“Thus slavery has been depicted as if it were a peculiarity of white people against black people in the United States, or in Western societies. No one dreams of demanding reparations from North Africans for all the Europeans brought there as slaves by Barbary Coast pirates, even though these European slaves greatly outnumbered the African slaves brought to the United States and to the thirteen colonies from which it was formed.” ~ writes Thomas Sowell in Chapter 9 of his book Intellectuals and Society.
Sowell has a polemical style and he is very good at coining quotable sentences. Most of his books are bestsellers. His articles are widely read. But he is not a serious historian. In his books and articles, he often inserts blatant exaggerations, outright falsehoods, and biased analysis, which have nothing to do with real history but are intended to make his readers (most of whom are American conservatives) feel good about their culture and history. No serious historian would believe that the Europeans enslaved by the Barbary Coast pirates greatly outnumbered the African slaves brought to the thirteen colonies of the United States.
The Barbary Coast pirates were operating in densely populated areas where farming was traditionally done by local farmers. They did not need hundreds of thousands of slaves, since they were not in the business of building industrial-scale plantations in sparsely populated lands like the Americas and Australia. Most importantly, more than a million Europeans in the lands of the Barbary Coast pirates would be hard to control—they would have rebelled like Spartacus during the Roman Empire. The Barbary Coast pirates never developed the systems of crushing the spirit and mind of their slaves like the Western slave traders had.
In the notes section of his book, Sowell reveals that he is making the claim regarding European slaves on the basis of Robert C. Davis’s book, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters. Davis is the only historian who has claimed that the Barbary pirates had captured and sold between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans. These figures have been strongly disputed by other historians. In his book The Corsairs of Malta and Barbary and The Pirate Wars, David Earle says that Davis’s figures are a “gross exaggeration.” Earle also notes that the ringleaders of the Barbary pirates were Europeans: John Ward and Zymen Danseker, Hayreddin Barbarossa and Oruç Reis.
In the same chapter, Sowell comes up with an outrageous defense of Western imperialism. He tries to make the case that Western imperialism was not too bad since most great civilizations had conquered other territories in the past. Here’s an excerpt: “it is impossible to read much of the history of the world, ancient or modern, without encountering the bloody trail of conquerors and the sufferings they inflicted on the conquered. Like slavery, imperialism encompassed every branch of the human race, both as conquerors and conquered. It was an evil that was never localized…” He adds that the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs were tyrannical empires.
I will repeat what I have said earlier in this article, Sowell will write anything to please his conservative audience. But if he is defending Western slavery and Western imperialism, then he does not stand for liberty and free markets. He is a conservative polemicist.