What the Mediterranean slaves told about their captivity

“But I, as I brought that desire to see my parents, did not feel the way, that in five days I arrived, being they well neglected of it and fulfilling what I had written from Algiers”.

In 1592, three years after he was captured by Algerian corsairs in the Mediterranean, Diego Galán says that he wrote a letter to his parents informing them of his captivity. We know this because upon his return to Christian lands, he and a few others like him wrote of his experiences as slaves in North Africa.

Captivity and slavery in the modern Mediterranean

Slavery was an intrinsic phenomenon in the Mediterranean societies of the Modern Age. A slavery that did not respond so much to the dynamics of the slave trade that developed strongly from the fifteenth century, but that was gestated within the very heart of the Mediterranean border. This border mainly divided Christianity and Islam in conflict. which in turn divided roughly, the two shores of the Mediterranean, north and south. But it also created internal divisions within monarchies, kingdoms, and cities.

Therefore, the Mediterranean in the Modern Age is known as a “frontier society”: a world constantly in motion, where a complex web of economic, cultural, social and political relations was woven. The sources testify to this. But in the midst of conflict and violence, the Mediterranean was also a zone of cohesion and necessary communication with the enemy. Here hostile groups cohabit and not necessarily through violence.

Captivated and enslaved people were protagonists in this context. According to the Aristotelian definition that circulated in medieval legislation, such as in the Siete Partidas, and that continued to act in war practices, captivity and slavery, the result of rivalry with the infidels, were legitimized by being the exchange for the life of the captured enemy.

Monument representing Fernando I de’ Medici on four bronze sculptures representing four slaves.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, until the conquest of the Kingdom of Granada, captivity was mainly related to medieval warfare within the limits of the Iberian Peninsula. From the 16th century, after the Christian conquest of Granada, the great battles moved to the Mediterranean.

But, in addition, someone could be captivated by meeting an enemy corsair ship while sailing or by suffering one of the quick raids on the coasts, which at the end of the century became the usual form of war between the Christian and Islamic powers: the so-called corsican war.

The voice of the captive: the narration of the experience of slavery

Therefore, captivity and slavery were phenomena intrinsic to the mentalities of the time and as such were reflected in literary creations. In fact, there has been talk of “captive literature” as a literary genre in the Golden Age made up of stories, a priori fictitious, that took a male or female captive as the main character. The most famous example is that of Miguel de Cervantes and his captive captain.

People from Islamic societies were enslaved in European territories, just like Christians in Muslim lands. In this context, a whole series of rescue networks were developed that promoted the interrelation between the two shores of the Mediterranean.

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Cover of the treatise on Barbary, Histoire de Barbarie et de ses corsairesmade by the French captive redeemer Father Pierre Dan in 1637.
National Library of France

Thus, rescued or fled, some of the enslaved Christians managed to return to their homelands. Of these, a small minority undertook the task of writing down their experiences. They are the “narratives of prisoners”, “chronicles of captives” or “autobiographies of captives”, to use some of the terminologies with which researchers have referred to these texts.

Thanks to these documents, attempts have been made to recount slavery from the words of the enslaved people. But more than thinking that these narratives bring us closer to the experience of captivity and slavery, specialists point out that it is important not to lose sight of the objectives of these sources when we face them. The reason is that it can be assumed that, in order for the text to fulfill the objectives desired by the authors (explicitly declared or not), various discursive mechanisms were used. As Walter Benjamin said, “every book is a tactic”.

Mediterranean captivity and slavery forcibly moved Christian peoples to Islamic lands and vice versa. This, therefore, was problematic for a Hispanic Monarchy that was carrying out a process of ethno-religious unification among its subjects, defining itself against the Other Muslim. That is to say, Christianity, in this case, the Catholic and the Hispanic, defined themselves against the Muslim, the Arab and the Turkish, paradigms of alterity.

Therefore, the ex-slave, after having spent so much time in contact with the “unfaithful enemy”, generated suspicion in the society to which he returned. These suspicions arose from the possibility that the enslaved person had transgressed certain social and religious norms or even that he had changed his faith during his coexistence with Islamic societies, becoming a renegade. Thus, the writings they wrote after he returned are understood as tools they used to purge those suspicions and promote their reintegration into the Christian community upon their return.

What can be observed with the analysis of the selection of themes narrated in these stories is how the ex-captives reconstructed their experience of slavery in Algiers presenting themselves as Catholics who did not abandon their faith despite temptations, torture and danger, and as subjects of the Hispanic Monarchy that did not cease to be so during the captivity.

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Saint Pedro Nolasco redeeming captives, work of c. 1599. Altarpiece of the Merced Calzada convent in Valladolid by Pedro de la Cuadra.
Nicolás Pérez / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

They made their text a testimonial narration of the experience of slavery and represented a tolerable slavery to Christian readers. For this, they gave a religious meaning to their captivity and created their own legend of martyrs, although imperfect, because their martyrdom did not end in death. They also hid or silenced the less orthodox behaviors that could be problematic to present upon their return to Christianity.

In the end, in this set of stories a common discourse of slavery in Islamic lands can be traced, a way of representing and understanding it. In other words, a memory that was created in the context of the anti-Islamic Catholic hegemonic project of the Hispanic Monarchy and, in general, of the confrontation between Christianity and Islam. From here the Christian ex-slave elaborated his text and from here is where it is understood.

The enslaved person as transimperial subject

But our gaze has to go further. Despite the fact that the imaginary places coexistence with the Muslim captor in the same hell, it is certain that these captives, living together for years in Islamic societies and surviving in them, did not always suffer the experience of their captivity and slavery. as a conflict between two opposing civilizations.

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Filippo Lippi, a slave in Algiers in the 16th century, drawing a portrait of his master on the wall. Work of Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret.
Musée Thomas-Henry / Wikimedia Commons

The relationships established between Christians and Muslims were much more versatile and the experiences lived were much more diverse and by no means unequivocal. It is in this context that the effort they made to reconstruct what had happened has been appreciated: they adjusted it to the limits of a narrative that did not include the variety and heterogeneity that could characterize the experience of captivity in Islamic countries.

But at the same time that they reproduced and produced the imaginary about Otherness, in reality they also collaborated in the transmission of knowledge and ideas from one shore of the inland sea to another, derived from their expertise, and created their own cultural heritage, the result of it. Mediterranean border.

In this sense, if the captivated and enslaved people were interpreted for some time exclusively as products of war and as merchandise, now they are also understood within the border society itself, as cultural mediators of a porous Mediterranean that favored a flow flow of people and ideas.

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