Main SourcebooksAncientMedievalModern

Subsidiary SourcebooksAfricanEast AsianGlobalIndianJewishIslamicLesbian/GayScienceWomen

About IHSP Help Page IHSP Credits

Internet Medieval Sourcebook

Bernard Lewis:

Race and Slavery in the Middle EastAuthor (1994)

Bernard Lewis. Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford Univ Press 1994.

Chapter. 1 Slavery
In 1842 the British Consul General in Morocco, as part of his government's worldwide endeavor to bring about the abolition of slavery or at least the curtailment of the slave trade, made representations to the sultan of that country asking him what measures, if any, he had taken to accomplish this desirable objective. The sultan replied, in a letter expressing evident astonishment, that "the traffic in slaves is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam . . . up to this day." The sultan continued that he was "not aware of its being prohibited by the laws of any sect, and no one need ask this question, the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day.''

The sultan was only slightly out of date concerning the enactment of laws to abolish or limit the slave trade, and he was sadly right in his general historic perspective. The institution of slavery had indeed been practiced from time immemorial. It existed in all the ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe, and pre-Columbian America. It had been accepted and even endorsed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as other religions of the world.

In the ancient Middle East, as elsewhere, slavery is attested from the very earliest written records, among the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and other ancient peoples. The earliest slaves, it would seem, were captives taken in warfare. Their numbers were augmented from other sources of supply. In pre-classical antiquity, most slaves appear to have been the property of kings, priests, and temples, and only a relatively small proportion were in private possession. They were employed to till the fields and tend the flocks of their royal and priestly masters but otherwise seem to have played little role in economic production, which was mostly left to small farmers, tenants, and sharccroppers and to artisans and journeymen. The slave population was also recruited by the sale, abandonment, or kidnapping of small children. Free persons could sell themselves or, more frequently, their offspring into slavery. They could be enslaved for insolvency, as could be the persons offered by them as pledges. In some systems, notably that of Rome, free persons could also be enslaved for a variety of offenses against the law.

Both the Old and New Testaments recognize and accept the institution of slavery. Both from time to time insist on the basic humanity of the slave, and the consequent need to treat him humanely. The Jews are frequently reminded, in both Bible and Talmud, that they too were slaves in Egypt and should therefore treat their slaves decently. Psalm 123, which compares the worshipper's appeal to God for mercy with the slave's appeal to his master, is cited to enjoin slaveowners to treat their slaves with compassion. A verse in the book of Job has even been interpreted as an argument against slavery as such: "Did not He that made me in the womb make him [the slave]? And did not One fashion us both?" (Job 31:15). This probably means no more, however, than that the slave is a fellow human being and not a mere chattel. The same is true of the much-quoted passage in the New Testament, that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." These and similar verses were not understood to mean that ethnic, social, and gender differences were unimportant or should be abolished, only that they conferred no religious privilege. From many allusions, it is clear that slavery is accepted in the New Testament as a fact of life. Some passages in the Pauline Epistles even endorse it. Thus in the Epistle to Philemon, a runaway slave is returned to his master; in Ephesians 6, the duty owed by a slave to his master is compared with the duty owed by a child to his parent, and the slave is enjoined "to be obedient to them that are your masters, according to the flesh, in fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ." Parents and masters are likewise enjoined to show consideration for their children and slaves. All humans, of the true faith, were equal in the eyes of God and in the afterlife but not necessarily in the laws of man and in this world. Those not of the true faith -- whichever it was -- were in another, and in most respects an inferior, category. In this respect, the Greek perception of the barbarian and the Judeo-Christian-lslamic perception of the unbeliever coincide.

There appear indeed to have been some who opposed slavery, usually as it was practiced but sometimes even as such. In the Greco-Roman world, both the Cynics and the Stoics are said to have rejected slavery as contrary to justice, some basing their opposition on the unity of the human race, and the Roman jurists even held that slavery was contrary to nature and maintained only by "human" law. There is no evidence that either jurists or philosophers sought its abolition, and even their theoretical opposition has been questioned. Much of it was concerned with moral and spiritual themes -- the true freedom of the good man, even when enslaved, and the enslavement of the evil freeman to his passions. These ideas, which recur in Jewish and Christian writings, were of little help to those who suffered the reality of slavery. Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, claims that a Jewish sect actually renounced slavery in practice. In a somewhat idealized account of the Essenes, he observes that they practiced a form of primitive communism, sharing homes and property and pooling their earnings. Furthermore,

