This quotation is attributed to Thomas Sowell

"More whites were brought as slaves to North Africa than blacks brought as slaves to the United States or to the 13 colonies from which it was formed. White slaves were still being bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire, decades after blacks were freed in the United States."

For example, this tweet was posted by an account that purports to post only genuine Sowell quotes.

Are the contents of the quote factually correct?

  • 12
    I may expand this into an answer later but, no, wrong, roughly by a factor of 10. Also I'm not sure the qualitative nature of slavery in these these two contexts is very comparable either.
    – Brian Z
    Jun 13, 2020 at 22:09
  • 1
    Welcome to Skeptics!
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 13, 2020 at 22:42
  • 8
    While the question is about particular parts of slavery, it should perhaps be noted that there was extensive inner slave trade and slave labour within Africa, and whole kingdoms lived by slave trade for hundreds of years. So while it might be true or untrue about black people sold via Atlantic slave trade being less than Ottoman slave trade, the number of slaves brought to the US is only a fraction of the total slavery figures on the continent.
    – Gnudiff
    Jun 14, 2020 at 7:54
  • 4
    @rinspy I note that most of the slaves sent to the Americas came from south of the Sahara desert, from West Africa and farther places south, and not from North Africa. The majority of slaves sent to the Americas went to the Caribbean & South America, not to the USA. Most of the Christian slaves in Muslim North Africa were from the Mediterranean region and count as white to me but maybe not to some other people. The Ottoman Empire imported a lot of black slaves from East Africa which are not mentioned in the claim.. So that claim is sort of comparing apples and oranges. Jun 14, 2020 at 14:53
  • 4
    One big difference between slavery of Europeans on the Barbary coast versus slavery of Africans in the US was that slaves in North Africa had to be freed on conversion to Islam while slaves in the US were slaves for life, as were their children, their children's children, and so on. This meant the Berbers had to continually replenish their slaves by piracy and by raids on Europe. Slave owners in the US did not need a continuous resupply of previously free peoples; they could simply breed treat their slaves as if they were cattle. Jun 14, 2020 at 15:24

1 Answer 1


For the US, we have pretty detailed record keeping of how many slaves were imported, but for North Africa we do not.

The number of African slaves imported to the US is about 300,000, only a fraction of the approximately 12.5 million that were brought to the Americas in total.

As for the number of white slaves brought to North Africa, it depends on whose estimate. OSU news reports:

Most previously estimated slave counts have thus tended to be in the thousands, or at most in the tens of thousands. Davis, by contrast, has calculated that between 1 million and 1.25 million European Christians were captured and forced to work in North Africa from the 16th to 18th centuries.

(If you believe Davis, the claim is true. If you go with other estimates, it’s not.)

Davis’s high estimate has been criticized by other historians because “the corsairs also seized non-Christian whites from eastern Europe and black people from western Africa” and “modern estimates are based on back-calculations from human observation”.

  • 2
    Did slavery happen outside of the timespan "16th to 18th century"? Jun 14, 2020 at 11:13
  • 7
    @knallfrosch Slavery was very common in early middle ages and the very etymology of the word slave points to the fact. Jun 14, 2020 at 14:01
  • 6
    knallfrosch and ValdimirF both raise a very good point. The quote you gave is for just 3 centuries at the most. Seems likely that more White slaves were brought to North Africa than Black slaves to the Americas. Jun 14, 2020 at 16:03
  • 9
    @knallfrosch Slavery seems to be a constant in all human history. The Ancient Greeks documented that the desired result of any conflict was booty and slaves (in fact they regarded slavery as the humane alternative to genocide.) People did not have to go raiding to get slaves with a different melanin level, they enslaved their neighbours or sold their own children. The idea that this is a bad thing is relatively recent.
    – RedSonja
    Jun 15, 2020 at 6:30

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .