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The forgotten history of Christian slavery under Islam

Professor Darío Fernández-Morera details the forgotten history of a millennium of Christian responses to Islamic aggression.

Stone shield of the Trinitarian Order on the façade of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1638-1641) in Rome. (Image: Jastrow/Wikipedia)

While celebrating his first Mass, St. John of Matha (1160-1213)—whose Feast is celebrated on December 17th—was granted the signal favor of having God’s Will for his priesthood revealed clearly to him. At the elevation of the Host, he fell into ecstasy at the sight of an angel appearing to him clad in a white robe with a red and blue cross upon his breast. The angel had his arms crossed with his hands resting protectively upon two manacled slaves on each side, a white man and a black man. Divinely illumined, John of Matha resolved to dedicate his priesthood to the mission of ransoming Christian slaves held captive by the Muslims.

Most people today are ignorant of the centuries-long peril that once faced Christian Europe and which gave such urgency to John of Matha’s mission. For a thousand years between the eighth and the nineteenth centuries, Europe was in a state of ongoing war with the expanding Muslim world. Islamic armies during this period subjugated Palestine, North Africa, Spain, southern France and Sicily, effectively placing the entire Mediterranean Sea under their control. Muslim pirates would sail freely, looting ships, plundering coastal cities and most eagerly of all, capturing as many as they could to take as slaves. They did so in massive numbers, enslaving over a million until European powers would colonize northern Africa in the nineteenth century.

Joining John of Matha in his mission to establish an order for the ransoming of captives was St. Felix of Valois (1127-1212). Together they founded the Order of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Captives; their Rule was approved by Pope Innocent III, on December 17, 1198. Like the angel from St. John of Matha’s vision, its members were to wear a white habit with a red and blue cross upon the breast.

The Trinitarian Order successfully systematized the ransoming procedure which secured the freedom of countless slaves sparing them the fate of potential apostasy and death. The friars would travel extensively through every Christian land begging alms for the ransom of slaves. They would then bring these alms to Muslim ports and negotiate the release of the captives.

The crisis was so great that another order of friars was founded with the same purpose. The Mercedarians were established in Spain by St. Peter Nolasco in 1218. In addition to the usual three religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Mercedarians took a fourth vow, to substitute themselves for any captive if the sum of money they had for the negotiation was not enough to secure their freedom.

The historical revisionists of our time, who are so eager to “correct” the historical record in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past always seem to ignore the centuries-long phenomenon of European Christian slavery in Africa. It is a purposefully forgotten history.

CWR asked Darío Fernández-Morera, a Northwestern University Associate Professor Emeritus, to answer a few questions shedding light in this topic. Professor Fernández-Morera is the author of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2016); he spoke with CWR earlier this year about the topic of the Islamic occupation of Spain

CWR: What was the ultimate purpose of the early Islamic conquests?

Darío Fernández-Morera: Applied sharia (fiqh) required that infidels who did not submit peacefully to Islam should be fought and prisoners enslaved. As experts in Islamic Law such as Felipe Maíllo Salgado (University of Salamanca) explain, and Medieval Islamic treatises and chronicles attest, religion was fundamental. They also make clear that jihad was understood as a struggle to make the world submit, not as some “spiritual” struggle to become “a better person”.

This religious foundation is evident in the answer given by Muslim authorities to the Americans before the “Barbary Wars” (1801-05, 1815), fought by the United States to try to end North African Muslim raids on American and European ships:

We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the Grounds of their pretentions to make war upon Nations who had done them no Injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation. The Ambassador [of Tunis] answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman [sic] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise. (Letter of American Commissioners to John Jay, 28 March 1786).

Christians enslaved Muslims, but unlike the case of Islam’s religious texts, the Gospels have no analogous injunctions against non-Christians. Nor was the enslavement of Muslims comparable. As historian Robert C. Davis shows in Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (2003), entire European coastal areas and towns were depopulated by Muslim raids. We have no comparable record of depopulation in Muslim lands. As you point out, so vast was the enslavement of Christians, that not one but two monastic orders dedicated themselves to their rescue.

CWR: Detail the dominance of Islamic armies in the Mediterranean region between the 8th and the 19th centuries.

