Sesquicentennial Comparisons—Black Slavery in America and Ottoman Turkey

Head Eunuch at Topkapi

Head Eunuch at Topkapi Palace



January 1, 2013 marks the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which set the United States firmly on the path toward the abolition of slavery.

Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, Life and Times, described how, in his view, Lincoln’s proclamation morphed the Civil War beyond a struggle to preserve the Union, into a transcendent war against slavery:

The first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning-point in the conflict between freedom and slavery. A death blow was then given to the slaveholding rebellion

During a January 13, 1865 speech in New York City, Douglass had elaborated:

The abolition of slavery is the comprehensive and logical object of the war, for it includes everything else which the struggle involves. It is a war for the Union, a war for the Constitution, I admit; but it is logically such a war only in the sense that the greater includes the lesser… An Abolition war, therefore, includes Union, Constitution, Republican institutions, and all else that goes to make up the greatness and glory of our common country. On the other hand, exclude Abolition, and you exclude all else for which you are fighting.

This weekend, I came upon a remarkable lecture/paper presented at the Anthropological Society of London, and published in its Journal (Vol. 8, 1870-1871, pp. 85-96), “On the Negro Slaves in Turkey.” The presentation was not only a very informed analysis of black slavery in Ottoman Turkey, particularly Istanbul, through 1869, but also included a unique contemporaneous, objective comparison of the plight of black slaves in Turkey and America, during that era.

Before illustrating the paper’s background and comparative remarks—apropos to the Emancipation Proclamation sesquicentennial—it is important to note the complete absence of anything resembling a slavery abolition movement within Ottoman Turkey, even during the late 19th century modernization period, through its early 20th century disintegration. As Ehud Toledano concludes in his Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East,

…abolitionism was rejected on the ideological, not merely the political, level.

The aggressive campaigns of Western abolitionists stand in stark contrast. Due to these efforts—spearheaded, initially, by Evangelical Christians, such as William Wilberforce—slaves were freed within England via court order during 1772, in the British colonies starting in 1834, and colonial France in 1848; the United States abolished in slavery in 1865. Slavery did not become illegal within Islamdom, however, until large swathes of its territory came under European colonial rule (for example, Egypt in 1882; Morocco in 1912), or Muslim nations sought admission to the League of Nations after 1920 (p. 12).  Thus slavery was not formally outlawed in Republican Turkey until 1933, when, within a year of joining the League of Nations, Turkey sanctioned its prohibition by ratifying the League of Nations Convention on the Suppression of Slavery (p. 217).

The Anthropological Society of London presentation begins with the estimate of the black slave population in “Stambul” [Istanbul] “at 30,000 souls.” An immediate distinction is drawn between these black slaves and the black slave population in the southern US:

Unlike their kinsmen who have colonised the southern portion of the great American republic, the negroes of Turkey are not natives of the country, they have all been imported from Africa at a more or less advanced period of life, between the average ages of ten and twenty- five. Central Africa, the mother country of both, is the source out of which have flown for centuries two streams of forced immigration, one pouring its contingent westward by the Niger, and the other northward by the Nile.

Two causes are identified, without apologetics, for the ugly, if universal phenomenon of slavery—“that human beings are inflamed by the rage of profit, so far as to attack, kidnap, and sell each other, without pity or mercy”: the endless internecine wars of Central Africa, and the “high premium offered as a reward” for those enslaved by these conflicts. However, before expanding upon the question of “demand” for such captured African blacks, another important, if self-evident distinction was drawn between the two primary markets for such black slaves, Turkey and America, updated circa 1869:

The markets from which the Negro derived his profits were two: Turkey and America; of these, one has finally withdrawn from competition, whilst in the other the demand still exists.

