Notes on the History of Slavery: Southern Europe

In “Albanian slavery in European Medieval times”, a 2019 paper by Petrit Latifi, the author concludes that Albanians were enslaved locally or sold themselves as slaves or servants especially after the fall of Shkoder, the northern Albanian capital, to the Ottomans in 1379. Albanian slavery continued into the 15th century, with thousands captured as Ottoman slaves for the Janissary corps.

In Spain, the Great Catalan Company once led by the famous mercenary Roger de Flor was heavily involved in the trade of Albanians but this caused a conflict in 1396 between the bishop of Barcelona, Ramon de Escales, and the city council since most Albanians traded were Christians. King Martin of Aragon intervened in 1403, by ordering that the ban on slavery was lifted, but the tension continued for years. In 1455, Venice forbade the purchase of Albanian slaves, but in Kotor and Dubrovnik, the slavery continued with mostly young girls captured from the mountains or sold by their own families.

Ariel Salzmann published a paper called “Migrants in Chains: On the Enslavement of Muslims in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe” in 2013. The paper is infuriating in some senses (How can you call a slave a migrant?) and tries to make cheap political points that have no place in serious scholarship. But it still contains very valuable information, and makes the not-very-well-known point that a lack of technological development was one of the reasons why slavery and slave raids continued longer on, and were more commonly launched from, the southern (Muslim) shore of the Mediterranean from the late Middle Ages on.

Salzmann declares that his focus will be on the enslavement of Muslims in Europe, and he stays on the theme throughout the paper:

The late medieval Mediterranean trade in human beings was skewed by gender. Most captives sold in Genoa’s auctions were women and children, products of the mass enslavement of  Muslim communities in Iberia and Sicily as well as from raids across the Mediterranean, including in the Maghreb. The shifting frontier in Spain, which favored Christian colonization  by land, also afforded opportunities for Jewish entrepreneurs to navigate between sides, selling Muslim slaves to Christians.

This, as Salzmann no doubt knows and as he could have stated, was less frequent than the slave trade on the other direction: Jewish (and Muslim) merchants selling Christian slaves to Muslims. In addition, much worse culprits of enslavement were to be found in Italy:

At its height, Genoese domination of the Mediterranean traffic in slaves rested on the strategic placement of its entrepôts, including one in the northern Black Sea  (Tana) and another in the Aegean on the island of Chios. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, which  carried out their holy piracy from the island of Rhodes, supplied captives while the Byzantine state  and its vassals, as well as smaller Turkic-Muslim states, secured the access points between the Black Sea  and the Mediterranean… Between the Renaissance and the French Revolution, hundreds of  thousands of Muslim men and women from the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean were forcibly transported to Western Europe. Those who were not ransomed or who did not return to their homelands as part of prisoner exchanges, languished for decades and,  many, for the remainder of their lives, in chattel slavery…

The Popes did end up financing slave raids in Muslim territory:

Well into the eighteenth century, Rome dedicated important revenues to the frontline Catholic sovereigns (such as the Habsburg emperors) by redirecting church tithes and other subsidies toward state treasuries. New military orders emerged or regrouped, from the Uskoks of Senj (in today’s Croatia) to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who after their rout from the island of Rhodes in the early sixteenth century rebuilt their raiding operations on Muslim military and civilian targets from the islands of Malta and Gozo… For those states that did not join in the new, global crusade from the Atlantic and the Red Sea to the Pacific, a display of military prowess and religious zeal against the Muslims in the Mediterranean also assumed the form of holy piracy. Medici Tuscany, a merchant-state seeking to preserve its autonomy in the face of French and Habsburg territorial pretensions on the Italian peninsula, established the Order of the Knights of St. Stephen, Pope and Martyr in 1561 [33]. Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (d. 1574) served as its first grand master. With the laudable goal of defending Christendom from Muslim raids in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Medici state reaped both religio-political and economic rewards: its raids and skirmishes with the infidel yielded thousands of men for the oars of its fleet and a steady stream of human beings for sale to other, Catholic states. Perhaps, too, such a conspicuous display of fervor for the faith offset criticism for the relative leniency of Medici policies toward the Jews (and Orthodox Christians) who lived and traded in Florence and Livorno…

