Notes on the History of Slavery: Slavs, Muslims & the Black Sea

“Slavery in the Black Sea Region — Forms of Unfreedom at the Intersection of Islam and Christianity, c. 900-1900” was a 2017 workshop hosted by the Leiden Slavery Studies Association in the Netherlands. During the workshop, a number of interesting papers were presented. These caught my eye:

-Viorel Achim (“The Orthodox Church and the Emancipation of the Gypsy Slaves in the Romanian Principalities, Mid-19th Century”) argued that, in the 1830s-1850s (under Russian/Turkish control since the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople), in Wallachia (Romania) and Moldavia the Orthodox Church found itself in a delicate position. On the one hand, the Church was a major slave owner, and on the other hand, it was a partner for the state in its effort, started in 1831, to gradually modernize the Romanian society for example by freeing the Gypsy slaves (I never knew Gypsies had been actual slaves in Europe, under Ottoman rule, until I read this). Some of the intellectuals of the Church were among the first to raise their voices against slavery: the two laws for emancipating the slaves belonging to the Metropolitanate, bishoprics, monasteries, churches, and other public institutions, adopted on 31 January 1844 in Moldavia and 11 February 1847 in Wallachia, revealed the divergent interests that existed within the Church. Some churchmen welcomed the law, while some monasteries sought to limit the losses it imposed on them.

-Michel Balard (“The Black Sea Slavery, 13th-15th Centuries”) notes that slavery was a main characteristic of Mediterranean societies in the later Middle Ages, and during two centuries (1270-1475) its main source was the Black Sea region. The slave trade grew largely owing to Genoese and Venetian settlements created on the shores of the Black Sea, where Caffa and Tana became the main centers of the trade in humans. The notarial deeds and books of accounts written in these colonies allow a description of who the slaves were: their ethnic origin, their gender distribution, their age, and their price on the local market. It’s important to note that Balard and others have remarked that women between the ages of 15 and 30 were the primary commodity for sale in these markets, with male slaves sometimes being a tiny number of the total. In a sample of 418 slaves sold between 1275 and 1300, Balard found that 29% were described as “white”, while 23% were “brown” and “olive”, 10% were described as “black” and skin color was not provided in 38% of the cases.

-Hannah Barker (“The Tatar-Circassian Shift in Comparative Perspective”) writes that, during the last decades of the fourteenth century, there was a shift in the composition of the slave population exported from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. The proportion of Tatar (typically Muslim, often ethnically Turk) slaves decreased while the proportion of Circassian (typically Christian) slaves increased. This phenomenon is well known within the field of Mamluk studies, where it is attributed to the desire of the first Circassian sultan, Barqūq, to recruit more Circassian mamluks instead of Turks or Tatars. However, thousands of slave sale contracts recorded by notaries in Genoa and Venice during the same period show that Italian slave markets also experienced a shift away from Tatars and towards Circassians in the late fourteenth century.

-Andrzej Gliwa (“How the Captives Were Taken: The Making of Tatar Slave Raids in the Early Modern Period”) notes studies conducted by himself, regarding the Tatar raids that took place in the seventeenth century (looking for Slavic slaves), have shown that they fit within the pattern of asymmetric warfare. These usually took place in non-military environments, mainly in rural area of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

-Oleksandr Halenko (“Slavery Trends in the Ottoman Black Sea in the Light of Fiscal Documents from the 16th Century”) argues that the Ottomans continued the traditions of the slave trade in the Black Sea known since antiquity. The pastoral nomads inhabiting the steppe of Eastern Europe, now under the rule of the Crimean khans, offered slaves to the Ottoman merchants, who replaced the Genoese. The huge Ottoman market nearby invited Tatars to intensify slave raiding, while the population in the area grew with the progress of Ukrainian colonization. However, the Ottomans, unlike other Mediterranean powers, subjugated the nomads to the north. Eager to milk the lucrative slaving business, the Ottomans imposed heavy taxes on the import and transportation of slaves within the empire. The poor Tatars, unable to pay custom duties, usually sold their human catch cheaply to professional slave dealers without entering Ottoman ports, sometimes at occasional markets organized in the middle of the steppe.

-Victor Ostapchuk and Maryna Kravets (“In Search of Slaves Among the Vanished: Cossack Captive-Taking and the Modalities of Unfreedom”) look at the little-known and relatively small-scale slave raiding by Ukrainian and Russian cossacks, searching to take Muslims (and some Christians) along the Black Sea. Although references to this phenomenon in documents and narrative sources stemming from Muscovy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Ottoman Empire are not uncommon, certainly its magnitude and impact were dwarfed by the captive-taking undertaken by Tatars and Nogays on behalf of the Crimean and the Ottoman market. Also, there’s the issue of where in the spectrum of unfreedom did the captives of cossacks end up, as the steppe had not properly organized structures for large-scale slavery: capture for personal service, concubinage, or even marriage was not uncommon, whereas captive-taking for purposes of gifting to superiors or tribute was perhaps rarer. Though slaves could be ransomed, the term “ransom slavery” has not been well defined in the literature, since capture for ransom did not necessarily involve enslavement.

In her much longer doctoral dissertation “Egyptian and Italian Merchants in the Black Sea Slave Trade, 1260-1500,” (Columbia University, 2014), the previously cited Hannah Barker fills on some of the gaps left by these papers. For example, Barker cites the key religious difference between Islam (tolerant of slavery; Saudi Arabia only banned the practice in the 20th century, and the only slave states remaining in the 21st century are all Muslim majority) and Christianity (hostile or, at worst, ambivalent about the practice):

In the Islamic tradition, there is a saying (ḥadīth) concerning slaves that “God has given you the right of ownership over them; He could have given them the right of ownership over you.” This was not a platitude.

Still, to be honest, the difference on the ground wasn’t always great:

Adherents of one’s own religion should not be enslaved, but adherents of other religions were fair game as long as they did not enjoy protected status. Thus Christians were allowed to enslave Muslims and pagans, while Muslims were allowed to enslave Christians and pagans. Jewish slaves were fairly rare during this period, and Jewish ownership of slaves was restricted by both Muslim and Christian authorities. When able to acquire slaves, Jews also preferred adherents of religions other than their own… Canon law forbade Jews (and Muslims) from owning Christian slaves (X.5.6 and D.54 c.13) and sharī’a forbade Jews and Christians from owning Muslim slaves, but Jews in the Christian world were able to own Muslims and Jews in the Muslim world were able to own Christians. Pagans were available to everyone.

In the end, “slavery was a dangerous reality with which all inhabitants of the late medieval Mediterranean had to live”:

Free people could find themselves enslaved through military defeat, such as the inhabitants of Acre taken and sold by the Mamluks in 1291. People living along the coast might be swept up by raiders, such as the Aegean Greeks who were victimized by the Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans, not to mention Ottoman Turks and those from Menteshe and Aydin. They might also be kidnapped, like the young Neapolitan girl named Maria who was lured onto a Genoese ship and taken away to be sold (Gioffrè, Il mercato degli schiavi, 157. She was released after her parents located her in Genoa and hired a procurator to take her case to court). Travelers were especially vulnerable. The incautious pilgrim bound for Jerusalem was advised not to wander along the seashore in the eastern Mediterranean, “lest he be suddenly seized by pirates and reduced to perpetual and miserable servitude, which often happens.”

Barcelona, for example, had pretty expansive slave markets, a reality very rarely mentioned in Spanish historiography:

The most unfortunate were betrayed by their own ship captains, like the group of Tunisian traders who took passage from Cairo to the Barbary coast on a Catalan ship in 1408, but instead were taken to Barcelona and sold there as slaves.

The footnote that Barker adds to this last reference is fascinating; Christian governments did investigate at least some of these cases and ruled in favor of Muslims:

W. Heyd, Histoire du commerce du Levant au Moyen- ge, trans. Raynaud Furcy (Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert, 1967), 2:472. In the 1440s, the Venetian Petrus Marcello kidnapped Hajji Ibrahim, a Muslim merchant from Acre who owed him money. Petrus then sailed to Beirut, where he persuaded Ibrahim’s son Hassan and ten other men to come aboard. He sold all twelve men in Rhodes for 5,000 ducats. When this crime was brought to the attention of the Venetian government, he was ordered to find and release them. In 1442 he wrote to his family telling them that seven of the slaves had been taken to Nice and should be sought through the duke and duchess of Burgundy. N. Jorga “Notes et extraits pour servir a l’histoire des croisades au XVe siècle,” ROL 7 (1899): 66-67, 74-75; F.C. Lane, Venice, a Maritime Republic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 287. For a similar incident involving Greek merchants from Salonika, see Irving Raymond and Robert Lopez, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), 317.

