This past week, I happened to hear a bit of discussion on Michael Savage’s radio show that pertained to nineteenth-century painter Giulio Rosati’s work. The specific subject was a series of paintings sharing the title, “Choosing the Favorite”. Each work graphically portrays a white European slave girl being made to stand stark naked before some sheikh or caïd who is eyeing her critically to decide if she’s worth the oily dealer’s asking price. Savage remarked that the painting (and he spoke as if there were only one) induced him to look more deeply into Arab enslavement of European coastal populations depredated by piratical raids. An entire Irish village was once emptied of its inhabitants when these corsairs swooped in unexpectedly. The total number of white Europeans thus lost to the Arab slave trade–the men to find an early death toiling in galleys, the women and children to satisfy the voracious sexual appetite of wealthy grandees–exceeded one million from the early Renaissance to the first years of the nineteenth century. Jefferson’s war on the so-called Barbary Pirates finally ended these atrocities.
Surprisingly (to me), Savage professed ignorance of most of these historical facts. He is far from alone, apparently. Indeed, the prevailing opinion of the slave trade among contemporary Americans seems to be that white Southerners raided deep into Africa and bundled their captives off to plantations in the Carolinas and Mississippi. In fact, virtually all of the mercantile sea traffic that reached the South hailed from home ports far to the north or across the Atlantic; and as for the actual slave raids, these were conducted by Arab traders and their minions on the African mainland. That is to say, at the heart of some of the filthiest chapters of human history from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the twentieth century stood imperious lechers like the sheikhs represented by Rosati: the sort of people whom Western civilization is now forbidden to revile and is, indeed, often to praise as superior figures unsoiled by our Western values.
In the canvas that I have reproduced above, especially, the sheikh looks down his nose at the shivering girl as if a maitre d’ were begging him to taste of a dish whose smell was a bit suspect. This is our beacon of true civilization!
I’m very much in step with Savage, as far as feeling indignant that Islam would so long tolerate such depravity; and I’m further indignant that the slave trade’s roots would be so neatly extracted from our history books. I’ll always remember my pity and disgust when, as a young man, I learned that Cassius Clay had transformed himself into Mohammed Ali in protest against the European Christian tradition responsible for enslaving his ancestors. Clay seemed a pretty cool guy: a lot of us were drawn to him. But come on, man! If you want to register outrage about the imposition of slavery upon your forefathers, why would you embrace Islam? Don’t you know that it was Christianity which eventually abolished slavery throughout the Western hemisphere? Didn’t you know that, in the days of our youth, slavery was ongoing in places like Ethiopia?
Now I find, having probed about the Internet in search of Rosati’s paintings, that certain people consider it “white supremicist” even to acknowledge the history of European enslavement by the Barbary Pirates. The reasoning seems to be that no slavery was anywhere near as prolific and brutal as the Southern enslavement of Africans, and that to remark the existence of any other slavery at any other time or place is thus a deliberate bid to understate the crime committed by Americans in the early nineteenth century.
I irresistibly remember a passage in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Citadelle when I read such folderol. The work’s fictitious speaker (a noble caïd, actually) is commenting upon a group of beggars as they compete to see who can get his open sores and tumors to run with the foulest puss and draw the most attention from prospective almsgivers. (Saint-Ex knew a thing or two about African slavery: he once bought a slave’s freedom from his Arab masters and flew him north to an area of temporary safety.)
Is this really where we’ve come? I haven’t yet noticed any veterans with artificial limbs commanding, “Open that door for me! Get out of that chair and let me sit! And buy me some food, while you’re at it! Can’t you see I have an artificial leg?” What man possessed of a single ounce of pride could imagine saying such things? Where, then, is the manly pride of those eternally reciting their eternal grievances?