Slavery in the Ottoman Empire
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Slavery in the Ottoman Empire was a legal and significant part of the Ottoman Empire's economy and society. The main sources of slaves were war captives and organized enslavement expeditions in North and East Africa, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Caucasus. It has been reported that the selling price of slaves fell after large military operations. In Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the administrative and political center of the Empire, about a fifth of the population consisted of slaves in 1609. Sixteenth- and 17th-century customs statistics suggest that Istanbul's additional slave import from the Black Sea may have totaled around 2.5 million from 1450 to 1700.
Even after several measures to ban slavery in the late 19th century, the practice continued largely unabated into the early 20th century. As late as 1908, female slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire. Sexual slavery was a central part of the Ottoman slave system throughout the history of the institution.
A member of the Ottoman slave class, called a kul in Turkish, could achieve high status. Harem guards and janissaries are some of the better known positions a slave could hold, but slaves were actually often at the forefront of Ottoman politics. The majority of officials in the Ottoman government were bought slaves raised free, and integral to the success of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century into the 19th. Many officials themselves owned a large number of slaves, although the Sultan himself owned by far the most. By raising and specially training slaves as officials in palace schools such as Enderun, the Ottomans created administrators with intricate knowledge of government and fanatic loyalty.
Early Ottoman slavery
In the mid-14th century, Murad I built an army of slaves, referred to as the Kapıkulu. The new force was based on the Sultan's right to a fifth of the war booty, which he interpreted to include captives taken in battle. The captive slaves converted to Islam and trained in the sultan's personal service. The devşirme system could be considered a form of slavery because the Sultans had absolute power over them. However, as the 'servant' or 'kul' of the Sultan had high status within Ottoman society, they could become the highest officers of state and the military elite, and all taken children (but not their parents) were well remunerated.
Slaves were traded in special marketplaces called "Esir" or "Yesir" that were located in most towns and cities. It is said that Sultan Mehmed II "the Conqueror" established the first Ottoman slave market in Constantinople in the 1460s, probably where the former Byzantine slave market had stood. According to Nicolas de Nicolay, there were slaves of all ages and both sexes, they were displayed naked to be thoroughly checked – especially children and young women – by possible buyers.
Ottoman slavery in Central and Eastern Europe
In the devşirme, which connotes "draft", "blood tax" or "child collection", young Christian boys from the Balkans and Anatolia were taken from their homes and families, converted to Islam, and enlisted into the most famous branch of the Kapıkulu, the Janissaries, a special soldier class of the Ottoman army that became a decisive faction in the Ottoman invasions of Europe. Most of the military commanders of the Ottoman forces, imperial administrators, and de facto rulers of the Empire, such as Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, were recruited in this way. By 1609, the Sultan's Kapıkulu forces increased to about 100,000.
Domestic slavery was not as common as military slavery. On the basis of a list of estates belonging to members of the ruling class kept in Edirne between 1545 and 1659, the following data was collected: out of 93 estates, 41 had slaves. The total number of slaves in the estates was 140; 54 female and 86 male. 134 of them bore Muslim names, 5 were not defined, and 1 was a Christian woman. Some of these slaves appear to have been employed on farms. In conclusion, the ruling class, because of extensive use of warrior slaves and because of its own high purchasing capacity, was undoubtedly the single major group keeping the slave market alive in Ottoman Empire.
Rural slavery was largely a phenomenon endemic to the Caucasus region, which was carried to Anatolia and Rumelia after the Circassian migration in 1864. Conflicts frequently emerged within the immigrant community and the Ottoman Establishment intervened on the side of the slaves at selective times.
The Crimean Khanate maintained a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East until the early eighteenth century. In a series of slave raids euphemistically known as the "harvesting of the steppe", Crimean Tatars enslaved East Slavic peasants. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia suffered a series of Tatar invasions, the goal of which was to loot, pillage, and capture slaves into "jasyr". The borderland area to the south-east was in a state of semi-permanent warfare until the 18th century. It is estimated that up to 75% of the Crimean population consisted of slaves or freed slaves.
