At Midsummer 1631, Barbary pirates from North Africa raided the Irish village of Baltimore, and took several hundred local people into lifelong captivity. Such a distant projection of Islamic power might seem extreme and even bizarre, but it was no such thing. Forgotten today, the danger of Arab and Turkish assault remained a nightmare for the vast majority of Europeans throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, and well beyond that date in some regions.
By way of chronology, the critical dates were 1525-26, when the pirate Barbarossa took Algiers and pledged allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the Ottomans smashed the once great Christian state of Hungary, making Budapest a border city. At least until the 1680’s, thoughtful Europeans speculated just how much farther the Ottomans might extend their rule. The Christian victory at Vienna in 1683 provided some security, but Ottoman-sponsored banditry and slave-raiding deep into the Holy Roman Empire persisted long afterward.
But the danger extended far beyond Central Europe, and was considerably worse in Mediterranean lands. Many of the worst perpetrators were themselves Europeans, ex-Christians who converted to Islam to take advantage of the rich opportunities in piracy and slaving. From the Spanish word for these “deniers” of their faith, we get the word renegades.
Trading in Christian slaves was a major economic focus in Eastern Europe, with the Tatar Khanate of Crimea as the major perpetrators. The Crimean Tatars were another vassal of the Ottomans, and they ranged far across the Danube lands, Poland-Lithuania, and Muscovy, reaching as far as the Baltic. They supplied legions of slaves to the notorious markets surrounding the Black Sea, from whence captives might find their way anywhere across southeastern Europe, Persia, or the Middle East.
Nor were Christians safe in the distant Atlantic periphery. From Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and other centers, Barbary pirates regularly raided the coasts of Britain, France, and Ireland. In 1627, they seized 800 people from the coasts of Iceland. Only a handful ever returned home.
Through these centuries, many European nations and subnational groups pursued war, violence, and raiding, which was absolutely not the prerogative of any one side, or any religion. Yet significant military power gave a decisive advantage to Islamic forces, which seemed able to strike anywhere. Historian Robert Davis credibly estimates that the Barbary lands alone might have taken over a million Christian slaves between the 16th and 18th centuries.
When Davis’s figures were first published, some historians argued that they were modest when compared with the numbers for the African trade to the Americas in the same period, which reliably estimates 12 million carried across the Atlantic. That response, though, is misleading, because the Barbary trade was only one component of a much larger European picture. In particular, it takes no account of the very large and quite distinct activities of the Crimean Tatars, and some of their slaving attacks claimed tens of thousands of Christian victims in single sweeps. Over the three-century period of 1500-1800, the total of Christian slaves taken by the Tatars must have exceeded three million. In reality, then, the likely total for Islamic slaving in Europe would have been considerably less than the African trade, but it was still very significant.
Unlike the African trade, Islamic slaving did not stop because of political or moral activism, or a change in religious sensibility in the perpetrator nations. In every instance, Islamic campaigns ended only because of the growing military might of Christian states, which used force ruthlessly. Key dates in this process include the Russian hegemony over the Crimean lands in 1774, and the growing Western naval pressure on the Barbary states. Americans naturally think of their own involvement in the two wars against the Barbary pirates between 1801 and 1815. The key event, though, was the combined British-Dutch bombardment of Algiers in 1816, which killed some 7,000. Disliking the prospect of nation-building in conquered lands, the British at this stage adopted a strategy that involved massive deterrent force, in what were termed “butcher and bolt” attacks. Ultimately, Algerian-based slaving only ended when the French occupied the whole country in 1830.
When we write the history of Europe between 1780 and 1830, we naturally focus on such revolutionary events as the political upheavals in France, and the economic upsurge in Great Britain. But the Continent’s liberation from endemic Muslim assaults was no less critical or revolutionary a development in these very same years.
Modern commentators often stress that Islam has played a very significant, if underappreciated, role throughout European history. That is absolutely correct. But that role was often very negative, indeed pernicious, in its effects.