"not a single slave is to be found among them, but all are free, exchanging services with each other, and they denounce the owners of slaves, not merely for their injustice in outraging the law of equality, but also for their impiety in annulling the statute of Nature, who mother-like bore and reared all men alike, and created them genuine brothers, not in mere name, but in very reality, though this kinship has been put to confusion by the triumph of malignant covetousness, which has wrought estrangement instead of affinity and enmity instead of friendship. "

This view, if it was indeed held and put into practice, was unique in the ancient Middle East. Jews, Christians, and pagans alike owned slaves and exercised the rights and powers accorded to them by their various religious laws. In all communities, there were men of compassion who urged slaveowners to treat their slaves humanely, and there was even some attempt to secure this by law. But the institution of slavery as such was not seriously questioned, and was indeed often defended in terms of either Natural Law or Divine Dispensation. Thus Aristotle defends the condition of slavery and even the forcible enslavement of those who are "by nature slaves, for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is beneficial"; other Greek philosophers express similar ideas, particularly about enslaved captives from conquered peoples. For such, slavery is not only right; it is also to their advantage.

The ancient Israelites did not claim that slavery was beneficial to the slaves, but, like the ancient Greeks, they felt the need to explain and justify the enslavement of their neighbors. In this, as in other matters, they sought a religious rather than a philosophical sanction and found it in the biblical story of the curse of Ham. Significantly, this curse was restricted to one line only of the descendants of Ham, namely, the children of Canaan, whom the Israelites had subjugated when they conquered the Promised Land, and did not affect the others.

The Qur'an, like the Old and the New Testaments, assumes the existence of slavery. It regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it. The Prophet Muhammad and those of his Companions who could afford it themselves owned slaves; some of them acquired more by conquest. But Qur'anic legislation, subsequently confirmed and elaborated in the Holy Law, brought two major changes to ancient slavery which were to have far-reaching effects. One of these was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances .

The Qur'an was promulgated in Mecca and Medina in the seventh century, and the background against which Qur'anic legislation must be seen is ancient Arabia. The Arabs practiced a form of slavery, similar to that which existed in other parts of the ancient world. The Qur'an accepts the institution, though it may be noted that the word 'abd (slave) is rarely used, being more commonly replaced by some periphrasis such as ma malakat aymanukum, "that which your right hands own." The Qur'an recognizes the basic inequality between master and slave and the rights of the former over the latter (XVI:71; XXX:28). It also recognizes concubinage (IV:3; XXIII:6; XXXIII:50-52; LXX:30). It urges, without actually commanding, kindness to the slave (IV:36; IX:60; XXIV:58) and recommends, without requiring, his liberation by purchase or manumission. The freeing of slaves is recommended both for the expiation of sins (IV:92; V:92; LVIII:3) and as an act of simple benevolence (II:177; XXIV:33; XC:13). It exhorts masters to allow slaves to earn or purchase their own freedom. An important change from pagan, though not from Jewish or Christian, practices is that in the strictly religious sense, the believing slave is now the brother of the freeman in Islam and before God, and the superior of the free pagan or idolator (II:221). This point is emphasized and elaborated in innumerable hadlths (traditions), in which the Prophet is quoted as urging considerate and sometimes even equal treatment for slaves, denouncing cruelty, harshness, or even discourtesy, recommending the liberation of slaves, and reminding the Muslims that his apostolate was to free and slave alike.

Though slavery was maintained, the Islamic dispensation enormously improved the position of the Arabian slave, who was now no longer merely a chattel but was also a human being with a certain religious and hence a social status and with certain quasi-legal rights. The early caliphs who ruled the Islamic community after the death of the Prophet also introduced some further reforms of a humanitarian tendency. The enslavement of free Muslims was soon discouraged and eventually prohibited. It was made unlawful for a freeman to sell himself or his children into slavery, and it was no longer permitted for freemen to be enslaved for either debt or crime, as was usual in the Roman world and, despite attempts at reform, in parts of Christian Europe until at least the sixteenth century. It became a fundamental principle of Islamic jurisprudence that the natural condition, and therefore the presumed status, of mankind was freedom, just as the basic rule concerning actions is permittedness: what is not expressly forbidden is permitted; whoever is not known to be a slave is free. This rule was not always strictly observed. Rebels and heretics were sometimes denounced as infidels or, worse, apostates, and reduced to slavery, as were the victims of some Muslim rulers in Africa, who proclaimed jihad against their neighbors, without looking closely at their religious beliefs, so as to provide legal cover for their enslavement. But by and large, and certainly in the central lands of Islam, under regimes of high civilization, the rule was honored, and free subjects of the state, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, were protected from unlawful enslavement.