Demand is a paramount point in any transaction, but especially in the present case the relation between demand and supply is such, that it may be asserted, without fear of exaggeration, that it is to this demand for slaves that are to be attributed the desultory and bloody wars which are waged in central Africa. If, in some instances, a tribe may attack another for reasons un connected with the cupidity for slaves, most frequently it is owing to this cupidity that razzias [raids] take place, and that the conflicts which ensue are more sanguinary and more protracted. Thus it is but just to hold the late slave-holders of America, as well as the present Mussulman [Muslim] slave-holders, answerable for the wars of extermination of which their thirst for human victims is the cause. It is evident that if now the customers of Cairo, Mecca, or Constantinople, were not bidding twenty or thirty pounds for a slave, the victorious Negro chief would let the vanquished go free, or, at least, would allow him to exist under a sky congenial to his nature. Having exposed the motives which stimulate the Negro races to supply the markets with their en- slaved brethren, I shall now explain the motives for the demand for slaves, and the reason why African slaves are so much sought after in Turkey. The slave-holding countries in the East are Turkey, the regency of Tunis, Morocco, and Persia; in these markets the demand for Negro slaves arises exclusively from Mussulmans, the Christians being seldom slaveholders. Amongst the Mussulmans, however, the use of having slaves is universal; with them it is just as natural to have negro slaves as it is [for non-Muslims] to have cats or dogs in the house.

The discussion then highlights three additional features which distinguish the widespread prevalence and tenacity of slavery in late 19th century Islamdom: its sanctioning by the Muslim creed, in particular the doctrine of jihad war, and derived mores of Muslim nations, notably harem slavery, as well as the inherent despotism of Sharia-based Islamic societies.

But at the same time it must be taken into account that this great demand for Negro slaves is based upon reasons far above fashion or fancy, as slavery is inherent in the religious and social system of Mohammedanism, and is congenial to the ideas and customs of Mussulman nations. This assertion that slavery is inherent in the very system of Islamism will startle many who believe in the compatibility of that antiquated system with modern civilisation. The arguments, however, which I am going to bring forward cannot fail from establishing such a fact as an axiom, putting it thus beyond the pale of controversy. I will therefore prove that slavery is inherent in the religious system; inherent in the social system; and, also, congenial to the ideas and customs of Mohammedan nations.

One of the earthly rewards which the Koran holds out to the victorious Moslem is that of reducing to bondage his foe, and of disposing of him as he chooses; his soul excepted, everything belongs to the conqueror, even his dead body. The religious and political system of Mussulmanism [Islam] being based on the principle of perpetual war, Djehad [jihad], enticements for the present and for the future life constitute an essential part of the system, and the right of possessing slaves is one amongst them. This right is of course transferable, as any other title to property is; therefore the dealer who has made the acquisition of a slave from the original proprietor, the Negro conqueror, or the Arab kidnapper, commits, legally, his right to any customer (a Mussulman of course) who may bid the highest price. According to the Koranic law, such is the hold of the master over the slave that no earthly power is allowed to interfere between them; the master is answerable only to the Almighty for the manner in wiiich he treats his slave. This un- limited power exerted over the slave is often the cause that masters take with impunity the lives of their slaves. The authorities, in such cases, either ignore or feign to ignore the event, because, legally, they have no right to interfere. According to the Koran, the only persons who may legally claim blood for blood in criminal cases are, either the nearest relations of the deceased, or (in case of a slave) his master. Now, in an instance of this sort, it is not likely that a master should present himself, asking from the tribunal justice for the blood of the slave he has himself slain. The Mussulmans, as a mass, are very tenacious of this right of holding slaves, and they will not allow that an infidel can indulge in such a luxury. As for European philanthropists, who try to put a stop to such a practice, they heartily wish them at the world’s end.

