Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 01/Section 07/Part 07

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Various Employments and Sufferings of the Poor Christian Slaves in Barbary, and the Help and Services Rendered Them by the Missionaries

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To understand better the help which the missionaries of Monsieur Vincent gave to the Christian slaves in Barbary, we should be aware of the inhuman ways they were treated by the Turks, the exhausting work they had to do, and the excessive pressures brought to induce them to abandon the faith of Jesus Christ, and to embrace Islam.

At sea, the pirates of Tunis and Algiers captured Christians from all parts of the world. They took men and women of all ages and condition to be brought back to these two cities for sale as slaves. These captives were brought to the market like beasts. Since so many were captured, the Moslems in Barbary had a great number of slaves, who lived in places they called Bagnes. [1] In Tunis and Bizerte the slaves were chained together, and guarded day and night, but in Algiers they were chained only during the night.

Imagine huge stables, each housing two hundred, three hundred, or even four hundred horses. This gives you some idea of the places where the Christians lived. The difference is, however, that horses are much better fed and cared for than the slaves. They lived in filth, misery, and total abandonment, mainly because of their religion, which the Moslems detested. Besides, having to depend on the whim or ill humor of their owner or of the guards, the slaves were beaten unmercifully, sometimes fatally, or crippled for the rest of their lives.

These poor slaves left these places only to go to work in the fields or to other hard labors, or possibly to serve in the galleys or join the crews of some other vessels that were so often at war with the Christians. They suffered all sorts of hardships, fatigue, blows, contempt, and unbearable pains. As a rule they rowed or worked completely nude, except for a loincloth, exposed to the burning sun in summer and to the cold in winter. When they returned entirely exhausted from their labors, half-dead, they were returned like beasts to their stables, not to rest, but rather to languish.

Monsieur Guerin, priest of the Mission, wrote to Monsieur Vincent:

We expect a large number of sick upon the return of the galleys. If these poor people have suffered so greatly at sea, those who remained behind have had their own troubles. They have had to work all day in the hot sun, cutting marble. The best comparison I can give for their work is that it is like a heated furnace. It is astonishing to see both the work and the heat they endure, enough to kill a horse. Yet these Christians endure both, losing only their skin to the sun and heat. You can see them with their tongues hanging out like poor dogs, because of the terrific heat in which they work.

One day in winter an older poor slave felt sick and unable to work. He asked to be excused, but the only response he received was to be forced to work at splitting stone. I leave it to you to imagine how these cruelties moved me and caused me such sorrow. These poor slaves suffer these ills with an unbelievable patience, and they bless God even amid all the cruelties visited upon them. I must tell you that the French bear these things better than peoples of other nations. We have two very sick persons at the moment, who look like they will not recover. We administered all the sacraments to them. Last week two others died as true Christians, of whom it could be said, pretiosa in conspectu Domini mors sanctorum ejus ["Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones"]. [2]

My compassion for these poor people who work at cutting the marble leads me to bring what small refreshments I can, especially to those who are sick. Some others, who are not so badly treated, stay in the homes of their masters. They serve various functions, such as baking bread, taking care of commercial correspondence, preparing meals, or other household work. Some others are given assignments out of the house. Others are even free to work at whatever they like. They pay their patron a certain amount each month from what they manage to save from what they earn. [3]

Besides the slaves in the cities, a large number lived in the countryside. Some passed their entire lives here, never coming into the cities. They worked as farmers or woodcutters. They made charcoal, or hauled stone from the quarries, or worked at other similar occupations. After working hard all day they were usually locked up for the night. We have described all these various situations concerning the slaves to give the reader a better understanding of the work of the missionaries in Barbary.

In the cities of Algiers, Tunis, and Bizerte, there were about twenty-five penal colonies. In each of them was a sort of small chapel, where amid their sufferings and pain these poor Christian captives might have the happiness of hearing mass and receiving the sacraments. One of the priests of the Mission there wrote in a letter:

In this arrangement, we see the hand of Providence and the goodness of God. He has changed their prisons into churches to give the suffering members of Jesus Christ a way of persevering in the truth of the faith through the free exercise of all the sacraments. In these chapels the divine Savior himself has become a slave with the slaves, for each time mass is celebrated the sacred species are preserved. In this way, the truth of the words are borne out by which he promised to be with the faithful in their troubles: Cum ipso sum in tribulatione ["I will be with him in distress"]. [4]

Among the large number of slaves, some captive priests and religious were always to be found. The missionaries interceded with their masters asking that they not be given manual labor, nor be chained. They backed up their request with monthly payments. As vicars general of Carthage they then appointed these priests as chaplains in the penal colonies, watched over their conduct, corrected them, transferred them or removed them from their office as it appeared necessary. This was one of the greatest of the blessings Monsieur Vincent had brought to this place, for previous to the coming of the missionaries all was in disorder and confusion. The slaves contributed what they could, some more, some less, for the support of these chaplains, and for lighting and furnishing the chapels. This was done freely on their part, out of personal devotion, without constraint, and there were many totally unable to give anything, since they owned nothing save the bit of black bread given them each day for their sustenance.

