Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean / Edition 1

Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean / Edition 1

by Gillian Weiss
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Stanford University Press


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Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean / Edition 1

Captives and Corsairs uncovers a forgotten story in the history of relations between the West and Islam: three centuries of Muslim corsair raids on French ships and shores and the resulting captivity of tens of thousands of French subjects and citizens in North Africa. Through an analysis of archival materials, writings, and images produced by contemporaries, the book fundamentally revises our picture of France's emergence as a nation and a colonial power, presenting the Mediterranean as an essential vantage point for studying the rise of France. It reveals how efforts to liberate slaves from North Africa shaped France's perceptions of the Muslim world and of their own "Frenchness". From around 1550 to 1830, freeing these captives evolved from an expression of Christian charity to a method of state building and, eventually, to a rationale for imperial expansion. Captives and Corsairs thus advances new arguments about the fluid nature of slavery and firmly links captive redemption to state formation—and in turn to the still vital ideology of liberatory conquest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804770002
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 03/11/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Gillian Weiss is Associate Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University.

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Captives and Corsairs

France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean
By Gillian Weiss


Copyright © 2011 the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7000-2

Chapter One

Mediterranean Slavery

* * *

Before he became a sea rover, 'Aruj was a slave. The son of a onetime Turkish soldier and the grandson of a Greek Orthodox priest, by the early sixteenth century he had made a name for himself as a Muslim corsair captain, or ra'is, attacking Christian shipping from his base off the Tunisian coast. As his reputation for looting cargo and snaring captives grew, the inhabitants of Algiers recruited him to help expel their Spanish occupiers. Killed in battle in 1518, 'Aruj did not live long enough to see the territory become an Ottoman dependency in 1529 with his brother installed as its first pasha. But his brother, Kheir al-Din, later known as Barbarossa or Redbeard, continued the family legacy of conquest, briefly taking Tunis in 1534 before it fell to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V the following year. When the long struggle over control of North Africa finally abated in the 1580s, Morocco had won complete autonomy and Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli had emerged as reluctant "regencies" of the Sublime Porte in Constantinople (Figure 1).

From these turbulent beginnings and mixed ancestries, the Barbary States developed into polities dependent on maritime plunder, whose reputation as "pirate republics" struck terror in the hearts of Europeans until the nineteenth century. Even though Christian powers sponsored their own corsairs in the form of military orders like the Knights of Malta and Livorno—in addition to licensing private captains to steal Muslim merchandise and men—they tended to portray Mediterranean seizure and enslavement as a one-sided affair. In fact, thousands of Otto mans and Moroccan rowers (sometimes Jewish or Orthodox yet indiscriminately known as "Turks" or "Moors") were captured and sold by various European powers for service aboard Maltese, Italian, Spanish, and French galleys. Meanwhile, their compatriots of diverse geographic origin ravaged coasts and coves from Palermo to Valencia. These Berbers, Arabs, and Jews of various provenance; Muslim exiles from Iberia; and Christians who converted to become "Turks by profession" carried off lone shepherds, entire villages, and boats of all shapes and sizes, turning even more Catholics (and some Protestants) into slaves.

In 1530 and 1531, as Hungary surrendered to Ottoman advances, communities along the southernmost tip of France suffered incursions too. Yet compared to their neighbors French subjects had relatively little to fear during the first half of the sixteenth century, because of an informal alliance between King Francis I and Sultan Suleiman I. For the most part, rather than attack France's ships and shores, corsairs from North Africa brought military protection against the Habsburgs; for six months between 1543 and 1544, thirty thousand members of the Ottoman fleet wintered in Toulon. Even a decade later, at least from a royal perspective, the presence of "Barbary pirates" on the Inner Sea remained more an annoyance to be handled diplomatically than a serious threat. In the 1550s, for example, ambassadors began forwarding occasional grievances to the Porte about raids, or razzias, on Provence and Languedoc. A "maritime and limitrophe city" with long-standing ties to North Africa and relatively recent ones to France, Marseille (annexed in 1486) took separate measures to protect commerce and liberate natives, even as it petitioned regent Catherine de Medici about the seizure of vessels. Nevertheless, in the five years prior to 1565, when Suleiman I formally ordered North African brigands away from French targets, Marseille had lost "ten or twelve nefs [large galleons]" and a "large number of boats." It was partly to "keep an eye on these corsairs" that King Charles IX established the first consular outposts in North Africa and staffed them with Marseillais.