Galley slavery was a curious speciality of the era, and had a huge impact especially on the flow of slaves from Islamic lands into Europe:

Like agricultural slavery in the Atlantic, the Galley Complex was built on pre-existing systems of captivity and enslavement. However, it also reshaped those flows, decisively contributing to the shift in demand from female to male captives. A ship with 26 oars required five men per oar and an additional 20 oarsmen in reserve as replacements. Larger frigates might employ 500 men at the oars. As the size of the Mediterranean’s galley fleets peaked in the late seventeenth century so did demand for able-bodied enslaved, Muslim oarsmen in Catholic ports. By the early eighteenth century, when wind powered vessels replaced ships powered by human strength, particularly among the Atlantic-bound fleets of kingdoms like France, the demand for galley slaves also decreased. It is little wonder that because most Mediterranean corsairs, whether the Knights of Malta, privateers, or the rais of the Maghreb, depended on the maneuverability of galleys to raid coastlines, prey upon merchant cogs, and beat a speedy retreat, especially in calms, the economy of confessionalized enslavement, albeit reduced in scale, would continue into the nineteenth century.

Malta has always been a weird little island in the center of the Mediterranean, often living off less than wholesome occupations:

The ransom and sale of slaves was the mainstay of the economy of the Knights of St. John. Maltese auctions annually sent about two hundred human beings to Civitavecchia…

Keep in mind, two hundred is not a huge number in the context.

…the majority of the enslaved being subjects of the Ottoman Empire; they also sold slaves to Italian navies and to France. Although France was a signatory to treaties with the Sublime Porte that prohibited the enslavement of their subjects, French consuls doubled as slave procurers in La Valletta and Italian ports. Muslims were sold into slavery by land as well: the Holy Roman Empire furnished Ottoman captives for the galleys of France, and even Malta…

Galleys keep reappearing: it appears that most slaves of Modern Europe were rowers, a significant departure from slavery elsewhere on the globe. Indeed, the phasing out of galleys in Europe during the 18th century coincided with, and indeed led to, a marked decline in Muslim slavery and raid into Muslim lands; meanwhile, Muslims kept using galleys and maintained their old custom of raiding deep into Christian lands, which eventually triggered the French invasion of Algeria that opened up the colonial Scramble for Africa. But not all galley rowers in Europe were slaves:

Precisely because the Galley Complex was not simply a system of production but a mainstay of the state’s defenses, the composition of the labor force was rarely entirely servile. To minimize the risk of rebellion, Catholic fleets typically intermingled Muslim slaves on the bench with Christians, either convicts (including Protestants) or so-called buonavoglie or “volunteers,” whom poverty or debt forced to become oarsmen. The proportion of Muslim galley slaves to Christian oarsmen varied from fleet to fleet as well as over time, but seems to have increased as the larger European fleets began to phase out their galleys in the early eighteenth century. In seventeenth-century France, Muslims accounted for about a quarter of all galley slaves, roughly 50 captives for every 150 forçats (convicts) in 33 ships although that proportion might change in large vessels. In Livorno, the proportion of Muslim galley slaves to either convicts or buonavoglie rose in St. Stephen’s crews. By 1685, there were 647 Muslim slaves, the majority of whom were of North African origin, to 579 Christian convicts and 181 “volunteers”; similarly, in Genoa, Muslim slaves, who once composed only one quarter of the galley slaves in 1642, by the end of the century outnumbered the number of convicts (forzati). In mid-eighteenth century Malta, 639 of the 782 men at the oars were enslaved Muslims.

