Slavery and the African empire - an unfamiliar history

For centuries, much of Europe was integrated into a vast African empire. Yet we refuse to fully understand our history. For this tradition of not knowing the West is paying a price it has not yet begun to calculate.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
24 October 2013

Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel - occupied by Barbary pirates from 1628-1634

In 1994 twelve miles from the Devon coast a wreck was found of a ship that had sunk in the early seventeenth century. Shipwrecks are part of West Country lore. Nothing unusual in a shipwreck, except that this one was of a Barbary pirate ship, a North African vessel transporting slaves. They were Europeans bound for Tangier or Tunis or, more likely, the great slave market of Algiers.

The ship discovered centuries later attracted some attention, enough for the British Museum to be alerted. Staging an exhibition of Shakespeare’s world in 2012, the slave ship was mentioned as a possible influence on Shakespeare. The connection itself may be tenuous, but what is striking is the museum director’s admission that previously he had known nothing of the Moorish slavers. Neil MacGregor is a learned man with a facility to describe history not as a series of Important Events, but as a way of reading the past through its artefacts. His History of the World in 100 Objects is a deserved, if unexpected, best seller. But even the director of the British Museum had something hitherto obscure, but profoundly interesting, to learn….

The original Baltimore is a village in the West of Ireland. It lies tranquil and remote between the Connemara Mountains and the Aran Isles. This is poets’ territory with its tangible sense of otherness. It is also, historically, a dangerous place. It is somewhere pirates could operate without hindrance. In 1631 the entire village was taken by North African pirates. The incident is rare only in the numbers taken in one day. The kidnapping and enslavement of Europeans was commonplace. The slave markets of North Africa, Algiers especially, saw thousands of captives of European origin. Sailors and fishermen were prime targets, but others, like inhabitants of Baltimore, also.

The practice continued for generations. Estimates are much higher than one expects. It runs into hundreds of thousands. Pepys was to note in his diary (8 February 1661) of a meeting with Captain Mootham at the Fleece Tavern. The captain had been enslaved in Algiers. Pepys noted the poor diet, the filthy conditions, the cruel punishments – all the customary brutalities of slavery. It was four in the morning before the captain had finished his story.

Of course the captain was fortunate enough to have returned. No doubt a ransom was paid, as it was with Robinson Crusoe. But those who made it back home were the very few. For the rest it was a life of hopeless exile. Many were worked into galleys, in quarries, or the harems. The romantic images we may have of piracy – or of the harem - are belied by the appalling realities. Even a simple crossing across the Irish Sea to Britain could be intercepted by Moorish raiders intent on plunder.

Defoe never read Pepys’s diary (which was not decoded until the Nineteenth Century) but he is known to have met in the taverns sailors – most notably Alexander Selkirk, of course – with their tales of the hazards of life at sea. Defoe had lived a long and full life before he turned to writing fiction. Robinson Crusoe is noted for its marked sense of authenticity. A pamphleteer and journalist before he turned to creative literature, Defoe’s genius was his ability to relate imagined narratives as transcriptions of reality. Crusoe never happened, yet it is true. It is true to the actuality of things.

We ignore the actuality in Crusoe to concentrate on the romance. We forget the early chapters describing Crusoe’s capture and enslavement. A public more familiar with adaptations than with Defoe’s written text may not know of those first chapters. They do not know the whole story. They know of the island. They know of Man Friday. They may interpret Crusoe according to post-colonial sensibilities. But without the prelude in North Africa, the narrative is unbalanced.  The colonial master, the man of property and power had known the powerlessness of being the property of colonial adventurers. We cannot know Robinson Crusoe without reading the full narrative. Only then can we appreciate the irony within the realist manner. Only then can we engage the required sympathy with the man who became Crusoe after so much experience.

The matter of ignoring those first chapters is partly a casual reference for the romantic idea of the lonely castaway. Historically, there was surely the strong appeal of the exiled Christian gentleman maintaining ‘civilized’ standards in a barbarous place. This interpretation created the mindset to produce works like Coral Island and The Swiss Family Robinson. The title of the latter admits its influence.

