June 20 marks a strange anniversary in Irish history. On that date in 1631, north African corsairs, or pirates, raided the village of Baltimore on the west Cork coast and took at least 107 of the villagers captive to be sold as slaves in Algiers.
Most of those abducted were part of an English settlement which had been established in the middle of a region that was part of the Ó Drisceóil clan territory. It was a part of the violent colonisation of that part of Ireland which had resulted in the victory of the English in the Nine Years War that ended with the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.
The Sack of Baltimore, as it became known, had a significance beyond Ireland as it was one of a centuries-old series of such raids by north African slavers on coastal towns and sea-going vessels. Those abducted were part of an estimated million or more Europeans who became slaves under the Islamic Ottoman Empire and its north African allies mostly between 1550 and 1750.
The Baltimore captives included 33 adult women, 54 boys and girls and 20 adult men. At most three were eventually ransomed years later. The men mostly were consigned to be galley slaves, sometimes never setting foot on land again. The women and female children almost invariably were sold into sexual bondage. Adolescent males were often castrated and sometimes also raped, as is apparently still the fate of males enslaved in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries.
The attempt by some modern historians to posit a “kindness” towards children on the part of the African slavers is as contemptible as the romanticisation of the relationship between plantation owners and slaves in the American south. The account of one English slave, Thomas Pellow, who was abducted at the age of 11, is a harrowing insight into the brutality inflicted on most slaves in North Africa, white or black.
The north African slaving raids into Europe ended following the defeat of Napoleon, who had brought back slavery in the French colonies, when the victorious coalition forces subdued the north African slave states. Of course that did not end the enslavement of black Africans, and without the central role of the Islamic slavers there would have been no trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Despite the formal suppression of slavery at the behest of the western states (slavery only being legally abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1962) – the practise still continues. Leading Salafist theologians have justified not only slavery, but the enslavement of captives taken in Jihad. When Sudan was criticised for the enslavement of captives during the war of the 1990s, it accused those critics of “Islamophobia”.
Indeed, the existence of the African Islamic slave economy is problematic for those who posit a Manichean eternal struggle between terrible white people and blameless People of Colour.
The fact is, of course, that people everywhere are equally prone to being complicit in evil. If there was any distinction between slavery in Europe and in the Americas, it was a cultural one that saw the age-old debate over slavery initiated by the spread of Christianity result, uniquely under any form of human civilisation, in the abolition of slavery in Europe and eventually in north America.
The horrors of the enslavement by Islamic State of Yazidi Christians, by Boko Harem of black African Christians, attest to this – as does the treatment of workers for 2022 World Cup hosts, Qatar, which has been described as amounting to modern-day slavery.
But let’s not be sectarian. The most prolific slavers of the past hundred years have been the atheistic totalitarians. The Soviet Union was built on the backs of millions of men, women and children forced into slavery on mostly arbitrary grounds of ethnic or social origin. Nazi Germany’s war economy was likewise dependent on slave labour. Communist China has slave labour camps. Various estimates of the numbers of slaves globally now settle around a median of 40,000,000.
In recalling the Sack of Baltimore then, and the horrible fate of those taken on June 20, 1631, it should be borne in mind that today, in many parts of Africa and Asia mostly women and children are still been taken into slavery. On some occasions, the perpetrators are the descendants of Islamic slavers whose vile economy dates back over a thousand years.
In other instances, such as China, the enslavement of a Muslim minority is being carried out by agents of states which claim to represent modernity and progress. For those enslaved, the outcome is often no less brutal.