Thomas Pellow

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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 23-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.

Stories from slavery

As a slave Pellow 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 offenses at the direction of the Sultan.

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.

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.

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.

Pellow as an elite slave

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.

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 ended 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.[1]

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.


  1. ^ El Hamel, Chouki (2010). "The Register of the Slaves of Sultan Mawlay Isma'Il of Morocco at the Turn of the Eighteenth Century". The Journal of African History: 89–98. doi:10.1017/s0021853710000186.

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

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