Interestingly, “Muslims in Catholic societies were visually marked” as an administrative measure of control:

That was not because they maintained the customary clothes of their homelands, such as turbans or long robes; nor did it owe to distinguishing facial features or to skin color. Rather, it was because being dressed and groomed as “turchi” was prescribed by law and the regulations of naval administrations. Their heads were shaved except for a distinctive pigtail. Although the ordinary galley slave may have retained a long mustache that covered his lips, only their chaplains were allowed a beard. Clothing too was uniform: a roughly woven woolen cape with a hood. Converted slaves and Muslims alike carried a one to two pound iron footlock around their ankle; Muslims also bore chains or were chained to the little kiosks they were permitted to open on the docks and in marketplaces.

Christian proselitism among Muslims was always more successful with women:

Although the missionaries were far less successful with adult male Muslims of the galleys, baptism of Muslim women and children in domestic service occurred with some frequency in the early modern period. The fact that most of the conversions in Rome and Livorno were of children or enslaved women, lends support to the supposition that the higher rates of conversion in Muslim lands may partially be attributed to the greater prevalence of household slavery. The Ottoman historian Suraiya Faroqhi observes that slave-owners often pressured their Christian slaves into accepting Islam.

The reverse case was indeed different:

Muslim societies, because of the higher number of slaves in homes, the structure of households, and the potential for social mobility despite servile and foreign birth, facilitated this process in ways that Catholic society did not: Islamic laws recognized the free, Muslim status of offspring of a slaveholder and his concubine who, if her child was male, might also demand to be manumitted. Muslim masters of converted slaves often emancipated them and willed them property and support (through endowments). Although both Muslim and Catholic states had a vested interest in keeping their fleets well supplied with slave labor and thus, ultimately, in discouraging mass conversion, it is not surprising to find the Ottoman controller of the state bagnio writing about the rewards due a Catholic slave after his conversion to Islam, which might include a pass to release him permanently from the prison, new clothes, and even a stipend from the treasury.

In “Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy,” a 2008 paper by Sally McKee, some details are added to the overall picture. To qualify the impact of slavery on Italy’s society, she quotes a letter written by Petrarch, the poet, to his friend the archbishop of Genoa, depicting a scene in the city in the 1360s:

“Whereas huge shipments of grain used to arrive by ship annually in this city, now they arrive laden with slaves, sold by their wretched families to alleviate their hunger. An unusually large and countless crowd of slaves of both sexes has afflicted this city with deformed Scythian faces, just like when a muddy current destroys the brilliance of a clear one.”

Slavery always had a negative effect on both societies: the one exporting (willingly or not) the slaves, and the one importing them.

McKee notes that Petrarch was snobbish by expressing contempt for the wretched refuse, and also wrong: only a literate type would have called these people, Tartars, Greeks, Circassians, Bulgarians, Russians… “Scythians.” All the same, she adds:

In the case of Italy, singling out slaves as commodities worthy of study here suggests that the trade in human chattel played a greater role in the economies of Renaissance Italy than it actually did. As Steven A. Epstein reminds us, ‘slavery was not a major part of the economies even of cities like Venice and Genoa, where it remained a secondary factor in overseas trade and local commerce’. The trade in slaves played a bigger role in the economies of the kingdom of Aragon (including Sicily) and the Muslim powers of North Africa than it did in the commercial activities of Italian merchants. Equally significant, in contrast to early Spanish and Portuguese exploitation of slave labour in the Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa, slave labour in lands under Italian rule did not even play an important part in agricultural or industrial production.

This is because slavery remained during this era, as she put it in her title, mostly “domestic” or household-bound (when not galley-confined). Also, even as Subsaharan African slavery became dominant, as opposed to that derived from the Black Sea region, that was not the case in Italy (or anywhere else in Europe):

