Book Review: ‘White Gold’ by Giles Milton

From the bestselling author of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg comes White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves. Giles Milton’s latest book is a valuable work simply because the story of slavery belongs to us all. Furthermore, this spine-tingler is also important in that it has managed to find a publisher, and therefore an audience. (In Europe, some politically sensitive history books don’t always see the light of day.)

Much is written about the slave trade, but rarely does one read a book about the likes of Thomas Pellow. Barbary corsairs captured the Cornish cabin boy and his shipmates in 1716. Sadly, such kidnappings were commonplace. Between the years 1550-1730, Algiers alone was home to around 25,000 European slaves. At times, there were around 50,000 captives. Slave markets also flourished in Tunis and Morocco where little Thomas was sent. The lad was only 11 years old.

There are many ways to read White Gold. I’ve long tried, albeit clumsily, to put my empathy cap on and think about how it would feel to struggle as a slave. This book was a great help and worked a treat. Mile’s vivid descriptions backed with thorough research make the task easier. When Thomas Pellow was entering a life of servitude, my heart sunk into my boots. Miles describes the scene:

As the sun rose spectacularly over the city’s eastern ramparts and the men were led through the principal gate, they were tormented by jeering, hostile Moors. “We were met and surrounded by vast crowds of them,” wrote Pellow, “offering us the most vile insults.” As word of their arrival spread through the souks, more and more people flocked to the city in order to mock the hated Christians. They surged towards the frightened captives and tried to beat them with sticks and batons.

Readers will be tempted to ask, “Were Pellow’s capturers tyrannical and bloodthirsty barbarians?” The politically incorrect answer to that is, “Yes”.

Whatever you do, don’t read this book before meal times. Milton, unlike some historians, doesn’t shy away from awful truths.

The book’s most disturbing figure is Moulay Ismail, the sultan of Morocco. It is he who buys the young Thomas and routinely executes people whom rub him up the wrong way.

Not content with hijacking ships, the Islamic slave traders would make “home visits” to Europe’s coastal villages and kidnap family members. So popular was the demand for Christian slave labour that some rich Barbary pirates, funded by even richer Sultans, pillaged Reykjavik and returned with 400 very frightened Icelanders. Distance was obviously no barrier. Later, travelling Americans  also became sitting ducks.

Does this sound uncomfortably familiar? Like some Islamic extremists of today, the Sultans laughed about holding Europe to ransom. They were rarely met with force.

Obviously, Thomas Pellow’s experience takes place within a wider context, and Giles Milton gives us this. As a learned writer, he provides his audience with sufficient primary resources and solid secondary ones. Of particular interest, are the graphic illustrations of torture techniques and photographs of the now crumbling Meknes palace built by Christian slaves. This is not for the faint hearted.

Whereas, the tireless work of feisty born-again Christians led to the abolition of slavery in America, this was not the case in North Africa and other Islamic strongholds. Ironically,  years after Pellow’s death, a descendant of his took to the seas to fight against the barbaric slave masters. Without revealing too much, the book’s amazing epilogue reads like a tribute to the actions over words principle. Giles Milton’s White Gold is a treasure, and we owe it to North Africa’s one million European white slaves to never forget. They were a stolen generation.

But this book is not just about victims. Many brave English souls who advocated for the abolition of black slavery turned their attention to the plight of European captives. Groups like the Society of Knights Liberators of the White Slaves of Africa (pdf file 684KB) were instrumental in creating awareness. So too were some Church of England churches. Yet, after marathon “talkfests” with barbarian traders, the abolitionists only made significant gains after adopting hawkish strategies. Arguably, this lesson has been lost to some of us. As a wise man once said, “If you want peace, prepare for war”. And, if you want a good read, consider getting your hands on a copy of White Gold.

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