Still, at a time when reports had it "raining Christians in Algiers," the number of French ones carried into captivity was bound to surge. Expressing a widely shared conviction about the propensity of southern Europeans to "apostasy" (conversion to Islam) and the propensity of neophyte Muslims to piracy and pederasty, court cosmographer Nicolas de Nicolay wrote in 1568 of the "renegade or Mahumatized Christians" from Spain, Italy, and Provence "all given to smut, sodomy, theft, and all the most detestable vices ... [who] with their piratical art bring daily to Algiers an incredible number of poor Christians, whom they sell to the Moors and other Barbary merchants as slaves."

Yet thanks to the Capitulations (ahdnames)—depicted as a bilateral agreement by the French but understood as a one-sided bequest by the Ottomans—officially signed in 1569, those claimed by France were not exposed to such alleged religious and sexual deviance for long. A year after the Holy League's 1571 victory over the Ottoman Empire at Lepanto, at the climax of France's Catholic-Calvinist Wars of Religion, all five hundred Frenchmen in Algerian thralldom seem to have gone home.


The wholesale liberation of French subjects also coincided with the most cited articulation of a free soil principle for France. "France, mother of liberty, allows no slaves," the Parlement of Guyenne reportedly ruled after a Norman merchant attempted to sell several "Moors" he had purchased on the Barbary Coast. Thereafter, illegally subjugated Turks prized for their strength at the oar notwithstanding, Muslims unbound became as central to political theories of freedom as captive Christians already were to everyday understandings of slavery. With the demise of serfdom between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, a primary reference for conceiving personal status in France was the Mediterranean Sea, whose waves carried some to doom and others to deliverance. It would be another fifty years before French colonizers put down roots in the Caribbean and fifty more before French traders did more than pick occasional sub-Saharan Africans off the continent's Atlantic shores or steal them from Iberian and Dutch competitors. From a late sixteenth-century French vantage, the archetypal slave was either a Muslim abducted to Europe or a Christian abducted to North Africa.

In common usage, captif (from the Latin captivus) and esclave (from the medieval Latin sclavus, by way of the Byzantine Greek sklabos for Slav) were synonyms without modern racial or temporal distinctions. Heirs to conflicting classical views on the origins of human bondage, French subjects across the social spectrum generally ascribed the condition not to nature but to misfortune, even as they framed it as the outcome of an ongoing—if in their case theoretically suspended—clash between Crescent and Cross. Though anxious that French corsair victims not switch religion or perish from disease, those most familiar with captivité, esclavage, servitude, and esclavitude assumed the possibility of a happy endpoint, based on a monotheistic tradition of redemption. The French were attuned to physical difference and even inclined against blackness, but they did not yet categorically distinguish servitude by skin color. What contemporary scholars have begun to term "ransom slavery," or captivité de rachat, whose fluidity reflected its watery genesis, was spatially conceived and spiritually inflected. It was dependent on the reciprocal exploitation of multiethnic "infidels," not racial "others," and replenished via acquisition rather than reproduction. Its influence endured in metropolitan France for almost two more centuries.


As an abstraction, Christian slaves in Muslim lands—given different literal and euphemistic appellations across North Africa—helped confirm the nature of French territoriality. As an increasingly concrete reality, Christian slaves in Muslim lands spurred action from municipalities and—when not distracted by more pressing affairs—from monarchs. By 1585, for example, Marseille's commercial livelihood stood in sufficient jeopardy that the city organized an offensive league of Provençal ports to fight the Barbary corsairs. Concerned the following April about the bodily integrity and religious and political loyalties of vulnerable subjects, King Henry III had his ambassador in Constantinople protest the actions of five Algerian galleys that "took two French saettias [vessels with lateen sails] from Marseille and ransacked everything, killing the men and forcibly converting and circumcising a young boy," and wrote directly to the pasha and to the sultan about depredations by Tunis and Tripoli.