Besides the chapels in the penal colonies, other chapels in the houses of the consuls served as the parishes of the Christian merchants, those who came on business to these cities, and for those resident there. The consuls and the missionaries staffed, decorated, and maintained these chapels. The one at Algiers was under the patronage of Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, and the one at Tunis was dedicated to Saint Louis, king of France, whose death sanctified this land and this infidel city. The feasts of these saints were celebrated with all possible solemnity, as were the main feasts of the year, to the great edification of all Christians who lived there.

Who can say how consoling it was for Monsieur Vincent to receive letters written from Algiers and Tunis, relating that the divine services were performed there with a solemnity rivaling that of Paris itself? High mass and the divine offices were celebrated on Sundays and feasts. Various organizations were established, and confraternities started in each of these churches and chapels to relieve the souls in purgatory or to help the poor slaves, or to honor particular saints on their feast days. The holy Mother of God was especially honored by confraternities of the rosary or scapular, with sermons and processions on appropriate days. In the churches and chapels of the missionaries the blessed sacrament, marked by lighted candles, was reserved day and night. The blessed sacrament was brought to the sick in the penal colonies with torches and candles, while other marks of respect were shown to this holy sacrament. Every year on the feast of Corpus Christi and during its octave, the blessed sacrament was exposed, and carried in procession in the chapels and churches, with all the attendants carrying candles in their hands.

It is a common belief among the saints that our sufferings erect a throne to the mercy of God. We might add that the miseries of these poor captives not only erected this throne, but another as well to the charity and holiness of the sons of God in these barbarous lands, that they might say with the psalmist: "Triumph, O Lord, amidst your enemies." [5] Certainly, the Lord would not now be adored in these infidel lands, if Providence had not allowed Christian slaves to be taken, and the priests of Monsieur Vincent to be sent to them as their missionaries.

Monsieur Guerin added another remarkable point in the letter to Monsieur Vincent:

You will be pleased to learn that on every Sunday and feast day, we sing in our chapels and churches the Exaudiat and other prayers for the king of France. Even the other nationals have respect and affection for him. [6]

It is edifying, too, to see with what devotion these poor captives pray for their benefactors, who for the most part are in France. It is no small consolation to see peoples from all countries, in irons and chains, praying to God for the French. [7]

Besides all the services given by the missionaries to the Christian slaves, by their preaching, instructions, administration of the sacraments, celebration of the divine office, and other such daily ministrations, another service was provided, no less important for their salvation. This was the consolation they offered these poor slaves in their sufferings, and the effort to soften the resentment felt because of the barbarous treatment they received, which led them to come within an inch of despair. This despair in turn brought some to the decision to put an end to their sufferings and unhappy lot by taking their own lives. Some cut their throats, some hanged themselves, some slashed their wrists. Others in fury attacked their masters, with the penalty of being burned alive for their troubles. Still others sought relief in denying their faith in Jesus Christ, incurring eternal damnation in their efforts to escape temporal sufferings.

It was an important duty of the priests of the Mission in Barbary to console these poor afflicted souls in every way possible. They encouraged them to make a good use of the sufferings they endured, and provided whatever aid was possible for them. The all too numerous sick were visited and helped. In keeping with the spirit of Monsieur Vincent, those who received the greatest attention were those who were the most abandoned.


  1. Penal colonies.
  2. Ps 116:15.
  3. CED III:138-39.
  4. Ps 91:15.
  5. Ps 110:2.
  6. The Exaudiat refers to Ps 20 (19 in Vulgate), a prayer for the king before battle. This was followed by a few versicles and responses and concluded by a collect for the king. This votive formulary could have been positioned after the Our Father or at the end of mass.
  7. CED III:169.

This page:
Abelly Book Two, Chapter One: Section Seven, Part Seven
Various Employments and Sufferings of the Poor Christian Slaves in Barbary, and the Help and Services Rendered Them by the Missionaries

Index of this section:
Abelly Book Two, Chapter One: Section Seven Index:
The More Remarkable Events in the Missions of the Barbary States

Index of this chapter:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter One/Index: The Missions of Monsieur Vincent

Index of:
Abelly: Book Two