Picador, 2006 (2005)
Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
hen most people think of slavery nowadays, the historical plight of black African Americans comes to mind - brutally torn from their homes and families, fed and housed in conditions that barely supported life, forced to work long hours in the hot sun, abused and regularly beaten. Few are aware that the same was done to a million Europeans. Having grown up reading Rafael Sabatini's
Sword of Islam
and similar stories, I was actually aware of this European slavery, but the extent described in
iles Milton sets the context for the fascinating story of an individual, Cornish cabin boy Thomas Pellow, who sailed with his uncle, Captain John Pellow, at the age of eleven on the merchant ship
. The ship was taken by Barbary corsairs operating out of the pirate stronghold of Salé, and their prisoners sold for about £15 each to the cruel, tyrannical, and deliberately unpredictable sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail. Milton discusses treaties made and (regularly) broken; the plight of the European slaves; the huge number who died from beatings, illness and starvation; the massive building projects they were engaged in (Moulay Ismail intended to build a palace grander than Louis XIV's Versailles); and the few, largely unsuccessful attempts made by successive governments in England to free their enslaved citizens. Milton also discusses the lot of African slaves bred and raised in Morocco, the boys brutalized and brainwashed into becoming the Sultan's loyal young
(black guard). And he covers the precarious existence of the Jewish community, whose members survived (or not) at the Sultan's whim.
homas Pellow spent twenty-three years as a slave in Morocco. He finally escaped (after several unsuccessful attempts) as a man in his thirties, having converted to Islam after severe torture, married (at the Sultan's command), had a daughter, and fought in the Moroccan armies in the meantime. Pellow's uncle John died in captivity. In his Epilogue, Milton tells us that it was Sir Edward Pellew, '
a collateral descendant of the same West Country family as Thomas Pellow
' who led the successful 1816 expedition that ended the white slave trade. Sadly, as the author points out, '
concern for the white slaves was not matched by a similar compassion for the black slaves being brutally shipped out of Guinea, on Africa's western coastline
', whose suffering '
was truly appalling
is an engrossing read, a book that brings to our attention a little known nugget of history.
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