White Gold

A mere few centuries ago, both Islam and Christianity, which proclaimed themselves models of righteousness and compassion, were involved in the African slave trade, destroying the lives of millions. The history of the slaves and the slavers has been told many ways since then. Less well known is another form of slavery, the capture of about a million Europeans and Americans by Islamic slave traders, ending only in 1816. The history of this other trade forms the basis for the particulars in _White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's One Million European Slaves_ (Hodder and Stoughton) by Giles Milton. Milton seems to have done prodigious research (as he did for his previous bestseller, _Nathaniel's Nutmeg_), and has done his best to bridge the many gaps in Pellow's own story, producing a narrative that is often exciting and always informative.
Pellow, born in 1704 and raised in the Cornish fishing village of Penryn, wanted to run away to sea, despite the constant threat of ships being taken by the Barbary pirates. He was eleven years old when his uncle's ship was captured, and he became property of the sultan, the Moulay Ismail; the author could not have asked for a more repulsive or fearsome villain. His 25,000 white slaves were given to the enormous project of making a palace that extended for miles, packing wet lime and earth to make the enormous walls and covering it in marble and mosaics. He could not abide disobedience, even when it was merely in his imagination, and slaves and courtiers were often tortured or beheaded by his whimsy, even at his own hands. Readers should prepare for extreme unpleasantness in the descriptions of the horrors of the cells or the tortures such as the bastinado, by which a slave would be suspended upside down and the soles of his feet beaten until they were raw. Pellow converted under torture to Islam, which helped change his fortune, but he was a captive for twenty-three years, constantly wishing he were back home. He became guardian of the harem, leader of soldiers in military campaigns, and even a slave hunter, before his escape attempts finally succeeded.
Pellow was able to write the obligatory first-person account of his trials under the Turk, from which, understandably, Milton has drawn frequently. He did not live to see any end to the threat of enslavement by the fanatical Muslims which took another century to come. Strangely, Sir Edward Pellew, a distant relative, was in charge of the fleet that arrived in Algiers in 1816, bombarding the city, liberating the slaves, and permanently ending the European slave trade. Milton describes how inflamed the British press and Parliament became at the thought of their own citizens in chains, but also explains how little care they showed for black slaves shipped out of Guinea for their own use. There is little specific to compare here with our own current difficulties with the region, except that horrors, misunderstandings, and religious fanaticism seem to be an unending part of this history. _White Gold_ is, however, a riveting story of eventual triumph over long odds, and enormously entertaining.

No comments: