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The role of male African slaves in the Ottoman Empire

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Walpurgis

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Since it is black history month, I'm emphasising Africans even though Ottomans enslaved Europeans as well. I don't mean any offence if you're a European with ancestors who were enslaved by the Ottomans.

An overview of slavery in the Ottoman Empire.
Slavery in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire was a legal and important part of the Ottoman Empire's economy and society until the slavery of Caucasians was banned in the early 19th century, although slaves from other groups were allowed. In Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the administrative and political center of the Empire, about a fifth of the population consisted of slaves in 1609. Even after several measures to ban slavery in the late 19th century, the practice continued largely unabated into the early 20th century. As late as 1908, female slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire. Sexual slavery was a central part of the Ottoman slave system throughout the history of the institution.

A member of the Ottoman slave class, called a kul in Turkish, could achieve high status. Harem guards and janissaries are some of the better known positions a slave could hold, but slaves were actually often at the forefront of Ottoman politics. The majority of officials in the Ottoman government were bought slaves, raised free, and integral to the success of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century into the 19th. Many officials themselves owned a large number of slaves, although the Sultan himself owned by far the largest amount. By raising and specially training slaves as officials in palace schools such as Enderun, the Ottomans created administrators with intricate knowledge of government and fanatic loyalty.

Role of the male African slaves.
The concubines of the Ottoman Sultan consisted chiefly of purchased slaves. The Sultan's concubines were generally of Christian origin. The mother of a Sultan, though technically a slave, received the extremely powerful title of Valide Sultan which raised her to the status of a ruler of the Empire (see Sultanate of Women). One notable example was Kösem Sultan, daughter of a Greek Christian priest, who dominated the Ottoman Empire during the early decades of the 17th century. Roxelana (also known as Hürrem Sultan), another notable example, was the favorite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Castration of male slaves from Africa.
The concubines were guarded by enslaved eunuchs, themselves often from pagan Africa. The eunuchs were headed by the Kizlar Agha ("agha of the [slave] girls"). While Islamic law forbade the emasculation of a man, Ethiopian Christians had no such compunctions; thus, they enslaved and emasculated members of territories to the south and sold the resulting eunuchs to the Ottoman Porte. The Coptic Orthodox Church participated extensively in the slave trade of eunuchs. Coptic priests [graphic:]
sliced the penis and testicles off boys
around the age of eight in a castration operation. The eunuch boys were then sold in the Ottoman Empire. The majority of Ottoman eunuchs endured castration at the hands of the Copts at Abou Gerbe monastery on Mount Ghebel Eter. Slave boys were captured from the African Great Lakes region and other areas in Sudan like Darfur and Kordofan then sold to customers in Egypt. During the operation, the Coptic clergyman [graphic:]
chained the boys to tables and after slicing their sexual organs off, stuck bamboo catheters into the genital area, then submerged them in sand up to their necks.
The recovery rate was 10 percent. The resulting eunuchs fetched large profits in contrast to eunuchs from other areas.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_Ottoman_Empire

Significance of male African slaves in Ottoman Empire politics.
In the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs were typically slaves imported from outside their domains. A fair proportion of male slaves were imported as eunuchs.

The Ottoman court harem—within the Topkapı Palace (1465–1853) and later the Dolmabahçe Palace (1853–1909) in Istanbul—was under the administration of the eunuchs. These were of two categories: Black Eunuchs and White Eunuchs. Black Eunuchs were Africans who served the concubines and officials in the Harem together with chamber maidens of low rank. The White Eunuchs were Europeans from the Balkans. They served the recruits at the Palace School and were from 1582 prohibited from entering the Harem. An important figure in the Ottoman court was the Chief Black Eunuch (Kızlar Ağası or Dar al-Saada Ağası). In control of both the Harem and a net of spies in the Black Eunuchs, the Chief Eunuch was involved in almost every palace intrigue and could thereby gain power over either the sultan or one of his viziers, ministers, or other court officials. One of the most powerful Chief Eunuchs was Beshir Agha in the 1730s, who played a crucial role in establishing the Ottoman version of Hanafi Islam throughout the Empire by founding libraries and schools.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eunuch#Ottoman_Empire

18th century Kizlar Agha (aka Chief Black Eunuch). Probably Beshir Agha.

