White Gold

by Giles Milton

Published by Hodder & Stoughton

352 pages, 2004




Tragic Inventory

Reviewed by Katrina Gulliver


Aside from the odd trashy movie with an escape from the harem theme, the idea of white slavery is not on the radar of Western culture. The fact that through over 300 years, from the early 16th to the early 19th centuries, more than one million Europeans were captured and sold into slavery in North Africa, has been wiped from our collective memory.

In this book, Giles Milton tries to redress the balance. This is the story of Tom Pellow, a Cornish boy of 11 who went to the Mediterranean on his uncle's ship and was taken into slavery when the ship was captured by Barbary corsairs. He ended up in the service of the Sultan of Morocco, adapting to life as a servant at the court, but still hoping for ways to escape and return home.

After his eventual return to England, Pellow wrote his own story and Milton has drawn on this for the details of Pellow's captivity and life in Morocco. He has also used many unpublished sources in English and French dealing with the experiences of slaves and the accounts of travelers who visited the Moroccan court. The details of savagery and random violence of the sultan, Moulay Ismail, are shocking and demonstrate the climate of fear under this absolute ruler.

I have been a fan of Milton's since reading Nathaniel's Nutmeg, his rollicking tale of adventure in the spice race. Since then he has turned his attentions to colonial America (Big Chief Elizabeth) and 18th century Japan (Samurai William).

Milton's style is not scholarly, with a few too many suppositions and techniques of novelization applied to events. How, for example, can he know exactly what someone was thinking? In addition, his use of the term "lovemaking" to describe the rape of a female slave turned my stomach.

Along with Pellow's tale, Milton includes the broad story of the 17th century white slave trade. The corsairs conducted regular raids on not just nearby Spain but also as far as the coasts of Cornwall and Wales, Scandinavia and Iceland. They attacked seaside towns with the sole intention of snatching men, women and children and taking them back as slaves, the profit from white slaves being much greater than anything else they could steal. They also seized ships in the Atlantic, including vessels from Newfoundland and New England.

European governments made sporadic, and mostly vain, attempts to rescue these slaves. As they were generally sailors or fishermen whose families had little influence or money for ransoms, the majority were condemned to spend their lives in slavery. The main route of escape from the slave pens, which were rife with disease, was to "turn Turk," or convert to Islam. These converts or apostates were rewarded with better conditions and the chance for advancement in the sultan's service.

The tragedy for those who converted simply to survive was that their home countries decreed that converts had forfeited their nationality. Referred to as "renegades" the converts were never included in any rescue or ransom attempts for the Christian slaves.

When those who retained their Christian faith suffered constantly for it, the temptation to convert to Islam to avoid further torture or death from starvation would have been overwhelming.

The role of the slave industry as the theater of conflict between Christianity and Islam create the most interesting discussions in White Gold. The Moroccan slave markets also dealt in African slaves. The main element in the suitability of individuals for enslavement was not their race but their faith. Just as the trade in white slaves was tapering off, the trade in black slaves was stepping up, and this is not lost on Milton. The contradiction for Europeans petitioning for their citizens' freedom from slavery while at the same time shipping Africans across the Atlantic does not seem to have troubled the governments of the time, although it is interesting to note that agitators for liberation of black slaves in the Caribbean were drafted to support the liberation of the remaining white slaves in Africa. | August 2004


Katrina Gulliver is a writer, artist and film maker. She is a regular contributor to Spike Magazine. See her site at www.katrinagulliver.com.