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  • Numbers and the White Slave Trade August 25, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback














    Numbers are hobgoblins in history, especially prior to the beginning of grown-up records in the late nineteenth century. How many people lived in Roman Britain? Well, in the last forty years estimates have ranged from a couple of hundred thousand to six million. How many died in the early modern witch hunts? About five thousand or nine million? How many Christians were butchered as martyrs under the Empire? Gibbon wouldn’t go much over fifteen hundred, others have pushed for three hundred thousand.

    Of course, some of these numbers are outriders and can be rejected. But it is almost certainly optimistic to hope to get within more than say three or four hundred percent of the truth for questions where systematic documentation is lacking: Angus Madison is running for his calculator, but any sane historian should be running for cover. And Beachcombing finds it particularly depressing (yet fun to watch) when old ‘estimates’ (that were guesses) are altered because of new evidence. As if a number multiplied by zero could be anything but zero…

    In his ignorance, Beachcombing would have thought that the question of the number of white slaves was much the same. He knew, of course, that, from 1500-1800, Barbary pirates working out of the Maghreb brought Europeans into their slave markets including Icelanders, Gaels, Americans, Britons, and representative of all the Latin peoples. But historians talked vaguely of ‘thousands’ and Beachcombing was satisfied. There were simply not the records to allow a more exact figure.

    A 2004 book, however, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters by Robert C. Davis has made a stab at saying how many Europeans were enslaved. David starts with the idea that slaves were taken in three ways by the Barbary slavers. A tiny fraction were wrecked on the shore of Barbary, a small number – perhaps a sixth – were actually picked up from the European shore or inland, and the rest were prisoners taken off waylaid ships (33).

    By ‘playing’ with these numbers and constantly searching for a sensible minimum the scholar manages to come up with 1-1.25 million European captives sold in the Muslim slave markets between 1530 and 1780! Indeed, sometimes there were so many European slaves in those markets that it was possible to pick up a Christian ‘for the price of an onion’.

    Even if we halve this – and Beachcombing remains sceptical about how exact the number can be – it is still an extraordinary figure and one that must have been responsible for carrying European influence into the heart of the Muslim world, then – with the ransomed and freed – Islamic influence back into Europe.

    What has been written off as a Beachcoming-style bizarre historical footnote – not least by Beachcombing himself – could actually have been an important dynamic in the early modern Mediterranean.

    Still not much compared to the six million African slaves brought across the Atlantic: though Beachcombing has no idea how reliable that particular number is…

    Beachcombing loves historians making up numbers – see Roman Britain, Witch Craze and Martyrdom above: any other examples would be gratefully received, noted and regurgitated. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com