The misreading of Crusoe is not an accident of history. It is a cultural necessity, a presumption that could not be other in the mind of the West. Slavery is something that happened to other races. It is something that Europeans imposed on Africans. The idea of Africans enslaving Europeans is a wild, anti-colonial fantasy not to be seriously considered.

The history is known. It was known to Defoe, and to Rossini (L’Italiana in Algeri). The relevant documents are not locked in a vault. There are published accounts, easily accessible. But this truth has yet to work their way into the fabric of the Western imagination. The required adjustments are sure to unbalance long-held feelings both of superiority and guilt. We are not the people we thought we were, not entirely. There is another history at work, undermining the self-image of the West as supreme, the unvanquished conqueror of the world order….

Sainte-Agnès is said to be highest littoral village in Europe. Its commanding position on the French-Italian border is the natural site for a fortress. Somewhere, no-one is quite sure where, Hannibal passed by. The Alps to the north look impenetrable, but the great Carthaginian army made their way through. The chateau was built in the Ninth Century, so it is said, by an Arab merchant in love with a Provencal girl. Whatever the truth of its origins, the chateau is one of a number of trading posts built by Arab traders along the French coast from Spain and into Italy.

Visiting Sainte Agnès was a revelation to me. I knew that the Moors had been defeated by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. From there they had retreated over the Pyrenees. It is thought by some, including Gibbon, to have been one of the decisive battles of world history. Others feel that the threat of Moorish conquest was not great. The continuance of the trading posts, and of Moorish influence on Provencal culture, indicates a strong presence of mutual benefit.

Sainte Agnès

Trade with the East was one of the great civilising influences on European culture from antiquity. The silks and spices and fruits, as well as literature and music broadened European sensibilities. Arabic culture is mercantile. Arabic society is essentially a great trading mechanism, a means by which the exotic and alluring alleviates life’s hardships. At the heart of a city are its mosque and its market.

I knew of Moorish Spain of course, and of how favourable a culture it was. It remains a shock to the Western mind to learn that the great Iberian cathedrals, like Lisbon and Cordoba, are converted mosques. It remains an admonishment that the culture that was lost was one of learning and tolerance. Muslim, Jew and Christian lived at peace. The history of those long centuries was quietly forgotten until Washington Irving, serving as American consul in Granada, brought the Alhambra to the world’s attention. The Alhambra had stood undeniably there, yet ignored.

Those other citadels stand even today, ignored. Sainte Agnès is one of many. At the harbour of Amalfi stands an ancient fortress. The vocabulary changes: it is not mauresque but saraceno. The fortress at Amalfi is Arabic, and was one of the trading stations of the North African mercantile empire that endured for centuries. Rome obliterated its great rival Carthage in antiquity, but Africa returned and settled for many centuries after the fall of Rome.

It was more than a quiet corner of southern Spain. For centuries Mediterranean Europe was integrated into a vast trading empire, an African empire. From the Fall of Rome to Napoleonic times Africa had a power and wealth that could rival or surpass the great mercantile empires of Europe. The trading posts stand there as evidence. But it is evidence ignored and forgotten. It doesn’t meet with any self-image Europeans may have of themselves. Europeans may think themselves superior. Or they may be ashamed of the colonial past in general, the slave trade in particular.

The Atlantic slave trade to the Americas did exceed many times the number of Europeans taken to Africa. That must be acknowledged, for there is no way that anything written above should be used to exonerate, or even to mitigate, the shameful history of the Western Powers. That isn’t the purpose in writing this. The better purpose is to seek to balance the perspective of history…  

Ignorance is always the enemy. Mutual incomprehension is the source of avoidable conflict. We went to Sainte Agnes in the summer of 2001. By the time we reached Rome it was September. The World Trade Center had fallen. The American Express office at the Piazza di Spagna had armed guards. It felt like the prelude to war. And so it was.

