In the Barbary states of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli in north Africa, part of the Ottoman Empire, slavery was the norm, and – much as the comforting breadth of the Atlantic did for English slave-owners – the use of European Christians rather than their own brethren allowed Muslims to ease their conscience.
WITHIN fifty years of victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, England’s navy was so neglected that Arab pirates from the Barbary coast were raiding Cornish villages and commandeering fishing-boats with impunity, abducting hundreds of men, women and children for slave-labour in docks and on farms, down mines and in homes across the Ottoman Empire.
Public charities raised ransom money and in 1646, Parliament engaged Edmund Cason to redeem some two hundred and fifty, but Algiers alone had over ten times the number.
Fifteen years on, the squalid slave-compounds, bread-and-water diets and angry beatings described to an open-mouthed Samuel Pepys by two former captives were still a depressing reality.
Mediterranean politics made direct action against the Barbary states ticklish, but Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo allowed Edward Pellew to take British and Dutch ships to Algiers and, on August 27th, 1816 — after an outrageous bluff, since he had run out of ammunition — compel the wrathful Ottomans to let thousands of European slaves go.