To Go A-Christianing

Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, while the Barbary corsairs ranged freely around the Mediterranean, these pirates also sailed by the dozen up the [English] Channel and even into the Thames estuary, plundering local fishing and coastal towns. . . . The Algerians were said to have taken no fewer than 353 British ships between 1672 and 1682, which would mean that they were still picking up between 290 and 430 new British slaves every year.

—Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters

 Historical truths become casualties of preferred narratives in the present. Modern scholarship, preoccupied with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, gives little more than a passing glance to the scope of corsair piracy. Yet, as historian Robert Davis reminds, the systematic enslavement of white, Christian Europeans by Muslim’s on North Africa’s Barbary Coast, is a crucial, if politically disfavored, aspect of modern slave studies.

Moroccan Slave Market. Anonymous woodcut (17th C.).
Moroccan Slave Market. Anonymous woodcut (17th C.).

Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 leaves no doubt that Islamic slaving was far from a minor phenomenon, not mere corsair hysteria as some would term it. In Davis’ densely documented account, white slavery in the Mahgreb was enormously consequential. In the three centuries of its flourishing, Muslim predation entrapped as many as a million victims from France and Italy to Spain, Holland, Great Britain, the Americas. Even Iceland suffered slave-hunting raids.

The diary of Thomas Baker, English consul in Tripoli from 1679 to 1685, took careful note of ship traffic in and out of the Libyan port. In addition to the usual run of European-bound merchant ships were many local vessels openly setting out “in corso.” Baker was blunt: they were “going out a-thieving,” stalking seas and coastlines for poorly defended Christian prizes. Davis notes that Libyans were particularly fond of what Baker’s contemporaries called “man-taking” or “Christian-stealing.” Their dedication prompted the consul to remark: “To steale Christians . . . is their Lawfull Vocation.”

Ransom of Catholic Slaves by a Monk in the Barbary State. (17th C.).
Ransom of Catholic Slaves by a Monk in the Barbary State. (17th C.).

The Cambridge World History of Slavery estimates the attrition rate for white slaves at 20 percent a year in seventeenth century Maghreb:

Given the age of captives seized from European sailing ships, the hostile epidemiological environment of North Africa, and the harsh working and living conditions [Read Davis for these.] the crude mortality rate among whites was probably higher than among black in the Americas, even on sugar plantations.

Consequently, a steady resupply was needed to sustain existing slave populations. The seasoning of new captives could take several years, leaving half or fewer captives to survive the first five years. Read Davis for detailed descriptions of slave taking and breaking, slave life and labor, including the death-in-life of galley slaves. After examining various slave lists, he concludes that those captured by Muslim corsairs and taken off to Barbary stood a less than 50/50 chance of being ransomed: “They left their bones in unmarked plots, often in shallow graves where dogs or waves could unearth them. .  .   .  Or simply thrown into the sea.”

Davis quotes Piero Ottoni’s 1997 essay in La Repubblica lamenting Italy’s turn inland, and inward, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: “We retired to the countryside. We lost [our] freedom and love of the sea.” In the face of corsair piracy, the people who had produced Columbus, John Cabot, and Amerigo Vespucci were no longer “a nation of navigators, although we did become a nation of bathers.”

Davis’ study offers a rein on the Church’s timorous, conciliating urge—in the wake of Nostra Aetate—to list toward accommodation with an ideology that has sought dominion over Christianity since it first burst out of the Arabian desert. Today’s Boko Haram is not an aberration. Rather, it is a portent of our likely future if we lull ourselves with a flawed understanding of Islam, one dangerously installed in the 1992 edition of the Catechism.

The Catechism refers readers back to Nostra Aetate. As the encyclical’s name suggests, the document is very much of its time. Unhappily, that time happened to be 1965, epicenter of a decade of jingle-jangle mornings and heady student rebellion against reality. “Be reasonable—think the impossible” was one of those utopian slogans that, migrating from the Sorbonne, seeped like gas into popular culture and under the door of the papal apartments as well.

The vapor of 1965 drained into the Catechism three decades later: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslim.” Those words were not intended to apply simply to the human dignity of individuals. Forgetful of how much was owed Britain’s containment of the Ottomans, the Vatican miscast itself as Ophelia, strewing herbs a-Sunday over the dogma and mandates of Islam. Official dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate by Ataturk in 1923 gave the West forty-some years to forget centuries of brutal predation. Rosemary—for remembrance—shriveled in the sun of victory and wafted away. Only rue remains.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, founded in 1964, still bears the marks of the decade of its birth. In its recent condemnation of Islamic barbarity toward the Yezidis (without whom Christians might have gone unnoticed), the Council sweetened its censure with this:

We cannot forget, however, that Christians and Muslims have lived together —it is true with ups and downs—over the centuries, building a culture of peaceful coexistence and civilization of which they are proud.

It was the Beatles all over again: “Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.” Only that it was not. Those downs were severe and consequential. The Council, hobbled by bureaucratic courtesy, fell back on multicultural fantasy. That oblique reference to coexistence offered as history the prevailing myth of medieval convivencia, an illusion of harmony that has drawn fire from contemporary historians. David Nirenberg, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Chicago, put paid to that romance with his magisterial Communities of Violence (1996).

It is time to send members of the Pontifical Council a copy of Davis’ text—Nirenberg’s, too—before we strangle on our own good manners. Anbar province is not as far from Rome as we like to think.