The Barbary slave trade refers to the White slave markets that flourished on the Barbary Coast of North Africa, or modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and western Libya, between the 16th and 19th centuries. These markets prospered while the states were nominally under Ottoman suzerainty, but in reality were mostly autonomous. The North African slave markets traded in European slaves. The European slaves were acquired by local pirates in slave raids on ships and by raids on coastal towns from Italy to Spain, Portugal, France, England and as far afield as Iceland. Men, women and children were captured to such a devastating extent that vast numbers of seacoast towns were abandoned. According to Ohio State University history Professor Robert Davis, who has studied the often neglected white slave trade, at its peak, the depopulation of the European coasts probably exceeded the damage done to the African interior by European slavers.
Davis describes the white slave trade minimized by most modern historians in his book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan).
Davis estimates that 1 million to 1.25 million White Christian Europeans were enslaved in North Africa from the beginning of the 16th century to the middle of the 18th, and roughly 700 Americans were held captive in this region as slaves between 1785 and 1815. The markets declined after the loss of the Barbary Wars and finally ended in the 1830s when the region was conquered by France.
The slave trade had existed in North Africa since antiquity, with a supply of African slaves arriving through trans-Saharan trade routes. The towns on the North African coast were recorded in Roman times for their slave markets, and this trend continued into the medieval age. The Barbary Coast increased in influence in the 15th century when the Ottoman Empire took over as rulers of the area. Coupled with this was an influx of Moorish refugees, newly expelled from Spain after the Reconquista. With Ottoman protection and a host of destitute immigrants, the coastline soon became reputed for piracy. Crews from the seized ships were either enslaved or ransomed.
Rise of the Barbary Pirates
After a revolt in the mid-17th century reduced the ruling Ottoman Pashas to little more than figureheads in the region, the towns of Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and others became independent in all but name. Without a large central authority and its laws, the pirates themselves started to gain much influence. Pirate raids for the acquisition of slaves occurred in towns and villages on the African Atlantic seaboard, as well as in Europe. Reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, England, Ireland, Scotland as far north as Iceland exist from between the 16th to the 19th centuries. It is estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves in Africa during this time period. Famous accounts of Barbary slave raids include a mention in the Diary of Samuel Pepys and a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore, Ireland, during which pirates left with the entire populace of the settlement. Such raids in the Mediterrean were so frequent and devastating that the coastline between Venice to Malaga suffered widespread depopulation, and settlement there was discouraged. In fact, it was said that this was largely because ‘there was no one left to capture any longer’. The power and influence of these pirates during this time was such that nations including the United States of America paid tribute in order to stave off their attacks.
In the first years of the 19th century, the United States of America and some European nations fought and won the First Barbary War and the Second Barbary War against the pirates. After an Anglo-Dutch raid in 1816 on Algiers immobilized most of the Pirate fleet, the Dey of Algiers was forced to agree to terms which included a cessation of the practice of enslaving Christians, although slave trading in non-Europeans could still continue. After losing in this period of formal hostilities with European and American powers, the Barbary states went into decline. However, the Barbary pirates did not cease their operations, and another British raid on Algiers took place in 1824. Finally, France invaded Algiers in 1830, placing it under colonial rule. Tunis was similarly invaded by France in 1881. Tripoli returned to direct Ottoman control in 1835, before finally falling into Italian hands in the 1911 Italo-Turkish War. As such, the slave traders now found that they had to work in accordance with the laws of their governors, and could no longer look to self-regulation. The slave trade finally ceased on the Barbary coast when European governments passed laws granting emancipation to slaves.