Darío Fernández-Morera: These attacks, and the enslavement of Christians, should be contextualized within much more encompassing jihads to make the world submit. Islam ended the enclaves of Jews and Christians in Arabia. The larger offensive against Christianity started with the unprovoked jihad against the Christian Greek Roman Empire (misnamed “Byzantine”: its inhabitants called themselves Romans; its enemies called them RomansRum, as do Muslim texts–and Europeans called them Greeks to avoid calling them Romans because Europe now had its own “Holy Roman Empire,” started by Charlemagne; nobody called them “Byzantines,” a name invented by a Protestant scholar in the sixteenth century and adopted by academics since).

This jihad wrestled from Christianity the Holy Land, Syria, North Africa, Anatolia (today’s Turkey), Armenia, and Greece. Only Greece and Armenia eventually escaped Islamic control.

This jihad began with the victory over the Christians at Yarmuk (636). It continued until the Christian defeat at Manzikert (1071). Manzikert opened the Christian Anatolian peninsula to the Muslim Turks. It prompted the Greek Roman Emperor Alexius I Comnenos to ask Europe for help. Pope Urban II gave him this help by organizing the First Crusade. Against terrible odds, the crusaders recovered the Holy Land, though only from 1099 to 1291. The Islamic assault against what remained of the Christian Greek Roman Empire culminated with the fall of Constantinople (1453). Turkish dictator Ataturk, architect of the Armenian Christians’ genocide, changed Constantinople’s name (Κωνσταντινούπολις “the city of [Emperor] Constantine”) to “Istanbul” to erase its Greek and Christian origin.

Islam conquered Zoroastrian Persia (today’s Iran) in the seventh century, ending Zoroastrian rule.

Muslim armies, made up largely of North African Berbers recently forced to convert, crossed the strait named Pillars of Hercules (changed by Muslims to Jebel-al-Tariq, hence Gibraltar, to celebrate their commander Tariq) and conquered three quarters of Christian Spain (711-719). Christians from the North gradually fought back (The Spanish Reconquista), and after their victory at the big battle of Navas de Tolosa (16 July 1212) recovered most of the land, except for the small kingdom of Granada, which fell in 1492.

For centuries, the Spanish Catholic Church celebrated Navas de Tolosa as the day of the Triunfo de la Santa Cruz because Christians saw a cross in the sky, and a banner with the cross, carried by a Canon on horseback before the archbishop of Toledo Jiménez de Rada (who fought on horseback alongside the Christian soldiers), led the Christians to victory without suffering damage. Navas de Tolosa was the culmination of a Crusade blessed by Pope Innocent III (d. 1216). The celebration has disappeared from the Catholic calendar.

Under Turkish leadership, Islam conquered the Christian Balkans and much of Christian Eastern Europe, and then moved against Central Europe. These attacks culminated with the sieges of Vienna in 1529 (Spanish and German troops saved Vienna) and 1683 (by September 11 Vienna was about to fall, but Vienna and probably Europe were saved on the morning of September 12 by the arrival of Catholic Polish king Jan Sobieski III with his Winged Hussars, who crushed the Turks).

All these attacks produced millions of captives, not counting the centuries of attacks against the coasts and ships of Europe–which reached as far as Iceland–or the massive enslavement of Slavs in Eastern Europe by Islamized Mongols and Tatars. In 846 Arabs even sacked the St. Peter and Paul basilicas’ treasures and relics (Pope Sergius II fled behind the Aurelian walls; his successor Leo IV built the Vatican walls). Turks sacked Otranto (1480), enslaved thousands, and beheaded 800 who refused to convert (The Martyrs of Otranto); they conquered Cyprus (1570), enslaving Nicosia and Famagusta’s Greek population. Historian of slavery Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau (Institut d’Études Politiques, Paris) estimates that the Islamic enslavement of whites far surpasses the transatlantic trade in black slaves (Les traites négrières, 2006).

