Ben Terpstra reviews ‘White Gold’ – a graphic account of the white slave trade. – On Line Opinion – 26/10/2004

16 Nov

I have just finished reading Giles Milton’s White Gold (2004) and it is indeed well worth the effort.

Much is written about the slave trade, but rarely does one read a book about the likes of Thomas Pellow. Barbary corsairs captured the Cornish cabin boy and his shipmates in 1716. Sadly, such kidnappings were commonplace. Between the years 1550-1730, Algiers alone was home to around 25,000 European slaves. At times, there were around 50,000 captives. Slave markets also flourished in Tunis and Morocco where little Thomas was sent. The lad was only 11 years old…

The book’s most disturbing figure is Moulay Ismail, the sultan of Morocco. It is he who buys the young Thomas and routinely executes people whom rub him up the wrong way.

Not content with hijacking ships, the Islamic slave traders would make “home visits” to Europe’s coastal villages and kidnap family members. So popular was the demand for Christian slave labour that some rich Barbary pirates, funded by even richer Sultans, pillaged Reykjavik and returned with 400 very frightened Icelanders. Distance was obviously no barrier. Later, travelling Americans also became sitting ducks.

Does this sound uncomfortably familiar? Like some Islamic extremists of today, the Sultans laughed about holding Europe to ransom. They were rarely met with force…

Giles Milton’s White Gold is a treasure, and we owe it to North Africa’s one million European white slaves to never forget. They were a stolen generation.

So Ben Terpstra. Here, however, is a cautionary note from Reza Aslan’s review in the Houston Chronicle:

Based primarily on narratives published by freed or escaped slaves, White Gold recounts the story of Thomas Pellow, who at age 11 joined the crew of an English trading vessel, the Francis, as a cabin boy and merchant’s apprentice…

Although narratives like Pellow’s have long been dismissed as part of a genre of deliciously scandalous “Orientalist” fantasies wildly popular with the British upper classes, Milton notes that European and Arab chronicles of the time have corroborated many of the events and experiences recounted in these fanciful books. Perhaps. But White Gold would have been better served by a critical analysis of these sources. Milton seems to accept these fantastic narratives as gospel.

This tendency is most apparent in his description of Moulay Ismail, who comes across in the book as comically evil. The sultan’s whimsical brutishness, his supernatural sexual appetite and his limitless capacity for wickedness are reminiscent of the oriental depravities caricatured in The Arabian Nights, popularized in Europe by Antoine Galland’s hugely successful French translation of 1704-1717.

Indeed, by conflating these tales with history, Milton occasionally proves himself as gullible as the 18th-century audiences for whom stories like Pellow’s were originally written…

Not quite so gullible, I suspect. Milton is also alive to a paradox, as is pointed out in Katrina Gulliver’s review in January Magazine:

Aside from the odd trashy movie with an escape from the harem theme, the idea of white slavery is not on the radar of Western culture. The fact that through over 300 years, from the early 16th to the early 19th centuries, more than one million Europeans were captured and sold into slavery in North Africa, has been wiped from our collective memory.

In this book, Giles Milton tries to redress the balance…

The role of the slave industry as the theater of conflict between Christianity and Islam create the most interesting discussions in White Gold. The Moroccan slave markets also dealt in African slaves. The main element in the suitability of individuals for enslavement was not their race but their faith. Just as the trade in white slaves was tapering off, the trade in black slaves was stepping up, and this is not lost on Milton. The contradiction for Europeans petitioning for their citizens’ freedom from slavery while at the same time shipping Africans across the Atlantic does not seem to have troubled the governments of the time, although it is interesting to note that agitators for liberation of black slaves in the Caribbean were drafted to support the liberation of the remaining white slaves in Africa.

Somewhere between gullible Orientalism and excessive Islamic nostalgia the truth probably lies. I must admit that reading about Moulay Ismail I was more than once reminded of Saddam Hussein.

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Posted by on November 16, 2005 in Africa, book reviews, British, Europe, human rights, Islam, Postcolonial, Top read, writers


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