GEM: Early Modern Slavery and Gillian Weiss’s Captives and Corsairs.

1st February marks the start of Black History Month in the USA, a month of events celebrating the history and diversity of African- American experience. Coinciding with this is the cinema release of 12 Years a Slave (Director: Steve McQueen), based on the 19th-century biography of a free black man, who was kidnapped and forced into slavery.


While the predominant focus within European studies of early modern slavery has been on trans-Atlantic interactions, in many parts of continental and northern Europe the demand for slaves was supplied by Mediterranean countries. Mediterranean captives from warring and corsairing activities were channelled through slave markets, such as that in Malta, to the courts of central and northern Europe.

In 2013 archaeologists discovered the 17th-century burial ground of ‘Turks’ – Ottoman and Barbary slaves – adding material evidence to the debate surrounding Malta’s past role in slavery. Early modern Malta was ruled by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem; a religious order with estates and connections all over Western Europe that facilitated the trade of slaves.

Burial ground discovered in Marsa, Malta.

Burial ground discovered in Marsa, Malta.

Many Christians were taken captive by Ottoman and Barbary corsairs. It is within this context of reciprocal enslavement that Gillian Weiss explores the ways in which the roles of French slaves, their liberation, and the tensions between East and West contributed to the construction and development of the modern nation state in France.  In Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean, she charts nearly three centuries of interactions between France and North Africa, from the slavery of French in North Africa, to France’s own North African colonies. It represents a study of early modern slavery that transcends colour lines and religious boundaries, but most importantly it highlights the often over-looked role that the Mediterranean region played in early modern Europe.