One victim of the raids in the Mediterranean was Miguel de Cervantes, who was captured and enslaved in Algiers for five years. The Trinitarians ransomed him. He later became a Franciscan Lay Brother, but he asked to be buried at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid. Islam impacted Cervantes’s life even earlier: he fought at the crucial battle of Lepanto (Greek Naupaktos) on October 7, 1571, off the coast of Greece. At Lepanto, a Christian fleet of Spanish, Venetian, Genoese, Papal, and other Italian ships, organized by Pope Saint Pius V, and commanded by Don Juan de Austria, half-brother of King Philip II, defeated a larger Turkish fleet and checked the Islamic advance in the Mediterranean. Fifteen thousand Christian slaves rowing in the Muslim ships were freed. Though ill, Cervantes asked to be placed at the most dangerous part of the ship, and was shot three times. He recovered, but lost the use of his left hand—“for the greater glory of his right one,” as the Spanish saying goes.

October 7th was celebrated by the Catholic Church as the day of Our Lady of Victory, because Saint Pius V instructed all Christian fighters to pray the Rosary before the battle. The day is now called Our Lady of the Rosary. The great banner of the Turkish admiral, decorated with the image of Muhammad’s scimitar, and the name of Allah stitched in gold 29,800 times, was captured and kept for years near the tomb of Saint Pius V at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1965 Pope Paul VI gave it to the Turks as a gesture of good will.

Islam attacked China from 651 to 751. Most of China remained unconquered. But the outer regions of the Chinese empire fell. Today’s Kazaks, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, among others, are Muslims. These areas were once Buddhist, Hindu (as was Afghanistan) and even Christian. Tatars invaded Christian Russia, exacting gold and slaves. After the big battle of Kulikovo (1380) against the by then Islamized Tatars, Russians gradually reconquered their land.

Islam’s conquest of Hindu lands was brutal. Historian Will Durant wrote: “The Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history” (The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental History). So massive was the export of slaves from India through the mountains, that they were named Hindu Kush, which according to Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/69) means “Killer of Hindus” in Persian, because of the vast number of Hindus who died from cold and hardships while transported. Pakistan was once Hindu and Buddhist, with some Christians as well.

Such was the impact of Christian slaves on Islamic lands, that many of the Umayyad rulers of Islamic Spain, as the sons of sexual slaves, were blue-eyed and blond or red- haired; and the founder of the “Arabic” Nasrid dynasty of Granada was called al-Hamar, “the Red One,” because of his reddish hair and beard. Tenth century Muslim geographer Ibn Hawqal writes that one of the main exports of Islamic Spain was slaves, and that “most of the white eunuchs of the world come from Spain.” Arabist Celia del Moral observes that in Umayyad al-Andalus the most coveted and therefore expensive sexual slaves were blond and red-haired females from the Northern Christian regions (see The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise).

CWR: How large scale was the enslavement of sub-Saharan (“black”) Africans during this period?

Darío Fernández-Morera: Bernard Lugan, Africanist at the University of Lyon III, observes that the slavery of black Africans was initially a trade among black Africans, and that all peoples have practiced slavery, but only the white Europeans abolished it first (Esclavage, l’histoire à l’endroit,2020).

This is also noticed by Benin Professor Abiola Felix Iroko.

Arab merchants were the principal intermediaries in this trade, and they conducted raids to capture black Africans. (See Ghana professor John Allenbillah Azumah’s The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa [2001].) Islamic countries did not abolish slavery until recently. Turkey abolished the trade in black (Zanj) and white (Circassian) females in 1908. Kuwait abolished slavery in 1949, Qatar in 1952, Niger in 1960, Saudi Arabia in 1962. In some countries, slavery continues, unofficially.

It was the European colonizers of North Africa in the nineteenth century who not only finally ended the enslaving of white Europeans, but also officially ended the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans by black Africans and Muslims. This ignored aspect of colonialism is underlined not only by Lugan, but also by Ivorian intellectual Ernst Tigori.

CWR: Would you agree that little attention has been given to this in the teaching of history? Why do you think this is?

Dario Fernández-Morera: Yes. I want to point out that although traveling on donkeys rather than horses, characteristic of the Trinitarians, may be attributed to humility, another possibility is that in Islamic lands, where the friars went to help the Christian slaves, Christians were forbidden to ride horses.

