The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves
By Giles Milton. Farrar Straus Giroux. 316 pp. $25
Giles Milton's new book is a fascinating account of a long-forgotten era when an awful menace terrorized the coastal waters of North Africa. In the 17th and 18th centuries, countless vessels leaving the coasts of Europe and colonial North America were seized at sea by bands of Barbary corsairs, who confiscated their cargo and dragged their hapless crews to the shores of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli to be sold into slavery.
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. Pellow's ship left Cornwall in 1715, carrying a cargo of salted pilchards to trade in Genoa. Upon setting sail for home, the Francis was overtaken by a band of "fanatical corsairs of Barbary" who, in a "deranged fury," boarded the ship, overpowered its unarmed crew and seized its precious cargo of Italian wares meant for sale in England. But the merchandise was a mere pittance compared to the real prize of the ship: its crew.
In the early 1700s, the trade in European slaves was a booming business throughout North Africa, even though, in size and scope, it did not compare to Europe's own immensely profitable African slave trade. According to Milton, nearly 1 million Europeans passed through the markets of coastal towns like Sale, on the north coast of Morocco, where they were auctioned off to the highest bidder. For better or worse, Pellow's crew was spared such humiliation and instead marched directly to the imperial city of Meknes, where they were ceremonially presented as gifts to the cruel and capricious sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail.
Being a strong and hearty young boy, Pellow immediately caught the attention of Moulay Ismail and was initiated into the sultan's personal retinue of servants. Pellow spent the next 23 years as a slave at the imperial court, where he was routinely beaten and starved, forced to convert to Islam and ultimately placed at the head of the sultan's armies. Through a series of fortunate accidents, Pellow not only managed to survive his ordeal but eventually escaped back to England to publish his adventures for a captive audience.
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. Far from providing any such criticism, Milton seems to accept these fantastic narratives as gospel.
This tendency is perhaps most apparent in his description of Moulay Ismail, who comes across in the book as comically evil. The sultan's whimsical brutishness (at one point, he elaborately tortured and executed a cat that had snatched and killed a rabbit), his supernatural sexual appetite (he is reported to have had 10,000 concubines), and his limitless capacity for wickedness (he took particular pleasure in greeting guests while drenched in the blood of slaves he had personally dismembered) 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. For example, many European slaves certainly were forced to convert to Islam, either through torture or by being offered certain "privileges" (like food and shelter) as rewards. But Pellow's account of his own forced conversion -- in which his 11-year-old self patiently endures month after month of horrific torture, administered by the crown prince himself, with whom Pellow remarkably engages in a quasi-theological debate (in Arabic or English, one can't tell which) before finally submitting to Islam -- is so absurd that the reader is stunned to find Milton swallowing the tale whole.
That White Gold merely regurgitates Pellow's "memoirs" is even more troubling because Milton enthusiastically adopts the outmoded vocabulary of the era, repeatedly referring in his book to "Christian" slaves and even "Christian" vessels being captured by "Muslim" pirates and sold to "Muslim" masters. Even the book's subtitle, with its reference to "Islam's One Million White Slaves" -- obviously meant to cash in on contemporary fixations with the Muslim world -- is an indication of Milton's deliberately perverse terminology. Why, the reader wonders, is it not North Africa's slave trade, rather than Islam's? After all, this is the only region in the whole of the Muslim world where such a phenomenon occurred. And Milton never refers to Europe's own slave trade, which enslaved 15 million Africans, as a "Christian" slave trade. Still, while such oddities should not be easily forgiven, particularly in our current climate, they do not spoil what is ultimately a fun and fanciful story from a little-known chapter in history. *
Reza Aslan is the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam."