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Into Africa

Captured by corsairs, white Europeans fed the thriving slave markets of 18th-century Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli

White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves
By Giles Milton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 316 pp., illustrated, $25

Some years ago, while wandering through the Spice Islands north of Timor, I came across what I thought a most amusing little story. It concerned a tiny morsel of land known as Pulau Run, a once British-owned islet that, the story went, had long enjoyed three little-known connections with America.

First, all the nutmeg and cloves grown in its jungles were sold exclusively, by way of a Rotterdam spice broker, to the Coca-Cola Co. of Atlanta; second, it was to Pulau Run that Christopher Columbus was essentially bound when he unexpectedly sighted the New World in 1492; and third, when after their lengthy 17th-century skirmish the British and the Dutch agreed to call it quits and sign the Treaty of Breda, Britain agreed to give up its somewhat tenuous hold over Pulau Run and take in exchange a small and insignificant Dutch island at the mouth of an eastern American river -- an island known in the Dutch literature of the time as Pulau Manhattan.

It was in truth a most satisfying tale, ideal for waking up idling dinner parties, even if in its finer details it was not wholly accurate. The basic notion -- that Run Island was swapped for Manhattan -- was correct, however; and many was the wide-eyed listener who professed himself properly awed by the intelligence.

And then along came a hitherto little-known British writer named Giles Milton, who expanded the little story into a couple of hundred pages, had it bound up under the title ''Nathaniel's Nutmeg," and proceeded to transform what had been little more than a historical footnote into a very respectable position on the bestseller lists. I became a fan of Milton's considerable storytelling talents from that moment on, and every one of the extraordinary tales that he has unearthed in the years since has confirmed my original belief: He has a rare ability -- a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands, and for transmuting the merely arcane into elegant little literary gems.

All of which he has done anew, and admirably so, with ''White Gold" -- an elegantly discursive retelling of yet another ripping tale from far abroad, that of the English sailors who were captured by North African pirates and spirited off into the desert, there to be brutalized into slavery at the court of a particularly megalomaniacal Moroccan sultan.

Specifically, it follows the 23 years endured by one young Cornishman named Thomas Pellow, who in 1716 was captured with his crewmates from the good British barkentine the Francis, and taken away to help with construction of the sultan's Vegas-style palace that he was building in the dune city of Meknes.

What singled Pellow out from most of the other thousands of European slaves who were seized and treated so pitilessly was that he survived. He came back to Cornwall and wrote a book about his experiences -- a book that Milton has processed neatly from the prolix English of an 18th-century matelot into his own customarily elegant prose.

But though the book is on one level a simple and fascinating narrative, it also is in its essentials an examination of two connected phenomena -- the white slave trade and the Barbary corsairs -- that (though I doubt either Milton or his publishers planned it that way) have lately acquired a peculiar and sinister relevance.

Though the first is a term that in recent years has been appropriated by those concerned with the international trafficking of young girls, ''white slave trade" in fact goes back several centuries, to the time when young Christian men foolish enough to stray too close to the lands of the caliphs and casbah were kidnapped and forced to work like dogs for gangs of Muslim despots. One might have thought such an idea unutterably alien to us today -- until we remember the grislier details from modern Baghdad, with all the horrors of the modern jihad, with its kidnappings and bombings and the summary executions of infidels -- how long since we have heard that word! -- by the agents of the men who regard themselves as God-directed Saracens.

And then there are the Barbary corsairs -- how this term, too, has been appropriated and made mild. We have the Barbary Coast of San Francisco, the genially applied name for a mildly villainous quarter near North Beach, a place just a little shadier than the rest of town; and for 400 years gourmets have happily sprinkled Barbary sugar in their coffee. But the originals were dreadful criminals, true barbarians, the name quite possibly derived from the Arabic for speaking noisily and confusingly. Though the etymology is also connected to the Berbers of North Africa, it is a word that denotes a people and a behavior best known for being medieval, implacably cruel, and relentlessly anti-Western.

So there is a horrifying familiarity about Milton's latest book -- and in the stories from Meknes of the cruelty that was meted out to Master Pellow and his brother victims, we hear all too recognizable echoes of today's rhetoric from the caves of Tora Bora, or from the uglier madrassas of the Punjab, and from the mosques in Leeds where the London bombers prayed.

All of which makes ''White Gold" not merely an interesting small book about one of history's more colorful footnotes. In view of the situation we all face today it is an important book as well, and one that those who are interested in the complexities of what British prime minister Tony Blair has called the degraded aspects of Islam would do well to read, with great care and attention. Militant Islam is, in other words, nothing new.

Simon Winchester's latest book, ''A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906," will be published in October.

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