The good ship “Fru Alida”
Even less well known than Denmark’s triangular trade is the history of Danes and Norwegians as victims of slavery. North African pirate raids were a problem that affected coastal communities all over Europe, including England. This piece by Cato Guhnfeldt on the Norwegian experience is from the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, published in revised version in 2011. Bear in mind that Norway at this time was coupled with Denmark in a union of crowns, in which Denmark was the dominant partner.
“The veil of a forgotten but dramatic chapter in Norway’s history was drawn aside at the Cultural History Museum in Oslo on 12 May. The exhibition spanned the period 1500s to early 1800s, during which Norwegian-Danish merchant vessels in the Mediterranean were hijacked by (pirates of) the so-called Barbary states: Tripoli (today in Libya), Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. The first three were under the Ottoman Empire. It wasn’t just the Mediterranean. North African pirates ravaged northern Europe too, all the way up to Iceland.
This problem became so severe that the Danish king Frederik IV had to create his own “slavery kitty” (slavekasse) in Copenhagen in 1715 for buying the freedom of Danish-Norwegian sailors in captivity. “It was a humiliation for a Christian king that the nation’s seamen and marines on the king’s warships had to serve as slaves for a Muslim prince,” says Torbjørn Ødegaard, who has researched the subject. Thanks to the slavery kitty, most seafarers in the 1700s were bought free and returned to their home country. Entire ship crews could be trapped for two to three years before returning home. Before the slavery kitty was set up, if you were a captive, it would usually be for 18-20 years or on a lifetime. A few wrote books about their time in “Barbary” after their return. The majority wrote begging the family back home for help. Such letters can be found at the National Archives in Oslo.
Some of the sailors suffered cruel fates, according to Ødegaard. In the 1600s, the robberies mainly used galleys, rowed by thousands of slaves. Many were captured seamen. The galley ships were in practice floating concentration camps, where these slaves had fetters around their feet. They had to row with gloves so that the skin would not slough off. It was forbidden to communicate with other slaves, to prevent rebellion, and they were underfed. If they slacked at the oars, an arm or foot might be cut off pour encourager les autres.
In the 1700s, after the North Africans began to use hijacked merchant ships for piracy, captured seamen were used aboard as sailors, says Ødegaard. Other seamen ended up in hard slave labour building city walls or in agriculture. Young sailor boys in particular ended up as sex objects used by Turkish guards in Tripoli. In one case around in 1800, the European diplomatic corps protested to the Prince, stating that “… such acts are reserved for the female sex.” The guilty guard was arrested and handed over to the diplomats, with the prince’s message that they could do what they wanted with him.
But their fates were varied. While many were tormented from day one, younger, brighter slaves were used in court service. Such was the fate of 19-year-old Hans Jochum Schram from Bergen, who was enslaved in Tunis after the ship “Fru Alida” was captured north of Sardinia in 1747. Schram ended up as a chamber servant of Prince Selemang, the youngest of the country’s princes. He dressed in elegant clothes, lived far more comfortably than a sailor, and had good connections with the prince. In 1750, the freedom of Danish-Norwegian slaves was bought from the “slavery kitty.” Schram cried when he kissed his master’s hand at the farewell. Almost half a year later, he was reunited with his family in Bergen. Later, he wrote a book about his experiences, published in 1791.
The Danish King entered into a peace treaty with the pirate states in 1750, and sent gifts, weapons and annual payments to the North African princes. Nevertheless, outbreaks of violence led to the Danish-Norwegian fleet once bombarding Algiers, and at another time the pirate fleet in Tripoli harbor. Who today would know that Norway was at war with North Africa in the late 1700s?
As many as ten percent of the Nordic slaves may have converted to Islam, Ødegaard says. “If you did, you were a free man, but could not go home.” For most, North Africa became a brutal experience. But many of the prisoners were gifted observers who scrutinized the communities they had come into. When they returned to Scandinavia, they brought back much basic information in areas such as social relations, Islam, rituals, fasting, ramadan and prayer times. These sailors were thus our first experts in Islam.”
It gives a whole new meaning to the word Danegeld, doesn’t it?
Quotation from this slightly adapted translation is at user’s own risk. I take no responsibility for errors of translation. https://www.aftenposten.no/norge/i/oW4aR/Nordmenn-var-slaver-i-Afrika