Recruitment and advancement of male African slaves.
Black slaves, usually purchased as boys from Nubia, then castrated and inducted into the palace service, had begun to be employed as the guards of the women of the Sultan's harem since the time of Murad III's predecessor, Selim II (r. 1566–1574), and continued to do so until the Ottoman Empire's end. The eunuchs usually received flower names, and after a period of training in the palace school, they entered service in the harem. The eunuchs began at the post of ordinary recruit (en aşağı, literally "the lowest", and acemi ağa, "the untrained"), and gradually advanced through the ranks, from nevbet kalfa ("watch substitute") to senior posts in the guard of the harem. Having completed their training and after a period of service, some were detached from guard duties and transferred to the attendance of the inhabitants of the harem: the Sultan's personal attendants (müsahip ağaları), the seven eunuch servants plus a head eunuch (baş ağa) attached to each valide, principal wife (kadın), or prince (şehzade), the eunuch imams who led harem prayers, the harem's treasurer (haznedar ağası), or the müsendereci, who supervised the work of the other eunuchs. The senior-most eunuchs were known as hasıllı, from an Arabic word meaning "product".
From these senior posts a eunuch could be selected and appointed to the post of Kizlar Agha by imperial decree (hatt-ı hümayun) and the ceremonial receipt of a robe of office (hil'at) from the Sultan. Alongside the lands belonging to the office, the Kizlar Agha usually received a personal fief (hass). In the Topkapi Palace, the Kizlar Agha had his own spacious apartment near the Aviary Gate, while the other eunuchs under his supervision lived together in cramped and rather squalid conditions in a three-storey barracks. When they were dismissed, the Chief Black Eunuchs received a pension (asatlık, literally "document of liberty") and from 1644 on were exiled to Egypt or the Hejaz. As a result, serving Kizlar Aghas often took care to prepare for a comfortable retirement in Egypt by buying property and establishing vakifs of their own there. Thus they became local grandees and played an important role in patronizing trade and agriculture. In addition, given the important role Egypt played in the provisioning of the two holy cities, for which the Kizlar Aghas were particularly responsible while in office, the aghas and their agents (wakils) came to play a very important role in the economy of Egypt under Ottoman rule.

History of the Kizlar Agha.
The post of the Kizlar Agha was created in the reign of Murad III (ruled 1574–1595) in 1574, with the Ethiopian Mehmed Agha as its first occupant. Until then, the Ottoman palace had been dominated by the white eunuchs, chiefly drawn from the Christian populations of the Balkans or the Caucasus. The 16th century, however, saw a rapid rise of the population of the Topkapi Palace, including among eunuchs, whose numbers rose from 40 under Selim (r. 1512–1520) to over a thousand under Murad III. While black eunuchs had served alongside white eunuchs in the palace, by 1592, for reasons that are unclear, both a separation of roles as well as the ascendancy of the black eunuchs over the white ones had become established: white eunuchs were restricted to the supervision of the male pages (içoğlan), while black eunuchs took over the far more prestigious supervision of the private apartments of the Sultan and the palace women (harem). Consequently the Chief Black Eunuch quickly eclipsed the "Chief White Eunuch" or Kapi Agha (kapı ağası, "Agha of the Gate"), who had hitherto been the head of the palace personnel, and rose to become, in the words of the Orientalist C. E. Bosworth, "in practice the principal officer of the whole palace". At the height of the post's power in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Kizlar Agha was a vizier of the first rank ("with three horsetails") and came third in the state hierarchy, next only to the Empire's chief minister, the Grand Vizier, and the chief religious authority, the Sheikh ul-Islam.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kizlar_Agha

The chief black eunuch in the Imperial Harem in 1912.

