Slavery in the Ottoman Empire

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire

Slavery was an important part of Ottoman society[1] until the Ottoman Empire extinguished slavery of Caucasians (including Georgians, Armenians, and Circassians) in the early 19th century.[2] The practice carried over into Ottoman reign. As late as 1908, female slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire.[3]

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 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 Ottomans from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth. By raising and specially training slaves as officials, they created administrators with intricate knowledge of government and fanatic loyalty, and cut corruption. As an administrator with no ties in the region, he would not favor one person over another when granting contracts.[citation needed] In Constantinople (today Istanbul), the administrative and political center of the Empire, about one-fifth of the population consisted of slaves.[when?][4]


Early Ottoman slavery

In the middle of the 14th century, Murad I built his own personal slave army called 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 were converted to Islam and trained in the sultan's personal service. The Devşirme system could be considered a form of slavery, in that the Sultans had absolute power over its members. However, the 'slave' or kul (subject) of the Sultan had high status within Ottoman society, and this group included the highest officers of state and the military elite, all well remunerated.
Slaves were traded in special market-places called "Esir" or "Yesir". It is said that Sultan Mehmed II established the first slave market in Istanbul in 1460's.[5]

Ottoman slavery in Eastern Europe

In the devşirme (that has a meaning of "blood tax" or "child collection"), young Christian boys from the Balkans and Anatolia were taken away from their homes and families, converted to Islam and enlisted into special soldier classes of the Ottoman army. These soldier classes were named Janissaries and were the most famous branch of the Kapıkulu. The Janissaries eventually became a decisive factor in the Ottoman invasions of Europe.[6] Most of the military commanders of the Ottoman forces, imperial administrators and de facto rulers of the Ottoman Empire, such as Pargalı İbrahim Pasha and Sokollu Mehmet Paşa, were recruited in this way.[7][8] By 1609 the Sultan's Kapıkulu forces increased to about 100,000.[9]

Rural slavery was largely a Caucasian phenomenon, carried to Anatolia and Rumelia after the Circassian migration in 1864.[10] Conflicts emerged within the immigrant community and the Ottoman Establishment, at times, intervened on the side of the slaves.[11]

For a long time, until the early 18th century Crimean Khanate maintained massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. In a process called "harvesting of the steppe" Crimean Tatars enslaved many Slavic peasants. The Crimean Khanate was undoubtedly one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe; 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.[12] 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.[13]

Barbary slave raids

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.[14][15] These slave raids were perpetrated mostly by Arabs and Berbers rather than Ottoman Turks, but during much of the height of the Barbary slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries the Barbary states were subject to Ottoman jurisdiction and 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.

Slaves in the Imperial Harem

The concubines of the Ottoman Sultan consisted chiefly of purchased slaves. Because Islamic law forbade Muslims to enslave fellow Muslims, 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, and at times became effective 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.[16] Another notable example was Roxelana, the favourite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.

The concubines were guarded by enslaved eunuchs, often of African origin. The eunuchs presented another problem, because Islamic law forbade the emasculation of a man. Ethiopian Christians, however, had no such compunctions; and thus they enslaved and emasculated members of neighboring nations, and sold the resulting eunuchs to the Ottoman Porte.[17]

The Coptic Orthodox Church participated extensively in the slave trade of black Nubian or Abyssinian eunuchs. Coptic priests sliced the penis and testicles off underage boys around the age of 8 who were children 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.[18] The black boys were captured from Abyssinia and other areas in Sudan like Darfur and Kordofan then brought into Sudan and Egypt. During the operation, the Coptic clergyman chained the boys to tables and after slicing their sexual organs off, stuck a bamboo catheter into the genital area, then submerged them in neck high sand to burn in sun for a few days. The recovery rate was ten percent. The resulting eunuchs fetched large profits in contrast to eunuchs from other areas.[19][20][21]

Sexual Slavery

The three main races of girls who were sold as sex slaves in the Ottoman Empire were Circassian, Syrian, and Nubian. Circassian girls were described as fair, light skinned and were frequently sent by the Circassian leaders as gifts to the Ottomans. They were the most expensive reaching up to 500 Pound sterling and the most popular with the Turks. Second in popularity were Syrian girls, with "dark eyes and hair", and light brown skin. Their price could reach to thirty pounds sterling. They were described as having "good figures when young". Throughout coastal regions in Anatolia Syrian girls were sold. Nubian girls were the cheapest and least popular, fetching up to 20 pounds sterling.[22]

Decline and suppression of Ottoman slavery

Due to the intervention of the European Powers during the 19th century, the Empire began to outlaw the practice, which had been generally considered valid under law, effectively since the beginning of the empire. Policies developed by various Sultans throughout the 19th century attempted to curtail the slave trade.

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 mainly the Circassians, who had the custom of selling their own children, captured Greeks who 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 in 1857 and an order to the viziers of various local authorities in the Near East, Balkans, Cyprus etc. in 1858, prohibited the trade of black slaves but did not order the liberation of already existing slaves.

However, slavery and the slave trade in Ottoman Empire continued, as legal texts like the above were not backed by a penalty system. For the first time, a circular of July 20, 1871 introduced the penalty of one year's imprisonment for those who practised the slave trade.

Eventually, trafficking in slaves was expressly forbidden by utilizing what were effectively clever loopholes in the application of sharia, or Islamic law. For example, by the terms of the sharia, any slaves who were taken could not be kept as slaves if they had been Muslim prior to their capture. They could also not be captured legitimately without a formal declaration of war, which could only be issued by the Sultan. As late Ottoman Sultans, who wished to halt slavery, did not authorize raids for the purpose of capturing slaves, it effectively became illegal to procure any new slaves at all (although those already in slavery would remain slaves), allowing slavery to die a slow and quiet death in the Ottoman lands.[23][24]

Towards the end of the 19th century, the trade of black slaves gradually ceased in places controlled by western powers but continued undercover in places around the Indian Ocean (East Africa, Arabian Peninsula, etc.). Some of this trafficking used areas under Ottoman rule. Britain and the Ottoman Empire, after the former pressed the latter on this matter, signed a treaty in 1880 for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. However, the treaty was only enforced as Ottoman law in 1889.

The Ottoman Empire and sixteen other countries signed the Brussels Conference Act for the suppression of the slave trade in 1890. It seems though that clandestine slavery persisted even in the early 20th century. A circular by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of October 1895 warned the local authorities that in some steam-ships black sailors were being stripped of their “certificates of liberation” and again thrown into slavery. Another circular of the same year reveals that “frequently” some newly freed black slaves were arrested and kept in prison for unfounded accusations and were sometimes 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 so that (the children) would avoid slavery and separation from their parents. George Young, then 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 Ottoman Empire was only practised as contraband.[25] This trade continued at least up until the First World War. Henry Morgenthau, Sr. who served as USA Ambassador in Constantinople from 1913 till 1916, in his "Ambassador Morgenthau's Story" writes that during his term in Constantinople there were gangs trading white slaves.[26] He also mentions that Armenian girls were sold as slaves for as low as 80 cents during the Armenian Genocide events in 1915.[27]

See also


  1. ^ Supply of Slaves
  2. ^ Ottomans against Italians and Portuguese about (white slavery).
  3. ^ Islam and slavery: Sexual slavery
  4. ^ Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Black History.
  5. ^ Fischer W. Alan (1978) The sale of slaves in the Ottoman Empire: Markets and state taxes on slave sales, some preliminary considerations. Bogazici Universitesi Dergisi, Beseri Bilimler - Humanities, vol. 6, p. 151.
  6. ^ Janissary
  7. ^ Lewis. Race and Slavery in the Middle East
  8. ^ The Turks: History and Culture
  9. ^ In the Service of the State and Military Class
  10. ^ "Horrible Traffic in Circassian Women—Infanticide in Turkey," New York Daily Times, August 6, 1856
  11. ^ Osmanlı İmparatorluğu'nda Kölelik
  12. ^ Soldier Khan
  13. ^ Historical survey > Slave societies
  14. ^ When europeans were slaves: Research suggests white slavery was much more common than previously believed
  15. ^ British Slaves on the Barbary Coast
  16. ^ See generally Jay Winik (2007), The Great Upheaval.
  17. ^ See Winik, supra.
  18. ^ Henry G. Spooner (1919). The American journal of urology and sexology, Volume 15. The Grafton Press. p. 522. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  19. ^ Northwestern lancet, Volume 17. s.n.. 1897. p. 467. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  20. ^ John O. Hunwick, Eve Troutt Powell (2002). The African diaspora in the Mediterranean lands of Islam. Markus Wiener Publishers. p. 100. ISBN 1558762752. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  21. ^ American Medical Association (1898). The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 30, Issues 1-13. American Medical Association. p. 176. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  23. ^ "Slavery in the Ottoman Empire".
  24. ^ See also the seminal writing on the subject by Egyptian Ottoman Ahmad Shafiq Pasha, who wrote the highly influential book "L'Esclavage au Point de vue Musulman." ("Slavery from a Muslim Perspective").
  25. ^ George Young, Corps de Droit Ottoman. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1905. Vol. II, pp. 166-206.
  26. ^ Morgenthau Henry (1918) Ambassador Morgenthau's Story, Garden City, N.Y, Doubleday, Page & Co., chapter 8. Available
  27. ^ Morgenthau Henry (1918) Ambassador Morgenthau's Story, Garden City, N.Y, Doubleday, Page & Co., chapter 24. Available

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