Monday, 3 August 2009

The Ending of White Slavery

... (the orthodox variety, anyway) ... which efforts came after the outlawing of the trade in Black slaves, please note.

It's fitting that I end, for now, the series of posts devoted to excerpts from books on White Slavery with a book that describes the final blows to the system.

Giles Milton, White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2004)

In the summer of 1716, a Cornish cabin boy named Thomas Pellow and fifty-one of his comrades were captured at sea by the Barbary corsairs. Their captors - Captain Ali Hakem and his network of fanatical Islamic slave traders - had declared war on the whole of Christendom. France, Spain and Italy had been hit in repeated raids. England’s coastal villages had also suffered a series of devastating attacks. Thousands of Europeans had been snatched from their homes and taken in chains to the great slave markets of Algiers, Tunis and Sale in Morocco. Poked, prodded and put through their paces, they were sold at auction to the highest bidder.

Pellow and his ship-mates were bought by the tyrannical sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, who bragged that his white slaves enabled him to hold all of Europe to ransom. The sultan was constructing an imperial pleasure palace of such scale and grandeur that it would surpass every other building in the world, built entirely by Christian slave labour.

Thomas Pellow was resourceful, resilient and quick-thinking, and was selected by Moulay Ismail for special treatment. As a personal slave of the sultan, he would witness first-hand the barbaric splendour of the imperial Moroccan court, as well as experience daily terror. For twenty-three years, he would dream of his home, his family and freedom. He was one of the fortunate few who survived to tell his tale.

White Gold is an extraordinary and shocking story. Drawn from unpublished letters and manuscripts written by slaves, and by the padres and ambassadors sent to free them, it reveals a disturbing and forgotten chapter of history, told with all the pace and verve of one of our finest historians.

From the epilogue, note again the reference to British toleration of the slavery:

Thomas Pellow’s return to England did not mark the end of the white slave trade. A steady stream of Europeans and Americans continued to be captured usually at sea - and held in wretched conditions in Algiers, Tunis and the great slave pens of Meknes. One of the most infamous incidents involving British mariners occurred in 1746, when the ship, Inspector, was wrecked in Tangier bay. All eighty-seven survivors were taken into captivity.

‘Large iron chains were lock’d around our necks,’ wrote Thomas Troughton, one of the ship’s crew, ‘and twenty of us were link’d together in one chain.’ It was five long years before Troughton and his surviving comrades were bought back by the British government. Their fellow slaves were not so fortunate; the ruling sultan steadfastly refused to release his French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Dutch captives.

But in 1757, the vacant Moroccan throne was seized by Sidi Mohammed, a shrewd and capable individual who was more open to foreign influences than his predecessors. He was ‘endowed with penetration and judgement’, according to the French consul, Louis de Chenier, and enjoyed conversing with European guests at his court. His enlightened opinions raised many eyebrows among his advisors, especially when he declared that Morocco’s shattered finances would be better repaired by international trade than by piracy and slavery. His intention was to encourage vessels from every nation ‘to trade with and enter his ports, being desirous of peace with the whole world’. To this end, he declared war on the corsairs of Salé and Rabat, who had opposed his accession to the throne. They were attacked by his imperial guard and quickly brought to heel. The governor of Salé was brutally stoned to death, and the inhabitants of Rabat were ‘made to feel the resentment of the prince’.

The sultan followed his victory with a flurry of diplomatic activity. He proposed treaties with all the nations that for so long had been the victims of attack. In 1757, he signed a peace treaty with Denmark. Two years later, the British and Dutch also concluded a truce. Sweden followed suit in 1763, and the Republic of Venice added her name to a treaty soon after. Almost every European nation would eventually sign accords with the Moroccan sultan: France and Spain in 1767; Portugal in 1773; Tuscany, Genoa and the Habsburg Empire a few years later. In 1786, the newly independent United States of America also agreed a truce.

The once-great corsair fleet of Salé fell into disrepair during these long years of peace. After two decades of virtual inaction, many of the ships were rotting hulks, no longer seaworthy. European observers reported that the harbour contained no more than fifteen frigates, a few xebecs and some thirty galleys. It was a far cry from the days of old, and ships such as these were no match for the great navies of Britain and France. Yet old habits die hard, and Salé’s corsairs continued to cherish vainglorious dreams of renewing their holy war against Christendom. They recalled the time when their mighty fleet, working in tandem with the still-powerful corsairs of Algiers and Tunis, had wreaked havoc on European shipping. In those days, the white slave auctions had reaped far greater dividends than the more peaceful business of international trade.

