Slavery is not an easy topic to discuss. For most of us, the word conjures up the spectre of the Atlantic slave trade which operated between Africa, the Americas, and Europe and supplied the commodities of the early modern world–sugar, cotton, rum–at a truly unspeakable human cost. Slavery, however, has been practiced by a wide variety of societies since Roman times (if not earlier…), each of which came up with different definitions of what it meant to be a slave.
In the Ottoman Empire, for example, slaves were among the most powerful and trusted men in the realm. Their ascent into power began during the reign of the Ottoman sultan Murad I (1359-1389), who instituted a new corps of soldiers–the Janissaries–to combat the influence of his own military aristocracy, the ghazis. Unlike the ghazis, the Janissaries fought on foot, had no land or property of their own, and served as the personal army of the sultan. They were also unfree, considered the slaves (or kul) of the sultan.
At first, the Janissaries were recruited primarily from prisoners of war, and were expected to show unwavering loyalty to the Ottoman state. In return, they were valued as members of the Sultan’s own family, given the best spoils after victory and promoted to high position based on their merit. This reliance upon slave-soldiers may seem strange to us today, but the Ottomans were preceded in its use by the Mamlukes of Egypt who vested the powers of the state in a caste of high status military slaves. These systems both ensured that the ruling elite had few local ties or loyalties and that competence was rewarded.
Unlike the Mamlukes, however, the Ottomans moved away from a reliance upon the slave-market or warfare for recruitment. Instead they developed a system called the devsirme, a periodic levy of children collected primarily from the European provinces.
These children were usually male, and could be between the ages of 12 and 18. If they were not already Muslim, they were instructed in Islam and forced to convert, after which they were brought to the palace for sorting. Some were given military training and inducted into the Janissaries, others were schooled in politics and administration and taken into government bureaus, while still others served the sultan personally.
Many of the highest positions were reserved exclusively for slaves (kul), including the governance of the provinces or the management of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The wealthiest and most successful might even be given a daughter of a sultan as a wife. These privileges, however, were not heritable. Thus, the incorporation of highly trained and educated slaves into the sultan’s household created an elite marked out by its loyalty, its esprit d’corps, and its meritocratic underpinnings.
Because of these exclusive opportunities, some Muslim communities even asked to be included in the devsirme, hoping that successful recruits would remember their homes favourably later in their career–as some did. Not all communities looked on the practice so positively, however. In a sermon from 1395, for example, Isidore Glabas (the bishop of Thessaloniki) wrote:
“What would a man not suffer were he to see a child, whom he had begotten and raised…carried off by the hands of foreigners, suddenly and by force, and forced to change over to alien customs and to become a vessel of barbaric garb, speech, impiety, and other contaminations, all in a moment?”
His words speak to the darker side of Ottoman slavery, which broke apart families in order to achieve political security. This coercive aspect should not be forgotten or glossed over, but should not be over-emphasised. After all, slavery brought with it privileges inaccessible to the vast majority of Ottoman subjects, both the great and the small, and served as an engine for social mobility in a society otherwise rigorously stratified.