Such cases were never easy to investigate, even when — as in the previous case of the Neapolitan Maria — they involved no Muslims:

The distinction between slavery and captivity in these situations was hazy. In theory sale was supposed to mark the transition from captive to slave: captives could be ransomed by their families, their rulers, or by charitable organizations; but those too unimportant or isolated to command a ransom would be sold into permanent slavery. For example, a legal dispute from Genoa in the 1360s over the status of Lucia, a Greek woman captured in the defeat of the city of Recroa or Recrea, turned on the circumstances of her sale.

Barker, a woman, makes a point that many male scholars won’t:

the sources show that women made up the majority of the slave population throughout the Mediterranean. This pattern can be explained in terms of both supply and demand. First, although the Mamluk military class required large numbers of both male and female slaves, there was a strong demand for female slaves among Mamluk civilians which was not matched by a corresponding demand for males. Second, the supply of slaves throughout the medieval period was predominantly female. The primary means of generating slaves was capture in war or in raids. In such contexts, men were more likely to be killed and women were more likely to be taken captive and sold.

Simply put: the fact that Christians didn’t have (legal) harems made a huge difference for both sides. And men were picky: they often requested men of the same ethnic origin as themselves, especially when they descended from (Christian) Europeans:

Mamluk chroniclers and other contemporary observers noticed certain trends in slave origins, the two most notable being the shift from Kipchak Turks to Circassian mamluks at the end of the fourteenth century and the general preference of most sultans and amirs for slaves of the same origin as themselves. These two trends were linked by the suggestion that Barqūq, the first major Circassian sultan, precipitated the shift away from Kipchak Turks by favoring Circassians like himself. A preference for slaves from the same origin was also displayed among the slave women of amir Taghrībirdī. He was Greek in origin and five of his eight ummahāt awlād, the slave mothers of his children, were Greek as well. Little more can be said about the origins of Mamluk slaves except to note which origins appeared frequently and which were rare. By far the most commonly mentioned groups were Circassians, Greeks (rūmī), and Kipchak Turks. Less frequently mentioned but still important were the Tatars, Mongols, Turkmen, Kurds, Armenians, Cypriots, Franks, Indians (hind), and Ethiopians (ḥabashī). China, Russia, Samarqand, and West Africa (takrūrī) were represented by single individuals.

Slave concubines were a Muslim speciality, and fairly common among the upper class:

A private secretary of the sultan (kātib sirr) in Damascus left five slaves to his orphaned children, and the son of a judge (qāḍī) inherited four slaves. The sultan’s chief interpreter, a convert from the Jewish community in Seville, was reported to have four wives who were former slaves and who probably had slaves of their own for personal service. At the high end of the range, ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Qazwīnī had ten slave concubines, and ‘Abd al-Laّṭīf ibn ‘Abd al-Muḥsin al-Subkī boasted that he had gone through more than a thousand.

Once again, there’s a reason why the word “slave” comes from the word “slav”:

Enslavement on a more moderate scale, involving hundreds rather than thousands of captives, was accomplished through raiding. Raids between neighboring powers seem to have been a regular occurrence throughout the Black Sea region. They contributed to the maintenance of military power by keeping soldiers active and rewarding them with the value of whatever they could seize. The Mongols and their Tatar subjects were the most notorious raiders. Al-Qalqashandī claimed regarding the khan of the Golden Horde: “in the power of this kingdom were groups of Circassians and Russians and Alans… he killed their men, and captured their women and children, and sold their slaves to the corners of the earth.”A fifteenth-century Venetian nobleman, Giosafat Barbaro, described the excitement caused by a rumor that nomadic Circassians were camping in a wood about three miles outside the city of Tana. A Tatar merchant incited a group to go out and find them. Although the group managed to kill or capture forty out of one hundred Circassians, the Tatar was not satisfied and spent an hour chasing those who fled before giving up in frustration. The same Venetian nobleman also received a gift of eight Russian slaves from his Mongol friend Edelmulgh, who described them as “part of the booty which I got in Russia.”

The famous Doria family made its name through slave-raids:

The Genoese admiral Paganino Doria raided the coastal town of Sozopol in 1352 and took twenty Greek inhabitants as slaves.

Crusaders were also fond of the business:

Geoffrey de Thoisy, one of the commanders of the Burgundian fleet which was supposed to assist the crusade of Varna on the west coast, instead conducted raids along the east coast to finance his galleys. Among other adventures, he captured about four hundred Tatars near the port of Copa and used five of them to pay for supplies in Trebizond.