Yet royal intercession on behalf of the kingdom's gateway to the Mediterranean stopped soon enough. When Marseille joined the secessionist Catholic League during the Wars of Religion, heir to the throne Henry of Navarre recognized the potential alongside the perils of North African corsairing; in 1590 he used his good offices with Sultan Murad III not to end physical captivity but to promote political vassalage. "We enjoin you to yield to your leaders and render obedience to that most magnanimous among the great and powerful lords," read the letter sent by the Ottoman sovereign to the city. "If you persist in your sinister obstinacy," it continued, "we declare that your vessels and their cargoes will be confiscated and your men made slaves." The rebellious city decided to dispatch an emissary of its own to Algiers.

Six years later Marseille resumed allegiance to the king. But by then the three Barbary regencies, chafing against authority from Constantinople, were pursuing ever more independent foreign policies, making it increasingly difficult for sultans to enforce their security pledges to France. Though French ambassadors inundated Ottoman authorities with intervention requests and French consuls advanced funds to captives, Muslim corsairs were apprehending seventy or eighty Christian ships per year by the turn of the century, and additional reports were circulating about "young men clipped and circumcised by force." Therefore, the church, the crown, civic leaders, and expatriate communities had to adopt new strategies for shielding French people and property. In the 1590s, for instance, the nation of France in Tunis (constituted by resident traders and administrators) pooled their resources and then imposed a 1 percent merchandise tax to help buy back tens of compatriots. Meanwhile, individuals with relatives in captivity, who had been commissioning special ransoming merchants—called al-fakkakin by Muslims and, derivatively, alfaqueques by Christians—since the Middle Ages, began taking greater recourse to two other Catholic institutions with medieval origins: the Frères de la Sainte Trinité (Trinitarians) and the Pères de la Merci (Mercedarians).

The Trinitarians earned papal approval in 1198 after, as legend has it, the order's Provençal founder, Jean de Matha, and Pope Innocent III experienced identical divine visions. Known in France as Mathurins, or "donkey brothers," for the asses they rode as a sign of humility, they annually spent one third of their alms to ransom Christians from Muslim lands. The Mercedarians, started by Pierre Nolasque, a Frenchman who settled in Perpignan, were established in 1218 or 1230 (historians disagree). Members of this second "redemptive order" were distinguished by a fourth vow. Apart from promising poverty, chastity, and obedience, they swore to indenture themselves to liberate slaves, though in practice only a single French Mercedarian, Sebastien Bruyère, seems to have done so during the early modern period. Instead, Henry IV granted the Mercedarians letters patent in July 1602, a month after confirming the presence of three thousand French captives in Algiers and receiving remonstrations about the "the ravages of the Turks" and "the young men and small children that they constrain and force with truly barbarous, unprecedented cruelties, to renounce Christianity to the great scandal of Christendom." The friars then began competing viciously with the longer-established yet financially precarious Trinitarians for money and for souls.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which accorded limited religious and political privileges to the kingdom's Calvinist (or Huguenot) minority, the French monarch who had once deployed the specter of Barbary captivity to bind insubordinate subjects to the realm began using it toward the goal of maintaining sectarian peace. Despite mutual recriminations of proclivity toward Islam and collusion with Muslims in political tracts, ordinary Catholics and Protestants were equally haunted by visions of Christians compelled to change religion, just as both groups were affected by North African captures of merchant ships. Safeguarding Frenchmen from apostasy and French trade from brigandage was an endeavor even bitter rivals could support. Another of Henry IV's projects that promoted business and helped to prevent enslavement—and the accompanying perceived dangers of perversion and conversion—was the Marseille Chamber of Commerce. Founded in 1599 at the request of the city's business elite, this body served as intermediary between representatives in overseas trading ports (échelles) and ministers in the capital—and almost immediately became embroiled in the intricacies of repatriating captives. In its capacity as state enterprise, the Marseille Chamber of Commerce functioned as a kind of bank, advancing ransom money to the redemptive orders, transferring currency from the king to royal envoys, and reimbursing consuls for expenses. In an alternate role as municipal association, it responded to pressure to privilege the fate of natives.

