In 1715, an 11 year old Penryn boy, Thomas Pellow persuaded his Uncle John, Captain of Valentine Enys’ ship Francis, to allow him to join him for a voyage shipping pilchards to Genoa.
Soon regretting his decision and wishing he was back home at school in Penryn, young Thomas found himself homeward bound off Cape Finisterre when the ship was ambushed by 2 Sallateens, ships containing Moorish pirates, and the crew was taken prisoner.
Whilst waiting for a favourable tide off the pirate’s home port of Sallee, Morrocco, a 20 gun British frigate appeared forcing the pirate captain Ali Hacam to attempt crossing the bar under fire, where they ran aground and the ship broke up. Thomas, who could barely swim made it safely to shore by clinging to the errant mast.
Thomas and 25 others were imprisoned at the town of Rabat whilst his uncle was taken elsewhere with another group including some French captives.
4 days later after being walked to Mequinez, the Emperor bought the prisoners into slavery for 50 Ducats each, before claiming a third of the price back as tribute and ordering the beheading of Ali Hacam for failing to fight the man of war at Sallee.
Thomas was subjected to many beatings and torture by fire to relinquish his Christian faith and “turn Moor” and after several months of this he reluctantly conceded and converted to Islam, although not in his heart.
Thomas was then given lighter duties in the sultan’s palace, which gave him access to better food. The sultan then married him off to one of the local women, with the hope that the marriage would result in more slaves being born.
For years, Thomas’s family in England had no information about his fate. Even if they had, they had no money to pay a ransom to buy him back. The owner of the Francis, Valentine Enys, was not worried about the fate of his former crew — he could always recruit others. In 1719 the family received news that Thomas was alive but that he had converted to Islam. This meant that the English Government no longer listed him as a slave they would like to buy out of captivity.
Thomas had no choice but to try to escape. This would be a difficult undertaking because informers were scattered across the country and his palace was five days’ march from the Atlantic.
But Thomas had some advantages. His palace job meant that he was in reasonable health. He was also now a fluent speaker of Arabic and had tanned skin, which meant he could pass himself off as a wandering merchant. He made his first attempt in 1721 but was captured, and tried again in 1728 or 1729 during a time of civil unrest in Morocco but was caught once more.
In 1729, his wife and daughter both died of a disease. Although it had been a forced marriage, it had been a happy one and he loved his daughter. Indeed, he had often thought that once he had escaped back to England alone, he would send for his wife and daughter, although given they were both Muslims and England was anti-Islamic, it is not clear how realistic he was being.
It was in 1737 that Thomas Pellow made his last dash for freedom. He was aged 33 and had been a slave for more than two decades. He set out pretending to be a travelling doctor and eventually reached the Atlantic coast after six months. On July 10, 1738, he was on board a vessel heading for London. His arrival there caused a great stir because so few slaves ever lived to tell their tale.
On October 15, 1738, he landed back at Falmouth. News of his escape had gone ahead of him thanks to the efficiency of the newspapers of his day. He was given a hero’s welcome in his village — including from his parents, who were now both in their 50s — and returned to being a Christian.
In 1740, he wrote the best-seller The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow, which gave a fascinating insight into the horrors of white slavery in north Africa. A copy is available for reference in Penryn Museum.
European governments continued to mount operations against the pirates, but the North African pirates were not completely dealt with until the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey) took over north Africa in the late 18th century.
(Partly based on an article by Keith Suter, Chairman, Anti-Slavery Society and on White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves by Giles Milton (Hodder & Stoughton)).