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Thomas Pellow

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Thomas Pellow

Frontispiece from Thomas Pellow's slave narrative (1890)

Thomas Pellow (1704 – ?) was a Cornish author best known for the extensive slave narrative entitled The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow in South-BarbaryPellow's chronicles his many adventures spent during his 22-year-long captivity (summer 1716–July 1738) as he was groomed from a young boy into an elite military slave in the Moroccan empire. Pellow's narrative gives a detailed account of his capture of Barbary pirates, his experiences as a slave under Sultan Moulay Ismail, and his final escape from Morocco back to his Cornish origins.

According to Pellow's account, his captivity began at the age of eleven when sailing abroad in the summer of 1716 when his ship was attacked by Barbary pirates after crossing the Bay of Biscay. Pellow travelled with his uncle, John Pellow, who was the ship's captain alongside five Englishman. Pellow and his shipmates were taken captive and delivered to Sultan Mulai Ismail of Morocco as prisoners. Pellow was one of the individuals handed over to the sultan, and consequently, he spent the next twenty-three years as a captive in Morocco.

Trans-Saharan slave trade

Pellow was himself a slave, and did not have free will to act as he chose. Pellow and Black Africans who were enslaved alongside him acted at the direction of the Sultan and Pellow reports a game played by Black African slave troops of the Sultan which was used to control and scare European and White slaves. The Black African slave troops would habitually throw a white captive into the air in such a way that he would break his neck when he hit the ground. This was performed as punishment for minor infractions or imagined excuses at the direction of the Sultan.

Converting Christian slaves to Islam

In the eighteenth century, a substantial number of Christian slaves were the subject of coerced conversion to Islam at the request of their masters. Muslim masters working to convert their captives would often use extreme forms of physical abuse to force the conversion of faith. As a result, many European Christian captives converted in an effort to avoid cruel punishments. This conversion was the first symbolic sign of cultural immersion as well as heavily contributed to the increased value of a slave. Slaves who didn't convert were forced to do hard labour and were discriminated a great deal more than slaves who chose conversion. Oftentimes, Islamic conversion was the first major step in the journey towards full assimilation into Islamic culture. The psychological and social ramifications for conversion were crucial moments for turning slaves away from their past origins.

For many slaves, converting to Islam marked a major milestone of acceptance for their new found Moroccan culture. Islamic conversion was a critical decision to make. Upon conversion, many slaves took on a new identity by changing their clothes and, essentially, taking the full role of a Muslim. In many cases, dressing according to the Islamic community was the ultimate symbol of embracing the religion. "Many seemed to feel, by a process of association, that simply putting on such garments was tantamount to apostasy. 'Taking the turban' was in fact one of the most common expressions of those times for converting to Islam" (Davis 105). Scholarly research maintains that the cultural assimilation in Islamic culture was the result of overbearing cultural shock and full immersion into Islamic society. Often slaves found the best way to cope with their new life by learning Arabic, and making the assimilate. Scholar Nabil Matar maintains this assertion when he states: Islam overpowered Englishmen by the force of cultural habit. Some captives even used language and custom to adapt quickly to their surroundings. It was in the Englishman’s best interest to learn the language and customs of North African society as quickly as possible (Matar 64).

Women and slavery

When it comes to the rights of women within Islamic society, oftentimes, they were looked to have more freedoms than women from other countries – for example the freedom to divorce – and often saw marriage as a chance to change their social status. In other cases, many atrocities occurred against women who were enslaved.

Women in the Ottoman Empire were treated very similarly to those in Morocco and the Barbary States. Women were put into a subservient category because of their "putative physical and moral weaknesses", which "rendered them subject to men" (Zilfi 16). This was mostly because of "decontextualized scriptural snippets" from the Quran, which "played an important role in authorizing women's social marginalization" (Zilfi 16). Islamic law is primarily based on the Quran. Because of the way it is written, there is "a general acceptance of women and girls as sexual commodities" and that female slaves could be freed and married by their masters (Sexual Ethics and Islam… 40). In addition, this interpretation of the Quran was often thought of as a major factor in shaping Muslim thinking on sex and marriage.

