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  • The Barbary Captivity Narrative in American Culture
  • Paul Baepler (bio)

A photograph of a drinking fountain above which hangs a "whites only" sign is one of the enduring images of racial antagonism in the twentieth century. A similar image occurs in the 1655 narrative of Abraham Browne, a slave. The foreman overseeing Browne refuses to drink out of the same water pot—a water pot that Browne was forced to carry by yoke from a well. The twist, as you might have surmised, was that Browne is white, a captive in Morocco, and his boss a "negro." "I was dispissed of ye most dispisedst people in the world," Browne wrote. He clearly knew of the horrors he might be forced to face. His own father, years earlier, had also been a captive in Algiers.

Browne would eventually settle in Boston a generation before Mary Rowlandson would travel there after her captivity in 1676. And it would be Rowlandson's captivity narrative, not Browne's, that would be published and republished. Indeed, the Indian captivity narrative has completely overshadowed the story of North African abduction. While the prevalence and influence of the Indian captivity narrative should not be denied, the less studied abduction tale, the Barbary captivity narrative, was also popular and important to American culture. The story of the white slave in Africa, which pre-dates the publication of Indian captivity narratives and American slave narratives, provides one of the defining contexts for comprehending the cultural exchange among Africa, America, and England.

The most popular Barbary captivity narrative in the United States was James Riley's best-selling account of his capture by North African "wandering Arabs." It came out in at least 28 editions, spawning a sequel and an illustrated children's edition, and is still in print today. Selling nearly a million copies, the book detailed the extraordinary story of a group of white slaves in Africa. Even young Abraham Lincoln owned a copy of Riley's Authentic Narrative, and it has been credited as one of the influences [End Page 217] that shaped the future president's opinion of slavery in the United States.1 But by the time Riley's account first appeared in 1817, the story of Barbary captivity was already almost two centuries old in North America and even older in Europe. While not formally a Barbary captive, Captain John Smith in his 1603 capture by the Turks sets a pattern when he is sent to Constantinople as a slave to the Princess Charatza Tragabigzanda. Although she, like Pocahontas after her, spared Smith from cruel treatment, Smith nevertheless eventually killed the Princess's brother in order to escape and sought passage through Barbary. A few decades later, as James Fenimore Cooper reported in his history of the U.S. Navy, Barbary rovers claimed two colonial American ships and escorted them into the Moroccan harbor at Sallee, where the crews were enslaved. Just five years after William Bradford landed in Plymouth, Moroccan corsairs ranged as near as Newfoundland, where they hijacked 40 ships. References to colonists who sailed the Atlantic and were captured by Barbary privateers abound, and their stories circulated orally in coastal towns. Often churches issued public subscriptions for ransom money (see Lydon). So well known was the Barbary captivity story that grifters preyed on generous benefactors, attempting to swindle well-meaning relatives of known captives in what became known as the "Algerian Prisoner Fraud." The con gained such notoriety that George Washington eventually stepped in and warned families not to fall for the scam (see Wilson, "American Prisoners," 41).

The earliest surviving North American Barbary captivity narratives are those by Abraham Browne and Joshua Gee. Browne was taken prisoner by Moroccan corsairs in 1655 and was held approximately three months, about the same duration as Mary Rowlandson.2 Paraded in the public slave markets and narrowly averting sale to "the most Crewelest man in Sally," Browne was fortunate to find a kind master who gave him relatively easy chores. Like Rowlandson's narrative, which would be written and published 27 years later, Browne's is interlaced with biblical verse, and he prides himself on not converting to the "Mohumetan Religion." He returned...


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pp. 217-246
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