Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011


There are very few surviving accounts written by the nearly one million European slaves who were held
captive in North Africa during the 17th and 18th centuries.
There are even fewer written by women. But there exists one extraordinary account - long forgotten - by a Dutch girl named Maria ter Meetelen.

It was blustery July day in 1731 and the Dutch merchant vessel was making swift progress towards Holland. Maria ter Meetelen, one of the passengers, was gazing towards the horizon when she noticed a ship sailing towards them at full tilt.
To her horror, she realised that it was a pirate vessel and the men sailing her were Barbary corsairs.
Maria’s life was about to change forever. The ship she was travelling on was captured, Maria herself was seized and she found herself taken as a slave to Morocco.
'I just want to inspect your teeth'
A 19th century Orientalist picture
She was escorted to the sultan, Moulay Abdullah, soon after landing. She was told that if he took a liking to her, then she’d spend the rest of her days in the harem.
‘I found myself in front of the sultan,’ she wrote, ‘in his room, where he was lying with fifty of his women, each more beautiful than the last… [they were] dressed like goddesses and extraordinarily stunning. Each had an instrument and they were playing and singing.’
The women of the harem were segregated into a strict hierarchy: four of the sultan’s principal wives were seated opposite him; ‘they shone with gold and silver and fine pearls.’ They also wore precious crowns of gold that were adorned with precious stones; each of their fingers was decked with golden rings.
Another teeth inspection.
Artist Gerome's idea of slave market
Maria’s gaze switched from the women of the harem to the sultan himself. He was the very picture of decadence. ‘He had his head resting on the knees of one of his wives, his feet on the knees of another; a third was behind him and the fourth in front, and they were caressing him.’
When the sultan saw Maria approach, he ordered the woman to stop playing their music: ‘he told me to come nearer, sit down and play the zither.’
The sultan liked Maria a great deal: so much, indeed, that he wanted her to ‘turn Turk’ and join his harem. Maria refused and was promptly led away by one of his wives.
‘This wife,’ wrote Maria, ‘had one sole occupation, which was to prepare young virgins for the sultan, because he required a virgin each Friday.’
Maria was warned that if she did not obey the sultan’s wishes, then she would have her skin torn off and suffer even more brutal tortures before being burned.
For week after week she refused to convert to Islam until eventually the sultan tired of her. She was eventually allowed to marry the spokesperson of the sultan’s Dutch slaves - a man named Pieter Janszoon - and lived a reasonably comfortable life, supplying the Christian slaves with alcohol.
She left a vivid description of the conditions in which these European slaves were forced to work.
‘There were obliged to work extremely hard, in blistering sunshine, digging, working the quarries, and receiving in recompense a tiny roll of bread, and sometimes nothing at all.’
Their only drink (until she started supplying them with alcohol) was stinking water. This caused so many illnesses that after a few months only nine slaves were still able to work.
A Turkish depiction of the bathhouse
In 1743, after twelve years in captivity, Maria was finally freed under the terms of a ransom agreement negotiated by the Dutch state. She returned briefly to Holland, before setting sail for South Africa where she probably died, for she disappears from the records.
It is difficult to know how much Maria embellished her manuscript account for an audience that enjoyed colourful tales from the exotic Orient. Yet Sultan Moulay Abdullah is known to have been one of Morocco’s most flamboyant and outlandish rulers and he certainly had an enormous harem.
It is quite probable that Maria described only what she saw - and that the 19th century obsession with harems, eunuchs and all things Oriental was born out of true stories such as the one written by Maria ter Meetelen.

Maria ter Meetelen is mentioned briefly in my book, White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves.

A French translation of Maria’s account is called: L’Annotation Ponctuelle by Maria ter Meetelen, published by the Institut des Hautes-Etudes Marocaines in 1956.

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

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