WHEN EUROPEANS WERE SLAVES: RESEARCH SUGGESTS WHITE SLAVERY WAS MUCH MORE COMMON THAN PREVIOUSLY BELIEVED
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A new study suggests that a million or more European Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa between 1530 and1780 - a far greater number than had ever been estimated before. Robert Davis
In a new book, Robert Davis, professor of history at Ohio State University, developed a unique methodology to calculate the number of white Christians who were enslaved along Africa's Barbary Coast, arriving at much higher slave population estimates than any previous studies had found.
Most other accounts of slavery along the Barbary coast didn't try to estimate the number of slaves, or only looked at the number of slaves in particular cities, Davis said. Most previously estimated slave counts have thus tended to be in the thousands, or at most in the tens of thousands. Davis, by contrast, has calculated that between 1 million and 1.25 million European Christians were captured and forced to work in North Africa from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Davis's new estimates appear in the book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan). "Enslavement was a very real possibility for anyone who traveled in the Mediterranean, or who lived along the shores in places like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, and even as far north as England and Iceland."
"Much of what has been written gives the impression that there were not many slaves and minimizes the impact that slavery had on Europe," Davis said. "Most accounts only look at slavery in one place, or only for a short period of time. But when you take a broader, longer view, the massive scope of this slavery and its powerful impact become clear."
Davis said it is useful to compare this Mediterranean slavery to the Atlantic slave trade that brought black Africans to the Americas. Over the course of four centuries, the Atlantic slave trade was much larger
- about 10 to 12 million black Africans were brought to the Americas. But from 1500 to 1650, when trans-Atlantic slaving was still in its infancy, more white Christian slaves were probably taken to Barbary than black African slaves to the Americas, according to Davis.
"One of the things that both the public and many scholars have tended to take as given is that slavery was always racial in nature - that only blacks have been slaves. But that is not true," Davis said. "We cannot think of slavery as something that only white people did to black people."
During the time period Davis studied, it was religion and ethnicity, as much as race, that determined who became slaves.
"Enslavement was a very real possibility for anyone who traveled in the Mediterranean, or who lived along the shores in places like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, and even as far north as England and Iceland," he said.