Having briefly explained the theory of slavery as it is established by the Koran and understood by its followers, I will now come to the second point, and show how slavery is a social necessity amongst Mussulmans; to be convinced of this, one must bear in mind that in Mohammed’s system, religious tenets and social laws are twisted and impasted together, forming, of the whole concern, a thorough gordian knot. It is on account of these difficulties, of a technical as well as of a practical nature, that the action of modern ideas always meets in the Mussulman element with an inert mass which never yields to persuasion, but only recoils before pressure. And what other explanation can be given of the great obstacles Sir Samuel Baker avows to have met with in the execution of his scheme for the suppression of slavery? According to Lord Houghton’s statement, made before the Royal Geographical Society, “the Egyptians did not seem to be disposed to support any such undertaking of Sir Samuel Baker’s as the suppression of slavery, for the very simple reason that it is through the slave trade that they obtain a constant supply of domestics for their households.” The discovery is a good one; but if this is so far true for the Egyptians, it is the same for the Turks, the Persians, and all other nations who live under the same system. Yes, this avowal of Sir Samuel Baker’s discloses the secret of the demand for Negro slaves: a supply of domestics is required to keep up the harems of the high and middle classes of Mussulman society, and Negritia [black Africa] must pour forth a constant supply of slaves. And this, because slaves are as much an essential part of the harem system, as the harem itself is of the religious and social system of Islam. The seclusion of women is for the Mussulman what one of the ten commandments is for the Christian; but how can that seclusion be enforced, if all the members of the harem are not submitted to the pressure of the same bondage? One or two women cannot, evidently, be kept tightly under lock, while their maids and attendants are free. Slavery is the natural consequence of seclusion. The Mussulman religion once adopted, its system must be carried through; there is no alternative. If the Mussulman is to remain a Mussulman (I mean even of a medium standard, and not merely a bigoted one) he must protect the sacredness of the conjugal tie by shutting up his wife or wives in the best manner he can. Wives are, therefore, cut off from the outside world by all sorts of contrivances, amongst which is that of having slaves instead of free-born servants, who could serve as mediums to dangerous ideas and still more dangerous customs. It is evident that if the attendants of the harem were such, not only the hold of the master over them would be of little efficacy, but the outer world might become acquainted with scandals of all sorts. To employ slaves is by far more convenient. For this end, the prudent Turk takes good care that the slave he buys should have his eyes tied up, a phrase which means that the first quality which a slave must possess is to be blind to the tricks and disorders of his master. Once in the harem, the white or Negro slave is submitted to the same system of seclusion as her mistress or mistresses are. A circumstance which renders the use of slaves indispensable, and forms an obstacle to the employment of free-born female attendants, is the formal in-junction of the Koran to the effect that, not only the face, but the hands also, of a free-born Mussulman woman are to be concealed from strangers.(The Sherihat [Sharia] orders that the upper part of the hand is to remain concealed. As for the inside, a woman can show it; otherwise she could not even beg alms for her relief.) Is it possible that a servant maid could serve about the harem, day and night, thus muffled up, fearing lest the master of the house should let his eyes fail upon her face or hands? Even if the maid happened to be not very particular on this point, custom, the fear of comments, and the disapprobation of her relatives, would pre? vent her from violating ostensibly the laws of Mussulman religion. It is easy to understand, then, how people should object to employ girls wrapped up like so many bogies in white veils and sheets. The employment of Christian women has been thought of, as their religion would remove the inconvenience above stated, but the Mussulmans strongly object to it on grounds of self-preservation against the encroachments of the Christian element. The few Pashas who have employed Christian servant girls, adopted this course from motives of policy with the object, I mean, of gaining in the eyes of Europeans.

