While Barbary corsairs looted the cargo of ships they captured, their primary goal was to capture people for sale as slaves or for ransom. Those who had family or friends who might ransom them were held captive but not obliged to work; the most famous of these was the author Miguel de Cervantes, who was held for almost five years. Others were sold into various types of servitude. Attractive women or boys could be used for sexual services, the traditional “fate worse than death”. Captives who converted to Islam were generally freed, since enslavement of Muslims was prohibited; but this meant that they could never return to their native countries.
Historian Robert C. Davis estimated that between 1530 and 1780, 1–1.25 million Europeans were captured and taken as slaves to North Africa, principally Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, but also Constantinople and Salé.
Captives often suffered from privation on voyages to North Africa if taken at a distance. Those who survived the journeys were often forced to walk through town as they were taken to slave auctions. The slaves typically had to stand from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon while buyers viewed them. Next came the auction, where the townspeople would bid on the captives they wanted to purchase and once that was over, the governor of Algiers (the Dey) had the chance to purchase any slave he wanted for the price they were sold at the auction. During the auctions the slaves would be forced to run and jump around to show their strength and stamina. After purchase, the captives would either be held for ransom, or be put to work. Slaves were used for a wide variety of jobs, from hard manual labor to housework (the job assigned to most women slaves). At night the slaves were put into prisons called ‘bagnios‘ (derived from the Italian word “bagno” for public bath, inspired by the Turks’ use of Roman baths at Constantinople as prisons), which were often hot and overcrowded. However, these bagnios began improving by the 18th century. Some bagnios had chapels, hospitals, shops, and bars run by captives, though such amenities remained uncommon.
Although the conditions in bagnios were harsh, they were better than those endured by galley slaves. Most Barbary galleys were at sea for around eighty to a hundred days a year, but when the slaves assigned to them were on land, they were forced to do hard manual labor. There were exceptions: “galley slaves of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople would be permanently confined to their galleys, and often served extremely long terms, averaging around nineteen years in the late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century periods. These slaves rarely got off the galley but lived there for years.” During this time, rowers were shackled and chained where they sat, and never allowed to leave. Sleeping (which was limited), eating, defecation and urination took place at the seat to which they were shackled. There were usually five or six rowers on each oar. Overseers would walk back and forth and whip slaves considered not to be working hard enough.
Freedom for slaves
Barbary slaves could hope to be freed through payment of a ransom. Despite the efforts of middlemen and charities to raise money to provide ransoms, they were still very difficult to come by. As European communities increased their charity funding for ransoming slaves, North African states increased the amount of ransom required. Lack of money to pay a ransom was not the only problem. Persons taken captive needed to notify their families of their status and tell them the ransom price. Mail charges were often beyond the reach of ordinary captive slaves, and it could take several months for the mail to be delivered.
After payment of a ransom, slaves were often taken to a port to wait for the ransom to be finalized. In some cases in the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves were kept under quarantinedue to fear of the plague threatening the life of the slave and payment of the ransom.
Not many Barbary slaves could depend on being ransomed by their communities. They had to be deemed worthy of it and many poor people were never ransomed. The tribute prices for the slaves usually varied based on their usefulness on a ship. So a ship master would cost more than a common seaman. Escaping was another possibility, but rarely successful; Cervantes, future author of Don Quijote, made four unsuccessful attempts to escape from slavery, and was eventually ransomed by his family. Thomas Pellow was a successful escaped slave who published his story in 1740. After several failed attempts, in which he was nearly killed, Pellow had finally escaped to Gibraltar in July 1738.
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