TL;DR: Slaves in the Ottoman Empire were generally treated like objects as you would expect. However, some few male African slaves actually had a path to power and were given prestigious roles in the Ottoman court. They were actually above European slaves in social status, contrary to what you might expect, and were all castrated through a brutal process where only 10% survived. Because of their lack of male genitalia and perceived lack of temptation/desire, African eunuch slaves were entrusted with important positions in the Sultan's harem. The Kizlar Agha (chief Black Eunuch) was responsible for the queen-mother (basically, Cersei in GoT) so he could become their friend or manipulate them, etc. Through this position, some male African slaves had a significant effect in the politics of the Ottoman Empire and were of the 3rd highest position (think Lord Varys in GoT, spies and all, but much stronger). They knew of everything that happened in the court and their powers even extended outside the empire into Egypt.

I found out about this last week and thought it was incredibly fascinating, especially how the male African slaves were not really discriminated against for being African (at least from what I've read), rather, it was actually the opposite. It's a very interesting contrast to the Atlantic slave trade in western Europe and the colonies where Africans were hated for their skin colour. Despite horrible treatment and abuse by their masters, especially early on, the ones that persevered had special positions reserved for them where they could flourish and attain high ranks in the Ottoman Empire so I made this thread to highlight what they went through and their contributions.

Because they were nearly all castrated, there are not many descendants of African slaves in Turkey, unfortunately.
I assume the few that do exist are descended from female sex slaves. You can read this short Wikipedia article about them here.
 

double jump

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Still reading but good stuff. Please keep the knowledge flowing.
I read and it's not good.
 

Walpurgis

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Yeah, I'm actually descended from European Ottoman slaves, ascended to Jannissarihood. It was called Devsirme. I'm not really offended though.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devşirme

edit: Don't mean to hijack, just wanna say I find this fascinating.

No need to apologise. I actually didn't expect anyone on GAF to be descended from European Ottoman slaves so that's actually really cool (in the sense that there are people from all kinds of backgrounds on here). I'm still reading through that Wikipedia article but I found it interesting how the Devşirme were sent to one of four institutions, the Palace, the Scribes, the Religious and the Military. Those that were sent to the palace were able to attain the 2nd highest position of the empire, the Grand Vizier, the Sultan's immensely powerful chief minister and military deputy. In the Kizlar Agha wikipedia article, it said that, at one point, the Grand Vizier actually got into a conflict with the Kizlar Agha because the Kizlar Agha had more influence over the Sultan. In the end, the Kizlar Agha somehow arranged for the Grand Vizier to be dismissed.
 

marzlapin

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What was the point of the bamboo/sand thing?

I'm guessing the bamboo was to make sure the tissues healed around it and formed a fistula so the victim could still urinate afterward. No idea about the sand, maybe it was just absorbent and kept pressure on the wound? Judging by the recovery rate it does not sound particularly effective.

Really interesting stuff, OP. I never knew about any of this aside from the GoT connection.
 

CrazyDude

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Interesting stuff, don't know much about the internal working of the Ottoman Empire, so this stuff is pretty neat to read about. I'm Hungarian, so all I really know about the Ottomans is that they occupied the country for about 156 year causing population to decline and stagnate due to constant war with Austria.

Castration sounds like hell, just thinking about it make my spine shiver. It's interesting how slave, black and white, in the Ottoman Empire managed to get so much power. I wonder if this kind of thing was unique to them or not.
 

Walpurgis

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Interesting stuff, don't know much about the internal working of the Ottoman Empire, so this stuff is pretty neat to read about. I'm Hungarian, so all I really know about the Ottomans is that they occupied the country for about 156 year causing population to decline and stagnate due to constant war with Austria.

Castration sounds like hell, just thinking about it make my spine shiver.

It was unfortunately pretty widespread around the world back in the day. The earliest record of a intentional castration was in 2100 BCE Sumer. It's such a horrible thing. The fact that humans can independently think up something so cruel is proof that we are inherently cruel.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eunuch
Warning, there is a nude photo of an eunuch in the Korea section.
 

Walpurgis

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It's interesting how slave, black and white, in the Ottoman Empire managed to get so much power. I wonder if this kind of thing was unique to them or not.

That's the other thing that I am struggling to wrap my mind around, the role of slavery in the Ottoman Empire. I just can't understand it. The 2nd and 3rd highest positions were filled by slaves. I think it's because the Sultan was afraid of losing power to the other nobles so he employed people with no ties and eunuchs with no desires that were completely loyal to him. I guess that's logical but it's so different from the idea of slavery that I am used to.
 