Sultan Mohammed died in 1790; his successor, Moulay Sulaiman II, displayed rather more sympathy towards his Salé corsairs even though he ratified the treaties signed by his father. The new sultan went so far as to despatch his much reduced fleet back to the sea in the early years of the nineteenth century, with orders to attack European merchant ships that were trading with his enemies. There were fears that this was the prelude to full-scale hostilities against Christendom.

But the corsairs of Salé, and their fellow slave traders elsewhere in Barbary, were about to discover that they had finally met their match. In the summer of 1816 - exactly one hundred years after Thomas Pellow became one of Moulay Ismail’s slaves in Meknes - they were dealt a devastating blow from which they would never recover. In what was to prove a most extraordinary deus ex machina in the story of white slavery, the Pellow family of Cornwall was about to take its terrible revenge.

The call to arms against Barbary was led by the eccentric British admiral, Sir Sidney Smith. He was passionate about the issue of white slavery and had established a movement devoted to ending the trade for ever. It was called the Society of Knights Liberators of the White Slaves of Africa and it rapidly drew influential members from across Europe. When at the end of the Napoleonic Wars crowned heads and ministers gathered to discuss peace at the Congress of Vienna, which began in 1814, Smith and his knights elected to join them. They organised discussions on the fringes of the congress and petitioned for a military showdown with the lawless rulers of North Africa. ‘This shameful slavery is not only revolting to humanity,’ thundered Smith, ‘but it fetters commerce in the most disastrous manner.’

Sir Sidney and his knights drew attention to a trade that had ensnared at least one million Europeans and Americans over the previous three centuries. The largest concentration of white slaves had always been in Algiers. The city had a continuous population of about 25,000 captives between the years 1550 and 1730, and there were occasions when that number had almost doubled. During the same period, some 7,500 men, women and children had been held in Tunis and Tripoli. The number of slaves in Moulay Ismail’s imperial capital was more difficult to ascertain, even though the conditions in which they were held were better documented than elsewhere in North Africa. The 5,000 captives reported by European padres were contested by Ahmed ez-Zayyani, who claimed that the real figure was at least five times higher.

Although North Africa’s slave population had fallen to 3,000 by the time of the Congress of Vienna, Sir Sidney knew that this was a recent development. He was also aware that snapshot statistics told only part of the story. The number of slaves shipped to North Africa each year was always dependent on the rate at which they died, apostatised or gained their freedom. Dysentery, the plague and forced labour killed thousands, requiring the corsairs to put to sea in search of replacement captives. The ransoming of slaves also played its part in sustaining the flow. For two centuries, perhaps three, there had been an influx to Barbary of almost 5,000 white slaves each year.

The most powerful European leaders read Smith’s petition with interest, but did nothing more than pass a resolution that condemned all forms of slavery. Smith was initially disheartened, but soon discovered that his plea for military action had made a deep impression on the rulers of southern Europe, who continued to suffer considerable losses at the hands of the corsairs. They supported his battle-cry and pointed an approving finger at America, whose government had taken bullish action against North Africa. It had sent a fleet to Algiers just a few months earlier and successfully forced the authorities to release all their American slaves. With this mission uppermost in their minds, the southern European rulers began taunting Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, for his lack of enthusiasm for an attack on Barbary. They accused him of deliberately turning a blind eye to the ravages of the corsairs, since Britain stood to benefit whenever her trading rivals were attacked.

Lord Castlereagh was stung by these criticisms. He had been forceful in advocating the abolition of the black slave trade; now, he vowed to end the trade in white slaves as well. In the summer of 1816, he persuaded the British government to despatch a large fleet to the Mediterranean. Its goal was to compel the rulers of Barbary to stop seizing and selling European captives. There was to be no debate, no payment of bribes and absolutely no concession. ‘If force must be resorted to,’ read the British government’s statement of intent, ‘we have the consolation of knowing that we fight in the sacred cause of humanity.’

