African Captors and White Captives: Flipping the Story on Slavery

White Slaves, African Masters, book cover.

When Americans discuss slavery, we usually think of the white people who enslaved Africans and African-Americans. The more knowledgeable include Native Americans and other people of color who were also enslaved by whites. But slavery also worked in other directions. For example, whites who were captured and enslaved by Africans.

Those travelling on ships near and around Africa often fell victim to pirates, or even to natural causes crippling their ships and leaving them at the mercy of African captors. They were often enslaved by their captors, or sold into slavery with others. Conditions were usually at least as harsh as those that enslaved people in America suffered at the hands of whites.

Among the most notorious of locations was Tripoli, held by the Turks and the Ottoman Empire. They kept slaves under the most dreadful of conditions. Tensions between the U.S. and Tripoli escalated during the early nineteenth century when the Barbary Wars erupted with the Americans fighting the forces from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. In fact, the part of the first line in the Marine fight song that says “to the shores of Tripoli” refers to the Battle of Derne in 1805, the first time that the American flag was raised in the old world.

Many were taken captive and held in slavery for months or years before being repatriated. Many never made it home. Some who did wrote narratives of their experiences as captives, which were published for the public to read.

Paul Baepler published a good collection of these stories in his 1999 work White Slaves, African Masters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). He provides a good introductory discussion of Barbary captives, then selects nine authors from Cotton Mather to ordinary individuals, discussing various experiences as captives. He finishes with a bibliography of mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publications of captives’ stories. An excerpt from Dr. Jonathan Cowdery’s account of his captivity with the crew of the U.S. Frigate Philadelphia in 1803:


Nov. 24. — The Bashaw refused to furnish necessary clothing for the sick, or any thing for them to eat, but sour filthy bread. — Captain Bainbridge contracted with the Danish consult o supply the sick with beef and vegetables for soup every day.

Nov. 27. — Our men complained of their hard usage, in being compelled to lie on the cold damp ground, to eat bad bread, to work hard, and to be bastinadoed [caned] by their drivers.

Nov. 30. — One of our men in a fit of despair attempted to kill himself; but was prevented by the Turks, when in the act of cutting his throat. The wound did not prove mortal.


If your ancestors lived on the coast and were seafaring people, some of them may have been white slaves. Start looking for them. More importantly, start thinking about how you would feel if your ancestors were suddenly on the other side of slavery. Do you take a more conciliatory tone towards your own ancestors who owned slaves? Do you explain it away as being part of the time and culture, but reverse the discussion when the situation is reversed and the slavers become masters and the masters become slaves? Why is that? It certainly makes for an interesting discussion, both internal and with other family members, and will make an interesting addition to your family hist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *