A Terrifying Slave Raid On Baltimore

Yesterday I wrote of Juneteeth, the remembrance and celebration of the coming of freedom to Texas slaves. Today I look into slavery in another era, and in a completely different setting.

A small village on a rather barren stretch of coast was suddenly descended upon by a slaving party who captured as many able-bodied inhabitants as they could, killed those who were of no use to them, and burned the such modest shelters as the villagers had. The captives were shackled and bound together, marched into the slavers’ ship, crammed into the foul and nearly suffocating hold of the ship to be carried across the sea to a new and unfamiliar world and sold in the slave markets of that world so unlike the world in which they had been raised; not a one of those enslaved would ever see their homeland again. It is notable that, perhaps contrary to expectations, in this case the slavers hailed from Africa while the enslaved villagers were Europeans.

It was on 20 June in 1631 that the small town of Baltimore, County Cork, Ireland, was set upon by Algerian corsairs who killed two of the town’s residents and carried off between 100 and 200 of its inhabitants into slavery in the Ottoman Empire. The raiding force was not particularly large at perhaps 200 pirates. But the town was not fortified, and the Mohammedan raiders landed at 2:00 in the morning when all the townsfolk were asleep. The raid has ever after been known as “The Sack Of Baltimore,” and that is also the title of a 19th Century poem by Thomas Davis which commemorates the event.

The Sack of Baltimore was not by any means a unique occurrence, and as far as such raids go, it was rather minor. But Davis’ poem has ensured that the event be remembered. Though the piece was much admired when it was published in the early 19th Century, its style is unpopular today. It nevertheless served to preserve the memory of the devastating raid.

In the wake of the raid, most of the inhabitants of Baltimore moved further inland to Skibbereen. Baltimore faded into obscurity until the late 19th Century. And the fate of the hundred or so men, women, and children who were enslaved remains unknown to this day.

Such raids were the commonplace risks of living on Europe’s coasts between 1500 and 1850. Pirates operating under the aegis of the Ottoman Empire preyed freely upon the coasts of Western Europe and the Mediterranean and Black seas, and even raided as far north as Iceland, where a 1627 raid depopulated whole regions of the island. Sources vary as to the number of captives taken from Iceland in the raid. The Icelandic Tourist Board states that 237 people were captured, other sources claim as many as 1,200. Most sources settle on a range of between 400 and 800, but the data is very hard to confirm. A large number of people were killed by the raiders as well. In any case, it was a huge loss for the island and its people. One of those captured was a Lutheran minister. He was later sent to Denmark to negotiate the payment of a ransom for some of the enslaved Icelanders. His memoir of the experience was one of many such accounts from the 17th and 18th Centuries. (Though it has recently been translated into English, I’ve not been able to locate a copy.)

Especially in the early 17th century, Corsair raids were frequent along the Cornish coast, Southern England, Wales, Ireland, as well as in the South of France, Spain, southern Italy, Sicily, and other Mediterranean islands. The naval commander of Plymouth complained to the Privy Council that there were not enough ships in the waters around England to defend against the raiders, for the pirates wisely avoided large and well-defended locations.

It has been estimated that between 1500 and 1850, as many as 2 million European Christians were forced into slavery in the Islamic world. Though there were no European slave raids against Ottoman territories, during this same period, Christian Europeans themselves were considerable slavers as well, carrying between 5 and 10 million Africans into slavery in the New World. (It was always easy to justify the enslavement of those who were “others.” The Islamics could in good conscience enslave Christians – Mohammed forbade Islamics to enslave fellow Mohammedans – and Christians could enslave pagan Africans and use the Bible to justify their actions.)

By the middle of the 19th Century, Western naval and military progress had advanced to a state which completely dominated the forces of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and at length, the threat of North African pirates raiding European countries finally ceased. Europe gradually got out of the slave trade so that by 1850 no European nation was directly engaged in that activity. Popular sentiment during the emerging Industrial Revolution no longer tolerated slavery. England, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States all outlawed the overseas slave trade before 1850. Spain held out until 1880.

The last Western nation to abolish slavery and the trade was Brazil in 1888. In Africa the trade flourished well into the 20th Century. In the 1930s the writer/adventurer Richard Halliburton bought two slaves in Timbuktu at a large and flourishing marketplace. According to the National Geographic Magazine in its August 2002 issue, slavery is still practiced throughout much of Africa and the Middle East.

The Ottoman Empire never abolished slavery, though under Kemal Ataturk Turkey forbade it in the 1920s. Saudi Arabia has still never formally abolished slavery, a situation that still obtains in many Middle Eastern countries. Though mostly unproven, there are rumors and tales of tourists and students in Africa and the Middle East being taken into slavery to this very day. And in the myriad conflicts and civil upheavals that have been plaguing African nations recently, thousands of hapless unfortunates have been enslaved as well.

