- Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean by Gillian Weiss
Since 11 September 2001 a general interest in the Mediterranean corsairs and “white” slavery in the Barbary States (Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, and Morocco) has increased. Indeed, the First Barbary War (1801–1805) between the United States and Tripoli/Algiers has been seen as a predecessor of the recent U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gillian Weiss in his book on France’s relationship with North Africa, Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean, stresses that such connections are mistaken. It is as much incorrect to compare the North African “white” slavery with the Atlantic “black” slavery, a point made sometimes by historians of early modern slavery. The historical origins of the system of slavery in the Mediterranean are different, and this distinction is an important point of departure of Weiss’s book. That is one of the reasons why the word “captive” fits here better than “slave,” which is strongly connected with the Atlantic slavery. The captives in North African principalities are more properly seen as “prisoners of war” in the drawn-out fighting between Christianity and Islam in the Mediterranean. The North African captives had options of being released for ransom or exchanged for Muslim captives. They could become Muslim renegades and be freed. They were normally kept in cities and seldom sent inland, due to the option of ransom and liberation. All this was out of reach of the millions of black slaves sent to the Americas and the Caribbean.
Weiss’s book is about France’s special relationship to its North African neighbors between the late sixteenth century and 1830, when France occupied Algiers. The starting date of the study correlates with [End Page 444] the establishment of stability in North Africa, with Morocco strengthening control of its territory and the Ottoman Empire’s rule stabilized in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. The ending point is the occupation of Algiers, which changed the city from a nest of corsairs to a French colony.
One of the most important points made by the author is the argument that modern French identity actually was shaped by the French relationship to North Africa and by issues of captivity. “Frenchness” was an outcome of a long process in which the relationship between France and North Africa was redefined.
Principally, the treatment of captives and captivity issues reflect the four “identity” levels through which Weiss tells his story—the book consists of eight chapters following a chronological order. First, there is the family level. For a long time it was perceived as the family’s responsibility to pay ransom for captured relatives and get them back to France. Captives were able contact their relatives to arrange payment, of course, if they could afford it. Second, the religious dimension was important as well, not least because of the treatment of the captives who became Muslim in exchange for freedom. The orders of Mercederians and Trinitarians did play a crucial role in organizing the ransom arrangements. The religious issue became very complex with the rising numbers of Huguenot captives. Should they be perceived as French subjects? Especially after 1685, for many Huguenots in captivity the option of being “liberated” by their Catholic peers was even worse than North African slavery. Many Huguenots were freed by their Protestant coreligionists in England and the Dutch Republic.
Municipalities did play an important role, especially at the beginning of the period. For example, Marseilles reacted often on the behalf of the city inhabitants enslaved in North Africa. By the late seventeenth century Brest, Saint Malo, and Nantes collected money specifically to ransom Bretons in African captivity. The revenues for this purpose derived from state-licensed privateering.
Fourth, the author’s focus is on the role of the French state in handling the issues of captivity. Here the most important question was how to decide if the captives actually were French and, if identified...