North African pirates abducted and enslaved more than 1 million Europeans between 1530 and 1780 in a series of raids which depopulated coastal towns from Sicily to Cornwall, according to new research.
Thousands of white Christians were seized every year to work as galley slaves, labourers and concubines for Muslim overlords in what is today Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya, it is claimed.
Scholars have long known of the slave raids on Europe. But American historian Robert Davis has calculated that the total number captured - although small compared with the 12 million Africans shipped to the Americas in later years - was far higher than previously recognised.
His new book, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800, concluded that 1 million to 1.25 million ended up in bondage.
Prof Davis’s unorthodox methodology split historians over whether his estimates were plausible but they welcomed any attempt to fill a gap in the little-known story of Africans subjugating Europeans.
By collating different sources of information from Europe over three centuries, the University of Ohio professor has painted a picture of a continent at the mercy of pirates from the Barbary Coast, known as corsairs, who sailed in lateen-rigged xebecs and oared galleys.
Villages and towns on the coast of Italy, Spain, Portugal and France were hardest hit but the raiders also seized people in Britain, Ireland and Iceland. According to one account they even captured 130 American seamen from ships that they boarded in the Atlantic and Mediterranean between 1785 and 1793.
In the absence of detailed written records such as customs forms Prof Davis decided to extrapolate from the best records available indicating how many slaves were at a particular location at a single time and calculate how many new slaves were needed to replace those who died, escaped or were freed.
To keep the slave population stable, around one quarter had to be replaced each year, which for the period 1580 to 1680 meant around 8,500 new slaves per annum, totalling 850,000.