Academic journal article African Economic History

"[P]ara Que Me Saque Cabesea Por Cabesa.": Exchanging Muslim and Christian Slaves across the Western Mediterranean 1

Academic journal article African Economic History

"[P]ara Que Me Saque Cabesea Por Cabesa.": Exchanging Muslim and Christian Slaves across the Western Mediterranean 1

Article excerpt

In the winter of 1613, the Algerian corsair Babaçain left the port of Algiers captaining a saetia, one of the ships with Latin sails used by North African corsairs, and headed north to the Spanish coast in the hope of capturing Christians to sell back at home. At the time, Babaçain was seventy years old and probably already had plans to retire. This could have been his last embarkation. Sadly, two leagues, around five miles, away from Cartagena, the Algerian ships ran into a Spanish royal squadron. After a brief battle, the Algerians had to acknowledge defeat. Babaçain was taken captive by the captain of the Patrona Real, the galley leading the squadron. He and his crewmembers were interrogated, enslaved, and put to work as oarsmen in the royal fleet. Two years earlier, in 1611, Sergeant Domingo Álvarez, a Spaniard serving Phillip III, was posted with his company, a body of close to 150 soldiers, in Oran, the largest Spanish fort-city in North Africa. Unfortunately, en route, his ship ran into Algerian corsairs. After a brief battle, the Spaniards had to acknowledge defeat, and Álvarez and his comrades were taken captive and enslaved as rowers on the galleys of the Algerians' corsairs, possibly of the kind that Babaçain had captained.2

For early modern ears, such heartbreaking stories sounded fairly common not to say trivial. After all, a few millions of Muslims and Christians were taken captive and enslaved in the early modern Mediterranean: 300,000 to 400,000 Moroccans and North African Ottoman Subjects passed through Portugal and Spain between 1450 and 1750; about 500,000 Muslims were enslaved in Italy between the beginning of the sixteenth century and the end of the eighteenth; in Malta alone, between 35,000 and 40,000 Muslims (around half of which were North Africans) were sold as slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and more than a million Christians were enslaved in the Maghrib between 1530 and 1780.3 It is not always possible to distinguish between Muslims from the Maghrib, Mashriq and Anatolia but the fact that these calculations exclude the Spanish Balearic and Canary Islands, Sardinia and France means that the numbers of Maghribis enslaved in southern Europe must have been even higher. In any case, the sight of laboring slaves or recently ransomed captives begging in the town square was common for Mediterranean city dwellers.

Why juxtapose the captivity tales of Babaçain and Álvarez? Indeed, they are strikingly similar: on the one hand, a corsair, i.e. a "state" authorized pirate, taken captive and employed as a slave by his Christian enemies; on the other, a soldier, captured and enslaved by Muslim enemies. But does mere similarity justify subjecting these human trajectories to the same historiographical framework? And is resemblance the only relation between these trajectories? Most scholars of piracy and captivity answer the first question in the negative.4 The underlying scholarly assumptions are that despite their parallels, these are two distinct historical phenomena: enslavement of Muslims in the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and captivity of Christians in North Africa. Empirically, the claim is based on the fact that Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco did not develop ransom institutions similar to the French and Iberian Orders of Redemption (the Trinitarians and the Mercedarians). In the absence of such institutions, Muslim captives, as opposed to Christians, had little hope of returning home and thus should be considered slaves. On a theoretical level, the treatment of captivity of Muslims and of Christians as two separate phenomena privileges a national rather than a transnational perspective. Scholars' decision to focus on more "real" objects such as nations or states results in writing the histories of Spanish, French, Portuguese or Algerian captivity instead of a connected history of Mediterranean slavery.5 Such perspective overshadows the interdependence and links between the two captivities and disconnects related processes, which were constantly in mutual formation. …

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