Wednesday, March 18, 2015

White Slavery in Britain and Morocco

by Sheila Dalton

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.

Barbary Pirates
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.

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
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.

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.

The homeless
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.

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.


Sheila Dalton has published novels and poetry for adults, and picture books for children. Her YA mystery, Trial by Fire, from Napoleon Press, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award. Her literary mystery, The Girl in the Box, published by Dundurn Press, reached the semi-finals in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, and was voted a Giller People’s Choice Top Ten.  Stolen is her first book of historical fiction.


  1. This is such an interesting but little known aspect of 17th century history. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Alison. Researching this book was fascinating.

  2. I lived in both Teignmouth and Newton Abbot and never heard about Barbary raids there ... so I HAVE to read this book. Thanks for the post ... is it being published in the USA!

  3. Hi, Sally
    Yes, Stolen is available as both an ebook and a print book from; it's also available for Kobo, iTunes, and Nook. Thanks for your interest.

  4. We should not forget that there are an estimated 1 million slaves in the United States today, and worldwide the slave trade is many times that great. It is most severe in the Arabian peninsula, and in India and Pakistan, but it exists everywhere. The modern term is "trafficking in persons" or TIP. But it IS slavery for labor and for the sex trade. The conditions are no less appalling today than in the 17th century.

  5. Thanks for that reminder, Helena. I hoped that Stolen would remind people of slavery in general, and make them think about it.

  6. I read a story a few years ago that focused on a man wrongfully accused of a crime and shipped out to the Carolinas as a slave. I then started researching and realized it was extensive and not just prisoners were snatched up. I think its a good reminder just how prevalent and extensive the enslaving of people was and is.

  7. Interesting article. I was surprised to learn recently that prior to the American War of Independence, British convicts were regularly shipped off to the American Colonies as free labour. After the war, they decided to ship their surplus prison population over to New South Wales (Australia) instead.

  8. Readers here are very informed. I appreciate your comments. I was surpised at the extent of transport from England in this time period. It was a combination of factors that made it so common - first, a growth in the population meant jobs and food were scarce; secondly, there was a desperate need for cheap labour in the colonies. It was very dangerous to be poor in those days!

  9. Tremendous piece. Thanks for posting. You're right about slavery not being particularly race based, but you need to remember that indenture had an end point and this form of slavery wasn't chattel slavery. That is they weren't property the way slavery evolved to be in the early 19th century USA.

    1. You're right, but in some ways indentured servants were treated worse than slaves, because they were not a lifetime investment. They often died before their servitude as over. And Britons were actually enslaved for vagrancy as this quote I put at the beginning of Chap. 1 of "Stolen" indicates:
      "Vagrancy had always been a concern in sixteenth century England, resulting in the passing of four anti-vagrancy bills in 1547 alone. This resulted in legislation so harsh that a person charged with vagrancy could be sentenced to two years enslavement, which could be extended to life enslavement if they tried to escape."
      Sara Byrnes, Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England.


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