Muslim Slaves in Early Modern Europe: A Forgotten History of Slavery

Leiden-based research in the Vatican Archives by Felicia Rosu sheds light on an easily ignored part of European history: the positon of Muslim slaves in Christian lands.

Despite recent efforts to raise awareness about the history of slavery, Europeans still see it as a distant, anomalous phenomenon that took place in remote times (the Middle Ages) or far away regions of the world (the colonies and other non-European societies). In reality, slavery was present in Europe until the nineteenth century and on a larger scale than previously assumed by scholars. In southern Europe, the heyday of slavery was the seventeenth century, when tens of thousands of Muslims were held for ransom or labor in Italy, Malta, France, and Spain.

European sources often mention Christian captives on the Barbary Coast of North Africa - Cervantes was a slave in Algiers between 1575 and 1580, for instance - but much less is known about Muslims captured on the other side. And yet, the business of kidnapping, ransoming, trading, and owning slaves of a different religion was not only a North African or Ottoman affair. It followed the Christian-Muslim frontier, from Morocco to the Black Sea, and it was fundamentally reciprocal. The Maltese corsairs were just as terrifying as their Tunisian or Algerian counterparts, and Christian Cossacks rivaled Muslim Tatars in Eastern Europe. While captured Christians were sold on the slave markets of Caffa, Istanbul, Tunis, and Algiers, the Muslims snatched by Christian raiders ended up as rowers on the galleys of the pope, builders of imperial palaces in Vienna, or domestic slaves in Venice and Malta.

Numbers

Systematic research on the demography and treatment of Muslim slaves in early modern Europe still remains to be done. We have enough information, however, to draw some preliminary conclusions about their presence in the Mediterranean area, based on the research done by Michel Fontenay, Salvatore Bono, Anne Brogini, Wolfgang Kaiser, and Robert C. Davis. First, their number was higher than previously thought: for instance, Salvatore Bono estimates that there were about twenty thousand Muslim slaves around 1600 in Naples alone, and four to five hundred thousand between 1500 and 1800 on the Italian peninsula. If we extrapolate these numbers to all of southern Europe, we easily get above one million and possibly more for the entire early modern period—as is also the case with the Christian slaves on the Barbary Coast, who amounted to at least one million in a conservative estimate. These numbers are certainly lower than those pertaining to transatlantic slavery, but they are by no means negligible.

Time in captivity

Second, Muslim slaves tended to spend more time in captivity than their Christian counterparts, mostly because ransom efforts were less organized or simply less successful on the Muslim side. By contrast, the Barbary Coast was flooded with European ransom initiatives - some religious, some private, some state-organized - which managed to repatriate some Christians captives. But even with such concerted efforts, the total number of freed slaves was very low: it is estimated that no more than five percent of the Europeans captured by Barbary corsairs managed to return home. The number of ransomed Muslim slaves is even lower.

Communication

Third - and this is possibly the most interesting aspect of Mediterranean slavery - the Muslim and Christian sides were in constant communication about the treatment of their “public” slaves (i.e. slaves not owned by private individuals but held in prison-like institutions and used by the local authorities as galley rowers or for public works). The communication followed an indirect route. When it concerned religious matters, it often passed through the hands of Vatican officials, who were used as intermediaries in complaints. The usual procedure would follow several steps. First, a group of Muslim slaves held in a place like Malta or Civitavecchia (a port close to Rome) would write to their contacts in Tunis or Algiers to complain about their treatment by their Christian overseers. The complaints would usually be about pressures to convert to Christianity or the loss of privileges such as the use of a separate cemetery. The authorities in Tunis and Algiers would then threaten the Christian missionaries in their area that they would start persecuting the local Christian slaves in a similar manner (either by forcing them to convert to Islam or by confiscating their cemetery). At that point, the missionaries would write to Rome and ask the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (the papal institution that oversaw missionary activities from 1622 onward, also known as Propaganda Fide) to intervene. This is how papal officials would sometimes get involved in negotiating religious rights for Muslim slaves in Christian areas. 

These examples come from the archives of the Propaganda Fide, but more information can be found in other sections of the Vatican archives and in the local repositories scattered around the Mediterranean. The stories of the forgotten Muslim slaves of early modern Christendom are waiting to be told.

By Felicia Rosu

University Lecturer in Early Modern European History

Originally posted on the Leiden Islam Blog on 16/6/2016

Last Modified: 22-09-2016