By Niki Gamm
“A class of human beings that has formed an integral part of Muslim society up to the present day is that of the slaves. [The Prophet] Muhammad took over the slavery system, upon which ancient society was based, seemingly without question and regarding it as part of the natural order of the universe. His injunctions recommending humane treatment of slaves and making it meritorious to emancipate them indicate that he intended some amelioration in their condition, but neither from the Quran nor from the ‘Traditions’ [Hadith] is it possible to infer that the abolition of slavery was intended.” (Reuben Levy, “The Social Structure of Islam”)
Slaves could be acquired in war, by purchase, gift or inheritance. African slaves were considered quite valuable and typically came from Central Africa. They would be sold in the slave markets at Fezzan in Libya and Upper Egypt or might have been brought to Mecca during the time of the pilgrimage and sold there. From the 16th century, Egypt and most of the Arabian Peninsula were under Ottoman control and in the 17th century, the Ottomans took over the Fezzan region. That gave them greater access to African slaves. Perhaps as much of Istanbul’s population as 20 percent consisted of slaves, although we have no idea of what percentage would have been Africans. Most moderately well-to-do families would be able to afford a slave to handle basic chores, but the rarity of blacks in Istanbul would have ensured that only the wealthy could own one.
Under Islamic law, the slave had to be provided with shelter, clothing, food and medical care, while freeing a slave was considered an act of piety. Slaves could even take their owner to court. There are stories of slaves being freed and given the wherewithal to start a new life, although he or she might prefer to stay with their former master or mistress than tackle the difficulties of living alone in a foreign city. Where Africans were concerned, returning to Central Africa was not a solution; he or she would have been sold when they were very young – 10-12 years of age and it was unlikely they would ever make it back to their original homes. He or she was most often considered a part of the family. They could buy their own homes and even marry, provided they had the permission of their owners. If the owner were to take a female black slave as his concubine, he might free her and make her his wife. If she bore him a son, even while a slave, the boy would be considered free. The children of a slave father and mother were considered slaves even though the owner had given permission for the marriage.
If any owner treated a slave cruelly and it came to the attention of the authorities, that person might be punished. For example, if he withheld food, the court might have the owner’s property sold to provide the necessary nourishment. Or he might be sent into exile, in cases that were not very serious, being exiled from Istanbul was sufficient, since Istanbul was the centre of Ottoman civilization.
Landing at the Top
Islam forbids castration and it is claimed that the job was invariably carried out at an early age by Christians before the Africans were sold as slaves to the Ottomans. Eunuchs played an important role in the Ottoman palace. Those who were taken into the palace were given education including language and religious instruction. When they had reached a certain level, the brightest would be provided with further education and advancement among the staff providing service in the palace, while the others would be placed with the military. There was nothing to stop an African from advancing in the army. Around the middle of the 19th century, Charles White wrote that he had seen a regiment of African lancers on gray horses sweep by who belonged to Abdülmecid (r. 1839-61). Madeline Zilfi, in her book entitled “Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire,” refers to a black slave being freed after he had shown remarkable bravery in a battle. Any black slave who was freed by his owner was also considered to be part of his former owner’s military class.
Eunuchs were predominantly white in the Ottoman palace until 1582 in the reign of Sultan Murad III (r. 1574–95) in spite of the fact that they had direct access to Africans for sale in the Egyptian market following the conquest of Egypt in 1517. It is unknown why Africans were placed in important positions; later speculations have centered around the idea that the women of the harem would not find the Africans attractive, thus lessening the possibility of an affair. Curiously enough, there are no references to any of the harem women being black. Those Ottoman sultans preferred Circassian or north Mediterranean types of women has been well documented.
Generally, the top rank to which a black eunuch could aspire was that of “ağa” of the Darüssaade, or master of the Gate of Felicity. As such, he controlled the entire harem staff and took his orders directly from the “valide sultan” or “mother queen.” He also had access to the sultan, a copy of whose seal they were permitted to carry. And he might, like Beşir Ağa (ca. 1657-1746), wield so much power that he could make or unmake the person appointed grand vizier, since he was able to be the interface between the women of the harem and the outside world. They could also be executed for their overwhelming assumption of power, although it was more usual to exile such a eunuch to Egypt, Cyprus or Lemnos with a pension. Allowing the eunuch to live in Istanbul would have given him unprecedented access to the court, though even in exile, he would have been expected to have ties there. Eunuchs in the palaces and mansions of the well-to-do attached to the Ottoman palace would be ranked in a way similar to that of the court.
Trading Africans as slaves in the Persian Gulf was banned in 1847 with the closure of the slave market in Istanbul and 10 years later it was forbidden to import black slaves throughout the Ottoman Empire. The black eunuchs at the Ottoman palace were freed, but could not be replaced. Those who were already at the palace elected to remain there, as they had nowhere else to go.
Once upon a time, there may have been as many as 3 million blacks in present-day Turkey, but today only 4,500-5000 remain in the Aegean and Mediterranean areas.