Moors and Moore

When I wrote about the complete works of Giles Milton and Tim Moore a few months ago, I hadn’t read their latest books yet. Now I have, and both of them easily match their previous work. They’re even vaguely connected.

Milton’s White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves lives up to its claim of extraordinariness; reading it, you can only wonder why this story has been so thoroughly forgotten in the West. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Europe’s ships and coastal villages were at the mercy of pirates from North Africa looking for slaves. Whole villages were kidnapped, from as far afield as Iceland—no seafaring Christians were safe.

Milton focusses on an English boy who became slave to Moulay Ismail, the ruler who united Morocco by being more fierce and brutal than the competition. Ismail acquired thousands of slaves to build an enormous palace complex in the city of Meknes, grander than any in Europe—and succeeded, although the work was undone by earthquakes after his death. Meanwhile, generations of slaves lived and died in awful conditions, while the governments of Europe sent various emissaries to plead for or buy their release.

Pellow’s own story spanned the tail-end of Ismail’s long rule and the fight for succession that followed. It’s a fascinating tale of endurance and escape, drawn from the account he wrote after his return to England decades later. But the real impact of the book is its account of Morocco throughout those centuries of slavery—a hell on Earth for any Christian.

I’ve seen some reviews which praise Milton for challenging political correctness by writing this in an age when no one is allowed to criticise Islam. Funny, that doesn’t seem to have stopped half the political pundits of the West from doing exactly that. It’s an irrelevant claim, anyway: this is a work of history, describing events from two to four centuries ago. No Barbary corsairs have been spotted off the coast of Cornwall for quite a while. You might as well call an account of the American slave trade a critique of contemporary Christianity.

One could in fact argue that the white slave trade was part of a centuries-long game of tit for tat. Many of the slavers were descended from the Moors pushed out of Al-Andalus by the Christian forces of Spain. Despite the natural focus of White Gold on English slaves (Milton was working from English-language archives, after all), most of North Africa’s European slaves were Spanish. The book also satisfied my curiosity about Ceuta, the Spanish territory on the coast of northern Morocco, which seemed an odd inclusion in Andalucian weather reports when I was there earlier in the year. It was actually a fortress in the fight against the corsairs, like others dotted around the coast that fell to the Moroccans one by one.

Tim Moore’s Spanish Steps: One Man and his Ass on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago is humorous travel writing, not history, but it tells us a fair bit about the flipside of the Reconquista. In the centuries after the Moors were driven out of northern Spain, millions of people from all over Europe walked the Pilgrim Way to Santiago de Compostela, in the hope of forgiveness, self-improvement, or the sight of a few relics of the apostle James. Not much has changed, and after a late-twentieth-century lull the numbers walking the Camino are on the rise—although nowadays they’re as likely to be inspired by Shirley Maclaine as St James. (There are ley lines in the vicinity, apparently.)

An uncharitable soul—the kind who would never walk 750km across northern Spain—might claim that Moore only followed in their footsteps (a) so that he could write an amusing travel book about it and (b) to take the piss out of Shirley Maclaine. Fans of Moore would, justifiably, reply that (c) that’s a good thing and (d) she was asking for it. And indeed, Moore’s reflections on Maclaine and other new-age fruitloops are reason enough to read the book.

But as the title suggests, whatever the initial motivation for Moore’s pilgrimage, the resulting spiritual journey had more to do with his ass. To save himself the drudgery of walking miles every day and having to carry all his stuff on his back, Moore bought himself a donkey to do the latter. Shinto, the ass in question, emerges as the co-star of the book, even more interesting than the places they visit together and the people they meet en route. After all, how much does the average 21st century urbanite really know about donkeys, up close and personal? Those of us without a dodgy video habit, anyway. Well, Moore neither, but he learned fast. By journey’s end he knew how to cope with a donk: he’d pulled him, pushed him, been chased by him, nursed him and cared for him. By the closing chapters we’re as concerned as Moore about what he would do with Shinto once they reached their goal. The final farewell is, unexpectedly, as moving as the finale of any travel book I’ve read—humorous or otherwise.

Until now I’d been wondering if Moore might have peaked with his first book; they’re all excellent, but it’s hard to top Frost on my Moustache. Going into Spanish Steps, I was also worried that it might be the donkey equivalent of French Revolutions, which suffered because of the limited number of ways you can say “my legs were sore from riding”. But a stubborn donk has a lot more personality than a bike, and there’s enough going on in the asinine mind of Shitto (“don’t say you didn’t see that coming”) to make this one of the best books by one of Britain’s very best travel writers.