Having so far shown that slavery is inherent in the religion and social system of Islam, it remains to be seen how slavery is congenial to the ideas and customs of Mussulman nations. It is one of the characteristics of Orientals to lean towards despotism, whether it be actively or passively. The same annals which record the names of the despots who have crushed the East under their feet, testify to the servility of their subjects. Slavery has never had very repugnant features in the eyes of Orientals. The Turk is far from being an exception to the general rule: by instinct, in his own limited sphere, he must be either a despot, or the servant of a despot stronger than himself. Nothing can better satisfy the vanity of a Turk than to look upon himself as the master of some human being; as he con- templates two or three slaves standing silent and with folded arms before him, the Turk rises infinitely greater in his own estimation. This feature of the Turkish mind is tangible, and can be traced not only in the customs of the people but in their very idiom, common sayings, and proverbs. For instance, if, during the course of familiar conversation, a Turk wishes to say something in the shape of good omen, he will say, “Kull kiolleh shaibih olah” which means that the person in question may be lucky enough to become the master of numerous slaves. From the cradle, vaticinations of this sort are constantly made by mothers and nurses to their babies, while singing them to sleep; one of those verses ends in this way, “Kull alaik hep bundah,” the meaning of which is, “Male slaves, female slaves, all will belong to him.” Another remarkable thing of this sort is, that the phrase,  “your servant,” votre serviteur, is never employed by the Turks, but “your slave,” “the most abject of your slaves,” etc. In all such phrases, the word slave is employed instead of servant. On the strength of such evidences, I do not hesitate to assert that the slave holding passion has its roots in the very heart of the Turks, and that it is congenial to them as well as to the other Mussulman nations.

Next the presentation described how black African slaves reached Ottoman Turkey, and their living conditions under Turkish servitude.

Reduced to the condition of slaves, the negro captives leave their country either following the course of the Nile, crammed twenty or thirty together in a boat, or they traverse, half on foot, half on camel’s back, the wastes separating Central Africa from the countries bordering the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. That the slaves imported into the dominions of the Sultan come from the regions neighbouring the sources of the Nile, is ascertained from the fact, that on questioning the negroes of Stamboul with reference to their native countries, they will invariably mention Kordofan, Darfur, Dangola or Abyssinia. The valley of the Nile is not, however, the only outlet of slavery, as many slaves are exported eastward to the market places of Arabia, while numbers cross the great Sarah [Sahara] and reach Tripoli of Barbary, and the frontiers of Tunis and Morocco. Living stock requires a greater number of entrepôts [depots] than goods in general do; so, for the negro slave-trade entrepôts have been established at Gondokoro and Khartum on the Nile route, Massovah and Soakin to the east, and Fezan on the Sarah route. From these entrepôts the human merchandise is packed off to the chief emporiums at Cairo, Alexandria, Constantinople, Smyrna, Beyruth, Jeddah, Mecca ancl Medineh. From the very outset on leaving their native land begins the career of toil and privations which is allotted to the poor slaves; a thin garment covers their nakedness, and a white woolen blanket renders to them the services of cloak, quilt and mattress. Without any regard for either Mussulman decency or Christian philanthropy, men, women, and children are thrown promiscuously by their dealers into a boat or within the precinct of a filthy eastern khan (inn), where dry bread and soup every twenty-four hours is given them, so as to preserve them alive for the market place. It must be known that ill-treatment is a part of the craft of slave-dealers ; by this method the slave is sure to look up to the first customer as a deliverer and a benefactor, and will therefore show no great dislike at being sold. The greatest part of the negro slaves imported into Turkey are females, and this for the reasons above stated, that the demand is exclusively for domestics serving in the harem.

A notable exception to the rule of much more limited demand for male black slaves was eunuch slavery, the aptly named hideous trade, dominated by Islamic societies in general, and, during the late 19th century, into the early 20th century, Ottoman Turkey, in particular. For example, Toledano documents that as late as 1903, the Ottoman imperial harem contained from 400 to 500 female slaves, supervised and guarded by 194 black African eunuchs. With regard to Turkish eunuch slavery, The Anthropological Society of London presentation, observed:

Eunuchs form, however, an exception, they being highly thought of; the Sultan of Turkey, the Sultan of Morocco, the Khedive of Egypt, all of them possess a staff composed of several hundreds of eunuchs, who are expected to fulfill the duties of guardian angels of the harem. The grandees of those different courts also employ these wretched beings with just as much ostentation as a European aristocrat prides himself on his chasseur’s feather cap. In the east, besides, the eunuchs are considered indispensable mediums between the harem and the outer world. The barbarous operation to which are submitted these unhappy creatures does not take place at Cairo or Constantinople: the negro lads of fifteen or sixteen are mutilated while stopping at the entrepôts, at Gondokoro, Khartum, etc. It seems that only one out of three survives the operation.

