Book Review: White Gold by Giles Milton

September 28, 2008
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Slavery was - and still is - a world wide phenomena, but I best know it to have happened in the USA in the past, not least because it was a country which went to war with itself over many reasons and slavery was one of them. It recognised the gigantic crime it had committed and is still making restitution for it. It produced literary giants such as Samuel Clements and Alex Haley who wrote about slavery. That said, while I knew slavery existed elsewhere, I did not really know much about the incidence of European slaves till I read a very interesting story about Thomas Pellow. I am sure he will be as famous as Kunta Kinte and Spartacus, the other two famous slaves.

Thomas Pellow was a young lad from a coastal village in England, who was seized by Moorish pirates off his ship in 1715 and was enslaved. His story and that of the slave Sultan of Morocco, the forcible conversions, the attempts of the Europeans to buy back the slaves or to wage war to stop slavery are all quite well described in the book called “White Gold” by Giles Milton (ISBN: 0340794704). Do remember that I am not judging them that much. What’s the point of judging long dead people on the basis of today’s morality? Would you want to be judged on the basis of the morals existing in 2500 AD or 2500 BC? While the book itself is very highly recommended, I would like to extract a few aspects from the book which I found thought provoking and run them past you.

The first was the cost of slaves. While it is tough to estimate the price of slaves based upon local costs, I can do the mark to market based upon the price of slaves which the British government paid at that time. In 1646, the cost of a white Christian slave (let’s not mention the black slaves here) was averaging £38 per slave. That’s male slaves, mind you. Female slaves were brood mares, of course, and their redemption costs in 1646 ranged from £800 to £1392. I think there might be an element of ransom involved but well, that’s neither here nor there.

Considering that wealthy London merchants would hardly earn £40 per year, which was a gigantic sum of money for that time. In today’s terms, a very conservative solely inflation adjusted value would be £4,930 for the male slaves and £104,000-£180,600 for the female slaves. The average annual wage today is about £26,000. So you could perhaps get the male slave, but you will think twice about purchasing a female slave. Quite a turnaround, eh? Now, women are paid less than men, but back then, if you were a female slave, you would be worth 38 times that of men.

The second item brings me to the moral hazard question. You see, this is a classic example of moral hazards. The varied assorted Sultans had it great. They would go and grab Europeans from all over the European seaboard. Bring them back and make slaves out of them. Then get the boys working as slaves, turn the girls into brood mares. So you get work out of them and beat and torture them to convert them so that you get theological brownie points. When the Europeans come around bleating about slaves, ask them for very expensive gifts and then sell their own citizens back to them for huge sums of money. Repeat till they get tired and they wage war. Then sign a treaty and as soon as possible, break it and get the pirates pirating and slaving again. Repeat.

It is a brilliant conveyor belt of money, resources, sex and theological brownie points. If it did not rely on slavery and some very weird thinking, I would admire the sheer economic brilliance of it. And think about it, this system lasted for more than 300 years, longer than the United States of America’s history. It took the combined efforts of many navies, many decades and hundreds of thousands of people before slavery in the North African Arab states was stopped. But it could have been brought to an end earlier if they had stopped buying back slaves and used the money to invest in their respective navies to stop the pirates or to thump the assorted Sultans hard. Just one Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, is estimated to have had up to a million European Slaves during his admittedly long regime (not counting the Black African slaves).

Third, conversions to Islam. This is what was shocking to read. The fact that Christianity did exactly the same did not obviate my surprise to read the lengths to which the Sultan’s guards went to convert these slaves. Not that conversion would change their situation materially. And they were tortured in very gruesome ways (starting from the bastinado to actually sawing the person into pieces) and only stop when the person would agree to turn moor. If you were beaten every day for years on end, most will agree to be converted, if only to avoid the beatings and torture.

Now this was a problem because when the European politicians and ambassadors came around to ransom you, if you had turned moor, then you would not be ransomed. This is the reason why so many white Europeans were left behind and also the reason why so many European slaves did not convert despite torture. A possible reason for their resistance could also be attributed to their faith as evidenced by the example of the Saint Berard of Carbio and his four companions, who were the Franciscan Martyrs of Morocco in 1220. But again tragically ironic, you save yourself by converting, but you cannot be ransomed because you have converted. A medieval catch 22, if you know what I mean!

