Pirates, Trade, and Slavery in Medieval Rhodes
By Amy Maroney
During my deep dives into history for research on my next series, I’ve encountered one mind-boggling fact after another about life in the medieval Mediterranean. Since my new series focuses on a female artist from the Greek island of Rhodes, I’ve zoomed in on that particular place—and I’ve uncovered a treasure trove of lore about trade, pirates, and slavery.
The Christian Knights Hospitaller overtook Rhodes in the beginning of the 1300s and controlled it until the Ottoman Turks drove them out two centuries later. Under the Knights’ rule, the island became a critical trade hub for merchants hailing from western Europe, Asia, north Africa, and the Black Sea. The center of operations was Rhodes Town, a walled community dominated by the lavish Palace of the Grand Master.
|Grand Master's Palace Courtyard.
Rhodes Town’s heavily fortified harbor was a bustling place, with a shipyard, housing for sailors, and administrative buildings. The Knights’ formidable navy was manned both by members of the order and mercenaries. Its fleet of vessels defended the island and conducted an eye-popping amount of piracy on Muslim ships and territories. (More on pirates in a bit.)
Trade and Merchants
The knights themselves were not allowed to profit from trade, but they still benefited by imposing taxes on trade and commerce that took place in Rhodes. They also relied heavily on loans from merchants and bankers to bankroll their operations.
Rhodes became such a key center of trade that by the 15th century, merchants from far and wide installed themselves on the island for periods of time, some going so far as to make it their permanent residence. Some of them were so favored by the knights that they received gifts of property and land from the Order. Florentine banks (including the Medici family’s bank) opened satellite branches on the island.
Alongside these merchants and bankers lived indigenous Greeks, Latin merchants (from Genoa, Venice, Catalonia, Florence, and Provence), a Jewish community, and Muslims. Despite the fact that the Knights were engaged in constant war with Muslim “Infidels”, in certain cases they welcomed Muslim merchants, artisans, or tradespeople to live in their midst.
Maritime trade was so pivotal to life on Rhodes that ship captains rose to positions of great prestige and influence on the island. The medieval journal of “Michael of Rhodes” shows his rise from humble origins to a position of naval leadership in Venice. Another Rhodian would go on to run Venice’s own shipyard, during a time when that Italian city-state ruled the Mediterranean Sea.
Western history books make much of the heroic defense of Christianity by the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. Yes, Muslims pirates did attack Christians, and yes, they did enslave Christians. But the Knights weren’t just playing defense. The knights gave carte blanche to any of their members, mercenaries, or merchants who launched raiding expeditions against Turkish ships and possessions. The end result was that the two sides engaged in constant cycles of looting goods and enslaving prisoners, then ransoming captives.
|Ruins by Dominik.
Most of us think of pirates as anarchists who, like Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, sail around attacking indiscriminately whenever they see a ship. In the case of Rhodes (and Cyprus and Crete, which were both colonies of Venice during the Medieval era) piracy was a state-mandated activity which benefited both the pirates and the government.
Many of the academic papers I’ve read about this feature long lists of attacks and counter-attacks by Christians and Muslims that go on for centuries. The bottom line is, both sides engaged in serious piracy. And one of the most lucrative results was the slave trade.
Because of the aforementioned piracy and its prime location at the crossroads of Mediterranean trade, Rhodes was home to a thriving slave market. Much of what I’ve read about slavery during this period of time in the Mediterranean focuses on household slaves. On Rhodes, most household slaves were Christians. There were a few reasons for this: First, Christian slaves (especially Greeks) were cheap and plentiful. Second, Muslim slaves were often ransomed back to their home territories in exchange for Christian slaves.
Those Muslim slaves who remained on Rhodes were usually forced to do manual labor on the endless fortification of the walls around Rhodes Town. In addition, Muslim slaves lived under a harsh set of rules that their owners were required to follow to the letter. They had to be shackled every time they walked the streets, for example. They were not allowed to go to the harbor when boats were docked there, for fear they would try to escape.
Christian slaves were also much more likely than Muslim slaves to be freed. The Roman Catholic Church started pressuring Latin owners of Greek Christian slaves to free them during the 15th century, and ownership of such slaves did start declining as a result. However, records of manumitted (freed) slaves on Rhodes during that century name a number of Greeks, as well as Russians, Bulgarians, and Armenians.
Wills show many instances of slaves being freed after a period of time. Some were freed with conditions (for example, they would have to keep living with the master or working for the master). Others were given dowries and property, even homes. Since masters often had sexual relationships with slaves, there were lots of offspring to consider when will-writing time came around. Dowries for the girls and property and cash for the boys were often written into wills by masters of such households.
Putting it all together
Not surprisingly, pirates, trade, and slavery all feature prominently in my new series. The trick is to bring these features of the medieval Mediterranean to life on the page. The resources I’ve been studying offer priceless glimpses of a brutal but also beautiful past, where people fought and died, loved and lost, just like we do today. My hope is to honor the stories of the past while creating something memorable and thrilling for
The Girl from Oto
(The Miramonde Series Book 1)
By Amy Maroney
(The Miramonde Series Book 1)
By Amy Maroney
A Renaissance-era woman artist and an American scholar. Linked by a 500-year-old mystery…
The secrets of the past are irresistible—and dangerous.
1500: Born during a time wracked by war and plague, Renaissance-era artist Mira grows up in a Pyrenees convent believing she is an orphan. When tragedy strikes, Mira learns the devastating truth about her own origins. But does she have the strength to face those who would destroy her?
2015: Centuries later, art scholar Zari unearths traces of a mysterious young woman named Mira in two 16th-century portraits. Obsessed, Zari tracks Mira through the great cities of Europe to the pilgrim’s route of Camino de Santiago—and is stunned by what she finds. Will her discovery be enough to bring Mira’s story to life?
A powerful story and an intriguing mystery, The Girl from Oto is an unforgettable novel of obsession, passion, and human resilience.
Pick up your copy of The Girl from Oto
Amy Maroney writes historical fiction about forgotten women artists. The Miramonde Series tells the thrilling story of a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern day scholar on her trail. Find The Girl from Oto, Book 1 in the trilogy, at all the major online platforms. To learn more, visit Amy’s website: www.amymaroney.com, or connect with her on Twitter @wilaroney.