American slavery

…as in slavery of Americans. And Europeans.

How many know that perhaps 1.5 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa between 1530 and 1780? We dimly recall that Miguel de Cervantes was briefly in the galleys. But what of the people of the town of Baltimore in Ireland, all carried off by “corsair” raiders in a single night?

Some of this activity was hostage trading and ransom farming rather than the more labor-intensive horror of the Atlantic trade and the Middle Passage, but it exerted a huge effect on the imagination of the time—and probably on no one more than on Thomas Jefferson. Peering at the paragraph denouncing the American slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, later excised, I noticed for the first time that it sarcastically condemned “the Christian King of Great Britain” for engaging in “this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers.” The allusion to Barbary practice seemed inescapable.

One immediate effect of the American Revolution, however, was to strengthen the hand of those very same North African potentates: roughly speaking, the Maghrebian provinces of the Ottoman Empire that conform to today’s Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. Deprived of Royal Navy protection, American shipping became even more subject than before to the depredations of those who controlled the Strait of Gibraltar. The infant United States had therefore to decide not just upon a question of national honor but upon whether it would stand or fall by free navigation of the seas. …

[O]ne cannot get around what Jefferson heard when he went with John Adams to wait upon Tripoli’s ambassador to London in March 1785. When they inquired by what right the Barbary states preyed upon American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, America’s two foremost envoys were informed that “it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

North African slave raids in Europe began before 1000 AD, and only ended in 1830, with the French conquest of Algeria.

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One response to “American slavery

  1. Pingback: American slavery | Reaction Times

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