While the legal rights of Ottoman women were relatively the same, the customs of marriage were slightly different. Marriage was a chance to change your status – "For slave women, emancipation sealed by marriage could make the difference between impoverished freedom and entitled socioeconomic standing" (Zilfi 162). There were two main possibilities when it came to slave marriages: they could be married off to another slave or to a free person for a price. However, no matter which happened, a slave is still a slave and that meant that "any property that they acquired in marriage rebounded to the slave owner" (Zilfi 162). Slave women could be sold, freed, and then married to their new master as in the case of Sehriban (Zilfi 167), who married a statesman named Ahmed Midhat Pasha. He paid quite an amount of currency for her. This was apparently the way to be as "harem-reared slave girls were molded into well-bred and indebted replicas of their wealthy and well-placed mistresses" and, thus, well-trained wives (Zilfi 168).

In the end, women in slavery (and many times women in general) were seen solely as a way to give pleasure to a man and create new life. Therefore, they were only offered the job of mother and wife (Blunt 92). This is a very misogynistic view of women in society, even by Moroccan standards. Some texts, written solely from European sources, definitely portray Muslim women and society in a completely negative way. While Mulai had only "four legitimate wives", he (Mulai) kept a vast harem. He was rumoured to only sleep with virgins (Bekkaoui 13). "The life of the women was unspeakably monotonous" (Blunt 92-3).

Marriage and slavery

Mulai Ismail had a considerable impact on the overall views and customs of slave society. Mulai was well in control of his massive set of slaves. He knew how to placate those under his mighty hand and keep them under his control. He "is claimed to possess no fewer than two thousand concubines of almost every nation, – an inconceivable figure, of course, but one revealing Western hyperbolized fantasies about Muslim harems and the danger that lies in store for captured women" (Bekkaoui 13). This also further insinuates the power of European stereotypes of Moroccan society on the views of those involved. There was also a trend of using slave marriage to breed more trustworthy slaves – "Moulay Ismail had hit upon this idea of breeding slaves early in his reign. He found mulattos to be the most trustworthy of his servant-slaves and often forced his white slaves to wed black women in order to replenish his household of loyal half-castes"[1] (Milton 128). Mulai truly enjoyed marrying off his charges and thought of it as a game. The children that came from these arranged marriages were then taken and raised by Mulai's men to be upright and obedient Islamic slaves.

Marriage could have psychologically tied Pellow to his new home in Morocco. Being married would have caused a crucial bond to form between him and the land he was being brought up in from age eleven (Milton 130). This could be one of the reasons that Pellow found it quite difficult to leave at times when he talks through his inner monologue about escaping, a reason reinforced by the fact that in the years prior to his escape, he thought that he would attempt to send for them if he ever managed to make his way back home.

Marriage and Pellow

Throughout his narrative, Pellow talks about marriage in a very distant voice, like he is unattached to the situation at hand. In his writing, he recounts the tale of how he received his wife through his good works towards Mulai Ismail. He goes on to tell the wealth of his new wife's family and how Mulai set them up with a very nice home (70–73). Pellow is very attentive to details when it comes to this section of his account of slavery. Later in his narrative, he often has trouble deciding whether to leave or to stay.

In the text, Pellow talks about how his marriage raised his status quite nicely (72–3). This is similar to how women would often get married to raise their slave status or be completely delivered out of slavery[1]. If we look at his account through this perspective, we can see that he could have thought himself to be favoured and, thus, important among those around him, including Ismail.

We know that Mulai Ismail had a considerable impact on the slave environment. Pellow was most likely just a pawn in Mulai's great game of slave chess. In the text, Pellow says (about his marriage encounter):

"This short Way of marrying his Guards, the Emperor frequently put into Practice, by often ordering great Numbers of People before him, whom he marries without any more Ceremony, than pointing to the Man and Woman, and saying… That take That; Upon which the loving Pair join together, and march off as firmly noos'd, as if they had been married by the Pope" (74).

This assembly line-like way of marrying off slaves further suggests that Mulai was doing it solely to produce a large number of slaves in a quick manner. We also know that many times these married slaves were given small homes and plot to live on under Mulai. This goes hand in hand with wanting to keep slaves around. When a slave has a family and place to call their own, even if it is not truly theirs, they are more likely to feel grounded in their environment and less likely to leave. Mulai was extremely smart and resourceful when it came to this aspect of his assets. We can perceive that Mulai Ismail's plan in marrying off his slaves was almost completely pragmatic. Doing so caused slaves to become emotionally attached to their new home. All this would encourage procreation, which provided more slaves for Ismail's empire. We can also see that marriage would have provided an avenue for status change and this would have been a factor in subliminally forcing a slave to want to stay.

