In her new book, Captives and Corsairs, France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Stanford University Press), Gillian Weiss overcomes France’s “selective amnesia” about the slavery between Christians and Muslims and explores how these encounters shaped French history.
Weiss, an assistant professor of history and historian of France, tells the story of sanctioned sea bandits from North Africa called “corsairs,” who captured tens of thousands of French men and, to a lesser extent, French women. These high-sea Mediterranean thieves hunted bounty both material and human.
The corsairs were government-sponsored privateers that operated as the fair-weather forerunners of organized navies. Anyone steering a vessel or living in coastal villages along the Mediterranean was a target.
The thieves used stealth and trickery to capture slow-moving vessels heavy with merchandise. People aboard the ships would be sold into slavery in the Barbary States—today’s Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. North Africans enlisted the skilled and unskilled captives to row galley ships, construct public works, become administrators or do domestic work, while holding them for ransom.
Meanwhile, groups of privateers from European states and groups such as the Catholic Knights of Malta also roved the Mediterranean to enslave Muslims.
This slave trade finally ended when France conquered Algiers in 1830 and, in the following decades, established French colonial power.
But France then found itself in the position of governing the very Barbary corsairs who once enslaved French citizens, Weiss said.
She added that during the colonial period the French wanted to forget this past—one of weakness and servitude, but it came to light in the 1990s when she read hundreds of captives’ letters.
Enthralled by these pleas for freedom, Weiss became one of the first contemporary historians to revisit the influence of slavery in the Mediterranean on France’s history. Other historians have recently researched the fate of captive Italian, Spanish and English people.
In addition to pleas for help, the letters were filled with captives’ fears—contracting the plague, which was endemic at the time; participating in forced acts of sexual perversion with slave masters; and fearing forced conversion from Christianity to Islam.
The possibility of conversion of Christians to Islam helped ignite rescue efforts at home.
Catholic orders raised ransom money to release the faithful. The orders retrieved the captives and paraded them from the port of Marseilles to Paris, persuading donors to help save other souls.
Weiss explained that not all French victims benefited from these benevolent efforts. Protestants, for instance, were left behind.
She writes: “Between then and 1830, liberating slaves from North Africa changed from an expression of Christian charity to a method of state-building and eventually, a rationale for imperial expansion.
“Shifts in royal ability to unshackle countrymen and judgments about whom to release from Muslim bondage had important consequences for ideas of French belonging.”
Bringing home Catholics became a way to exclude Muslim converts and Christian heretics from French society.