I must ask: What Century is this?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong
impulse to see it tried upon him personally.

— Abraham Lincoln

There are many hundreds of books which examine the history of slavery and its impact. Having studied the subject extensively in school, I can offer a useful bibliography from my own reading, though some of the books are rather old and may be hard to find. More recently I took up the subject of Christian slaves in the Islamic world.

I frequently describe a book as “readable.” To me this is an essential quality for any work, and I consider not faint praise but high praise for a work of history; far too many history works are dry as two-day-old toast and just as stale.


The sack of Baltimore:

The Stolen Village: Baltimore And The Barbary Pirates, Des Ekin; The O’Brien Press, Ltd., 2008: ISBN: 9781847171047

Irish journalist Des Ekin was intrigued by the many references to the sack of Baltimore when he was researching an earlier book, and his interest was piqued. He discovered that while there was a rich variety of documentation related to the raid, there was not a single, book-length treatment. Because none of the enslaved villagers were ever redeemed, and because of a lack of records from Algiers of that era, Ekin decided to write about the fate of the slaves after the raid by inference, drawing from documented accounts of people who were similarly enslaved but who were later redeemed. This highly readable account is a valuable contribution to an aspect of history that is all too often overlooked.

Islam’s Christian Slaves:

Slavery In The Arab World, Murray Gordon; New Amsterdam, 1989: ISBN: 1561310239

In This well written book, Gordon covers almost a millennium of Arab slavery. Gordon goes into extensive detail about the racial and sexist aspects of Arab slavery – he observes that, as in the West, slavery gave rise to endemic racism among the enslavers, and he notes the importance of supplying concubines for the Harem trade. He also points out that the Arab slave trade reached its peak in the 19th Century as Europe was moving away from it, and he gives due consideration to the abolition movement among 19th Century Islamic clerics in Africa.

Race And Slavery In The Middle East, Bernard Lewis; Oxford University Press, 1990: ISBN: 0195053265

Princeton History Professor Lewis is widely known as a foremost Western scholar of Islamic history and culture. His writing is often tedious and repetitive, and he seems to rove over centuries with no apparent pattern. He reads more as an apologist for Islam than as an independent historian. In chapter 11, on Abolition, he quotes extensively from sources that insist that Islamic slavery is a good thing for the slaves and the slaveholders. I read Lewis because one must, but I am no fan.

Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery In the Mediterranean, The Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500 – 1800, Robert C. Davis; Palgrave MacMillan, 2003: ISBN: 0333719662

Professor Davis’ book is a wealth of well-researched data. He includes a comprehensive table of the major Islamic slave raids upon Europe between 1509 and 1815 as well as extremely extensive endnotes. The book is also very readable.

White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam’s One Million White Slaves, Giles Milton; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004: ISBN: 0374289352

Using his research based upon the diaries and memoirs of Thomas Pellow, an 18th Century Cornishman who was enslaved in North Africa for more than 20 years, Giles Milton tells a tale of both horror and courage. Milton’s book is perhaps a bit too uncritical in its reliance upon Pellow’s memoirs, for they were written as a commercial endeavor, and were undoubtedly sensationalized to help assure good sales. Nevertheless, a readable and informative book.

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, The First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, Richard Zacks; Hyperion, 2005: ISBN: 1401300030

Zacks tells the story of the capture of the United States Navy’s Philadelphia in Tripoli and the subsequent enslavement of its crew and officers. The ensuing diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and an Islamic state could have come from today’s headlines. In the first chapter of the book, Zacks recounts the raids of Islamic slavers on Europes Mediterranean coasts, and he later describes the lot of the American sailors who were enslaved in Tripoli. This is an excellent account of a little known episode in American history.

Slavery In The New World:

Slavery,(3rd Ed.) Stanley Elkins; University of Chicago Press, 1976: ISBN 0226204774

First published in 1959, Elkins’ book is a foundation of the modern historical understanding of the subject of slavery in the New World. Elkins, who was Emeritus Professor at Smith College until his death in September 2013, conducted extensive research in North and South America, mining an immense wealth of data from legal archives of laws and cases, which he used to compare the relative status and the condition of slaves in the United States and slaves in Latin America. Elkins’ conclusion – that slavery was less oppressive in Latin America due to far greater extension of legal rights and protections to slaves than in the U.S. – spurred a huge outpouring of critical debate. Today, Elkin’s conclusion has been disproven by subsequent researchers. Nevertheless, his work still contains essential and valuable data on the subject of New World slavery, and it remains a standard reference.