It is much easier to start a conflict than to end it. A successful resolution will come from mutual respect, a condition in which ignorance can play no part. The problem is in knowing where to begin. The mind is stranded, isolated. The only clue is a single footprint chanced upon.

Let us suppose the mark was made by Ibn Tufail (1105 -1185), a native of Moorish Spain, a physician and statesman, who wrote a remarkable tale, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, of a boy raised by a gazelle, whose first contact with civilization is a castaway, Absal. The narrative becomes a debate between truth discoverable in natural living, and the comforts of material goods.

Translated as Philosophus Autodidactus, the tale became a European bestseller in the Seventeenth Century. Its influence on the European Age of reason was as profound as its earlier influence on Islamic philosophy. Daniel Defoe is known to have read the English translation, which appeared in 1708. It in no way diminishes the genius of Defoe’s narrative to acknowledge this source. We know of other sources that fed into Defoe’s creative mind. Defoe had an encyclopaedic quality, a creativity inspired by knowing. In the long prelude to Defoe’s late flowering of literary masterworks there had been so many pamphlets and chapbooks on all manner of subjects. That he should have read Ibn Tufail was not remarkable. What was extraordinary was the fire of its influence on his imagination…

Consider also a matter of actual exploration, not an imagined fable, but a real life quest for the source of the Nile. The way it is told, at least in the West, is of the heroic efforts of Burton and Livingstone and Speke in the Nineteenth Century. Their exploits were truly heroic, lives of self-sacrificing endeavour that fuelled the myth of empire that masked the greedy, treacherous reality of colonial exploitation. Richard Francis Burton especially deserves respect. Orientalism for him was not a fantasy of odalisques on Turkish divans, but an ability to speak Arabic, and to journey into forbidden territories.

The source of the Nile was not discovered by British Victorians guided only by vague references from an ancient Greek text. The source of the Nile had been known in the Arab world for centuries. Mas’Udi (890-956) was a native of Baghdad, who travelled widely, and wrote many books. Only two of these survive. The Meadows of Gold is a cornucopia of knowledge, including detailed locations of the sources of the Nile. This was a thousand years before Victorian adventurers set out to discover and to claim the River Nile at its source, and eventually its entire length, as a colonial possession. The justification was that nobody had been before, nobody of any education and of civilized capabilities had recorded the discovery for the world. Ignorance and arrogance had robbed a great Arab scholar of his due.

The truth was that Africa was not the Dark Continent of Western sensibilities. It contained, like everywhere, its areas of darkness. Africa is a continent, a world of various topographies, histories and cultures. It has its deserts and its rain forests, its famines and its wealth. It has known great empires of which the West hears so little. It has known also, from antiquity onward, the shame of plunder. But to Victorian explorers Africa was seen as nothing more than a wilderness. Below the Pillars of Hercules there was nothing. There never had been anything.

As for Arabs: in Victorian England ‘arab’ was a word used shamelessly to describe street children. A great culture was seen as little more than a rabble of beggars with some ancient folklore. The Western imperial feeling was that Arabs sold silks and spices, but knew nothing of civility and decorum. Fuelled by hashish, they plundered and murdered. Fuelled by idolatry, they sought conquest. They were stupid, idle, sybaritic, treacherous and cruel.

Those who knew better in the West were few. For this tradition of not knowing the West is paying a price it has not yet begun to calculate. Learning the truth may be initially uncomfortable. The truth often is. But the enrichment of understanding is liberating. There is a rich field for eager young historians to make their mark by exploring the themes sketched here. I can do no more than hint at what may be possible in terms of understanding, and therefore of reconciliation. The West sways between contempt and fear of what it does not understand. It does not understand because it does not know. It does not know, not fully, not sympathetically and imaginatively, not nearly as we ought to know about a history that is ours also. It is a history whose consequences are coming as surely as the dawn unless we consider the footprint in the sand.

If you liked this piece, you can sign up for OurKingdom's weekly update here, join our Facebook here or follow us on Twitter here.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData