Slavery in the Ottoman Empire

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Slave market

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire was considered an important part of the economy.[1]

To control their ownership of slaves, the Ottomans followed the Islamic view of human bondage. They saw themselves as the protectors of the religion while Mecca and Medina were under their protection. And the sultan was seen as a successor to the prophet. In this sense and according to Hanafi Islamic law, a person can have ownership of another, which entitles the owner to the slave' labor, property and sexuality while restricting his freedoms. However, a Muslim cannot be enslaved and if a slave follows Islam, he is to be freed. These rules were introduced in the empire’s laws.[2]

The Slavery in the Ottoman Empire was considered an important and big part of the empire's society. It was estimated that twenty percent of the residence during the 16th century were slaves. The Ottomans tied their economy tightly to owning slaves. Since it was a large country, the vast work they needed required more workers. For this reason they needed slaves to help them with different tasks.[1]

Tasks[change | change source]

Slaves had different tasks. Some of them were domestic slaves who helped raise children and do household chores. Others had menial jobs. Others were sex workers. Some of the empire's officials were purchased as slaves who grew up as free citizens.

History[change | change source]

The official prohibition of slavery took place in the second half of the 19th century, but the practice continued into the 20th century.[3]

The start of the slavery[change | change source]

Turkish Woman and her slave

Slavery began in the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century when Sultan Murad I built an army of slaves from prisoners of war called Kapıkulu. The sultan was in full control of them and trained them where necessary. Sultan Mehmed II established the first slave market in Constantinople in the 1460s, called Yessir. The markets then spread widely in most towns and cities of the empire.

The empire followed the pencik method (pencik from Persian labor stylo means five and yek means one) in which the state takes a fifth of the raiding captives. It has also been linked to a tax system and title deed

The footrest system has been changed for reasons that are unclear. They followed the devshirme system, which means collecting and fixing the children of Christian citizens from their ethnic, religious and cultural background and applying them in an Islamic Turkic system. This practice was also applied to citizens of Rumelia, especially Bosons and Albanians, even as Muslims and other non-Muslims in the empire. The Ottomans brought their slaves from within their borders.[4]

End of slavery[change | change source]

The call for the end of slavery began in the 19th century with calls from European countries to end human rights abuses. The empire lost its power after World War I and was under pressure and influence from European powers.[5]

In an effort to restore itself, the empire went through the Tanzimat period during which it underwent many reforms. It was seen as a period of importing European and Western ideologies and models, and the ideas of equality for all citizens, regardless of race or religion, and freedom were stronger than ever. These concepts made the slavery system less powerful and more opposed by citizens.

During this period, slaves also took the opportunity to escape from their owners and[6]

In order to escape from them in this sense, the Empire issued several edicts beginning with the liberation of groups of slaves.

Types of slavery[change | change source]

The slaves in The Ottoman Empire had different works:

  • Domestic workers: in elite homes were the most common type of slave: they worked and lived alongside the family and served as wage servants. They had the responsibility of doing the housework, taking care of the family and raising their children, and they also had to take care of sexual activities for their masters. They can be considered a second wife. This was a problem for Christian and Jewish citizens, but not a major problem for Muslims.[7]
  • Sexual slavery or also called "harem": It represents the residence of the Sultan, his wives, concubines and offspring. Marked by hierarchy. The two highest ranks were in the possession of the Sultan. The "valide sultan" was the sultan in reign's mother. then would follow his wife and then will be his favorite concubine. Concubines were served by domestic slaves in every occupation.
  • Elite Bondage: slaves were taken by the "Devshirme" exercise. Young men in the Balkan provinces, aged thirteen to fourteen, were educated, converted to Islam, and given elite positions in government and military. They were called koll (plural kollar). They were only obligated to the sultan. The beginning of the practice was the creation of the elite Infantry Corps "Janissary".
  • Menial jobs such as miners, pearl fishermen, ware makers or agriculture: At the beginning of the empire, these slaves were taken by landlords as part of their property. They have fulfilled all the duties to their masters. After farmland became state property, parcels of land were assigned to all owners and taxes owed to elite slave tax masters. These landlords did not profit from the surplus production and thus set their slaves free.[8]

Sources of slaves[change | change source]

For most of the earlier period of the empire, slaves were won by invading European borders and the Black Sea. In the following century, slaves came from Africa with a small minority from the Caucasus mainly from Circassia and Georgia. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Africans were imprisoned in Sudan, Central Africa and Ethiopia. They were then transported across the desert and the Mediterranean to reach ports in the Balkans and the Middle East. Some were transported through the Nile Valley, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the pilgrimage network.[9]


Nature of slavery[change | change source]

The Ottomans saw slavery as a means of giving individuals better living conditions and a better life.

Many of the sultan's slaves were better cared for than the common people. Many of them valued the positions they held and refused to trade them in for their freedoms because of the insecurity and fragility of the free people. Some people even volunteered for service. For them, slavery was a way for people to escape danger and misery. Under the responsibility of the owners, they are provided with the basic necessities (housing and food). For the sultan's slaves, they would even be given the status and opportunity to get close to the elite of society. The slave "Hurrem" even went on to marry the sultan and become queen of the empire.

However, this did not apply to all slaves, many went to great lengths to gain their freedom, and the positions held by slaves did not always guarantee proper treatment. Some of them have committed crimes according to the governing elite and even protests in the fight for their freedom. they also followed different strategies:

Some, in the struggle for freedom, worked to improve their status and position in society and to rise from a class of social slaves to a higher class.

Other groups of slaves decided to escape their owners, and in fact this strategy was popular in the late 19th century. After their escape, they were in a weak position, some states in the empire decided to abandon slave property rights over their slaves and sided with the enslaved, they were able to use the siding of the state in order to free themselves. Nevertheless, these actions were still criminalized by the ruling elite, which assumes them as a threat to the existing order in the region.

Slaves, in expressing their desire for freedom, tried to hold fast to their cultural beliefs and practices, even attempting to disrupt them and shut down the cultural hierarchy of slave owners.[11]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Miller, Joseph C., ed. Slavery and Slaving in World History: A Bibliography. 2 vols. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1999.
  2. Hartmann, Noga (2008-07-01). "Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an". American Journal of Islam and Society. 25 (3): 119–121. doi:10.35632/ajis.v25i3.1453. ISSN 2690-3741.
  3. Pargas, Damian Alan; Roşu, Felicia, eds. (2018-01-01). Critical Readings on Global Slavery. doi:10.1163/9789004346611. ISBN 9789004346611.
  4. Drew, D. L. (December 1929). "A Study of the Moretum. (A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Literature in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts.) by Florence Louise Douglas. Pp. 169. Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University, 1929". The Classical Review. 43 (6): 243. doi:10.1017/s0009840x00054664. ISSN 0009-840X.
  5. Erdem, Y Hakan (1996). Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and its Demise 1800–1909. doi:10.1057/9780230372979. ISBN 978-1-349-39557-6.
  6. R., Toledano, Ehud (1997). Slavery and abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-97642-X. OCLC 787448221.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. Zilfi, Madeline C. "Servants, Slaves, and the Domestic Order in the Ottoman Middle East." Hawwa 2 (1) (2004): 1-33.
  8. "The present state of the Ottoman Empire". Christian-Muslim Relations 1500 - 1900. doi:10.1163/2451-9537_cmrii_com_30563. Retrieved 2022-05-19.
  9. Eltis, David; Engerman, Stanley L.; Bradley, K. R. (Keith R.); Cartledge, Paul; Perry, Craig; Richardson, David; Drescher, Seymour (eds.). The Cambridge world history of slavery. ISBN 978-0-521-84066-8. OCLC 320803187.
  10. Austen, Ralph A. (December 1988). "The 19th Century Islamic Slave Trade from East Africa (Swahili and Red Sea Coasts): A Tentative Census". Slavery & Abolition. 9 (3): 21–44. doi:10.1080/01440398808574960. ISSN 0144-039X.
  11. Toledano, Ehud R. (2011-07-25), "Enslavement in the Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern Period", The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Cambridge University Press, pp. 25–46, doi:10.1017/chol9780521840682.004, ISBN 9780511975400, retrieved 2022-05-19

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