by Sheila Dalton
In the first half of the 1600s, when Stolen takes place, Barbary corsairs - pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa, sanctioned by their governments to attack the ships of Christian countries - operated all around Britain's shores.
Meanwhile, England was sending its own citizens into a form of white slavery. More is known now about how the Irish were used as indentured servants in this era; what many people don’t realize is that In the 17th and 18th centuries, tens of thousands of British men, women and children lived as chattels, bound in servitude to their colonial masters. Worse yet, some of them were kidnapped by their own countrymen for transport to the Americas. While these unfortunates were often indentured in the usual way (their passage paid for by labour in the New World until their debts were paid) they did not go willingly. Others came because of deceit and misrepresentation by ‘spirits’ (recruiting agents) who told them outright lies about how they would be treated and what work they would be doing. Still more were arrested for various crimes, including vagrancy, and transported to the Americas and the Caribbean as virtual slaves.
As I read more about the 17th century, what struck me was that slavery at the time did not appear to have a racial basis. No race was considered exclusively slave material or exclusively free. Black, brown, white, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Catholic - no one was safe from the scourge of slavery. In England, the biggest determining factor was poverty - if you were both penniless and homeless, your chances of becoming enslaved in the New World were huge.
When people think of ‘white slavery’ they generally think of darker-skinned races scooping up and carrying off white women for sale into harems.
|White Slavery Woodcut|
And while this did happen and is part of my book Stolen, it’s also true that the British enslaved their own in an era when cheap labour was desperately needed in the new colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean.
In addition to attacking ships and sailors, the corsairs also raided coastal settlements in Devon and Cornwall, often by sailing their craft onto unguarded beaches, and creeping up on villages in the dark to snatch up victims and sell them in the Moroccan slave markets. The men were then generally put to work building palaces and temples or sent back to sea as galley slaves; the women were often held for ransom or put in harems.
I had visited Devon and therefore set my tale in Newton Abbot and Teignmouth on the Devon coast.
An encounter with two enslaved Britons from Morocco was even documented by Samuel Pepys in his famous Diary. An entry for Feb. 8, 1661 reads:
... Captain Mootham and Mr Dawes (who have been both slaves there) did make me full acquainted with their condition there. As, how they eat nothing but bread and water.... How they are beat upon the soles of the feet and bellies at the Liberty of their Padron. How they are all night called into their master's Bagnard, and there they lie.
|Vagrant being punished|
I also read accounts claiming hundreds of girls sent over in the 1620s were probably child prostitutes dragged off the London streets. And that James I ordered 100 "rowdy youths" from Newmarket to be shipped across to Virginia simply because the horseplay of these exuberant local lads had annoyed him. It was a dangerous age.
Once in the New World, these reluctant ‘servants’ became property, treated as their masters saw fit. Brutal punishments were common; every settlement had its own whipping post. One British slave in Virginia was publicly scourged for four days with his ears nailed to the post. His ‘crime’? Flirting with a servant girl.
While officially these people were under contract to work for a limited number of years (usually 7 to 10), they were in fact often worked to death or died of the terrible conditions in which they were forced to live.
My heroine, Lizbet Warren, suffers from two forms of slavery: her parents are captured by Barbary corsairs; and she herself is in danger of being transported as a slave to America for vagrancy - in her case, being on her own through no fault of her own.