Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800.
Robert C. Davis.
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
In this compact yet detailed volume, Robert Davis presents a fairly straight-forward description of slavery in the early-modern Mediterranean. The text is divided into chapters which run through the material without serious regard to chronology, each one intended to communicate a particular facet of the Christian slave’s experience at the hands of Barbary pirates and Maghrebi slaveholders. Unfortunately, he does so in a way that occludes most of the complexities, and eschews most of the theoretical sophistication, that such a topic deserves. Indeed, the book shows nary a hint of the multi-cultural sensitivities or critical nuances that are becoming almost clichéd in this field. The narrative is instead reminiscent of another era of scholarship, when it was possible blithely to echo the sentiments of pre-modern polemicists, and to ignore the vast literature on a not-inconsiderable portion of the book’s subject matter: the Arab and Ottoman culture of North Africa.
Setting out to determine the exact contours of Christian enslavement in North Africa, Davis begins by trying to piece together some estimate of the enterprise’s scale. (ch.1) Although many more were captured (there was, after all, a significant mortality rate), he determines that there were approximately 35,000 Christian slaves in the three main Barbary cities over the seventeenth century, with less certain figures for other periods. (15) His use of sources in arriving at this number is impressive for its thoroughness, and for his efforts to see through the self-serving inflation that affected a good many of those sources. He does, however, make absolutely no use of Muslim sources in his calculations, even though he admits that we have extant material from at least the eighteenth century. (One searches his notes in vain for a single reference to an Ottoman or Arab source.) Having established the extent of the operations, he proceeds to describe the activity of raiders, both in the waters of the Mediterranean and along the littoral regions of (primarily) Italy and the various islands. (ch.2) Along the way, he manages to dismiss the cultural influence of Europeans on North African society, and to misrepresent conversion to Islam in fairly gross terms. In the former case, he states that — despite Christian converts making up one-eighth of the free population of Algiers — any cultural influences were “obliterated” by the nineteenth century colonial experience and “nearly fifty years of self-rule” (26), though he later wants to argue for a long-term cultural impact of slavery on the European side of the Sea: “Unquestionably… the psychological trauma of enslavement or its threat left a mark on the culture of the Christian Mediterranean.” (173) Davis can see a long-term socio-cultural impact of slavery in Italy (though he offers no studies of this), and yet recognizes no shared cultural features with the modern Maghreb?
Far worse is his treatment of conversion, which he seems to treat as either irrational or motivated by self-preservation, depending on where the convert chose to remain for the rest of his life. Davis fails to recognize, in observing converts who later rose to command corsair expeditions, that such individuals might have any honest motives; he alludes to a patina of “false zeal” intended to impress Muslim compatriots, and expresses confusion as to how the “real or imagined wrongs of rejection, abandonment, or persecution” could lead one to target local lords or churchmen. (42-3) Not only does he fail to appreciate obvious class elements, through which a European peasant once in a position of power might turn against a feudal overlord, but he utterly neglects the potential appeal of a meritocratic social order in which a peasant — or former slave — could rise to command a fleet of ships, and having done so, might genuinely hold the unrelenting hierarchies of Christendom in contempt. He seems honestly to have no explanation in mind for the “surprisingly strong” attraction that some former slaves had to the “freewheeling world of the Barbary cities”. (99) In a related point, Davis very strangely describes the desecration of shrines and churches as “violating all spiritual norms”; but desecration of shrines to competing traditions has been a consistent feature of Judeo-Christian history from its very earliest days, and was certainly the norm during the period he studies. Even more curious is his assertion that the “practical aim” of littoral raids may have been the propagation and perpetuation of an image of the Moor as “Satan’s personal agents in the tormenting of Christians”; does he really think that Muslims saw themselves as Satan’s agents? (41-2)
The next two chapters use the accounts of ex-captives, missionary and “redemptive” priests (those involved in freeing slaves), and (for lack of a better term) consular personnel of various states, in order to sketch an portrait of life as a slave in the Maghreb. The material he brings together here is often fascinating, yet again, without even an attempt to mine non-Christian sources, it is difficult to take all of the various particulars with the level of credulity that Davis shows at times. Indeed, even though he notes the questions others have raised about the accuracy of his sources on the matter of brutality, he simply asserts that slavery must have been arbitrary and cruel, dealing in random, terroristic violence, but his only directly-cited sources on this are of North American slavery! (133) It may well be that slavery was equally inhuman in the Barbary states, but outside the European polemics that he draws upon, how can we know? This highlights again the limitations of his source base, and may help to explain his startling representation of sodomy in North Africa. Still unable to understand why any sane person would forsake his former home to remain in a Muslim country, he suggests that it “may not be too far fetched to conclude that some who… left Christendom, with its harsh strictures against homosexual practices… came to the Maghreb… for what they saw as the region’s sexual liberality”. (127) Not only is the category of “homosexual” almost nonsensical prior to the modern era, but Davis must be unaware of the equally “harsh strictures” in Islamic discourse on homosexual conduct. Though there was unquestionably a public recognition of the sexual relationship many men had with boys and younger men, this was certainly a far cry from gay bathhouse culture, which seems to be how Davis would characterize Algiers at this time!
Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters is a difficult work to review fairly, as its many virtues were — for this reader — frequently obscured by its manifold defects. Davis actually argues that the extent of Christian enslavement has been infrequently broached “because it never served anyone’s purpose to know or even guess at the answer.” (193) This is, to put it mildly, difficult to believe. Only in the last few pages does the book begins to show any sincere effort to integrate the history of European enslavement in the Mediterranean with the global history of slavery, which was ostensibly the study’s main purpose. Here Davis tries to engage with the racial components attached to the condition of slavery, particularly by Americans, but does so in a way that — as throughout the book — does not approach the theoretical subtlety that such a study seems to require. On the whole, this book presents a wealth of original research on the European experience of slavery, but the author’s analysis is often hampered by a lack of sufficient scepticism towards his sources, by the negligible presence of critical theories of race and slavery, and by an apparent lack of substantive knowledge on the cultural dynamics of Ottoman and Maghrebi society.