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Slavery was an important part of Ottoman society[1] until the Ottoman Empire forbade the slavery of Caucasians (including Georgians, Armenians, and Circassians) in the early 19th century.[2]As late as 1908, women slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire.[3] In Istanbul), about one-fifth of the population consisted of slaves.[4] It was Arab traders who started the trans-Saharan slave trade, exporting black slaves from sub-Saharan African countries as far back as AD 1100 and the practice carried over into Ottoman reign. The Ottoman slave could achieve high status. Harem guards and janissaries are some of the better known positions a slave could hold, but slaves actually were at the forefront of Ottoman politics. The majority of officials of the Ottoman government were bought slaves, they were raised free, but they were integral to the success of the Ottomans from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth. By raising and specially training slaves as officials, not only did they get administrators with intricate knowledge of government and fanatic loyalty, but they cut back corruption as an administrator would have no ties in the region, thus he would not favor one person over another when granting contracts.

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Early Ottoman slavery

In the middle of the 14th century, Murad I built his own personal slave army called the Kapıkulu. The new force was based on the sultan's right to a fifth of the war booty, which he interpreted to include captives taken in battle. The captive slaves were converted to Islam and trained in the sultan's personal service. The Devşirme system could be considered a form of slavery, in that the Sultans had absolute power over its members. However, the 'slave' or kul (subject) of the Sultan had high status within Ottoman society, and this group included the highest officers of state and the military elite, all well remunerated.

Ottoman slavery in Eastern Europe

In the devşirme (that has a meaning of "blood tax" or "child collection"), young Christian boys from the Balkans and Anatolia were taken away from their homes and families, converted to Islam and enlisted into special soldier classes of the Ottoman army. These soldier classes were named Janissaries and were the most famous branch of the Kapıkulu. The Janissaries eventually became a decisive factor in the Ottoman invasions of Europe.[5] Most of the military commanders of the Ottoman forces, imperial administrators and de facto rulers of the Ottoman Empire, such as Pargalı İbrahim Pasha and Sokollu Mehmet Paşa, were recruited in this way.[6][7] By 1609 the Sultan's Kapıkulu forces increased to about 100,000.[8]

Rural slavery was largely a Caucasian phenomenon, carried to Anatolia and Rumelia after the Circassian migration in 1864.[9] Conflicts emerged within the immigrant community and the Ottoman Establishment, at times, intervened on the side of the slaves.[10]

For a long time, until the early 18th century Crimean Khanate maintained massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. In a process called "harvesting of the steppe" Crimean Tatars enslaved many Slavic peasants. The Crimean Khanate was undoubtedly one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe; the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia suffered a series of Tatar invasions, the goal of which was to loot, pillage and capture slaves into jasyr.[11] The borderland area to the south-east was in a state of semi-permanent warfare until the 18th century. It is estimated that up to 75% of the Crimean population consisted of slaves or freedmen.[12]

Barbary slave raids

Hundreds of thousands of Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries.[13][14] These slave raids were perpetrated mostly by Arabs and Berbers rather than Ottoman Turks, but during much of the height of the Barbary slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries the Barbary states were subject to Ottoman jurisdiction and ruled by Ottoman pashas; furthermore, many slaves captured by the Barbary corsairs were sold eastward into Ottoman territories before, during, and after Barbary's period of Ottoman rule.

Slaves in the Imperial Harem

The concubines of the Ottoman Sultan consisted chiefly of purchased slaves. Because Islamic law forbade Muslims to enslave fellow Muslims, 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, and at times became effective 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.[15]

The concubines were guarded by enslaved eunuchs, often of African origin. The eunuchs presented another problem, because Islamic law forbade the emasculation of a man. Ethiopian Christians, however, had no such compunctions; and thus they enslaved and emasculated members of neighboring nations, and sold the resulting eunuchs to the Ottoman Porte.[16]

Decline and suppression of Ottoman slavery

Due to the intervention of the European Powers during the 19th century, the Empire began to outlaw the practice, which had been generally considered valid under law, effectively since the beginning of the empire. Policies developed by various Sultans throughout the 19th century attempted to curtail the slave trade.

A series of legal acts was issued that limited the slavery of white people initially, and of those of all races and religions later.

In 1830 a firman of Sultan Mahmud II gave freedom to white slaves. This category included mainly the Circassians, who had the custom of selling their own children, Greeks who revolted against the Empire in 1821, and some others.

Another firman abolishing the trade of Circassian children was issued in October 1854. A firman to the Pasha of Egypt in 1857 and an order to the viziers of various local authorities in the Near East, Greece, Cyprus etc in 1858, prohibited the trade of black slaves but did not order the liberation of already existing slaves.
However, slavery and the slave trade in Ottoman Empire continued, as legal texts like the above were not backed by a penalty system. For the first time, a circular of July 20, 1871 introduced the penalty of one year's imprisonment for those who practised the slave trade.

Eventually, trafficking in slaves was expressly forbidden by utilizing what were effectively clever loopholes in the application of sharia, or Islamic law. For example, by the terms of the sharia, any slaves who were taken could not be kept as slaves if they had been Muslim prior to their capture. They could also not be captured legitimately without a formal declaration of war, which could only be issued by the Sultan. As late Ottoman Sultans, who wished to halt slavery, did not authorize raids for the purpose of capturing slaves, it effectively became illegal to procure any new slaves at all (although those already in slavery would remain slaves), allowing slavery to die a slow and quiet death in the Ottoman lands. [17][18]
Towards the end of the 19th century, the trade of black slaves gradually ceased in places controlled by western powers but continued undercover in places around the Indian Ocean (East Africa, Arabian Peninsula, etc.). Some of this trafficking used areas under Ottoman rule. Britain and the Ottoman Empire, after the former pressed the latter on this matter, signed a treaty in 1880 for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. However, the treaty was only enforced as Ottoman law in 1889.

The Ottoman Empire and sixteen other countries signed the Brussels Conference Act for the suppression of the slave trade in 1890. It seems though that clandestine slavery persisted even in the early 20th century. A circular by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of October 1895 warned the local authorities that in some steam-ships black sailors were being stripped of their “certificates of liberation” and again thrown into slavery. Another circular of the same year reveals that “frequently” some newly freed black slaves were arrested and kept in prison for unfounded accusations and were sometimes forced back to their lords. An instruction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Vali of Bassora of 1897 ordered that the children of liberated slaves should be issued separate certificates of liberation so that (the children) would avoid slavery and separation from their parents. George Young, then Second Secretary of the British Embassy in Constantinople, wrote in his Corpus of Ottoman Law, published in 1905, that by the time the book was written the slave trade in the Ottoman Empire was only practised as contraband. [19]

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