CrazyDude

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That's the other thing that I am struggling to wrap my mind around, the role of slavery in the Ottoman Empire. I just can't understand it. The 2nd and 3rd highest positions were filled by slaves. I think it's because the Sultan was afraid of losing power to the other nobles so he employed people with no ties and eunuchs with no desires that were completely loyal to him. I guess that's logical but it's so different from the idea of slavery that I am used to.

It's kind like if back before the Civil War era Thomas Jefferson ran with one of his slaves being vice president or secretary of state.
 

Xenus

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Role of the male African slaves.

The concubines of the Ottoman Sultan consisted chiefly of purchased slaves. The Sultan's concubines were generally of Christian origin. The mother of a Sultan, though technically a slave, received the extremely powerful title of Valide Sultan which raised her to the status of a ruler of the Empire (see Sultanate of Women). One notable example was Kösem Sultan, daughter of a Greek Christian priest, who dominated the Ottoman Empire during the early decades of the 17th century. Roxelana (also known as Hürrem Sultan), another notable example, was the favorite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Isn't this technically about female slaves and not male slaves unless I'm missing something tin this paragraph?
 

Walpurgis

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Isn't this technically about female slaves and not male slaves unless I'm missing something tin this paragraph?

Since the concubines are central to the role of male African slaves in the Ottoman Empire, I included that bit about them.

edit: Oh, I see. I guess the title is a little weird then.
 
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The Janissaries were drawn initially form Greek and Albanian populations, but later extended to other European Christians too. Do we have any records of African Christians being pressed into service in the same way?
 

nynt9

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The Janissaries were drawn initially form Greek and Albanian populations, but later extended to other European Christians too. Do we have any records of African Christians being pressed into service in the same way?

From the wiki on Devsirme, the process with which those people were selected:

The devşirme were collected once every four or five years from rural provinces in Balkans, and with a few exceptions, only from non-Muslims. The devşirme levy was not applied to the major cities of the empire, and children of local craftsmen in rural towns were also exempt, as it was considered that conscripting them would harm the economy.[34]

According to Bernard Lewis, the Janissaries were mainly recruited from the "Slavic and Albanian populations of the Balkans".[35] According to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Encyclopaedia of Islam, in the early days of the empire all Christians were enrolled indiscriminately. Later, those from Albania, Greece, Bosnia, and Bulgaria were preferred.[36] What is certain is that devşirme were primarily recruited from Christians living in the Balkans, particularly Albanians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Slavs. However, Bosnian Muslims were also recruited and sent directly to serve in the Palace (rather than the military), under groups called "potor".[34][37] Well known examples of Ottomans who had been recruited as devşirme include Skanderbeg, Sinan Pasha and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha.[citation needed] The early Ottoman emphasis on recruiting Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians and south Slavs was a direct consequence of being centred on territories, in northwestern Anatolia and the southern Balkans, where these ethnic groups were prevalent.[38]

Jews were exempt from this service and until recently Armenians were thought to have also been exempt.[39][40] However, Armenian manuscript colophons from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and foreign travelers of the time indicate that Armenians were not spared from the devşirme.[41][42]

Devsirme ended around 1630, I'm not sure if Ottoman territories in Africa prior to that contained a lot of Christians.
 

zer0das

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Kind of surprised the Ethiopians provided slaves to the Ottomans... I would have figured they would be hostile to each other, by and large.
 

Umibozu

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Kind of surprised the Ethiopians provided slaves to the Ottomans... I would have figured they would be hostile to each other, by and large.
After I learned how some Africans who defeated their rival tribes would take them and sell them to slave merchants and the slaves ended up in the colonies/west, makes me not as surprised by the Ethiopians behaviour with the Ottomans.
 

Valhelm

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I cant tell if better or worse than how Europeans treated Africans

Then again, European colonialism and imperialism....gut says worse.

Ottoman imperialism wasn't any less aggressive or destructive than Western imperialism, but all Ottoman slaves (even those kidnapped from Africa) had much more power than their American counterparts. Ottoman slavery followed the "Mediterranean" model practiced by many societies over the past several thousand years, which meant that a person could attain a pretty high rank despite being unfree. Ottoman slaves would often be subject to abuse comparable to that suffered by American slaves, but they could much more easily rise to a more preferable standing, and their children were generally born free.
 

