Why is a 16-year-old book on slavery so popular now?
A strange saga of history, social media and the alt-right
People don’t generally like to read old news. In most cases, stories on the Ohio State News website – like most news sites – reach peak readership within a week or so after they are published and aren’t read much after that.
But then again, the second most read story on the Ohio State News site in 2019 – viewed more than 90,000 times – was one that was published 16 years ago. That’s not a typo. The story first appeared March 7, 2004.
But it gets even stranger when you realize that the story was not about a blockbuster medical discovery or tuition announcement, but a book on European and African history from 1500 to 1800.
It only starts to make some hazy sense when you find out the title of the book: Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, The Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800.
The Ohio State news story on the book is titled “When Europeans were slaves: Research suggests white slavery was much more common than previously believed.”
In the book, now-retired Ohio State University history professor Robert Davis used a unique methodology to estimate that a million or more European Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa between 1530 and 1780 – a far greater number than had ever been estimated before.
A web search of the book and the Ohio State News story shows why their popularity has soared.
In an era of political polarization in America, much of which is related to issues of race, it appears that a portion of the political spectrum often termed the alt-right has produced its own particular take on the book and is sharing the story widely over social media.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says the alt-right “is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.”
The alt-right take on the book, in a nutshell: The fact that some white Christians were once held as slaves by black Muslims essentially excuses slavery in America.
This take on his work disturbs Davis, who was surprised when he was told about the recent popularity of the old Ohio State News story. He said that over the years he has regularly received emails and requests for interviews about the book, but he had no idea how much attention his book was receiving – and for what reason.
The early attention for the book was much different.
“Thanks in good part to the original OSU news release, which was picked up by several wire services, there was a rapid and largely enthusiastic response all over the world to my book. Feature articles were run in major newspapers and magazines from Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy all the way to India, Malaysia and Australia. A French translation of the book even received a major prize from the Académie Française,” Davis said.
But even at the beginning, there were hints about what was to come.
“At almost the same time, I started being contacted by various right-wing broadcasters and conservative pundits who believed the book or the news release supported their own take on racial history. Some have specifically used it to back their claims that the slavery suffered by white European Christians somehow lessens or even negates the great historical horror of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa to the Americas,” he said.
Some on the alt-right have gone so far as to assert that Davis’ findings that white Christians had themselves once been enslaved by black Muslims mean that Americans today need not be concerned about either African American slavery or its aftermath.
One Facebook page discussing Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters makes its message plain: “Never feel guilty about slavery in American again!”
“As time has passed and mainstream interest in my findings unsurprisingly began to fade, the commitment to this racialist interpretation seems to have only intensified, as especially people of the alt-right have taken to using my book – or at least the news release – for their own, unrelated purposes. And while I’d really like to distance myself from such use, or rather misuse, there’s not a lot I can do at this point,” Davis said.
He said that some people have begun taking one of his findings (about the number of Christians enslaved by Muslims) out of context and not really comprehending the whole book.
“I see the book as a kind of highway towards certain historical conclusions, but some people are getting off the first exit that has some information they can use, without seeing where the highway ends up,” he said.
It is telling, Davis said, that his follow-up book – which Ohio State News also wrote about – has not received nearly the attention of Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters.
That’s probably because the second book (Holy War and Human Bondage: Tales of Christian-Muslim Slavery in the Early-Modern Mediterranean, published in 2010) spread its focus to include the North African Muslims taken as slaves by European Christians, as well as Protestants and Orthodox Christians enslaved by Catholics.
In that book, Davis estimated that more than 1 million Muslims were enslaved in Europe and 2 million Christians suffered the same fate in North Africa and the Near East. Jews also fell victim to slavers on both sides of the struggle, he pointed out.
It was in this book that Davis coined the term “faith slavery.”
“During this period, both sides, Muslims and Christians, had nearly equal power,” Davis told Ohio State News at the time. “It really was a clash of empires and taking slaves was part of the conflict.”
Even then, Davis was clear that the fact that some white Europeans were slaves did not mitigate or diminish the enslavement of 10 to 12 million black Africans who were brought to the Americas.
“That (argument) doesn’t make sense to me,” Davis told Ohio State News in 2010.
“Though faith and race slavery were both pervasive in those centuries, the enslavement of some white Christians can hardly balance the moral wrong of the slavery that other whites inflicted on Africans. Two such enormous wrongs don’t make anything right.”
Since the two books have come out, Davis has retired and moved to California, where he continues to research and write. He said he probably receives an average of two or three emails a month from people inquiring about Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters or the Ohio State news release.
He thought it must be normal for historians to be asked about their old research a few times a month, until he talked to another retired colleague.
“I mentioned something about how as a historian you must get these emails all the time about your research. And he said, ‘No, I don’t.’ That was when I started to realize my book was somewhat peculiar in that regard.”
Davis said he is still proud of the work with both books, particularly the methodology he developed to calculate the number of people who were taken as faith slaves.
Taking the best contemporary estimates of how many slaves were at each location at a given time, Davis calculated how many new slaves it would take to replace the ones who died, escaped or were ransomed.
Davis believes this is the best way available to make estimates of how many were enslaved, given the limited records of the time.
“Even rough calculations make it clear that Mediterranean faith slaving was not some minor phenomenon, a petty problem for people at the time, as has been assumed by many historians today,” Davis told Ohio State News in 2010.
After its moment in the spotlight when it was released, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters faded from view somewhat, until the rise of social media and the alt-right.
The first recent spike in readership of the story at the Ohio State News site occurred in February 2019, when more than 1,100 people viewed the story on one day. On a day in June, more than 5,000 people clicked on the story. Since then, more than 100 people a day have visited the story.
In 2020, it is still the sixth most viewed story on the Ohio State News website.
Davis said that while he realizes that issues of race in America have driven a lot of the interest in his book, he is reluctant to speculate too much about why the alt-right has embraced Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters.
“You’re moving outside my skills as a historian into sociology or political psychology. I’m not certain what motivates people. I just know that some people are using my research as a standard to rally around without really following it to its conclusions or trying to understand its implications,” he said.
“Then again, there have been only limited attempts among American academics to either develop or refute my findings, so perhaps non-academics interested in this subject feel they have nowhere else to go.”
Davis said he is realistic about how his books on faith slavery will be remembered, but he still hopes his research encourages people to remember a historical reality that has often been forgotten or ignored.
“Faith slavery played an important role in history. It deserves more attention.”
As for Davis, he has moved on to researching a topic that should be somewhat less controversial: He has begun writing a series of historical novels on 16th-century Italian bandits.