Prices and taxes
A study of the slave market of Ottoman Crete produces details about the prices of slaves. Factors such as age, skin color, virginity etc. significantly influenced prices. The most expensive slaves were those between 10 and 35 years of age, with the highest prices for European virgin girls 13–25 years of age and teenaged boys. The cheaper slaves were those with disabilities and sub-Saharan Africans. Prices in Crete ranged between 65 and 150 "esedi guruş" (see Kuruş). But even the lowest prices were affordable to only high income persons. For example, in 1717 a 12-year-old boy with mental disabilities was sold for 27 guruş, an amount that could buy in the same year 462 kg (1,019 lb) of lamb meat, 933 kg (2,057 lb) of bread or 1,385 l (366 US gal) of milk. In 1671 a female slave was sold in Crete for 350 guruş, while at the same time the value of a large two-floor house with a garden in Chania was 300 guruş. There were various taxes to be paid on the importation and selling of slaves. One of them was the "pençik" or "penç-yek" tax, literally meaning "one fifth". This taxation was based on verses of the Quran, according to which one fifth of the spoils of war belonged to God, to the Prophet and his family, to orphans, to those in need and to travelers. The Ottomans probably started collecting pençik at the time of Sultan Murad I (1362–1389). Pençik was collected both in money and in kind, the latter including slaves as well. Tax was not collected in some cases of war captives. With war captives, slaves were given to soldiers and officers as a motive to participate in war.
The recapture of runaway slaves was a job for private individuals called "yavacis". Whoever managed to find a runaway slave would collect a fee of "good news" from the "yavaci" and the latter took this fee plus other expenses from the slaves' owner. Slaves could also be rented, inherited, pawned, exchanged or given as gifts.
Barbary slave raids
For centuries, large vessels on the Mediterranean relied on European galley slaves supplied by Ottoman and Barbary slave traders. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries. These slave raids were conducted largely by Arabs and Berbers rather than Ottoman Turks. However, during the height of the Barbary slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Barbary states were subject to Ottoman jurisdiction and were ruled by Ottoman pashas. Furthermore, many slaves captured by the Barbary corsairs were sold eastward into Ottoman territories before, during, and after Barbary's period of Ottoman rule.
As there were restrictions on the enslavement of Muslims and "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians), pagan areas in Africa were a popular source of slaves. Known as the Zanj (Bantu), these slaves were mainly drawn from the African Great Lakes region as well as Central Africa. The Zanj were employed in households, on plantations and in the army as slave-soldiers. Some could ascend to high rank officials but in general were inferior to European and Caucasian slaves.
One of the only ways for Zanj slaves to serve in high ranking roles was to be one of the African eunuchs of the Ottoman palace. This position was used as a political tool by Sultan Murad III as an attempt to destabilize the Grand Vizier by introducing another source of power to the capital.
After being purchased by a member of the Ottoman court, Mullah Ali was introduced to the first chief Black eunuch, Mehmed Aga. Due to Mehmed Aga’s influence, Mullah Ali was able to make connections with prominent colleges and tutors of the day, including Hoca Sadeddin Efendi, the tutor of Murad III. Through the network he had built with the help of his education and the black eunuchs, Mullah Ali secured several positions early on. He worked as a teacher in Istanbul, a deputy judge, and an inspector of royal endowments. In 1620, Mullah Ali was appointed as chief judge of the capital and in 1621 he became the kadiasker, or chief judge, of the European provinces and the first black man to sit on the imperial council. At this time, he had risen to such power that a French ambassador described him as the person who truly ran the empire.
Although Mullah Ali was often challenged because of his blackness and his connection to the African eunuchs, he was able to defend himself through his powerful network of support and his own intellectual productions. As a prominent scholar, he wrote an influential book in which he used logic and the Quran to debunk stereotypes and prejudice against dark-skinned people and delegitimize arguments for why Africans should be slaves.
Today, tens of thousands of Afro Turks, the descendants of the Zanj slaves in the Ottoman Empire, continue to live in modern Turkey. Mustafa Olpak who is an Afro-Turk, founded the first officially recognised organisation of Afro Turks, the Africans' Culture and Solidarity Society (Afrikalılar Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği) in Ayvalık. Olpak claims that in modern Turkey only about 2000 African former slaves have survived and live in modern Turkey.
Slaves in the Imperial Harem
The concubines of the Ottoman Sultan consisted chiefly of purchased slaves. The Sultan's concubines were generally of Christian origin. The mother of a Sultan, though technically a slave, received the extremely powerful title of Valide Sultan which raised her to the status of a ruler of the Empire (see Sultanate of Women). One notable example was Kösem Sultan, daughter of a Greek Christian priest, who dominated the Ottoman Empire during the early decades of the 17th century. Roxelana (also known as Hürrem Sultan), another notable example, was the favorite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.
