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August 23, 2003


One of the least-known episodes in European history is the age of the Barbary Pirates. There was an excellent British TV documentary on this not long ago - for more see here.

From the late Middle Ages down to the early 19th century, pirates from the Barbary Coast - roughly modern Morocco and Algeria - terrorised the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic coasts as far north as the British Isles. The pirates captured numerous Europeans and carried them back to North Africa, where they were sold as slaves. Many of them were sailors and fisherman captured at sea, but the pirates also raided on-shore and took male and female captives.

Based on historical records, some historians have estimated the cumulative number of captives at over a million. While this might seem implausibly high, over a period of 300 years a million is less than 4,000 a year. Assume that 20 ships made 10 raids a year, and took on average 20 captives per raid, and you get there.

Of course, the main point of interest for GNXPers is what impact this made on the gene pool in North Africa.

The wealthier captives were often ransomed by their relatives, and even the poorer ones were sometimes bought by Christian philanthropists and returned to Europe (in Britain funds were set up for this purpose). Of those who stayed behind, the men were mostly worked to death as galley slaves, while the younger boys might be castrated. Either way, no contribution to the gene pool.

For women and girls, it was a different matter. European women were much in demand for the harems of wealthy Arabs and Turks. It wasn’t always a fate worse than death. One captured English girl became the Queen of Morocco.

Nor was this the only source of European genes in the Muslim world. In the Levant (modern Israel and Lebanon) the armies of the Crusaders must have left their imprint. So must the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire.

But probably the main source of European genes, from the early Middle Ages at least down to the 17th Century, was the steady stream of slaves from South Russia, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus. No harem was complete without them. I haven’t seen any numbers, but cumulatively they may have run into millions.

So it is reasonable to assume that there is a significant European component in the gene pool of North Africa and the Middle East, from sources more recent than the Roman Empire. If ‘European’ traits, such as blue eyes or fair hair, are found in these populations, it shouldn’t be surprising, and there is no need to go back very far in history to find an explanation.


Posted by David B at 11:25 AM

see the book Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 for more info on the barbary "pirates" (they were really privateers who had ottoman sanction). they even raided iceland. and it must also be remembered that a non-trivial portion were european converts to islam who knew where to strike and where to hide in the glens of wales, cornwell and brittany because they were born in these region...

as far as slavery of slavs-most of the ottoman sultans after suleiman were probably mostly slavic by ancestry from what i recall-the sons of concubines. slavic slaves were very prominent in al-andulus, muslim southern spain, as well.

Posted by: razib at August 23, 2003 12:27 PM

slavic & caucasians. as the european possessions split off from the empire they got most of their odalisques from the caucasus.

Posted by: Diana at August 23, 2003 01:06 PM

Where do the blue-eyed and fair-haired Berbers come into it?

Posted by: Rhodie at August 23, 2003 01:33 PM

i follow-up to diana, the circassions provided most of the fair-haired slaves by the end of the 19th century (in lawrence of arabia t.e. lawrence, a blonde englishmen, pretends to be circassian).

fair-haired berbers occur in parts of the atlas ranges and the traditional explanation has been the vandal kingdom of the 5th century (the vandals being from southern sweden originally, though via germany->france->spain until they landed in the former carthage province).

Posted by: razib at August 23, 2003 02:58 PM

The harem effect might be why upper class and aristocratic North Africans and Arabs are so much whiter looking than the rest.

Posted by: rob at August 23, 2003 04:18 PM

there were also slaves from sub-saharan africans-so some look blacker, probably the lower classes where serfdom & slavery bled into each other....

Posted by: razib at August 23, 2003 04:29 PM

I think it's a common mistake to attribute the depigmentation (some are extremely pale)in the berbers to the vandal invasions. They must have had *some* influence but let's not forget that the ancient egyptians recorded some (not all but a sizeable proportion) of their western neighbours , the Lybians , as being white skinned and fair-eyed. Those western neighbours were depicted as whiter than the eastern semitic neighbours, for example.
Were they all like that ? Maybe not, but that characteristic must have been striking to the egyptians and they duly noted it.
The presence of such people in North Africa is , imho, very ancient (easily goes back into prehistory).

As for the euro-looking syrians/lebanese , it's easy to think of crusaders as an explanation (christian lebanese gladly endorse this version for cultural reasons : they like to think of themselves as french!) but let's not forget that there was a Hittite (indo-european speaking)kingdom in northern syria and anatolia and that various indo-european tribes invaded the area in ancient times (scythians and iranians). Thus the source of the fairness may be much more ancient than commonly believed.

Posted by: ogunsiron at August 23, 2003 06:37 PM

in jewish tradition king david has red hair. i think there is a tendency to ascribe all non-standard phenotypic tendencies among people x to volkswunderungs, when it could be genetic exchange that occurred from village to village over tens of thousands of years....

oh, and greeks setttled in syria too, during the roman and hellenistic periods.... (and the galatians, a celtic people, settled in anatolia)

Posted by: razib at August 23, 2003 07:17 PM

I suspect the original, pre-Vandal Berbers had some degree of light coloration: when the Iberians arrived in the Canary Islands way out in the Atlantic in the 15th Century, they found an indigenous population of cut-off Berbers, more than a few of whom had blue eyes and red hair.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at August 24, 2003 01:15 PM

the guanches. they have always fascinated me. were they completely wiped out or did they get 'absorbed'?

btw in the NYPubLibrary i came across a old old book by one betancourt which described the canary islands wars (they went on for some time); there were different guanche tribes, and the interactions between them & the spaniards were quite fascinating.

Posted by: Diana at August 24, 2003 01:43 PM

Diana: "the guanches. they have always fascinated me. were they completely wiped out or did they get 'absorbed'? "

They were totally absorbed. Modern Canarians donīt look that different from other Spaniards.
They tend to be darker, but there are no absolute rules.The Canary Islands were settled from the mainland. The language disappeared.

Posted by: eufrenio at August 24, 2003 04:15 PM

Thanks for the comments. I didn't know about the ancient Libyans. But in general I am sceptical about claims to find the origins of modern traits in ancient sources, when more recent ones are adequate to explain the data. E.g. in Bryan Sykes's book about 'Seven Daughters', he mentions that some white English people have African haplotypes, and immediately starts speculating about Roman soldiers 2000 years ago. But why not black slaves much more recently? We know that tens of thousands of black slaves/servants lived in England in the 18th C, and most of them merged into the local population, doing what came naturally.

Posted by: David B at August 25, 2003 07:10 AM