St. VIncent and the Slaves in Barbary

From Vincentian Encyclopedia
Rev. Richard J. Kehoe C.M.

The seventeenth century witnessed the birth of the slave trade which systematically siphoned native Africans from their homelands in sub-Saharan Africa to cultivate the fields of Colonial America. At the same time a centuries-old slave trade flourished in North Africa. Corsairs sallied forth from the Barbary states of Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli and Morocco to prey on the Christian merchant ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Their booty enriched the pirate principalities. But just as prized were the slaves the pirates seized from the ships and coastal raids. This human chattel propelled their oar-driven corsairs, cultivated their fields, manned their domestic trade and peopled their harems.

The Christians faced the grim fate of all those ever held in the thralldom of slavery. Their captors deprived them of their human dignity. The North African slave prisons, centers of disease and torture, became their homes. After their sale at the markets where they were stripped and examined like cattle, they faced a life at the oar or in the field, at the mercy of their new masters. The slave's only hope of escape lay in apostasy or ransom. Conversion to Islam won them immediate release from slavery but prevented their ever returning to their homeland. Ransom proved a long and uncertain road to freedom. In some cases a kind master might grant manumission. But the vast majority of Christians died in their chains.

For centuries the fate of the slaves stirred the compassion of Christian Europe. Periodically Christian rulers launched crusades to suppress the Barbary states and free the slaves. In 1535 Charles V conquered Tunis due largely to a simultaneous uprising of 12,000 Christian slaves. With the rise of diplomacy in early modern times European rulers attempted by treaty with the Turkish court in Constantinople to protect their own nationals. But Constantinople had only limited control over the Turkish rulers on the Barbary coast. Distance from and political weakness in the Porte frequently allowed the rulers of the Barbary states a free rein. The principal adversary of the corsairs in sixteenth century was Spain. With the rise of the Bourbons in the seventeenth century this mantle fell to France. The restoration of French naval and commercial power under Richelieu brought it into conflict with the corsairs of Barbary. France only won this battle at the end of the century by forcing to Barbary states to cease attacking France and its subjects.

St. Vincent de Paul and his followers played a part in this denouement through their ministry to the slaves in North Africa during this century. Louis XIII asked Vincent de Paul to send some of his missionaries to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the Christian slaves in Barbary. In addition to royal funds the saint received contributions from the Ladies of Charity to establish a house in Marseilles from which to send Vincentians "to console and instruct poor captive Christians."

Priests could not directly enter Muslim North Africa. Only as chaplains to the French consul could they enter the country. This union of the Vincentians with the French consul, though necessary, did not grant them diplomatic immunity in the modern sense and eventually proved fatal for some of them at the end of the century. Beginning in 1645 the sons of St. Vincent established footholds in Tunis and Algiers. They limited themselves to contact with the Christians because apostolic contact with a Muslim would have been the death knell of the mission.

Vincent instructed his disciples to "have no intercourse with these people [Muslims and renegade Christians]; do not expose yourself to the dangers that may arise from doing so, for by exposing yourself, as I have said, you would expose the whole work to peril and would do a great wrong to the poor Christians, . . . [and] close the door for the future . . . of rendering some service." Under the umbrella of the French consuls in Tunis the Vincentians visited the slave prison which held those condemned to the oars and the quarries, the worst fates the captives faced. The Muslims themselves admired the charity of these men who moved among the slaves and granted their request new recruits. This brought Father John Le Vacher to Tunis whose name became identified with the care of the slaves. He was murdered in July 1683 for his devotion to their cause. The plague broke out in Tunis in 1648 and raged with special ferocity in the prison hulks of the city. The Vincentians cared for the plague stricken and they contracted the disease. It carried off the French consul and one Vincentian. The Dey of Tunis insisted that Father Le Vacher act as consul. This lasted nearly four years.

Finally Martin Husson, a young Parisian lawyer, took over the duties of the consul in 1653. The Vincentians in North Africa worked closely with public service officers like Husson in order to relieve the plight of the slaves. In the eyes of the Muslim authorities the French consuls were the official protectors of all Christians, save the English. They were their spokesman when the slaves had a complaint to make. They negotiated any redemption of slaves. They had the responsibility for enforcing the royal ban on the importation of goods which fed the corsairs' war machine, sails, ropes, iron, led and military equipment. He also mediated disputes between Muslim and Christian merchants.

Le Vacher and Husson worked closely for four years. The consul, although a layman, led a community life with the Vincentians. Le Vacher frequently brought to Husson's attention situations which called for official intervention. The capriciousness of the Dey did not make their tasks easy. At times Le Vacher was expelled from the city on charges of blocking the conversion of Christians, only to return when the rage of the Dey mollified. The Husson's and Le Vacher's joint stand against the importation of cotton sail cloth particularly enraged the Dey. This finally led to the expulsion of the young lawyer and Le Vacher became consul for the next nine years.

In order to assure the harmony between the Vincentians and the consul the Duchess d'Aiguillon purchased the consulates of Algiers and Tunis for the Vincentians granting them the right to nominate the consul. John Barrreau, a Vincentian and a former lawyer of the Parliament of Paris, assumed the duties of the consul in Algiers while others looked after the needs of the slaves of the city and surrounding countryside. This Vincentian-lawyer team in the consulate carried out their mission in very hostile circumstances.

The lawyer turned cleric and now consul did not have an easy road. He foolishly agreed to guarantee the debt of a religious of the Order of Mercy who had borrowed 40,000 livres to ransom slaves. When the latter left the country, Barreau, who was as insolvent as the Mercedarian, was thrown into prison. Once again in 1650 he saw the inside of prison walls for five months when he refused to pay out of private funds the debts of a Christian who had absconded. Six years later Barreau found himself in prison again on similar charges. There he experienced the full fury of his Muslim captors. He was bastinadoed into unconsciousness. When he regained consciousness the Pasha Ibrahim II ordered awls driven under his fingernails. Maddened by the pain Barreau promised to pay 12,000 livres. Upon release he was carried to his home. When the Christian slaves heard of his plight, they gathered from among their meager funds the amount needed to save the consul.

The best way to assure the safety of the slaves was by ransom. The Vincentians with the cooperation of the consuls devoted great energy to this task. It is estimated that between 1645 and 1661 they ransomed 1200 slaves. The letters to St. Vincent are filled with references to these incidents. The plight of female slaves were particularly poignant. Father Guerin reported rescuing a woman with money sent by St. Vincent. "It is a real miracle to have saved her from the claws of this tiger, who was unwilling to release her either for gold or silver. He took it into his head to send for me one morning and when I went to him we agreed on a sum of three hundred crowns, which I paid down on the spot. I had this woman's order of release executed and placed her in a safe place. Two hours later the wretch was sorry and almost went mad with regret. It is really a direct divine intervention."

Many of the ransoms were effected by correspondence. These letters passed through the headquarters of the Vincentians, the Abbey of Saint Lazare, Paris. This also provided the conduit for letters between the slaves and their families.

St. Vincent undertook this service to the slaves primarily in order to minister to their spiritual needs. But their physical needs were never far from his consciousness. In addition he formed a fruitful alliance with lawyers who staffed the consulates, without whom he could never have undertaken this work. These lawyers, public service attorneys in our times shared the Vincentian ideal of service for the suffering, always seconded the work of the Vincentians, and in some cases suffered as they did in order to carry out their mission.