Sub-Saharan African slaves show up in northern Italian records as early as the mid fourteenth century. Until the mid-fifteenth century, Italian merchants from the northern peninsula acquired black African slaves mainly from Muslim merchants. When Portugal began to transport captives from the western coast of the African continent in the first half of the fifteenth century, Lisbon became another, important source of Black African slaves. At no time, however, did black Africans constitute more than a small minority of any slave population in a city of northern Italy. In southern Italy, their presence is detectable much earlier and persists much longer, due in part to Sicily’s commercial and political relations with Aragon and to its proximity to the markets of north Africa. Salvatore Bono estimates that black Africans in Sicily accounted for half of the servile population in the sixteenth century, but their numbers decrease sharply thereafter as slave traders directed their supplies of captive Africans increasingly to the colonies in the western hemisphere. To replace them, slave traders in Sicily turned to Muslims from the Maghreb. Wherever in Italy black Africans were for sale, their prices fell significantly below those of lighter-skinned slaves, which suggests that they were not as much in demand as slaves from Central Asia or eastern Europe and reinforces the impression taken by previous historians that Italians had a prejudice against dark-skinned people.

This matters. Modern historians who wish to attack anti-mass immigration parties love to claim that Blacks were a common sight in European cities not only in Antiquity but also in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe (as if slavery can ever be an argument in favor of immigration, somehow, instead of against). The evidence, as McKee notes, says that, for the most part, “common sight” is an exaggeration, if not an outright lie.

This is also very intriguing:

In spite of the risks of pregnancy, sexual service undoubtedly contributed largely to the demand for slave women in Italian households. They worked in no manufacturing apart from textile production, and even there they did not amount to a significant proportion. Other scholars have found evidence of the sexual service slave women performed, even though the legislation of Venice, Genoa, and Florence condemned the sexual exploitation of slaves and servants by both members and non-members of the households in which they worked. Sexual service might serve as one explanation for widows forming the second largest group of vendors after patrician men…

It took me a bit to make this connection, to be honest…

…Perhaps in widowhood some of these women sought to remove a source of tension in their households while their husbands were alive. Likewise, the steady and steep rise in the price of slave women in Genoa over the fifteenth century, in contrast to slave men in Genoa and slaves of both sexes in Venice, might reflect the city’s tacit tolerance of slave concubinage. But Genoa was not exceptional in this regard.

And, if you ever thought that babies abandoned in front of churches or wherever were the fruit of the illicit, pure love of teenage farmers or young students…

The private, unrecorded nature of human sexual activity makes it impossible to document this behaviour except in cases where children resulted, and in this respect slave women’s sexual service had an impact on society in Renaissance Italy. By the fifteenth century, positive law in Florence, Genoa, very possibly Venice, and certainly other cities informally condoned sexual relationships between slave women and free men when the children of slave women began to inherit their fathers’ status instead of their mothers’. Not all children of slave women by their masters, however, benefited from that change. Achild’s life depended entirely on his or her father’s willingness to acknowledge his paternity. The large number of abandoned slave women’s children in the foundling hospitals of those cities gives a good idea how widespread master–slave sexual relations were and how few children were lucky enough to have a father who acknowledged them. One historian argues that the lucrative business of renting out slave women as wet nurses constituted an incentive for slave owners to prey sexually on slave women.

Eventually, the supply of cheap labor surplus from the countryside, including Yugoslav lands, made slavery less appealing, McKee argues:

The ready availability of cheaper paid labour came to exceed the prestige associated with owning a slave. The people of northern Italy found it cheaper and more convenient to pay minimal wages to poor but free women, men, and children from the rural hinterlands of cities and from the Balkan region. Indentured service became the norm in Venice and in Tuscan cities. Children, in particular, suffered from the new trends in domestic service. In place of slaves, destitute boys and girls, known as anime, from the Dalmatian coast and the interior regions were brought to Italian cities, where their captors sought reimbursement for the children’s transport and a bit of profit from those in search of household servants. The children, nominally free, were bound by contract to their masters for periods of service lasting four years or longer.

I find this explanation a little incomplete, though, and I wonder why very similar demographic trends in the Muslim side of the Mediterranean, or in countries where slavery continues to this day, didn’t lead to the same outcome.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Notes about the History of Slavery and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Notes on the History of Slavery: Southern Europe

  1. Pingback: Notes on the History of Slavery: Southern Europe – The Philosophical Hack

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