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Seminar: Dr. Magnus Ressel

Captivity or Slavery? The Kidnapping of Europeans to Northern Africa by the Barbary-corsairs in the Early Modern Era


Course description:


During the Early Modern Era hundreds of thousands of Christian Europeans were abducted to North-Africa by the so-called Barbary-corsairs. This happened either on sea, where Muslim corsairs waged an intense war against ships from most European nations, or on raids into Europe’s vulnerable coastal regions. Estimates on the number of Christians captured and brought to Northern Africa between 1520 and 1830 are ranging from 300.000 to 1 Million. Abundant scholarly literature on Christian-Muslim relations with specific regard to Northern Africa has emerged in the last decades. Very recently the reciprocal nature of this endemic conflict (‘little war’) has received new attention, as well as the redemption of the ‘co-religionists’. Alongside with this debate a vivid controversy as to the nature of the stealing of human booty has ensued. The American scholar Robert Davis has dubbed it ‘Faith slavery’ and explicitly compares it to ‘Atlantic slavery’. This has been vehemently opposed by French scholars, namely Michel Fontenay, who insists on using the concept of captivity to adequately grasp the treatment of the human booty. The multiple facets of the debate shall be outlined, the different concepts and their definitions elaborated, then compared to the results of the factual research and the language of the sources. A concluding discussion shall summarize the findings of the sessions.


Recommended reading:

  1. Patterson, Orlando (1982): Slavery and social death. A comparative study. Cambridge 1982, Introduction, pp. 1-14.

  2. Davis, Robert / War, Holy / Bondage, Human: Tales of Christian-Muslim Slavery in the Early-Modern Mediterranean, Chapter II: Race Slavery and Faith Slavery, Oxford 2009, pp. 9-27.

  3. Kaiser, Wolfgang: Introduction, in: Ibid. (ed.): Le commerce des captifs. Les intermédiaires dans l’échange et le rachat des prisonniers en Méditerranée, XVe–XVIIIe siècle, Rome 2008, pp. 1-14.

  4. Fontenay, Michel (2008): „Esclaves et/ou captifs: préciser les concepts“, in: Kaiser, Wolfgang (ed.): Le commerce des captifs. Les intermédiaires dans l’échange et le rachat des prisonniers en Méditerranée, XVe–XVIIIe siècle. Rome 2008, pp. 15-24.


Summary to Nr. 3 :

Wolfgang Kaiser lies out here the concept of the anthology. The ransom-system is at the core a commercial affair that binds the actors from both sides of the Mediterranean together. Instead of a confrontation between religious enemies, we see via the ransom economy a redistribution of riches. A sort of permanent exception of the rule, i.e. the embargo from both sides, the ransom economy permitted exchange, facilitated contact and thus increased the degree of connectedness. This also civilized both sides in their permanent struggle.


Summary to Nr. 4:

The article is a plead for a strong distinction between the concept of “Slave” and “Captive”. A slave is held for his use (labor, sexual or decorative) and remains so until he has served this purpose. A captive is not taken to be hold on to but to be resold, depending on his connections (family, friends) towards the ransom-economy. He is thus not a slave but at best a provisional slave, in stark contrast to the Blacks that were transported from Africa to the New-Worlds-Plantations.