Since all human beings were naturally free, slavery could only arise from two circumstances: (1) being born to slave parents or (2) being captured in war. The latter was soon restricted to infidels captured in a jihad.

These reforms seriously limited the supply of new slaves. Abandoned and unclaimed children could no longer be adopted as slaves, as was a common practice in antiquity, and free persons could no longer be enslaved. Under Islamic law, the slave population could only be recruited, in addition to birth and capture, by importation, the last either by purchase or in the form of tribute from beyond the Islamic frontiers. In the early days of rapid conquest and expansion, the holy war brought a plentiful supply of new slaves, but as the frontiers were gradually stabilized, this supply dwindled to a mere trickle. Most wars were now conducted against organized armies, like those of the Byzantines or other Christian states, and with them prisoners of war were commonly ransomed or exchanged. Within the Islamic frontiers, Islam spread rapidly among the populations of the newly acquired territories, and even those who remained faithful to their old religions and lived as protected persons (dhimmis) under Muslim rule could not, if free, be legally enslaved unless they had violated the terms of the dhimma, the contract governing their status, as for example by rebelling against Muslim rule or helping the enemies of the Muslim state or, according to some authorities, by withholding pa'yment of the Kharaj or the Jizya, the taxes due from dhimmls to the Muslim state.

In the Islamic empire, the humanitarian tendency of the Qur'an and the early caliphs was to some extent counteracted by other influences. Notable among these was the practice of the various conquered peoples and countries which the Muslims encountered after their expansion, especially in provinces previously under Roman law. This law, even in its Christianized form, was still very harsh in its treatment of slaves. Perhaps equally important was the huge increase in the slave population resulting first from the conquests themselves, and then from the organization of a great network of importation. These led to a fall in the cash value and hence the human value of slaves, and to a general adoption of a harsher tone and severer rules. But even after this stiffening of attitudes and laws, Islamic practice still represented a vast improvement on that inherited from antiquity, from Rome, and from Byzantium.

Slaves were excluded from religious functions or from any office involving jurisdiction over others. Their testimony was not admitted at judicial proceedings. In penal law, the penalty for an offense against a person, a fine or bloodwit, was, for a slave, half of that for a freeman. While maltreatment was deplored, there was no fixed shari'a penalty. In what might be called civil matters, the slave was a chattel with no legal powers or rights whatsoever. He could not enter into a contract, hold property, or inherit. If he incurred a fine, his owner was responsible. He was, however, distinctly better off, in the matter of rights, than a Greek or Roman slave, since Islamic jurists, and not only philosophers and moralists, took account of humanitarian considerations. They laid down, for example, that a master must give his slave medical attention when required, must give him adequate upkeep, and must support him in his old age. If a master defaulted on these and other obligations to his slave, the qadi could compel him to fulfill them or else either to sell or to emancipate the slave. The master was forbidden to overwork his slave, and if he did so to the point of cruelty, he was liable to a penalty which was, however, discretionary and not prescribed by law. A slave could enter into a contract to earn his freedom, in which case his master had no obliation to pay for his upkeep. While in theory the slave could not own property, he could be granted certain rights of ownership for which he paid a fixed sum to his master.

A slave could marry, but only by consent of the master. Theoretically, a male slave could marry a free woman, but this was discouraged and in practice prohibited. A master could not marry his own slave woman unless he first freed her. Islamic law provides a number of ways in which a slave could be set free. One was manumission, accomplished by a formal declaration on the part of the master and recorded in a certificate which was given to the liberated slave. The manumission of a slave included the offspring of that slave, and the jurists specify that if there is any uncertainty about an act of manumission, the slave has the benefit of the doubt. Another method is a written agreement by which the master grants liberty in return for a fixed sum. Once such an agreement has been concluded, the master no longer has the right to dispose of his slave, whether by sale or gift. The slave is still subject to certain legal disabilities, but in most respects is virtually free. Such an agreement, once entered into, may be terminated by the slave but not by the master. Children born to the slave after the entry into force of the contract are born free. The master may bind himself to liberate a slave at some specified future time. He may also bind his heirs to liberate a slave after his death. The law schools differ somewhat on the rules regarding this kind of liberation.