Necromanti

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I cant tell if better or worse than how Europeans treated Africans

Then again, European colonialism and imperialism....gut says worse.
If history is any indication, enslaving and conquering--such as in the case of the Mongols ransacking multiple cities and massacring Muslims and Christians, as an example--seem to be repugnant no matter who happens to be perpetrating it at the time.
 

Walpurgis

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After I learned how some Africans who defeated their rival tribes would take them and sell them to slave merchants and the slaves ended up in the colonies/west, makes me not as surprised by the Ethiopians behaviour with the Ottomans.

I think we're looking at it the wrong way. Today we look back at that and are aghast at how Africans could betray their fellow Africans and sell them into slavery, especially considering what happened in the U.S.. However, back then, there weren't all these racial discussions that we are having today and the information that we have wasn't available to them (e.g. Scramble for Africa). I don't even know if they had a concept of race. It's possible that to them, random African tribes and Ottomans were the same (i.e. both different), the difference being the Ottomans were very wealthy.

As a Somali, I'm pretty certain that my ancestors sold Bantu slaves to Arabs and kept some for themselves. This is because Bantu were looked down up for their appearance and pagan religions. Going by the Wikipedia article, many of the African slaves in the Ottoman Empire were Bantu so the Ethiopians may have simply been racist to them in the same way that Somalis were.
It struck me as curious you'd use GoT characters instead of real life examples as comparisons in political power.

Very interesting topic though

What real life examples do you have in mind? GoT is the most well known example that I could think of. :p
 

G.ZZZ

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Interesting stuff, don't know much about the internal working of the Ottoman Empire, so this stuff is pretty neat to read about. I'm Hungarian, so all I really know about the Ottomans is that they occupied the country for about 156 year causing population to decline and stagnate due to constant war with Austria.

Castration sounds like hell, just thinking about it make my spine shiver. It's interesting how slave, black and white, in the Ottoman Empire managed to get so much power. I wonder if this kind of thing was unique to them or not.

Eunuchs having important positions of power wasn't a phenomenon only in the Ottoman Empire, the Chinese Empire did it too, and probably did it much earlier , at least as early as 1400 iirc.

Africans eunuchs being trusted more was ironically because of all the european infighting at the time, africans were seen as more "pure" and not as corrupted by society, so more trustable.
 

Walpurgis

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Eunuchs having important positions of power wasn't a phenomenon in the Ottoman Empire, the Chinese Empire did it too, and probably did it much earlier , at least as early as 1400 iirc.

Africans eunuchs being trusted more was ironically because of all the european infighting at the time, africans were seen as more "pure" and not as corrupted by society, so more trustable.
There also less beef between them. Since the Ottomans were expanding into Europe, there was a resentment towards the groups that fought back. The African eunuchs arrived as children with no ties so they were like babies in a sense. And the sultan was their father.
 

G.ZZZ

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There also less beef between them. Since the Ottomans were expanding into Europe, there was a resentment towards the groups that fought back. The African eunuchs arrived as children with no ties so they were like babies in a sense. And the sultan was their father.

Yeah that why i was saying "european infighting". In my mind the ottoman empire is at least as much european as it is anything else.
 

boiled goose

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Fascinating and Disturbing.

Interesting that black eunochs were superior to white ones.

Interesting that islam forbid castration but Christians did not.
 

Cimarron

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Reminds me of the Seanchan in the Wheel of Time. If you had to be a slave I guess actually having significant power would be nice. Minus the brutal castration of course.
 

SilentMatthew

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Thanks for the info. I knew that the Ottoman had a slave/eunuch-bureaucracy, but had no idea that African eunuchs held more political power than white eunuchs.

Such a disturbing way to curb siphoning of power to the nobility as seen in the feudal systems of the time. Though having a decentralized government (feudal) can be disastrous. One example of that being the Kingdom of France during the Hundred Years War where her vassals defected or refuse to fight England. Not surprising France adopted Absolute Monarchy as a system of government laid down by her First Ministers soon after.
 
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