Choosing elite slaves for the grooming process

Choosing slaves to undergo the grooming process was highly selective in the Moroccan empire. There are many attributes and skills slaves can possess to win the favour and trust of their master. When examining master/slave relationships we are able to understand that slaves with white skin were especially valued in Islamic societies. Additionally, mode of acquisition as well as age when acquired heavily influenced slave value as well as could foster trusting master-slave relationships. Many times slaves acquired as adolescents or even young adults became trusted aides and confidants of their masters. Furthermore, acquiring a slave during adolescence typically lead to opportunities for education and training, as slaves acquired in their adolescent years were at an ideal age to begin military training. In Islamic societies it was normal to begin this process at the age of ten, lasting until the age of fifteen, at which point these young men would be considered ready for military service. Slaves with specialised skills were highly valued in Islamic slave societies. Christian slaves were often required to speak and write in Arabic. Having slaves fluent in English and Arabic was a highly valued tool for diplomatic affairs. Bi-lingual slaves like Thomas Pellow used their translating ability for important manners of diplomacy. Pellow himself worked as a translator for the ambassador in Morocco.

Pellow as an elite slave

Thomas Pellow's extensive slave narrative The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow chronicles the contingent captivity of an eleven-year-old Christian cabin boy, and his development into an elite military slave during the reign of Moroccan Sultan Mulai Ismail. From the age 11, Pellow was plucked from preadolescence and placed on a rigorous track leading to his eventual military role as a preeminent captain in the Moroccan Army. Elite slaves like Thomas Pellow played an extraordinary role in the armed forces, often serving as soldiers and as officers, leading to the acquisition of important roles in administration, politics, and all aspects of public affairs.

Very soon after Pellow's Barbary capture and conversion to Islam, he was on a forward track towards his elite slave stature. Pellow was educated to speak Arabic, as well as how to perform Moroccan social customs. From roughly the age of 12, Thomas Pellow was given the responsibility of managing 80 slave boys. Pellow's excelled in his new position and eventually was transferred into the Palace to work as a personal attendant for Mulai Ismail's son, Mulai Zidan. Pellow's close proximity to the monarch's family exposed him to the many forms of capricious violence the Mulai family often employed. During his time there he witnessed the Zidan murder his favourite black slave for disturbing two pigeons that Zidan was observing. We can interpret Pellow's role as Zidan's personal attendant as preparatory grooming technique that tested Pellow's ability to care for the monarch.

Having a primary account of the wrath of Mulai Zidan no doubt prepared Pellow for witnessing the many capricious killings performed by the sultan. In the narrative, Pellow expresses the daily anxieties he was forced to live amongst as compared to how law is enforced in England.

Pellow was considered a valuable slave. He was conditioned to live in constant fear of his life being at a moment's notice. This mental conditioning clearly compromised all relationships Pellow had with the Mulai family. Renowned slavery scholar Orlando Patterson maintains Pellow's anxieties about master relations with the following: No authentic human relationship was possible where violence was the ultimate sanction. There could be no trust, no genuine sympathy; and while a kind of love may sometimes have triumphed over this perverse form of interaction, intimacy was usually calculation, and sadomasochistic (12).

As Pellow became an adult, Ismail promoted him to a high status military position. Thomas Pellow was made an officer in the sultan’s army and participated in three military campaigns. He led other slave-soldiers into battle and once took part in a slave-gathering expedition in sub-Saharan Africa. Pellow eventually fled Morocco by boarding an Irish ship and returned home in the summer of 1738.

Slave army

Pellow was made an officer in the sultan’s slave army. He led other slave-soldiers into battle and once took part in a slave-gathering expedition in sub-Saharan Africa. Pellow explains that the boys for the army were taken at such a young age and instantly taught how to fight and now that is their only life. All they know is how to kill; no longer do they have their own identity or even thought process on trying to escape. They have been brainwashed into thinking that this is who they are. As for how they were treated the very few and lucky were somehow able to live in the palace. But others were shoved into great rooms outside of the palace, up to three hundred in one room. "They wore only a short and small coat without sleeves, which did not reach to their knees; their heads shaved and always exposed to the sun, for he affected to breed them hard" (4).