The Problem Of Slavery In Western Culture, David Brion Davis, Cornell University Press, 1966; LoC 66-14348

Yale Emeritus Professor David Brion Davis, now 88, explores the roots of slavery in the New World by delving back as far as the ancient Mediterranean world and the ancient Near East. Davis notes that in no ancient culture was the line between master and slave so utterly and inflexibly drawn as in the New World, a fact which he attributes to the racist character of New World slavery. In the second half of the book, Davis specifically addresses and refutes Elkins’ conclusion, and he marshals a great deal of evidence in support of his argument. Davis’ work remains highly readable and even compelling, and never bogs down in the supporting data. Davis received the 1967 Pulitzer Prize in History for this volume. Still a must.

The World The Slaveholders Made, Eugene D. Genovese; Vintage Books, 1969: LoC: 69-15474

Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made, Eugene D. Genovese; Vintage Books, 1974: ISBN: 0394716523

From Rebellion To Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in The Making of The New World, Eugene D. Genovese; Vintage Books, 1979: ISBN: 0394744853

Genovese is absolutely essential reading for the study of slavery in North America. Genovese’s style is readily readable and compelling, even as he assembles mountains of factual data. His books are never dull and dry, and they are liberally supplied with extensive quotations from source documentation which both enlighten and entertain. Professor Genovese had Marxist political affiliation in his earlier days, and The World The Slaveholders Made is clearly influenced by this connection: Genovese regards the Antebellum South as a society of Lords and Manors and oppressed workers (both slave and free.) Genovese observes that the slaves used their religious practices as a form of resistance to their masters, interpreting this as a conscious tool in class struggle, which seems a rather unusual take for a Marxian. His later works move away somewhat from a distinctly Marxian view, and Roll, Jordan, Roll” is rightly considered a classic in the field. (Genovese, who passed away in September of 2012, became distinctly conservative in his latter years.)

Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States, Carl N. Degler; Macmillan, 1971: LoC: 73-130946

Degler, an emeritus professor at Stanfurd University, passed away late last year. He won the Pulitzer Prize, among other honors, for this landmark study of race in North and South America. Degler explicitly rejected Elkins’ conclusion, and showed that slavery in Latin America in general and Brazil in particular was much harsher on the slaves that slavery in the U.S. Degler documents mortality rates in general, particularly noting a much higher suicide rate for Brazilian slaves, and the inability of Brazil’s slave population to be self-sustaining until after the end of slavery in 1888. He also notes that, contrastingly, in the United States the slave population increased steadily throughout the first half of the 19th Century, despite the ban on importation of new slaves. Degler writes in a very readable style, and his mastery of the facts never devolves into a dull litany of data.

Degler’s conclusion that discrimination and the social debilities of blacks in the modern New World cultures is derived from the former status as slaves seems uncontroversial. His interpretation that New World slavery arose from racism has engendered intense debate and controversy.

Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion Peter H. Wood; W.W. Norton and Company, 1974; ISBN: 0393314820

Professor Wood developed this detailed treatment from his ground-breaking doctoral thesis. Wood advanced the argument that the Africans selected for the slave trade to the colonial South were taken because of their sophisticated knowledge of rice cultivation. This thesis was the first to argue that the contribution of Africans to the development of America represented much more than simple muscle-power. This, in turn, brought about a significant change in U.S. historical scholarship, an impact similar to Elkins’ of half a generation before. Professor Wood writes in a fashion that is always accessible to a non-specialist, but which does not truncate or “water down” his scholarship.

Also recommended is Wood’s Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America (Oxford University Press, 2003: ISBN: 817649433X.)

Abolition and its aftermath:

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild; Mariner Books, 1999: ISBN: 0618001905

Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild; Houghton Mifflin, 2005: ISBN: 0618104690

Both of these books are well worth reading.

A professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Hochschild has nevertheless built an impressive reputation as a historian, though perhaps “popular historian” should be used (historians can be a snarkey bunch, and there always seems to be a certain disdain for those who write things that many people actually want to read!) King Leopold’s Ghost addresses the grotesque exploitation of the Belgian Congo as the personal estate of King Leopold of the Belgians (17 December 1865 to 17 December 1909.) The book tells the story with a narrative style that is as exciting as any fictional adventure, and the real characters are vividly brought to life. As one reads this book, one is simultaneously fascinated and appalled. It is an essential reading to learn more about slavery after the official Western abolition of all slavery.

In Bury The Chains, Hochschild recounts the struggle of the British anti-slavery movement. He notes that this cause was the first modern popular cause, employing mass media – newspapers and broadsheet posters – and organizing economic action against slavery in the form of sugar boycotts. He says, “It was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for years, over someone else’s rights.” This book too has its villains such as Banastre Tarleton, (the evil English dragoon colonel featured in Mel Gibson’s The Patriot; he was pro-slavery in Parliament) and its heroes such as John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace.

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