Slavery in North Africa


Europeans rarely returned from a life of horror after being hijacked to their south. KEITH SUTER reports on an early slave trade.


In 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.


But 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.


Many 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.


North 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.


In 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.


The 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.


Few people in England in 1625 knew what happened to the victims. They disappeared without trace and most were never heard from again.


England’s 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 by Muslims.


For 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.


Piracy 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 seriously.


Sultans wanted to hold European monarchs to ransom and force them to send emissaries to beg for the return of their people — for a price.


One 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 1715.


It was his first journey to sea.


The 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 fun.


He 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.


Under pressure, Pellow converted to Islam.


Pellow 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 born.


For 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 captivity.


Pellow 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.


But 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.


In 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 being.


It 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 tale.


On 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.


In 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.


European 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 century.


Today, 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 it.


Keith Suter,
Chairman, Anti-Slavery Society


Based in part on White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves by Giles Milton (Hodder & Stoughton).


This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph, November 29, 2004, 35.





Imagine you are a slave in Morocco.  Write a story of how you escaped.





Further Information

The following are useful references:


Giles Milton, White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves, Hodder & Stoughton.

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, Simon & Schuster.

Africa and Slavery, 1801 to 1860: It looks at slavery in Africa at the height — or depths — of the practice.

Links to other pages dealing with the abolition of slavery in other countries:

13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights

American Civil War

British campaign against slavery

Sir Thomas Buxton (1786-1846)

Thomas Clarkson  (1760-1845)

Abraham Lincoln

Granville Sharp (1735-1813)

Slave Trade Act 1807

Slave Trade Act 1824

Slave Trade Act 1843

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Joseph Sturge (1793-1859)

Uncle Tom's Cabin


William Wilberforce  (1759-1833)

Links to other pages dealing with slavery:

Does slavery still exist?






  2003 by the Anti-Slavery Society. The text on any page may be reproduced provided that the source is acknowledged.  This does not apply to photos.