Fourth, I always thought that Arabs themselves never did the slaving, but only did the trading bit. But no, there were full fledged slaving expeditions. And perhaps “expeditions” is too weak a word for what happened as described. Thomas Pellow was a guard (he moved up the ranks after “gone Moor”, had a public circumcision and all…) in a slaving expedition and the numbers which are mentioned in the book are absolutely amazing. We are talking hundreds of thousands of camels and people who take off from Morocco and travel hundreds of miles across the western edge of the Sahara and then come back with hundreds and thousands of slaves. Now I did read about how the American, British and European slavers would pick up hundreds and thousands of slaves from the African ports and would have slaving expeditions brokered by the Arabs and other African tribes, but I never heard about Arab slaving expeditions. Well, it was quite interesting how they checked teeth, preferred children, and so on and so forth. But now the image of the stinking American slaving ship has been complemented by the image of a miles long Arab slaving camel caravan.

Lastly, and this is the crucial aspect. Back in those medieval times, nobody batted an eyelid at the fact that slaves were captured, mistreated, tortured, forced to convert, bought and sold etc. It was a fact of life and most importantly, it was theologically permitted. So everything was fine. But if you look around the world today, beyond some very limited circumstances (sexual prostitution, domestic servants and the like), slavery has largely vanished. More importantly, while slavery remains in the theology, nobody actually supports slavery any more. That reform has happened and people have accepted it, the Druze abolished slavery way back in the 11th century itself. So for people despairing of reform, do not give up your faith and hope.

I have spoken before about piracy and how the Americans stomped hard on it. This story of Thomas Pellow is before that time, but is quite interesting indeed to see how the Europeans approached this case of slavery in Morocco. During my research, I came across another slave, Ibrahim Pasha, who was Suleyman the Magnificent's first appointed Grand Vizier in the Ottoman Empire. I will be writing a further essay on him, but in the meantime, have a think about Thomas Pellow and his amazing if heartrending story of slavery. Perhaps this quote by Abraham Lincoln might help: "Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it on his love of justice. These principles are in eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely as slavery extension brings them, shocks and throes and convulsions must ceaselessly follow."

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!


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Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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Book Review: White Gold by Giles Milton


Author: Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta


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Vinod Joseph
September 29, 2008
12:57 AM

White Gold is to be taken with a large barrel of salt. The barbary pirates did attack merchant ships and captured slaves who they sold, but attacks on European mainland did not take place on a large scale. France and the UK had an informal treaty with the Barbary States (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria - all part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire) which kept their ships safe from the mid-18th century onwards. After the US became independent, its ships were no longer covered by the Royal Navy's protection and so the US had to fight a war against the Barbary States. During the war, which the US won, a US frigate, the USS Philadelphia was captured by the enemy after it ran aground off Philadelphia. A small force of US marines stormed the grounded ship and burnt it. Finally 500 odd US soldiers and local mercenaries stormed the Libyan city of Derna and won the war. Later in 1815, the US fought the Second Barbary war which finally put an end to attacks on its ships.

Vinod Joseph
September 29, 2008
05:08 AM

There's another very good reason why the Barbary pirates didn't have to raid Europe for slaves. That the whole of sub-Saharan Africa spanned out below them. Why go to Europe looking for slaves when Africa was there for the taking? And take they did. AN estimated 12 million Africans were taken across the Atlantic to the Americas while Muslim traders took around 17 million slaves to the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa.

September 29, 2008
05:25 PM

Hi Vinod

well, looks like the chap had got a good bibliography, and I referred to the US war in my previous essay...

finally, lets not forget that the prices that they got for a white slave was orders of magnitude higher than that of a black slave. So while they had more black slaves, the price of a white slave was much higher, hence their attraction...

September 29, 2008
05:55 PM

Fascinating stuff.

Medieval period was shaped largely by theologies that gave legitimacy and justification for dividing the world into us vs them, faithfuls vs heathens and kaffirs, God vs Creation. When de-divination of creation is theologized, de-humanization, objectification of creation including humanity can not remain far behind.

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