Today is the feast day of St Vincent dePaul. Did you know that when he was a young man he was captured by pirates and enslaved for two years?
The veracity of the story is disputed because the story is based only on letters written by St Vincent. Here is the tale from Wikipedia:
According to the letters, in 1605, Vincent sailed from Marseilles on his way back from Castres where he had gone to sell property he had received in an inheritance from a wealthy patron in Toulouse, and was taken captive by Barbary pirates, who took him to Tunis. De Paul was auctioned off as a slave, and spent two years in bondage.
His first master was a fisherman, but Vincent was unsuitable for this line of work due to sea-sickness and was soon sold. His next master was a spagyricalphysician, alchemist and inventor. He became fascinated by his arts and was taught how to prepare and administer his master’s spagyric remedies.
The fame of Vincent’s master became so great that it attracted the attention of men who summoned him to Istanbul. During the passage, the old man died and Vincent was sold once again.:50His new master was a former priest and Franciscan from Nice, Guillaume Gautier. He had converted to Islam in order to gain his freedom from slavery and was living in the mountains with three wives. The second wife, a Muslim by birth, was drawn to and visited Vincent in the fields to question him about his faith. She became convinced that his faith was true and admonished her husband for renouncing his Christianity. Her husband became remorseful and decided to escape back to France with his slave. They had to wait ten months, but finally they secretly boarded a small boat and crossed the Mediterranean, landing in Aigues-Mortes on 28 June 1607.:52
Who knew that this gentle saint and patron of the poor was such a swashbuckler? Although some doubt the story, the details would certainly fit with what we know of the Ottoman pirates operating out of North Africa at the time. Remember this is taking place at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The North African coast was controlled by the Turks. From the eighth century Southern Spain had been taken over by the Muslims.
The Barbary Coast was the term for North Africa and the pirates were notorious–their piracy increased from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Here’s Wikkipedia on the pirates raiding the shipping and the coastal towns of France, Italy and Spain:
While such raids had occurred since soon after the Muslim conquest of Iberia in the 8th century, the terms “Barbary pirates” and “Barbary corsairs” are normally applied to the raiders active from the 16th century onwards, when the frequency and range of the slavers’ attacks increased. In that period Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli came under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, either as directly administered provinces or as autonomous dependencies known as the Barbary States. Similar raids were undertaken from Salé and other ports in Morocco.
Barbary corsairs captured thousands of merchant ships and repeatedly raided coastal towns. As a result, residents abandoned their former villages of long stretches of coast in Spain and Italy. Between 100,000 and 250,000 Iberians were enslaved by these raids.
The raids were such a problem coastal settlements were seldom undertaken until the 19th century. Between 1580 and 1680 corsairs were said to have captured about 850,000 people as slaves and from 1530 to 1780 as many as 1,250,000 people were enslaved.
It’s entirely plausible therefore that St Vincent dePaul was abducted and enslaved by the Muslim pirates along with tens hundred of thousands of other Christians.
No doubt this experience sobered him up and prepared him for his service to the poor. He must have used the medicinal skills he learned from his master, and his work of helping the poor was not only with the urban poor of Paris, but also with the refugees and victims of slavery.
It’s worth remembering therefore of the work of St Vincent DePaul not only with the poor in our society, but also with the victims of modern day slavery: Prostitution, pornography, human trafficking, forced labor and the slavery of those who are not exactly enslaved, but who work for such low wages and demanding conditions that they might just as well be considered slaves.
The image with this post is of the relics of St Vincent de Paul which we venerated in our recent pilgrimage to France. They can be viewed at the chapel on Rue de Sevres–just around the corner from the shrine to St Catherine Laboure in the Rue de Bac.
St Vincent dePaul.
ora pro nobis.