“White Gold” by Giles Milton – the story of white slaves captured by Barbary pirates

There is a sadly growing phenomenon called “whataboutery”. This applies when someone mentions a particularly good or bad thing and someone else seeks to dilute the effect of the comment by talking about something else – they tend to start their sentences with “What about …?”. One of the places on social media I have seen this a lot is when slavery is being discussed – someone talks about the incredible evil of the slave trade and its effects which are still important in world society and someone else then says “What about the Arab slave traders who also got rich in the slave trade ?” or “What about the white slaves captured by Muslims ?”. Both of these are real things and worth considering but they are often used as attempts to lessen the impact of the horrific trade in people which was financed by Western nations (especially Britain) and benefitted their economies, especially as the world began to industrialise.

Giles Milton’s book White Gold is about the capture, sale and enslavement of white people by pirates in the eighteenth century. The book is absolutely clear that it is not comparing this practice with the trade in African people and nor was it remotely on the same scale – some reviews on Amazon appear to have missed this fact though and use this book and the events it describes to reinforce modern Islamophobia – the tone of a few reviews is repellent.

We need to cast all this aside and just look at what happened in these events as an interesting history of an activity which occupied less than one hundred years and numbered its victims in the low thousands. This extremely readable book doesn’t hide the savagery and cruelty which was committed but does make it clear that it was restricted to a certain time and place.

Barbary pirates, based in modern day Morocco, roamed the seas and seized ships and their crews for loot and also for the value of the people who could be sold as slaves in their home territory. They travelled as far as Ireland and Cornwall coming ashore and kidnapping men and woman to take to Africa. The author tells this story by concentrating on Thomas Pellow, a young teenager, who was captured as part of the crew of his uncle’s trading ship and held captive in Morocco for over 20 years. When he returned home he wrote about his experiences and his book and the memoirs of other escaped slaves forms the basis of this narrative. While telling Pellow’s story the author also gives an overview of the history of slave trading in white people in this area and the attempts of governments, especially the British, to ransom or buy back the slaves, with mixed success. As Pellow was the personal slave of the sultan he also gives an insight into the court and the quite staggering cruelty of those in power.

This is a fascinating book about a subject of which I knew practically nothing before reading. It’s well written and the concentration on one man’s experiences makes the events seem more personal and real. The author seems to believe the account of Pellow about what happened to him but also uses other sources to illuminate the fate of the slaves. There is less about the slaves that, unlike Pellow, did not agree, following torture, to convert to Islam and also the women. We also get an insight into the ambassadors and civil servants of the British who attempted to negotiate for the return of the slaves (although they did not negotiate for the freedom of anyone who had undergone forced conversion as they considered that they had lost their British citizenship by embracing Islam).

This is very readable and very interesting. It illuminates a practice that lasted for only a short period but which had an immense impact on the slaves and also on the seagoing and coastal dwelling communities. The events of this book are not in any way comparable to the African slave trade in volume or intent but they certainly reminded me that there are many stories out there which are yet untold – I am glad that I read about this one.