There was never any doubt as to who would command this great squadron. In public life he was known as Lord Exmouth, the Vice Admiral of the Mediterranean fleet. But among his friends and family in his native Cornwall he was more familiar as Sir Edward Pellew - a collateral descendant of the same West Country family as Thomas Pellow. The orthography of the Pellow name had changed in the intervening decades, and Sir Edward had acquired a wealth and status that placed him in a very different social stratum to the humble Pellows of Penryn. But he remained deeply attached to his Cornish roots and had chosen to settle his family in Falmouth, less than two miles from Penryn. He was certainly familiar with Thomas Pellow’s story and had a passionate interest in the white slaves of Barbary. When invited by Sir Sidney Smith to join the Society of Knights Liberators, Pellew had leaped at the opportunity. ‘I am greatly obliged to you, my dear Sir Sidney, for thinking of me among your knights,’ he wrote. ‘I shall give it all the support I can.’

Sir Edward Pellew was the right man to tackle the slave traders of Barbary. Bullish and resolute, he was prepared to use overwhelming force to achieve his goal. He had set his sights on Algiers, the most troublesome city in North Africa, fully aware that the defeat of the city’s corsairs would send an unmistakable signal to Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco. Pellew wanted nothing less than the total capitulation of every corsair and slave trader in North Africa.

His formidable fleet arrived off Algiers at the end of August 1816. He anchored his flagship, the Queen Charlotte, in the bay of Algiers and sent an uncompromising message to the ruling dey, Omar Bashaw. Omar was given one hour to capitulate unconditionally, release his slaves and renounce for ever the trade in captured Europeans. When the dey failed to answer, Pellew declared war.

His fleet made a most impressive sight as it manoeuvred into battle positions. He had eighteen men-of-war - some armed with more than 100 big guns - and his forces were bolstered by a squadron of six Dutch vessels. But his optimism about the battle ahead was tempered by the knowledge that Omar Bashaw was a shrewd military tactician, who had strengthened the city defences in anticipation of attack and had called upon the services of thousands of war-hardened fighters.

Each commander was aware that he was playing for the very highest stakes. If Pellew won the battle, the white slave trade would finally be brought to an end. But if he lost, the prestige of the Barbary corsairs would be hugely enhanced. The 3,000 slaves still being held in North Africa would be condemned to perpetual captivity, and European merchant vessels would once again be in danger of attack.

The battle began with a single shot fired from a land battery close to the shoreline. Whether or not it was fired accidentally will never be known, but it wrung a terrible response from the furious Pellew. He had already informed his various captains of the signal for action. Now, standing proudly on the deck of his flagship, he raised his hat high above his head, held it still for a moment, then swung it down towards the deck. As he did so, there was a thunderous roar as all the ships of his fleet opened fire. His own ship, the Queen Charlotte, heeled to port as her twenty-four-pounders blasted their first broadside at the city defences. In the maintop and foretop, the twelve-pounders also let rip, each gun unleashing 300 musket balls at the defending corsairs. As the townspeople of Algiers dived for cover, the other ships of Pellew’s fleet discharged broadside after broadside sending hundreds of cannon-balls crashing into forts, batteries and armed houses. The Amcrican consul, William Shaler, left a graphic account of the destruction wrought by Pellew’s big guns. ‘The cannonade endures with a fury which can only be comprehended from practical experience,’ he wrote. ‘Shells and rockets flyover and by my house like hail.’

The dey’s forces put up a stiff resistance, firing an increasing number of cannonades at Pellew’s fleet. The commander of the Impregnable reported that he had lost 150 killed or wounded, while the Glasgow was hit by dozens of rounds. Even more alarming was the accuracy of Omar’s snipers and sharpshooters. A group of them were hiding in the mole-head battery, from where they were able to pick out the finely uniformed officers on the decks of the British ships. Several had their sights on Pellew, aware that his death would be a devastating blow to the attacking forces. Two musket shots passed clean through Pellew’s clothing but - miraculously - left him uninjured. A third smashed the telescope he was clutching under his left arm. As the heat of battle intensified, a large splinter of wood was embedded in his jaw and a spent shot struck his leg.

Omar’s forces grew increasingly confident as the day wore on. They were wreaking havoc on Pellew’s fleet, shattering timbers with their heavy shot and disabling rigging and sails. ‘Legs, arms, blood, brains and mangled bodies were strewn about in all directions,’ wrote Lieutenant John Whinyates. ‘You could scarcely keep your feet from the slipperiness of the decks, wet with blood.’ Yet Pellew refused to withdraw to safety, for he believed it was his sacred duty to fight to the death. ‘The battle was fairly at issue between a handful of Britons in the noble cause of Christianity,’ he wrote, ‘and a horde of fanatics.’

