Trigger Warning: Racism and Slavery

British captain witnessing the miseries of Christian slaves in Algiers, 1815 Original caption: “Captain Croker horror sricken at Algiers, on witnessing the Miseries of the Christian Slaves chaind & in Irons driven home after labour by Infidels with large Whips. “. Additonnal informations about the source: “The cruelties of the Algerine pirates, shewing the present dreadful state of the English slaves, and other Europeans, at Algiers and Tunis; with the horrid barbarities inflicted on christian mariners shipwrecked on the north western coast of africa and carried into perpetual slavery. authenticated by Mr. Jackson, of Morocco; Mr. MacGill, merchant and by Capt. Walter Croker, of His Majesty’s Sloop Wizard. Who in last July (1815) saw some of the frightful horrors of Algerine Slavery; to rouse general attention to which, this Economical Publication is issued. With an engraving. London: printed for W.Hone, 55 Fleet-Street. 1816”

So this post is about the Barbary Pirates and the white slave trade. What the heck is that you may ask? Well from the 16-19th centuries there were some, more or less independent, states in North Africa (modern day Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya). These states together were known as the Barbary States and what they were famous for were the Corsairs. Basically these guys were pirates whose primary trade was to raid coastal towns on the European side of the Mediterranean Sea. They also raided ships and took as captives many white European men, women, and children. These people were sold into slavery, generally staying within the Barbary states and they were used for hard manual labor. I thank Wikipedia for this basic outline and the artwork.

There endeth the lesson, because what this post is about is the perception of white victimhood. Now let me talk about Robert Davis.

Robert C. Davis
Robert C. Davis

Robert C. Davis is a professor of history at Ohio State university and he has published a rather bold little book entitled “Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800″

Davis’ book

Now this book came out in 2004 but thanks to all of the buzz about the Islamic State it has rediscovered some popularity. Anyways according to this article here, and also here Professor Davis found, using some new methods which he apparently invented, that between 1 and 1.25 million Europeans were enslaved from about 1500-1800, give or take 50 years. Davis himself writes up all of his findings in a neat little article here.
(Davis estimates in this article that the number was between 850,000 to 1.25 million)

Now let me say exactly what is wrong with Davis’ arguments. This is important because Davis is the only thinker who has come up with the over 1 million number for the amount of Europeans enslaved by the Barbary Pirates. A brief internet search will yield you lots of people who have opinions on this, but the only scholar among them, aka the only person who has actually researched this and the person who all of these bloggers inevitably are getting their info from, is Robert C. Davis.

Problem 1: No other scholars corroborate either Davis’ evidence or his theory about how one could come up with these numbers.

In the academic world this is incredibly damning since the only way that your ideas can have merit is if other people, using your methods, come up with the same answers. This article, also addresses Davis findings and it mentions another professor by the name of Dr. David Earle, who is also an expert in this field. Earle declined to speculate on the number of Europeans enslaved, on the basis of lack of information.
Even Ian Blanchard, another expert in a related field, conceded that, and I quote from the above article “We are talking about statistics which are not real, all the figures are estimates. But I don’t find that absolute figure of 1 million at all surprising. It makes total sense.” Blanchard claims that the estimate is reasonable, but that it is essentially made up, invented, created, and not really discovered.

Problem 2: Davis’ method for finding his impressive statistic is based on a guess which is unwarranted and unnecessary.

The various articles, and Davis himself, explains that the over 1 million number was arrived at through guesswork based on assumptions. Let me break it down.

  1. First Davis got his hands on the most accurate historical records he could find (every article assures us of this, although here we are essentially taking his word for it), then he determined a starting number of European slaves to be about 35,000 when the trade began in the 1500’s. (for that information you need to look at his article on the BBC as all of the other articles are vague on how he comes up with his initial number).
  2. Secondly, Davis went into estimation mode. He figured that the Barbary States would have wanted to maintain their population of Christian European Slaves and thus they would have needed to abduct at least 850,000 slaves from around 1530-1780 in order to offset the inevitable loss of slaves due to death, escape, ransom, or conversion to Islam.
  3. Third, Davis says that at most that number could have gone as high as 1,250,000. And this number is his maximal estimate.

However Davis has several problems in his method.

  • He himself claims that the slaves held in the Barbary States during this period were not all white, or European, or Christian. In fact the Barbary pirates participated just as much in the African and Ottoman slave trades as they did in capturing people for themselves. So even if that starting number was 35,000 it is entirely possible (nay likely) that the number of slaves the pirates would have needed to abduct could have been offset by internal slave trading, or “legitimate” (in the sense of they bartered rather than abducted) trade with the African nations and the Ottoman Empire.
  • Also Davis bases his estimate on the idea that slaves would have needed to be replaced because of death, escape, ransom, or conversion. We would only have some idea of this in the last 2 cases, since there really would be no way to know, (or even guess) at how many slaves would be dying or escaping. Again all of these losses could have been offset by internal slave trading, slave breeding, or the African and Ottoman trade.

The real problem is that Davis does not know something, and so he uses bad history, bad science, and bad logic. This is a form of the fallacy known as the appeal to ignorance, and it also involves the fallacy of suppressing evidence (though in this case we are suppressing the lack of evidence). Ultimately Davis flat out guesses at a number that is designed to shock, which brings us to the third problem.

Problem 3: Davis’ research is being driven by a political agenda which is designed to show that whites too were the victims of slavery. He wants you to know that White European Christians suffered at the hands of Black Muslim Africans. This is important so that you will also know that whites were not racist in their own enslaving tactics. In other words, Davis is a racist.

Davis writes in several places that his agenda is to educate the world on the reality of the slave trade. Specifically he wants people to know that slavery predated racism (which is something people know since the Romans enslaved people of all colors and creeds, even other Romans).

Davis says, and I quote ““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…”This sounds both obvious and also strangely political. It sounds as though Davis wants to remind all of us that slavery has nothing to do with race, nor did it ever have anything to do with race. If you think I am being unfair then here is what he has to say elsewhere on the matter.

Slaves in Barbary could be black, brown or white, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim. Contemporaries were too aware of the sort of people enslaved in North Africa to believe, as many do today, that slavery, whether in Barbary or the Americas, was a matter of race.”

What that statement proves is that the Barbary Pirates were not racist, in fact all that Davis has managed to prove is that the Black Muslim Barbary Pirates were actually gender and racial egalitarians, despite being slavers. Yet he pushes it further, he wants to also use this to prove that slavery in the Americas (which was being done by white Europeans of Black Africans and Native Americans) was in fact not motivated by racism. That is both false and also completely unrelated to all of his claims about the Barbary Pirates.

It is very telling that when the combined might of the British, French, and Americans eventually ended the Barbary slave trade that one of the conditions was that the pirates would stop enslaving white Christians. However the pirates remained free to enslave Africans as much as they liked.

It is also telling that during the time of the Barbary Pirates the slave trade in the Americas resulted in approximately 10-12 million Africans being enslaved. (this information is based on actual historical records of the cargoes of slave ships and census data taken from plantations, in case you were curious. The European slavers kept thorough records, how else could you figure out how much money you were going to make on your cargo?)

It is not that Davis is completely wrong about the Barbary pirates and their practices, but rather he wants to argue that since the Barbary pirates were not racist in their enslaving tactics (as they would enslave anyone who was not Muslim) then also the Europeans were not racist in their slaving tactics. This simply isn’t true. At best Davis wants to bring some light on an issue that is often overlooked, he is definitely a bad academic, and he is actually and undeniably a racist.