A 1908 study by French physician, Richard Millant Les eunuques à travers les âges (“Eunuchs through the ages”) included a graphic description of the human gelding procedure by which eunuchs were “manufactured” before reaching Turkey, and the predictably horrific mortality rate of this barbarity, i.e., 90 percent, which exceeded the Anthropological Society of London estimate of two-thirds.

Castrators of Negroes buy them and then sell them, after having mutilated them, on the Turkish market, that is if the victim does not succumb to the operation or to its consequences. As to the methods used, they have remained as primitive as in the past. The child is spread out on the floor or a table, the sexual parts are tied at their base by a rope, and on these parts they operate with one vigorous movement  of  a razor, the wound is then dressed with some small shot [i.e., lead rifle shot?], with some astringent substances, boiling oil, or some warm honey. Once the bleeding stops, they fix a kind of lead nail two inches long, slightly curved and with a thickened end, in the urethra, until it is completely  healed. This metal rod enters the bladder; it is  connected by  threads of linen tape which encircles the stomach and kidneys, and is kept in place by a piece of cloth attached to the belt in front and rear. The operation, as one can well imagine, is more or less well done, and it can leave ugly scars, or keloid scars [Keloids are the excess growth of scar tissue at the site of a healed skin injury]…Castrators sometimes use an even more barbaric method. Immediately after the removal of organs, they introduce into the urethra rather than a nail, a piece of reed protruding two inches, so that urinary functions are performed without interruption. Then a plaster is applied on the wound, and the patient is buried up to his neck in the warm and dry sand, while the assistants trample the ground around him. This maneuver reduces the mobility of the wounded one  completely, [which] is considered an essential element of successful healing. Within a few hours, a high fever does not fail to manifest itself. For three days, the wounded one only imbibes water, before being fed  “tonic and healthy liquids.” A week later, on average, he is unearthed. The bleeding is no longer to be feared, and one month after the healing is complete.

Out of a hundred operated on, and it is mostly children aged six to twelve,  ninety succumb [i.e., do not survive; emphasis added].

[French to English translation by Ibn Warraq]

Returning to the sale of the predominantly female black slaves upon their arrival in Turkey (a trade still performed openly on the streets of Istanbul through at least 1908, [p.88]), and their subsequent living conditions, the presentation noted:

Some twenty years ago on their arrival at Constantinople, the slaves used to be stored up within the precincts of an imperial slave market, as at that period the slave-dealers were patentee-merchants. Such a scandal could not, however, be patronised any longer, and the Turks have continued the trade in an underhand way. Non-official markets were then opened at Sultan-Mehemet, at Tophaneh, and in some of the cafes and shops of Stambul. One of these places is opposite the mosque of Suleimanieh in the bazaar named Teriaki-tcharshisi, the third shop to the left, looking westward, if my memory does not fail me. In these markets slaves are sold daily, the hours of brisk business being from eight to twelve a.m., Turkish time. Up to A.D. 1869, this state of things was in existence. The thirty or forty girls that come on the market at the same period, all find customers quickly enough: the Abyssinians on account of their good looks are the first to be disposed of; they are taken as upper servants in the harems of those whose limited means forbid them to indulge in a thorough-bred Circassian. The Abyssinians are also taken as economical odalisks by the lower class of amateurs. The genuine negro girls with flat noses and thick lips are doomed to the kitchen and the rough work of the house.