Obviously, Muslims weren’t the only ones raiding Russia-Ukraine. But the Venetians and Genoese were among the few Christians who sold Slavs down south. Lithuanians raided Poland and Russia regularly during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but did not sell their slaves in the Black Sea, Barker reports.

Jews were sometimes involved in the slave trade, Barker explains, but it’s hard to say they were more involved than others; in parts of Europe, like much of Spain and France and northern Europe, where slave-buying was uncommon, the fact that some Jews took part in the business surely didn’t improve that community’s reputation:

Claims that Jewish merchants were involved in the Mamluk slave trade appear in Heers, Gênes au XVe siècle, 370; Muḥammad Mukhtar, Bughiyyat al-murīd fī shirāʾ al-jawārī wa-taqlīb al-ʿabīd (Cairo: Muḥammad Mukhtar, 1996), 85 and 99; Naʿīm Zakkī Fahmy, Ṭuruq al-tijārah al-dawliyyah muḥaṭātuhā bayna al-sharq wa-al-gharb (Cairo: HMAK, 1973), 223. There is evidence for Jewish slave traders in the Islamic world in the eighth and ninth centuries: Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 688-693. There is also evidence for the eleventh century: Olivia Remie Constable, “Muslim Spain and Mediterranean Slavery: The Medieval Slave Trade as an Aspect of Muslim-Christian Relations,” in In Christendom and its Discontents, ed. Scott Waugh and Peter Diehl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 268-69, 280. And for the sixteenth century: Mikhail Kizilov, “Slaves, Money Lenders, and Prisoner Guards: The Jews and the Trade in Slaves and Captives in the Crimean Khanate.” Journal of Jewish Studies 58 (2007): 189-210. However, Geniza documents from the Mamluk era show Jews as slave owners rather than slave traders. S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 1:140 and 452n10. In the 4,696 references to slaves that I have collected from Italian sources, I have found more Jewish slaves than Jewish slave owners. The only apparent trader was Abdallah Iudeus, a Jewish man from Catalonia who sold eleven slaves as a lot in Damascus in 1419. ASVe, Can. inf, Not., b.230, N.1, reg. 1, fols. 13r-v.

Also, as Barker notes, at least some of the Spanish Jews and Muslims expelled from the country in 1492 ended up enslaved — enough of them to lead to a dip in slave prices in Genoa in 1493-94.

In “Some remarks on the slave trade in the heart of the Gold Horde (14th century)” (Golden Horde Review, Vol. 5, N. 3, 2017), Lorenzo Pubblici notes that the creation of a structured trading system on the Black Sea coast allowed Genoa and Venice to strengthen their trade relations with the dominant centers of power in the region: the Golden Horde of the Mongols and the Mamluks of Egypt.

The Mamluks we have discussed previously. Regarding the  little-known trade of Black Sea slaves towards the Mongol empire, Pubblice puts the focus on Tanais/Tana (close to the modern Russian city of Rostov), a long-decaying Greek polis on the Sea of Azov. This town became the main passeway for slaves moving east:

In mid-14th century Tana, the buying and selling of slaves was the main business:
more than 50% of all total transactions. Tana was the place where supply and demand met, one of the more abundant zones for buying slaves and an extremely strategic outpost in heart of the Golden Horde, which was the institutional framework of a nomadic society that had become commerce oriented.

An important point is that during this era most slaves crossing Tana, according to Pubblice, were not Slavs, but rather Tatars (75% of those tracked by himself): a description that appears to be used in the era to define anyone living on the steppes who is not Slavic. It was only in the 15th century that Russians became the majority of slaves traded in Tana.




About David Roman

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

1 Response to Notes on the History of Slavery: Slavs, Muslims & the Black Sea

  1. Madeira says:

    From Alan W. Fisher, “Muscovy and the Black Sea Slave Trade”,
    (page 584)

    suggests that at least in some locations Jewish participation seems to have been greater than that of others:

    “In Istanbul, the merchants of slaves were organized into a guild. Without exception they were Jews, and numbered about 2,000. A section of the covered bazaar, still extant today, was allocated to this guild. Buyers came from all parts of the empire and included representatives of the Ottoman
    sultan, the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, and of the Anatolian nobility. Merchants from Western Europe, North Africa, Abyssinia and Iran were there as well. As late as 1678 Polish and Russian slaves were still observed on the galleys of Marseilles”

    Liked by 1 person

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