The first decade of the seventeenth century brought a crucial diplomatic development too: official acknowledgment by the new sultan, Ahmed I, that he could not stop North African sea robbery, and explicit permission for Henry IV to engage the western Ottoman regencies directly. After ordering, once again, that all pillaged French cargo be restored and all French captives be liberated, the Capitulations of 1604 allowed that if the Barbary corsairs did not obey, "the emperor of France [could] chase them down, punish them, and deprive them of his ports." In Algiers the following summer, ambassador François Savary, seigneur de Brèves, secured only a tentative agreement for a slave exchange. But with Tunis he negotiated a bilateral treaty, which among other measures promised safe passage and safe harbor to both sides and the trade of all "Turks and Muslims detained in Provence" for all French subjects held in the regency.

For the first time committing mutual manumission to paper, this Franco–North African agreement also inaugurated a pattern of French obstruction in releasing promised galley slaves. After initially ordering the consuls of Marseille to turn over the rowers (who seem to have included some runaways from Spain), Henry IV added a qualification: to free "only the least useful ... and least able to support work." In Tunis, by contrast, the royal envoy claimed to have redeemed as many as 150 Frenchmen—though not without resistance. There, despite the protests of interested parties "furiously seized by love (as they call the filthiest and infamous brutality that sullies human nature)," he wrote, the group to be repatriated included not just resolved Christians but also repentant converts to Islam. To those "young boys who had been circumcised and made Turk by force and already raised two, three, four years in the Mahometan Religion," yet who were willing to avow souls "unyielding in belief of our Lord Jesus Christ," the king had offered a blanket pardon.

However, the accord apparently did not extend to French Knights of Malta. In 1606 the pasha of Tunis demanded so enormous a price for one such Marseillais (the subject of the first Barbary captivity narrative published in France) that the French consul would not pay. Embracing a genre already popularized in England and Portugal fifty years earlier, the future author of a novel set in Turkey drew inspiration from martyrology and drama in this tale of Muslim travail and Catholic triumph. As the casualty of a raid on Mahomette (modern-day Hammamet), François de Vintimille reportedly passed numerous tests of faith while laboring on land and sea from Assumption to Pentecost. That "despite every agony" this knight never fell "slave to depravity"—that is, religious betrayal—seemed to testify not just to his own strength of spirit but to the charity and self-interest of onetime residents of France and members of the apostolic church. First saved from slaughter by the "still half-Christian will" of Morat Aga, formerly of Rennes, "a Frenchman who still had pity in his heart and sincerity in his conscience," Vintimille paid his ransom with a loan from a Genoese renegade at 25 percent interest. Like Henry IV, who twice traded Calvinism for Catholicism, slave and biographer seemed to reject the notion that conversion effectively severed all previous ties to God, king, and country. Perhaps influenced by older ideas about the inalienability of noble ancestry, they suggested that the blood of Gaul still pumped through an apostate's veins.


Excerpted from Captives and Corsairs by Gillian Weiss Copyright © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................vii
Note on the Text....................xiii
1. Mediterranean Slavery....................7
2. Salvation without the State....................27
3. Manumission and Absolute Monarchy....................52
4. Bombarding Barbary....................72
5. Emancipation in an Age of Enlightenment....................92
6. Liberation and Empire from the Revolution to Napoleon....................118
7. North African Servitude in Black and White....................131
8. The Conquest of Algiers....................156
Appendix 1: Slave Numbers....................179
Appendix 2: Religious Redemptions and Processions....................212

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