…As a rule, the lot attending these creatures is sad. They pass through the hands of ten or twenty masters, who make them lead the life of cab-horses, beat them at intervals, and at last sell them. Such treatment irritates the temper and inflames the passions of the African destitute, who, driven to despair, becomes a fury, wages war against her oppressors, and ends by becoming a hater of the white species. It is not to be wondered, then, if negroes have often been known to set fire to the wooden houses of Stamboul, as being the best means of retaliation they could devise. After having been sold and re-sold over and over again, the negro slave gets at last in a condition to be not even worth feeding; then she obtains her freedom, and she is let loose in the streets of Stamboul, without the means of subsistence or the power to provide for herself. Her lot then is to roam about town a cripple and a beggar.

Near the conclusion of the presentation, the comparison of the plight of black slaves in Turkey and America was conjoined, appositely, with a striking, if simple observation about the precipitous demographic decline of the Turkish black slave population—their progeny became “extinct” within the first, or most assuredly, second generation.

It must be remarked that, in many cases, the offspring, whether of first, second, or third descent, die while in infancy, the race becoming thus extinct. The negro Hadji Abdullah offers a most curious illustration of this phenomenon. This old fellow was an athlete in strength and size; but of the twenty and so many children which he had from his various wives, not one outlived the period of infancy. The sterility of the Negro race in Turkey is due to the following causes : 1.) The climate.  2.) The condition to which they are reduced, and mode of life; these are enervating, demoralising, and proper to destroy the germs of reproduction. 3rd.) That when negroes are in a position to marry, they are generally old and exhausted. If we put aside the testimony of statistic computations, evidence of the complete destruction of the negro stock which has been imported into Turkey during the last four hundred years, is not wanting. Admitting that during that period every generation of believers has had for its own use 100,000 negro slaves, nearly a million and a half of Africans has been pouring like an ever flowing stream into the midst of the Mussulman population. Where are now-a-days to be found the traces of this alien race? Do the negroes form any separate settlement or population, as those in the southern states of America ? Or have they been amalgamated and absorbed? No, they have been consumed and devoured, and such would inevitably be the fate of many other millions besides these. Voluptuousness and egotism are monsters ever eager after victims.

On comparing the lot which awaits the negro slaves in the east with the relatively happier condition of their kinsmen in America, one is astonished in seeing that slavery has produced so totally different results. Two different passions have been the cause of the adoption of slavery; the idleness and profligacy of the Mussulman in the one case, and the money-making mania of the Anglo-American in the other. But this difference which exists in the causes of the adoption of slavery, has also brought about different results; and while the Turkish negro turned into a tool proper to support the luxurious life of his master is doomed to perish, the American negro being made an agent of cultivation and industry, prospers, and his progeny multiplies.

This unique comparison was rendered without apologizing for American slavery, noting its rootedness in “money-making mania,” and earlier, condemning all foreign slavery of African blacks, including “the late slave-holders of America” for fueling the sanguinary, internecine Central African wars of enslavement with external, avaricious motivations.

The Anthropological Society of London presentation concludes by remonstrating both the Ottoman Sultan and Egyptian Khedive to abolish slavery—as was allegedly their wont—without requiring any “law or firman to write, more troops to dispatch, no [abolitionist] Samuel Baker to employ,” merely to,

… open wide and large the gates of their harems, let them turn out the hundreds of women and eunuchs they shut up, the whole scaffolding of slavery will then crumble down. This is the only feasible plan through which the calculations of sellers and buyers of human flesh can be effectively thwarted.

This final observation from the Anthropological Society of London presentation would ring true in Turkey for another seven decades following American President Abraham Lincoln’s January 1, 1863  Emancipation Proclamation, until after the Sharia was abrogated in Republican Turkey (in 1925), and the country joined The League of Nations (in 1933):

Mussulman society as well as its rulers shrink, however, from sweeping measures of the sort…

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