meant he
could pass himself off as a wandering merchant. He made
his first attempt in 1721 but was captured, and tried
again in 1728 or 1729 during a time of civil unrest in
Morocco but was caught once more.
1729, his wife and daughter both died of a disease.
Although it had been a forced marriage, it had been a
happy one and he loved his daughter. Indeed, he had
often thought that once he had escaped back to England
alone, he would send for his wife and daughter, although
given they were both Muslims and England was
anti-Islamic, it is not clear how realistic he was
was in 1737 that Pellow made his last dash for freedom.
He was aged 33 and had been a slave for more than two
decades. He set out pretending to be a traveling doctor
and eventually reached the Atlantic coast after six
months. On July 10, 1738, he was on board a vessel
heading for London. His arrival there caused a great
stir because so few slaves ever lived to tell their
October 15, 1738, he landed back at Falmouth. News of
his escape had gone ahead of him thanks to the
efficiency of the newspapers of his day. He was given a
hero’s welcome in his village — including from his
parents, who were now both in their 50s — and returned
to being a Christian.
1740, he wrote the best-seller The History of the
Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow,
which gave a fascinating insight into the horrors of
white slavery in north Africa.
governments continued to mount operations against the
pirates, but the north African pirates were not
completely dealt with until the Ottoman Empire (present
day Turkey) took over north Africa in the late 18th
the sultan’s palace at Sale, Morocco, has largely
gone. What took slaves decades to build was destroyed in
minutes by an earthquake in 1755. There are few traces
of the European and American slaves who died building
Chairman, Anti-Slavery Society
in part on White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of
Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European
Slaves by Giles Milton (Hodder & Stoughton).
article was first published in The
November 29, 2004, 35.
you are a slave in Morocco.
Write a story of how you escaped.
following are useful references:
Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow
and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves,
Hodder & Stoughton.
Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, Simon &
and Slavery, 1801 to 1860: www.fsmitha.com/h31/37-af.html
It looks at slavery in Africa at the height —
or depths — of the practice.