White Gold : The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves
The true story of white European slaves in eighteenth century Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco
In the summer of 1716, a Cornish cabin boy named Thomas Pellow and fifty-one of his comrades were captured at sea by the Barbary corsairs. Their captors--Ali Hakem and his network of Islamic slave traders--had declared war on the whole of Christendom. France, Spain, England and Italy had suffered a series of devastating attacks. Thousands of Europeans had been snatched from their homes and taken in chains to the great slave markets of Algiers, Tunis and Sal� in Morocco.
Pellow and his shipmates were bought by the tyrannical sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, who was constructing an imperial palace of such scale and grandeur that it would surpass every other building in the world, a palace built entirely by Christian slave labor.
Resourceful, resilient, and quick-thinking, Pellow was selected by Moulay Ismail for special treatment, and was one of the fortunate few who survived to tell his tale.
An extraordinary and shocking story, drawn from unpublished letters and manuscripts written by slaves and by the padres and ambassadors sent to free them, White Gold reveals a disturbing and long forgotten chapter of history.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
June 12, 2006
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Excerpt from White Gold by Giles Milton
A NEW AND DEADLY FOE
THE PALE DAWN sky gave no inkling of the terror that was about to be unleashed. A sea mist hung low in the air, veiling the horizon in a damp and diaphanous shroud. It enabled the mighty fleet to slip silently up the English Channel, unnoticed by the porters and fishermen on Cornwall's southwestern coast.
The lookout who first sighted the vessels was perplexed. It was not the season for the return of the Newfoundland fishing fleet, nor was a foreign flotilla expected in those waters. As the mists lifted and the summer skies cleared, it became apparent that the mysterious ships had not come in friendship. The flags on their mainmasts depicted a human skull on a dark green background--the menacing symbol of a new and terrible enemy It was the third week of July 1625, and England was about to be attacked by the Islamic corsairs of Barbary.
News of the fleet's arrival flashed rapidly along the coast until it reached the naval base of Plymouth. A breathless messenger burst into the office of James Bagg, vice admiral of Cornwall, with the shocking intelligence of the arrival of enemy ships. There were at least "twentye sayle upon this coast"--perhaps many more--and they were armed and ready for action.
Bagg was appalled by what he was told. Over the previous weeks he had received scores of complaints about attacks on Cornish fishing skiffs. Local mayors had sent a stream of letters informing him of the "daily oppression" they were facing at the hands of a little-known foe. Now, that foe appeared to be preparing a far more devastating strike on the south coast of England.
Bagg penned an urgent letter to the lord high admiral in Lon-don, demanding warships to counter the threat. But it was far too late for anything to be done. Within days of their being sighted the corsairs began to wreak havoc, launching hit-and-run raids on the most vulnerable and unprotected seaports. They slipped ashore at Mount's Bay, on the south Cornish coast, while the villagers were at communal prayer. Dressed in Moorish djellabas and wielding damascene scimitars, they made a terrifying sight as they burst into the parish church. One English captive would later describe the corsairs as "ugly onhumayne cretures" who struck the fear of God into all who saw them. "With their heads shaved and their armes almost naked, [they] did teryfie me exceedingly" They were merciless in their treatment of the hapless congregation of Mount's Bay. According to one eyewitness, sixty men, women and children were dragged from the church and carried back to the corsairs' ships.
The fishing port of Looe was also assaulted. The warriors streamed into the cobbled streets and forced their way into cottages and taverns. Much to their fury, they discovered that the villagers had been forewarned of their arrival and many had fled into the surrounding orchards and meadows. Yet the corsairs still managed to seize eighty mariners and fishermen. These unfortunate individuals were led away in chains and Looe was then torched in revenge. The mayor of Plymouth informed the Privy Council of the sorry news, adding that the corsairs were steadily ransacking the surrounding coastline. The West Country, he said, had lost "27 ships and 200 persons taken."
Far more alarming was the news--relayed by the mayor ofBristol--that a second fleet of Barbary corsairs had been sighted in the choppy waters off the north Cornish coast. Their crews had achieved a most spectacular and disquieting coup: they had captured Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and raised the standard of Islam. It had now become their fortified base, from which they attacked the unprotected villages of northern Cornwall. They had "seized diverse people about Padstow" and were threatening to sack and burn the town of Ilfracombe.
These two-pronged attacks caught the West Country completely unprepared. The duke of Buckingham dispatched the veteran sea-dog Francis Stuart to Devon, with orders to root out and destroy this menacing new enemy. But Stuart was dismayed to discover that "they are better sailers than the English ships." His letter to the duke, admitting defeat, expresses his fear that the worst was yet to come. "Theis picaroons, I say, will ever lie han-kering upon our coastes, and the state will find it both chargeable and difficult to cleere it." The long coastline had few defenses to deter the North African corsairs, who found they could pillage with impunity. Day after day, they struck at unarmed fishing com-munities, seizing the inhabitants and burning their homes. By the end of the dreadful summer of 1625, the mayor of Plymouth reckoned that 1,000 skiffs had been destroyed, and a similar num-ber of villagers carried off into slavery.
THESE MISERABLE CAPTIVES were taken to Sale, on Morocco's Atlantic coast. This wind-blown port occupied a commanding position on the north bank of the great Bou Regreg river estuary. Her massive city walls were visible from far out to sea, and her turreted battlements and green-glazed minarets sparkled in the North African sunshine.
Just a few decades earlier, these landmarks had been a welcome sight for England's seafaring merchants. Lace-ruffed Elizabethans had come to Sal� to exchange silver and woolens for exotic produce,brought in by desert caravans from the steaming tropics of equatorial Africa. In the overcrowded souks and alleys, they had jostled and traded with Moorish merchants dressed in flowing djellabas. After much haggling and bartering, they loaded their vessels with ivory and skins, wax, sugar and amber, as well as the fragrant Meknes honey that was famed throughout Europe.
On the south bank of the estuary, directly opposite Sale, lay the ancient town of Rabat. This, too, had been a "great and famous towne," boasting beautiful palaces and an extraordinary twelfth-century mosque. But Rabat had fallen into slow decay. By the early 1600s it was scarcely inhabited, and most of the dwellings had been abandoned. "It was in a manner desolate," wrote an anonymous English visitor, "abandoned by the Arabs because of wild beasts."
Rabat would have fallen into complete ruin had it not been for a most unexpected circumstance. In 1610, King Philip III of Spain expelled all one million Spanish Moors from his land--the final chapter in the reconquest of southern Spain from the infidel. Although these Moriscos had lived in Spain for generations, and many were of mixed stock, they were allowed no right of appeal.