Saturday, 4 August 2012

White Gold

Are you feeling depressed? A little under the weather? Do you think you are having a bad day as you sip your caffe latte, short black or expresso? If so, you have it far too good! Turn your attention to the rarely told story of the one million white slaves captured by Barbary pirates 300 years ago and sold in the slave markets of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli and count your blessings.

White Gold by Giles Milton recounts the story of the "white infidels" who were snatched - uncontested - from their beds, off fishing trawlers and merchant ships from 1625 until 1816.  Many were never to be seen again. All were at the mercy of their Muslim captors - and in most cases there was no mercy.

For over a hundred years, under the orders of the fanatical and dangerous ruler of Morocco, Sultan Moulay Ismail, pirates plundered the coastal towns of England, Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy and as far away as Scandinavia and North America. Inhumane slave pens held men, women and children who were forced in to hard labour, the harem and harsh servitude. Many converted to Islam on pain of death, thereby suffering circumcision, and forfeited all rights to return to their homelands.

Although the dust jacket gushes about swashbuckling action (fight for survival), colourful villain ( a demonic despot), exciting (frightening) this enjoyable (horrifying) story is a snapshot in time of the dark side of man's inhumanity to man.

Giles Milton has sourced archives, libraries, historical records, unpublished memoirs and personal letters to retell this graphic story. Notably through the eyes of eleven year old Thomas Pellow from Cornwall who survived 23 years of slavery and escaped back to his homeland when he was 33. He was one of the rare escapees who managed to survive due to his stubborn and wary nature and his strong constitution. Thomas witnessed such terrible brutality that one wonders what his "rehabilitation" was like once he had escaped his captors. Did he nurse his wrath, stare out to sea remembering those he'd left behind or did he simply offer up thanks that he was finally safe and free?

From 1625-1817 vicious pirates roamed the seas kidnapping, plundering and murdering at will. For 100 years those in authority - the navy, monarchy, wealthy merchants, papacy and parliament - were so impotent that all they could do was "condemn" them, send the occasional ambassador to Morocco and pay the Sultan ransom and gifts to save a few (all men). How is it that one evil man can set the pace for so many?

Giles tells us that it was not until 100 years after the capture of Thomas Pellow, that a descendant of his, Sir Edward Pellew, Lord Exmouth, Vice Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet, commanded a vast squadron that rained 50,000 cannonballs on Algiers in 24 hours and ended the overt white trade in perpetuity. His decisive actions also paralleled the calls by Wilberforce to abolish the equally brutal Black Slave Trade.

Today Morocco has another type of trade. The tourist trade. Tourist brochures paint a picture of a grand and imperial past. Visitors wave, smiling from battlements unaware that they were built by the blood of their forebears. They stare in awe at the magnificent scale of the Palace of Menke, yet many are oblivious to the hopelessness, suffering and cruelty of the blood spilled on this site. The stables alone held 20,000 horses and the harem - 2,000 concubines. An untold number of white slaves lay extinguished in the lime and mortar foundations over which they tread. Giles has traveled in the footsteps of these white slaves and says the great slave market at Sale, the Souk el Kabar, looks as it did 300 years ago.

The politics, the morals and the meaning of food is well represented in this novel.

It symbolized power and wealth:

"Everything in Moulay Ismail's palace was on a grand scale and food was no exception...a giant platter which held enough couscous to feed 900 was wheeled in to the palace courtyard." p125

It symbolized manipulation. The captives, who were half starved, were found to work harder and have a lower mortality rate when inebriated:

"In the captives' own country, they said, Christians were strengthened by drinking wine and brandy." p99

It was a tool of  treachery. Sultan Ahmed ed-Delebi undisputed Master of Morocco (after a bloody power play) suddenly dropped dead in 1729. It was rumoured to have been poisoned by the mother of Moulay Abdallah who was then appointed to the throne.

"His death was occasioned by drinking a small bowl of milk." p240

Food was one of the spoils of war and given as a gift to the Sultan:

"They seized scimitars, daggers, powder horns and gunsocks...honey and dates...and 200 black slaves." p43

Food depicted religious and cultural significance:

"Pellow added that pork and wine were 'two very presumptious breaches 
of their law at Meknes and would be punished by death '." p139

The lack of food was used as a punishment:

"Their diet was a 'littel course bread and water' - while their lodgings was a dungeon underground." p20

Food also provided comfort and sustenance:

"Pellow had never eaten couscous before and was surprised to find it quite delicious, soaked in butter and lightly perfumed with saffron and spices 'it was very good, grateful and nourishing'." p220

Giles, an historical novelist has accessed rare and historical records. The references at the back of the book are both extensive and appreciated, as this reader will never have the opportunity to glimpse the human heartache penned by so many doomed to their fate three centuries ago.



1 cup chicken stock
1 1/4 cups water
3 teaspoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon zest
300g couscous
Plain yogurt (optional)


Bring stock and water to the boil. 
Add lemon zest, cumin, salt to taste. 
Add couscous. Bring to boil. Turn off heat. 
Cover saucepan and let stand until moisture is absorbed. 
Garnish with mint and dollop of  Greek yogurt.


White Gold by Giles Milton ISBN978-0-340-79470-8  

Copyright All Rights Reserved Ann Etcell-Ly

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