Magazine article USA TODAY

"Faith Slavery" Ensnared Christians and Muslims

Magazine article USA TODAY

"Faith Slavery" Ensnared Christians and Muslims

Article excerpt


Although most people think of slavery as a matter of racial oppression, new research suggests that, between 1500-1800, human bondage often was based on religion. Long-running hostilities between Christians and Muslims in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East during these three centuries resulted in the enslavement of at least 3,000,000 people of both faiths, according to Robert C. Davis, professor of history at Ohio State University, Columbus.

Davis examines this "faith slavery"--a term he coined--in Holy War and Human Bondage: Tales of ChristianMuslim Slavery in the Early-Modern Mediterranean. (He also wrote Christian Slaves. Muslim Master. White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast. and Italy.) Davis estimates that, during these centuries, more than 1,000,000 Muslims were enslaved in Europe and another 2,000,000 Christians suffered the same fate in North Africa and the Near East. "Faith slavery had huge economic and social consequences at the time, but most people today don't even know about it," Davis points out.

Though we are familiar with the clash between Christianity and Islam today, in early-modern times the balance of forces was much different from what it is now. "During that period, both sides, Muslims and Christians, had nearly equal power. It was really a clash of empires and taking slaves was part of the conflict."

It seems that, if people today are familiar with faith slavery at all, it is because of novels and films about Muslim corsairs who used Christians as their galley slaves and about Turkish harems including Christian slave women. In reality, though, Mediterranean slavery was much more extensive, and much more brutal, than these fictional versions might suggest, Davis indicates.

Muslim corsairs would capture ships and raid seaside towns in the Mediterranean and Atlantic in search of men, women, and children. Once captured, men were made to row galleys or work in heavy construction at stone quarries, or on private farms. Women typically were sold into harems, either for household or sexual duties.

Faith slavery went both ways, however, as many thousands of Muslims were captured and enslaved in Italy, Spain, and Malta. "Even rough calculations make it clear that Mediterranean faith slavery was not some minor phenomenon, a petty problem for people at the time, as has been assumed by many historians today. Rather, it was a huge business and a vital part of the economy and the social fabric at the time."

Entire villages along the coast of Italy and Spain were abandoned after raids by Muslim corsairs. …

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