Why all this is not taught in schools, or even discussed amply in academia, is the result of many factors. I will mention only one: “stake-holders” interests. Many academics who write and teach about Islam do not want to present their subject, which they love and is the bread and butter on which they publish, under such unfavorable light; and they will fight tooth and nail anyone who does. Prestigious Western universities and Islamic Studies programs receive large donations from Islamic countries. Academics do not want to jeopardize their careers, and even traveling to Islamic lands, by highlighting the issues examined here; and those who write about slavery do not wish to contextualize their condemnations of black slavery in the Americas by highlighting its centuries of existence before and after 1619 among black Africans and Muslims, or by mentioning the millions of whites enslaved by Islam through the centuries.

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About Father Seán Connolly 65 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2015, he has an undergraduate degree in the Classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts as well as a Bachelor of Sacred Theology, Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York. In addition to his parochial duties, he writes for The Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Register and The Wanderer.


  1. The greatest of virtue is to never have said anything bad about another.
    When in reality, the United States, in hand with the proclaimed true Islamic State, Saudi Arabia work to exterminate Twenty Million humans to death by Genocide right now, currently in the poorest country on Earth, Yemen.
    In all of history, the greatest of moral obligation of a government, or deemed religious leader, is to protect the Poor, from the rich..
    At no time in all of World history, is the direct reputation, honor and charter of all Catholic leaders on the line, most specificly, the United States of America on the line, in regard to the US extermination, genocide of the poor, around the World.
    If the true Catholic faith is to protect, and save the poor (from the rich) the US Catholic leadership is the most failed establishment in all of World history.. Not the church, but the people of.

  2. I was surprised to read about the Yaqui Indians of northern Mexico being sold into virtual slavery under the administration of Porfirio Diaz. I had no idea.
    It just goes to show that slavery has no boundaries. It’s a part of the human condition.

  3. “In 1965 Pope Paul VI gave it to the Turks as a gesture of good will.”

    I’m willing to bet it was seen as a gesture of weakness rather than good will.

  4. More humans are owned, held as slaves “sex slaves” in the USA today, than the entire slave trade times combined. When the factor of wage and debt slavery is factored in, the US is a near total slave population.. Yet denied by Catholic leaders and political leaders.

  5. Was not Christer Columbus a slave trader, who died in jail for his crimes against slaves. For in 1500 Jews and Islamic were expelled from Spain, brought to the Americas, and then the indiginious taken back. The Jewish instituted Socialist communities that were total failures in Texas, that communistic failure that is still implimented today.. Corona stimulus checks,,

      • Well, part of the “solution” is functional literacy and curiosity about details, large and small, in place of broad-brush impressionism. Christer (sic) Columbus did not die in jail. It’s true that on one occasion he was deservedly returned to Spain in chains, but after six weeks in jail he was exonerated by the king. At the end of his life (May 20, 1506) the prolonged legal issue for Columbus had to do with the amount and distribution of his wealth. He died with family and a priest at his side.

    • Is anyone other than me bored to death hearing about what happened during slavery 500 years ago? Is there a point to it?? Unless the purpose is to continue playing racial politics.

    • Lyle,
      You know, I spent some of my break time yesterday responding to anti Semitic comments in another Catholic publication.
      Let’s not go there in this holy season of Advent. For goodness sake you’re talking about Our Lord’s kinfolk.

  6. And how about “The Turkish Abductions” of 1627, where 400 Icelanders were stolen by Muslin pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa? Only 50 were ransomed and returned to Iceland between 9-18 years later. During the abductions, numerous Icelanders were killed. These are the only foreign power conflict casualties ever inflicted on Icelandic soil. Icelanders study this history to the hilt, but anyone else? Would love to do DNA research in North Africa on where the descendants ended up… Icelanders have quite the unique set of genetic markers. Let’s all race to the bottom in the land of grievance politics and competitive suffering. Certainly why Our Lord came to die for us… NOT!

    • And when DNA research is done on Icelanders they find much Irish type DNA because Irish slaves were carried up there by Vikings.
      Over a million Europeans are thought to have been captured by North Africans for the slave trade. And the Tatars had a thriving & quite brutal slave business.
      Slavery’s a universal history we all share in.

  7. If Ataturk wanted to change Constantonople’s name to erase its Greek origin, then he failed. Because Istanbul is also Greek. It means “to the town”. “Εις την πολιν” became

    • Istanbul
      Turkish name of Constantinople; it developed in Turkish 16c. as a corruption of Greek phrase eis tan (ten) polin “in (or to) the city,” which is how the local Greek population referred to it.

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