The concubines were guarded by enslaved eunuchs, themselves often from pagan Africa. The eunuchs were headed by the Kizlar Agha ("agha of the [slave] girls"). While Islamic law forbade the emasculation of a man, Ethiopian Christians had no such compunctions; thus, they enslaved and emasculated members of territories to the south and sold the resulting eunuchs to the Ottoman Porte. The Coptic Orthodox Church participated extensively in the slave trade of eunuchs. Coptic priests sliced the penis and testicles off boys around the age of eight in a castration operation.
The eunuch boys were then sold in the Ottoman Empire. The majority of Ottoman eunuchs endured castration at the hands of the Copts at Abou Gerbe monastery on Mount Ghebel Eter. Slave boys were captured from the African Great Lakes region and other areas in Sudan like Darfur and Kordofan then sold to customers in Egypt. During the operation, the Coptic clergyman chained the boys to tables and after slicing their sexual organs off, stuck bamboo catheters into the genital area, then submerged them in sand up to their necks. The recovery rate was 10 percent. The resulting eunuchs fetched large profits in contrast to eunuchs from other areas.
Circassians, Syrians, and Nubians were the three primary races of females who were sold as sex slaves in the Ottoman Empire. Circassian girls were described as fair and light-skinned and were frequently enslaved by Crimean Tatars then sold to Ottomans. They were the most expensive, reaching up to 500 pounds sterling and the most popular with the Turks. Second in popularity were Syrian girls, with their dark eyes, dark hair, and light brown skin, and came largely from coastal regions in Anatolia. Their price could reach up to 30 pounds sterling. They were described as having "good figures when young". Nubian girls were the cheapest and least popular, fetching up to 20 pounds sterling.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, sexual slavery was not only central to Ottoman practice but a critical component of imperial governance and elite social reproduction. Dhimmi boys taken in the devşirme could also become sexual slaves, though usually they worked in places like bathhouses (hammam) and coffeehouses. They became tellaks (masseurs), köçeks (cross-dressing dancers) or sāqīs (wine pourers) for as long as they were young and beardless.
Decline and suppression of Ottoman slavery
Due to European intervention during the 19th century, the Empire began to attempt to curtail the slave trade, which had been considered legally valid under Ottoman law since the beginning of the empire. One of the important campaigns against Ottoman slavery and slave trade was conducted in the Caucasus by the Russian authorities.
A series of legal acts was issued that limited the slavery of white people initially and of those of all races and religions later. In 1830, a firman of Sultan Mahmud II gave freedom to white slaves. This category included the Circassians, who had the custom of selling their own children, enslaved Greeks who had revolted against the Empire in 1821, and some others. Another firman abolishing the trade of Circassian children was issued in October, 1854. A firman to the Pasha of Egypt was issued in 1857 and an order to the viziers of various local authorities in the Near East, such as the Balkans and Cyprus, in 1858, prohibited the trade of Zanj slaves but did not order the liberation of those already enslaved.
However, slavery and the slave trade in Ottoman Empire continued for decades, as legal texts like the above were not backed by a penalty system. It was not until 1871 that a circular of July 20 of that year introduced the penalty of one year's imprisonment for those who practiced the slave trade.
Later, slave trafficking was expressly forbidden by using clever technical loopholes in the application of sharia, or Islamic law, although sharia permitted slavery. For example, by the terms of the new application of sharia, those taken as slaves could not be kept a slave if they had been Muslim prior to their capture. They could also not be captured legitimately without a formal declaration of war, which could be issued only by the Sultan. As late Ottoman Sultans wished to halt slavery, they did not authorize raids for the purpose of capturing slaves and so making it effectively illegal to procure new slaves, but those already in slavery would remain slaves.
The Ottoman Empire and 16 other countries signed the 1890 Brussels Conference Act for the suppression of the slave trade. Clandestine slavery persisted into the early 20th century. A circular by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in October 1895 warned local authorities that some steam-ships stripped Zanj sailors of their "certificates of liberation" and threw them into slavery. Another circular of the same year reveals that some newly freed Zanj slaves were arrested based on unfounded accusations, imprisoned and forced back to their lords.
An instruction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Vali of Bassora of 1897 ordered that the children of liberated slaves should be issued separate certificates of liberation to avoid both being enslaved themselves and separation from their parents. George Young, Second Secretary of the British Embassy in Constantinople, wrote in his Corpus of Ottoman Law, published in 1905, that by the time the book was written the slave trade in the Empire was practiced only as contraband. The trade continued up until World War I. Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who served as the U.S. Ambassador in Constantinople from 1913 until 1916, reports in his Ambassador Morgenthau's Story that there were gangs trading white slaves during his term in Constantinople. The same author reports that Armenian girls were sold as slaves during the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
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