As dusk descended over Algiers, the tide of battle slowly began to turn. By ten o’clock, the British forces had rained down more than 50,000 cannon-balls on Algiers, reducing the main town batteries to rubble. Pellew could now turn his attention to the great corsair fleet in the harbour. He unleashed firebombs and shells into the tightly packed vessels, with devastating effect. ‘All the ships in the port ... were in flames,’ he wrote, ‘which extended rapidly over the whole arsenal, storehouses and gunboats, exhibiting a spectacle of awful grandeur and interest no pen can describe.’ By one o’clock in the morning, everything in the marina was on fire, and the fireball was rapidly fanning out towards the city.

When dawn broke the next morning, Consul Shaler rubbed his eyes in disbelief when he saw the extent of the destruction. Much of the city lay in ruins, including his own consulate, and entire quarters of Algiers had ceased to exist. ‘The city has suffered incredibly,’ he wrote. ‘There is hardly a house without some damage, and many are ruined.’ The harbour presented an even more awesome sight. ‘The bay was full of the hulks of their navy,’ wrote Pellew’s interpreter, Abraham Salamé, ‘smoking in every direction.’ He added that ‘the most shocking and dreadful sight was the number of dead bodies which were floating on the water.’ More than 2,000 Algerines had been killed many of them corsairs - and an even greater number were fatally injured. The British, by contrast, had suffered 141 dead and 74 wounded.

Pellew was anxious to restart hostilities at first light, but he soon found that there was no need for further action. The dey of Algiers made a brief survey of his once-glorious capital and realised that he could no longer continue the fight. He surrendered unconditionally - a humiliating blow to his pride - and agreed to all of the British commander’s demands. These included the release of all the remaining slaves in Algiers, and the abolition - forever - of Christian slavery.

The 1,642 slaves being held in Algiers could scarcely believe that their ordeal was finally at an end. During the battle they had been chained together and moved to an underground cavern on the hillside above the city. When they learned of Pellew’s victory - and discovered that their guards had fled they tore free from their shackles and burst out of their temporary prison. ‘We rushed out of the cave,’ wrote the French slave, Pierre-Joseph Dumont, ‘and dragging our chains, pushed forward through brambles and thickets, regardless of the blood streaming from our faces and bodies. We simply did not feel our wounds any longer.’

Abraham Salamé was shocked at the condition of the newly liberated slaves. ‘When I arrived on shore, it was the most pitiful sight to see all those poor creatures, in what a horrible state they were.’ But for the slaves themselves, this was the moment they had dreamed of for many years. They cheered, they sang with joy and then - with one exultant cry - they shouted, ‘Long live the English admiral.’

Pellew himself was immensely proud of his role in destroying Algiers, and even more gratified when he was brought the news that Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco had also renounced slavery. The great slave auctions were to be closed in perpetuity, and all of the remaining captives were freed without further ado. ‘To have been one of the humble instruments in the hands of Divine Providence,’ wrote Pellew, ‘ … and destroying forever the insufferable and horrid system of Christian slavery, can never cease to be a source of delight and heartfelt comfort.’ Pellew’s name was feted across Europe, and many of the nations that had suffered from the white slave trade showed their gratitude for his triumphant victory, making him a knight of the Spanish Order of King Charles III and a knight of the Neapolitan Order of St Ferdinand. The Netherlands also gave him an honorary knighthood, as did the island of Sardinia. The Pope was so delighted by the news that he presented Pellew with a rare and extremely valuable cameo.

When Pellew finally returned home to his native Cornwall, he was given a hero’s welcome. For the first time in centuries, the local fishermen and traders could put to sea without any risk of being captured and held as slaves. Ministers in London were no less grateful, showering Pellew with honours. He was elevated to a new rank in the peerage and rewarded with a fabulous addition to his coat of arms. Henceforth, the heraldic shield of the Pellews was emblazoned with a Christian slave clutching a crucifix and breaking free from his fetters. It was a fitting symbol for a family that had a deep personal experience of the horrors of the white slave trade.

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