Not only were they treated badly in living situations but they were also beaten. The emperor would say that he would do these cruel acts to the slaves to see if they were hard enough, if they were prepared to fight in his army. "Sometimes you would see forty or fifty of them all sprawling in their blood, none of them daring to rise till he left the place, where they were lying, and if they were discountenanced and out of heart at this usage, they were of a bastard-breed, and must turn out of his service" (4). Even after this type of treatment the soldiers were completely loyal to their emperor. The emperor would give them such incentives as distributing money amongst them to make them eager to march on expeditions they were ordered upon. To explain this reasoning for going outside of your country to form an army includes that it is easy for the sultan to quickly gather armies in large population and forcibly have their undying loyalty.

Allen R. Meyers has written a paper that "describes the development of a slave army, the 'Abid al Bukhari, which enabled one such sultan, Ismail ibn al-Sharif to establish a large and relatively durable Moroccan state" (3). Meyers states that with the armies support Ismail was able to collect taxes, suppress rebellion, and maintain public order. Ismail first began his army by confiscating three thousand male slaves from the residents of Marrakech, and later he would reach up to fourteen thousand slaves. Creating this self-sufficient army also could have its drawbacks with uprisings and rebellions, such as a poor relationship with Islamic scholars due to enslaving others Muslims, (El Hamel) an act that was considered to be blasphemous.[2]

On Pellow's return to Europe after his escape he was met with misunderstanding and confusion, unlike some scholars seem to think. Pellow was no longer the English man that he remembers, before arriving on English soil Pellow was viewed suspiciously. When his boat was travelling to port he recalls, "I was denied by the Sentinels, telling me that till they had Orders for my so doing, they would not suffer any Moor to land: Moor! said I, you are very much mistaken in that, for I am as good a Christian (though I am dressed in the Moorish Garb) as any of you all” (4). Like other captives Pellow found it hard to re-adjust on coming home. His overall appearance would have been so shocking that even his parents did not recognise him when he arrived. Still it is thought by some scholars “Under the circumstances, enslaved people in the Islamic lands had far greater opportunities for integration into mainstream society” (4). This being an obvious misunderstanding by the clear evidence that Pellow, a devout Christian and Englishman himself had difficulties in convincing his loyalty to his home country upon returning.

Pellow's return

After his years as a slave had finally come to an end, Pellow was faced with the daunting task of finding his way home to Penryn, England. He managed to secure himself passage aboard a ship bound for Gibraltar but once the ship had docked, Pellow was forbidden to go ashore. His attire, as well as his tanned skin and thick beard (which was considered a symbol of masculinity in Islamic culture), caused the harbour guards to mistake Pellow for a Moor, whom were not allowed to set foot upon English soil. Pellow called out to them to convince them he was as much a Christian man as them, but was not believed until his identity was at last verified. Once the confusion was cleared up, Pellow was able to leave the ship. He found himself a ship bound for London and managed to secure himself a ride. So eager was he to leave that Pellow left on the London ship before the local church had finished raising funds for his benefit, charmed by the story of his captivity.

Pellow experienced genuine excitement at being one step closer to home, but his enthusiasm became disorientation once he found himself in London, where he had never before been. For seven days, Pellow refused to leave the ship, so uncomfortable with his new surroundings was he. In his narrative, Pellow admits that nothing seems familiar to him because of the early age at which he was captured and the length of his captivity in Morocco (Milton). He wandered the city looking for transport and trying to get his bearings when the nephew of the Moroccan ambassador approached him and invited him to dinner. Once back in familiar territory in the ambassador's home, Pellow was delighted to have something to orient himself with. His favourite dish, couscous, which he had previously lamented not being able to find after leaving Morocco, was served to him at dinner, which helped to heighten Pellow's spirits enough that he was able to manage transport back home. (Pellow)

Pellow's disorientation and feeling of apprehension carried over into his arrival at his hometown of Penryn. Again, while euphoric to be home, Pellow admitted that everything was foreign to him. He did not recognise anyone. Not even his parents, who, in turn, only recognised him because they had heard of his impending return, were recognisable. (Pellow originally had a sister, though his narrative does not speak of her during the retelling of his homecoming. It is speculated that she may have died of fever years before. If Pellow had any other siblings born after his capture, the narrative does not say.) Pellow was treated as a returning hero of sorts, even given a celebration, but unfortunately the roles of his home countries had reversed. His native home had become a strange place to him and the land of his captivity had become more like home.

