25 January 2013

Turning the tables

In 19th century Africa, it was sometimes the natives who enslaved the whites:
In 1817, the American sea captain, James Riley, published *An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig “Commerce,” Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa , in the Month of August, 1815, with an Account of the Sufferings of the Surviving Officers and Crew, who were Enslaved by the Wandering Arabs of the Great African Desert or Zahahrah*. More recently, Captain Riley’s memoire has been reprinted, though with a title that better fits modern sensibilities: *Sufferings in Africa: the Incredible True Story of a Shipwreck, Enslavement, and Survival on the Sahara* (New York: Skyhorse, 2007). This edition, along with a fictionalized version by Dean King, called *Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival* (New York: Back Bay Books, 2005) enjoy respectable sales for reprints of a book nearly two centuries old.
Captain Riley’s story is pretty well summed up by the original title of his book. While sailing from Gibraltar to the Cape Verde Islands, Riley’s mid-sized merchant ship got lost in the fog and wrecked on the west Moroccan coast. Trapped on shore and having run out of both food and water, Riley and the surviving crew threw themselves on the mercy of some passing Berber tribesmen, who promptly enslaved and carried them off into the desert. Abused, underfed, and overworked, the captives were nearly dead when their masters sold them to an Arab trader, who bought the Americans on Riley’s promise of ransom if they returned to the coast. The rest of An Authentic Narrative recounts the survivors’ slightly less brutal journey over desert and mountains to the port city of Mogador (modern Essaouira) and their eventual freedom.
More details at The Public Domain Review, which has link to full-text versions of the books being discussed.


  1. There were many, many Europeans enslaved in North Africa. Not just those who were shipwrecked on the coast - there were raids on European coastal towns and villages. It's interesting that the popular knowledge of history has forgotten this.

    History throughout the world is filled with people enslaving one another. Native Americans enslaved each other, African Tribes enslaved each other. It is terrible to think today how much it is a part of the history of virtually all peoples.

    Slavery exists today in parts of Africa - Mauritania only outlawed slavery in 2007. It is rarely if ever discussed and few people know about it.

    1. I'm not sure how these nomadic desert Arabs enslaving these guys balances out, or even has anything to remotely do with white Europeans and Americans enslaving black Africans on a massive, industrial scale for ages, while literally building wealth, empires, and gilding their cathedrals from the fruits of their free labor....

      Also, there's nothing even remotely similar about incidents of pre-colonial Native American slavery, which are more related to capturing warriors in battle and keeping them captive, much as we do today. To call what happened prior to European arrival "slavery" is a wild exaggeration.

      Most Native American tribal groups practiced some form of slavery before the European introduction of African slavery into North America; but none exploited slave labor on a large scale. Indian groups frequently enslaved war captives whom they used for small-scale labor and in ritual sacrifice. Most of these so-called Indian slaves tended to live, however, on the fringes of Indian society. Although not much is known about them, there is little evidence that they were considered racially inferior to the Indians who held power over them. Nor did Indians buy and sell captives in the pre-colonial era, although they sometimes exchanged enslaved Indians with other tribes in peace gestures or in exchange for their own members. In fact, the word "slave" may not even accurately apply to these captive people.


    2. Does one form of enslavement have to rival or surpass another for it to be worth acknowledging?

      Perhaps you're just concerned that a piece like this might be used in an attempt to mitigate the horrors of "white Europeans and Americans enslaving black Africans on a massive, industrial scale for ages." I'm sure some readers will use it for that end, but I don't think that justifies ignoring historical realities about other peoples and forms of slavery or, more importantly, the instances of slavery occurring around the world today.

    3. I'm sure some readers will use it for that end

      Which is exactly what the anonymous commenter was doing, as well as you with your obvious use of scare quotes. What you and him (it always is) were trying to do is called a "diversion"..

    4. I was quoting your post, not intending scare quotes in the least. You had already said it more succinctly than I could, so I was acknowledging that by quoting you. Proper citation of borrowed words and all that.

    5. I wasn't attempting diversion, I was asking an honest question, Steve.

      Perhaps your response suggests the answer -- that European and American slavery was so immense and horrific that we can't speak of it in conversation about other forms of slavery without seeming as though we're trying to diminish or dispel the realities of that period.

  2. Slavery has been around since before recorded history right to this very day- but yes, some people will do just that... seize such information to declare that everybody does it, and it all evens out! Therefore, what's the big deal about the slavery era in the US of A?

    And the differences there are legion: the incredible vastness of its scope (in numbers, logistics, social and legislative policy, etc); the pernicious, subhuman hatred directed towards one specific "race" of people that created and supported policies, philosophies and junk science to "justify" such degradation; the reliance of an entire nation's economy (and a formidable portion of the remaining Western world) upon it. Slavery on such a massive, industrial and economic scale was unprecedented, before or since.

  3. I read that book. It's terrible what the human body can tolerate. Definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the extremes of human existence.


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