A Captive Economy


A recent publication by a distinguished professor of History, Daniel Hershenzon, brings into focus how “In the early modern western Mediterranean, a wide range of individuals, networks, and institutions dealt with the trafficking of people—capturing, enslaving, smuggling, and ransoming—across and beyond the borders of Spain’s Mediterranean territories, Morocco, and Ottoman Algiers and Tunis.”

In the context of that time and place, the setting for the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, the term, captive economy, may be understood to have a meaning altogether different from its meaning in the modern world. To return to Dr. Hershenzon’s work, “In trafficking human plunder, corsairs, North African authorities, and slave brokers participated in an economy of booty.”

Quoting authorities, Hershenzon states, “During the early modern period millions of Christians and Muslims were taken captive and enslaved in the Mediterranean.” Over six or more centuries, North Africans toiled for slave masters in Spain, Portugal, France, Malta, Sicily and the Italian peninsula, while Europeans in similar numbers found themselves captive in Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, and Salé. The riches to be had from the lucrative Mediterranean trade routes attracted adventurers of all stripes; And the profits obviously outweighed the risks. North Africa produced staples such as wheat in far greater quantities and therefore at significantly lower prices than Europe. Moreover, the trade routes for spices and goods from the East passed through the Mediterranean. As demand for the same in Europe increased, especially during the centuries of war and devastation on the continent, so did the need for trade in the Mediterranean.

Hershenzon summarizes, “To early modern city dwellers, captives were a common sight and their stories painfully familiar.”

One important point that comes through the professor’s work, and one mentioned in several of the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, is an explanation of the difference between corsairs and pirates and the reason for how this situation came about. In short, when at war, the official fleets of premodern states were expensive to maintain, and therefore inadequate. To augment their naval defenses at no extra cost to their treasuries, states turned to privateers by issuing letters of marque or otherwise authorizing pirates to attack their enemies. Almost a by-product of the privateers’ activities at sea, captive enemies began filling slave markets in Southern Europe and North Africa. And this led to an economy of captives.

Introduced in the origin story, A Captive in Algiers, this economy and its ramifications feature in prominent ways throughout the series. For young Ettore at sea, and later in the bagnio, his introduction is a harsh one. But he has known hardship and has proved his resilience. In the hold of the slavers’ ship and then in the bagnio, he bonds with his fellow captives and closes ranks with them when encountered by the informer, or dallal, Turridu who would seek to learn more of each man in order to inflate their value for his master in the slave market. Then, whether the intention of the master is to sell the captives onward, or seek ransom for them at prices commensurate with their stations, the knowledge gathered by the informer will prove invaluable to the master.

Across the city-states of Muslim North Africa, that economy might also be termed, as Hershenzon wrote, an economy of booty. The religio-legal strictures in regard to the spoils of war and treatment of captives taken in war were well-defined by Islamic law under the headings of ghanima, anfal, i’taaq, awqaf, buyu’ and others which I hope to discuss in other postings, particularly as each of these feature in one way or another in the culture described in the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries.



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