Pellow's narrative ends there, with a statement about the divine providence of God having delivered him, but there are things that he states throughout that lend credit to the theory of a very hard and frustrating adaptation to his "new" home. It is highly possibly that he was unable to overcome the reverse culture shock at all and thus sent himself back to a place that had been more or less his home for the better part of two and a half decades. Earlier in his account, Pellow told of a man whose ransom was paid and thus was free. The man returned to his home but had been away for so long that he had grown used to the land in which he had been enslaved – much like Pellow. The man in Pellow's account stayed only for a short time before catching a ship back and living out the remainder of his life in the Mediterranean.


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Further reading

  • Ali, Kecia. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010.
  • Ali, Kecia. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Oxford, England: Oneworld Pub., 2006.
  • Amin, S. "Trans-Saharan Exchange and the Black Slave Trade." Diogenes 45.179 (1997): 31–47.
  • Austen, Ralph A. Trans-Saharan Africa in World History. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2010.
  • Bekkaoui, Khalid. White Women Captives in North Africa Narratives of Enslavement, 1735–1830. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Blunt, Wilfrid. Black Sunrise; the Life and times of Mulai Ismail, Emperor of Morocoo, 1646–1727. London: Methuen, 1951.
  • Celinscak, Mark. "Captivity and Encounter: Thomas Pellow, The Moroccan Renegade." University of Toronto Art Journal 1 (2008): 1–10.
  • Clissold, Stephen The Barbary Slaves New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977, 86.
  • Colley, Linda. Captives (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), 44.
  • Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500–1800. Houndmills, Basingstoke,Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • El Hamel, Chouki. "The Register Of The Slaves Of Sultan Mawlay Isma‘Il Of Morocco At The Turn Of The Eighteenth Century." The Journal of African History 51.01 (2010): 89–98.
  • Matar, Nabil, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York) Columbia University Press, 1993, 72.
  • Meyers, Allen R. "Slave Soldiers and State Politics in Early 'Alawi Morocco, 1668–1727." The International Journal of African Historical Studies 16.1 (1983): 39–48. JSTOR. Web. 2 April 2013.
  • Murray Gordon. Slavery in the Arab World. New York: New Amsterdam, 1989.
  • Milton, Giles. White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
  • Patterson, Orlando. "Introduction: The Constituent Elements of Slavery & Part 1: The Internal Relations of Slavery." Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982. 2–299.
  • Pellow, Thomas. The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow in South-Barbary Giving an Account of His Being Taken by Two Sallee Rovers and Carry'd a Slave ... for the Space of Twenty-three Years ... London: Printed for R. Goadey and Sold by W. Owen, 1739.
  • Prange, Sebastian. “Trust in God, but Tie Your Camel First.’ The Economic Organization of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade between the Fourteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” Journal of Global History 1.02 (2006): 1–64.
  • Ralph Austen, and Dennis Cordell. “Trade, Transportation, And Expanding Economic Networks: Saharan Caravan Commerce In the era Of European Expansion, 1500–1900.” Black Business and Economic Power. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester, 2002. 86–120.
  • Seng, Yvonne. "A Liminal State: Slavery in Sixteenth-Century Istanbul." Slavery in the Islamic Middle East. Ed. Shaun E. Marmon. Princeton, NJ: M. Wiener, 1999. 25–42.
  • Webb, James L. A. “The Horse and Slave Trade Between the Western Sahara and Senegambia.”The Journal of African History 34.02 (1993): 221–246.
  • Wright, John. The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Routledge, 2007.
  • Zilfi, Madeline C. Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010.
  • Zilfi, Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference. Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence.

External links

  • The Adventures of Thomas Pellow, of Penryn, Mariner: Three and Twenty Years in Captivity among the MoorsThomas Pellow and Robert Brown (1890) (Google eBook)
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