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A - 10 : Slaves in the Mediterranean - an Infamous, Old Tradition

Thanks to Spartacus we all know about slaves in the Roman Empire. Fewer people however know about the large scale slave trading in the Mediterranean from 1500 to 1800. It is estimated that the Ottoman pirates enslaved about 1.5m to 2.0m Europeans living on the shores of the Mediterranean. Europe had about 80m inhabitants around this time.

We find Saracen Towers on the coasts of France, Italy, Spain, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily


Witness to these brutal times are the “Saracen” Watch Towers which still dot the coast lines of Spain, France and Italy and many heavily fortified villages a few miles inland like Ez near Monaco. Both were part of a defence and warning system agains seaborne raids by the Ottoman fleet or their north-african allies.


The slave trade was a consequence of the epic struggle between Venice, Turkey and Spain for supremacy in the Mediterranean which turned a peaceful sea into one of the most dangerous places in the world. It started when the Ottomans developed the naval capacity to challenge the Venetian navy in open sea battles such as at Prevezza in 1538. By 1543, only 90 years after the fall of Constantinople, the Turkish fleet was wintering in the French port of Toulon, where the Cathedral was converted into a mosque. At that time, France and Turkey were allied in their effort to check the Spanish dominance in Europe.

The Ottoman Fleet wintering in Toulon in 1543-44

The following season, on their way back from Toulon to Istanbul, the Turkish fleet systematically raided the Italian coast. The people living on island like Ischia, Gozo, Lipari and many more were completely enslaved - with the old and weak left behind to starve and tell the horrible things that had happened. Young men were sold as galley slaves and women and children brought to the slave market in Algiers and Tunis for sale as domestic servants.


The image of the evil Turk which still dominates the popular narrative today results from these brutal slave raids for over 300 years. These raids ended more or less when the US attacked Tripoli and Algiers in the Barbary Wars from 1801 - 1805.

Slave market in Algiers


Assessment of female slaves before sale in Algiers


Whilst most slave raiders were Muslims, the Christians were not much better when they had the chance and the upper hand in battle. Many of the ports we are sailing through were actually trading places for slaves - something not so many people want to talk about today but something we should not forget.




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