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Jean Leon Gerome c. 1866

Constructing Narratives

In the last two sections you have become familiar with some tropes about men and women critiqued by Orientalism. Most of these characterize people from the east as irrational, hypersexual, and generally backwards. Facts of history like slavery and the harem were transformed into symbols of this backwardness. Let’s now consider how these tropes and symbols were woven together to construct White Slave Narratives in the 19th century.
As you might remember the late 19th century was the period Europe began its rapid colonization of the African continent. The institution of slavery in the Sahara and other parts of Africa were used to articulate the need for Europe to colonize and civilize this part of the world. The reality in this case did not always match the rhetoric. Europe still forced many Africans into kinds of servitude that very nearly resembled slavery, and even tolerated slavery in some cases. But, at home the myth that colonialism brought civilization to a cruel benighted people was widely believed.
In the Saharan world in particular the institution of slavery was used to trump up anxieties about non-white Muslims, because capturing European slaves was a part of the history of Barbary piracy on the Mediterranean Sea.
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Galley Slaves of the Barabary Coarsairs (Litho) - 1799

To the Shores of Tripoli

As mentioned in the first section, Muslims and Christians competed through commerce and warfare in the Mediterranean in the Middle Agee. Arab fleets appeared in Europe as early as the seventh century, at the same Muslim armies conquered the North African Berbers. European states eventually developed superior navies through the long process of conquest and reconquista. By the time Spain drove out the last Muslim rulers in Europe at the end of the fifteenth century, Barbary pirates were reduced to small scale raiding and captive taking at sea and near North African ports.
The captives taken in sea battles were men. They were put to difficult work in quarries, construction, and rowing on large ships. Some improved their difficult circumstances by converting to Islam, taking wives, and serving North African commanders. A very small number of these men became officers and administrators. After the reconquista most of the female Europeans enslaved in harems or working as domestics were taken or purchased in Eastern Europe by the Turks.
In the sixteenth century taking captives and ransoming them became a central feature of the diplomatic exchanges between the Barbary States and the West. European states used captured Muslim sailors as oarsmen on Galleys and as pawns to exchange for captured Christian sailors. The Barbary States used captives to obtain ransoms and small concessions from Europeans. The United States signed a treaty of friendship with Morocco in 1786 that was meant to protect American sailors and promote trade. The U.S. had less sucesses with other Barbary States, and fought the Barbary wars to end both the payment of tribute and the enslavement of American Sailors at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
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Complicated Accounts

After the Barbary Wars accounts of slavery in North Africa surged in popularity. Some Narratives, like Charles Sumner’s A Relation of Seven Years of Slavery under the Turks, used slavery in the Barbary States to criticize slavery in the United States. Abolitionists argued that Christians in the United States should not treat their fellow man as savagely as the ‘Turks’ or ‘Mohammadens’ of North Africa. Other accounts like History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Ms. Maria Martin were published to satisfy popular demand for accounts of white slaves in North Africa. Maria Martins account was all the more interesting, because it was written by a woman. The publisher capitalized on this by including a drawing of Maria bare breasted and chained on the inside cover. Both of these accounts are currently available through Google books.
In both abolitionist and non-abolitionist accounts race emerged as a new factor in the 19th century narratives. Before the nineteenth century the discussion around liberating captives stressed their status as Christians and citizens. But as the issue of slavery was debated in the U.S. narratives focused on the ‘whiteness’ of the captives. The racial component also gained traction in Europe.
Let’s take a look at one last orientalist painting. The image above is a reproduction of an engraving authorized by Charles X after the conquest of Algiers. The engraving is based on an earlier painting by Hyppolyte Lecompte. In this image the whiteness of the woman for sale in the market comments of the menace posed by the recently subdued racial other.