Horrors of Slavery, or, The American Tars in Tripoli

By William Ray; Hester Blum | Go to book overview

Introduction

In Horrors of Slavery (1808) William Ray describes his experience as a captive American sailor in North Africa during the Tripolitan War (1801–1805), the first military encounter of the United States with the Islamic world. Ray had been a schoolteacher and a failed shopkeeper in New York State in the 1790s. In poverty and near-suicidal desperation after his hopes of securing a newspaper editorship in Philadelphia were frustrated, he enlisted on a U.S. frigate bound for the Mediterranean in 1803. Along with more than three hundred crewmates, he spent nineteen bitter months in captivity after his ship, the Philadelphia, ran aground in the harbor of Tripoli and was captured. Imprisoned and consigned to hard labor, Ray witnessed—and chronicled—many of the signal moments of America’s military engagements with Tripoli and the other North African Barbary states. This conflict came at a late moment in the broader, centuries-long struggle between the Barbary states and Europe. His narrative describes the trauma of his enslavement, focusing on the poor conditions the American prisoners faced, as well as how their captivity registered within the broader context of the Tripolitan economy and society. But Ray’s complaints are not solely with the Tripolitan Pasha, or the Bashaw, as he calls him (this introduction follows Ray’s usage), or with Barbary piracy more generally. His account details the abuses inherent in the American naval system of discipline and hierarchy as well. Throughout his captivity narrative, and in his post-captivity writings, Ray decries injustice in all forms. Horrors of Slavery brings to light a little-known yet crucial episode in the early history of American relations with Islamic states, and provides a searing condemnation of tyranny, whether practiced by Barbary pirates, American naval officers, or societal and political institutions more broadly.

Ray came to terms with the “horrors” of his captivity by writing about his experience while still incarcerated in Tripoli, in modern Libya. He would continue to write, in a variety of media and on a variety of topics, upon his return to New York State after his redemption. Horrors of Slavery is unusual, both in its tone and in its

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