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Barbary Captivity Narratives

Much of the outrage surrounding Barbary piracy stemmed from their practice of enslaving Christian captives.  Muslim privateers would sell captured crew members and passengers to private slaveholders who in turn would demand ransom for the prisoners’ release or force them into hard labor. 

A handful of these captives, upon returning to America or England, wrote books describing and dramatizing their time as prisoners in North Africa.  Much like Indian captivity narratives, the authors often sensationalized their experiences and focused on the exotic aspects of their captors’ society.

Though these narratives should not be relied on as strictly factual accounts, they provide insights into daily life in Ottoman North Africa, and are expressions of how one culture viewed another. 

Some captives, such as William Ray (Horrors of Slavery), used their experiences as a Barbary slave to criticize slavery in America.  Barbary slaves suffered heavy labor, poor diets, and demeaning circumstances, much like their African counterparts in the United States.  However, white captives could often escape slavery by converting to Islam and adopting North Africa as their home.

Whatever their accuracy or impact on America’s social conscience, the narratives helped shape civilian views of the Barbary nations, and contributed to the public’s support for sending naval forces to the Mediterranean. 

The Clements Library has 13 Barbary captivity narratives and one fictitious play based on an American slave in Tripoli.  Included in the following list are tales of white sailors enslaved on the Barbary Coast and the stories of two women captives, Eliza Bradley and Maria Martin.

Bibliography of Barbary Captivity Narratives at the Clements

Robert Adams and S. Cock’s The Narrative of Robert Adams, an American Sailor, who was Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the Year 1810: Was Detained Three Years in Slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and Resided Several Months in the City of Tombuctoo, printed in 1817.

Eliza Bradley’s An Authentic Narrative of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Mrs. Eliza Bradley, Wife of Captain James Bradley of Liverpool, Commander of the Ship Sally, which was Wrecked on the Coast of Barbary In June 1818. [American ed.] Boston: Printed for J. Walden, 1823.

Mathew Carey’s A Short Account of Algiers: Containing a Description of the Climate of that Country, of the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants, and of their Several Wars Against Spain, France, England, Holland, Venice, and other Powers of Europe, from the Usurpation of Barbarossa and the Invasion of the Emperor Charles V. to the Present Time; with a Concise View of the Origin of the Rupture Between Algiers and the United States…Philadelphia: Printed by J. Parker for M. Carey, No. 118, Market-street, 1794.

John Foss’ A Journal, of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss: Several Years a Prisoner in Algiers: Together with Some Account of the Treatment of Christian Slaves when Sick: and Observations on the Manners and Customs of the Algerines, printed in 1798.

Maria Martin’s History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Maria Martin: Who Was Six Years a Slave in Algiers; Two of which She was Confined in a Dark and Dismal Dungeon, Loaded with Irons, by the Command of an Inhuman Turkish Officer, printed in 1809.

Thomas Nicholson’s An Affecting Narrative of the Captivity And Sufferings of Thomas Nicholson: (a Native of New Jersey,) who has been Six Years a Prisoner among the Algerines, and from whom he Fortunately Made his Escape a few Months Previous to Commodore Decatur’s Late Expedition. To Which is added, a Concise Description of Algiers, of the Customs, Manners, &c; of the Natives — And Some Particulars of Commodore Decatur’s Late Expedition, against the Barbary Powers, printed in 1815.

Original Account of the Desperate Engagement and Capture of the General Washington, Alexander Boyle, Commander: Which was Attacked by Two Barbary Corsairs, up the Mediterranean; Also the Wreck of one of the Galleys During a Tremendous Storm; the Cruelty of the Pirates, and the Sufferings of Captain Boyle and Crew. Also, the Dreadful Effects of a Hurricane, printed in 1804.

Judah Paddock,’s A Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Ship Oswego, on the Coast of South Barbary: And of the Sufferings of the Master and the Crew while in Bondage among the Arabs; Interspersed with Numerous Remarks upon the Country and its Inhabitants, and Concerning the Peculiar Perils of that Coast, printed in 1818.

Joseph Pitts’ Narrative of the captivity of Joseph Pitts, among the Algerines, and of his fortunate escape from the Mahometans. Written by himself. 1803.

William Ray’s Horrors of Slavery: or, The American Tars in Tripoli: Containing an Account of the Loss and Capture of the United States Frigate Philadelphia; Treatment and Sufferings of the Prisoners; Description of the Place; Manners, Customs, &c.; of the Tripolitans; Public Transactions of the United States with That Regency, Including Gen. Eaton’s Expeditions; Interspersed With Interesting Remarks, Anecdotes, and Poetry, On Various Subjects,printed in 1808.

James Riley’s An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the Month of August, 1815: With an Account of the Sufferings of the Surviving Officers And Crew, Who Were Enslaved by the Wandering Arabs, on the African Desert, or Zahahrah; And Observations Historical, Geographical, &c.; Made During the Travels of the Author, while a Slave to the Arabs, and in the Empire of Morocco, printed in 1818.

Archibald Robbins’ A Journal, Comprising an Account of the Loss of the Brig Commerce, of Hartford, (Con.): James Riley, Master, upon the Western Coast of Africa, August 28th, 1815; Also of the Slavery and Sufferings of the Author and the Rest of the Crew, Upon the Desert Zahara, in the Years 1815, 1816, 1817; With Accounts of the Mannaers, Customs, and Habits of the Wandering Arabs; Also, a Brief Historical and Geographical View of the Continent of Africa, printed in 1817.

Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, or, The Life and Adventures of Doctor Updike Underhill [pseud.]: Six Years a Prisoner among the Algerinesprinted in 1797.

Ellison, James. The American Captive, Or, Siege of Tripoli: a Drama In Five Acts. Boston: Printed by J. Belcher, 1812.

For more information on captivity narratives at the Clements, see Harley Harris Barlett’s 1955 essay American Captives In Barbary.