The sultan's slave

White Gold

Giles Milton <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 316pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0340794690

From 1620 onwards, corsairs from North Africa periodically raided the west coast of England and carried off men, women and children as slaves. Thomas Pellow, aged 11 in 1715, was one of the unlucky ones, as by this date the Barbary pirates were considered only a minor danger. A Cornish schoolboy playing truant on his uncle's trading vessel en route to Genoa, Pellow was captured along with the ship and its company off the Straits of Gibraltar.

For 23 years, Pellow was beaten, tortured and starved before finally being forced to abjure Christianity to save his life. As a "renegade", Pellow was exempt from the prisoner ransoms and rescue missions mounted from England, because these applied only to Christians. He eventually found a niche as a soldier in the bodyguard of Morocco's notorious sultan Moulay Ismail (1646-1727), who constructed his own version of Versailles at Meknes. Moulay Ismail was said to have sired 888 children by 500 women. His capricious cruelty was legendary, as were the political talents that enabled him to survive for 55 years in the snake-pit of palace intrigue and rebellion.

Pellow helped to suppress many uprisings of tribesmen in the Atlas mountains, and in 1731-32 went on a 1,500-mile slaving expedition south to Senegal across the deserts of north-west Africa. But always he longed to escape, and in 1738, taking advantage of the endemic civil wars that convulsed Morocco after Moulay Ismail's death in 1727, he travelled to the coast, boarded an Irish ship and was landed safely at Gibraltar. On his return to England, he unsuccessfully petitioned the government for compensation and was surprised when his request to meet King George II was turned down. The truth is that Pellow was an embarrassment: people saw only the "renegade", not the terrible circumstances that had forced him to apostatise. When he returned to his native Penrhyn, his parents, now in their late fifties, initially failed to recognise him. Predictably unable to adjust, but also unable to return to the Islamic culture that had formed him, Pellow became one of those fabled outcasts condemned to "wander forever between the winds".

In recounting these events, the ubiquitous and prolific Giles Milton follows his usual practice of trying to turn history into a Hollywood script. He tricks out the story with a long prologue about the history of the Barbary pirates and a similar coda about the Royal Navy's destruction of Algiers in 1816. His emphasis throughout is on the sensational: he dwells on torture and barbarity, and he describes the Barbary pirates in stereotypical "blood and guts" terms.

Milton's approach is alarmingly unsophisticated in other ways, too. In his notes, he cites the more obviously available state papers and some well-known printed primary materials, but he has not bothered to delve deeply into any of the extensive French scholarship on the reign of Moulay Ismail. He accepts the wildly exaggerated figure of one million European slaves in North Africa, when the most careful scholarship has established that British captives in the Barbary states in the whole of the 17th and 18th centuries cannot have exceeded 20,000. Even if French, Spanish, Venetian, Dutch and other prisoners are added, Milton's million still looks like one of those "good copy" figures plucked from the air.

Milton accepts with a straight face Pellow's obviously self-aggrandising claim that he refused Moulay Ismail's demand that he marry a black or mulatto slave woman, insisting instead that he be given a woman of his own colour. Anyone acting so disrespectfully in the sultan's presence would instantly have been beheaded, as Pellow knew and Milton ought to know. The modern edition of Pellow's The History of the Long Captivity makes it quite clear which sections are fictitious.

Those who attempt to bring serious history to a non-academic audience can only be depressed by Milton's "edited highlights" approach. There has for a long time been an academic argument about the true significance of the Barbary pirates, which in some ways mirrors contemporary debates about the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Yet you would learn nothing of this from Milton's book. The best popular historians, such as Jack Lindsay and Christopher Hibbert, can satisfy both general and professional readers, but Milton's volume bears the same relationship to real history as the "Gotcha" headline does to a serious account of the Falklands war or the Police Academy movies do to the films of Ford, Welles and Hitchcock. There is clearly a huge market for this kind of "jughead biography". As Abe Lincoln said, those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.

Frank McLynn is the author of 1759: the year Britain became master of the world (Jonathan Cape)