In addition to all these, which depend on the will of the master, there are various legal causes which may lead to liberation, independently of the will of the master. The commonest is a legal judgment by a qadi ordering a master to emancipate a slave whom he has maltreated. A special case is that of the umm walad, a slave woman who bears a son to her master, and thereby acquires certain irrevocable legal rights.

Non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state, that is, dhimmis, were in practice allowed to own slaves; and Christian and Jewish families who could afford it owned and employed slaves in the same way as their Muslim counterparts. They were not permitted to own Muslim slaves; and if a slave owned by a dhimmi embraced Islam, his owner was legally obliged to free or sell him. Jews and Christians were of course not permitted to have Muslim concubines, and were indeed usually debarred by their own religious authorities -- not always effectively -- from sexual access to their slaves. Jewish slaves, acquired through privateering in the Mediterranean and slave raiding in Eastern Europe, were often redeemed and set free by their local co-religionists. The vastly more numerous Christian slaves -- apart from West Europeans, whose ransoms could be arranged from home -- were for the most part doomed to remain. Sometimes, Christian and Jewish slaveowners tried to convert their domestic slaves to their own religions. Jews were indeed required by rabbinic law to try to persuade their slaves to accept conversion with circumcision and ritual immersion. A form of semi-conversion, whereby the slave accepted some basic commandments and observances, but not the full rigor of the Mosaic law, was widely practiced. According to Jewish law, a converted or even semi-converted slave could not be sold to a Gentile. If the owner in fact so sold him or her, the slave was to be set free. Conversely, a slave who refused even semi-conversion was, after a stipulated interval of time, to be sold to a Gentile. Muslim authorities, both jurists and rulers, took different views of this. Conversion from Islam was of course a capital offense, and some jurists held that only conversion to Islam was lawful. Others, however, saw no objection to conversion between non-Muslim religions, provided that the converted slaves had reached the age of reason and changed their religion of their own free will.

Though a free Muslim could not be enslaved, conversion to Islam by a non-Muslim slave did not require his liberation. His slave status was not affected by his Islam, nor was that of a Muslim child born to slave parents.

There were occasional slave rebellions and, from the rules and regulations about runaway slaves, it would appear that such escapes were not infrequent. Slaves from neighboring countries might have some chance of returning to their homes, and examples are known of European slaves in the Ottoman lands escaping to Europe, where some indeed wrote memoirs or accounts of their captivity. The chances of a slave from the steppe-lands or from Africa finding his way back were remote.

As we have seen, the slave population was recruited in four main ways: by capture, tribute, offspring, and purchase.

Capture: In the early centuries of Islam, during the period of the conquest and expansion, this was the most important source. With the stabilization of the frontier, the numbers recruited in this way diminished, and eventually provided only a very small proportion of slave requirements. Frontier warfare and naval raiding yielded some captives, but these were relatively few and were usually exchanged. In later centuries, warfare in Africa or India supplied some slaves by capture. With the spread of Islam, and the acceptance of dhimml status by increasing numbers of non-Muslims, the possibilities for recruitment by capture were severely restricted.

Tribute: Slaves sometimes formed part of the tribute required from vassal states beyond the Islamic frontiers. The first such treaty ever made, that of the year 31 of the Hijra (= 652 A.D.), with the black king of Nubia, included an annual levy of slaves to be provided from Nubia. This may indeed have been the reason why Nuhia was for a long time not conquered. The stipulated delivery of some hundreds of male and female slaves, later supplemented by elephants, giraffes, and other wild beasts, continued at least until the twelfth century, when it was disrupted by a series of bitter wars between the Muslim rulers of Egypt and the Christian kings of Nubia. Similar agreements, providing for the delivery of a tribute of slaves, were imposed by the early Arab conquerors on neighboring princes in Iran and Central Asia, but were of briefer duration.

Offspring: The recruitment of the slave population by natural increase seems to have been small and, right through to modern times, insufficient to maintain numbers. This is in striking contrast with conditions in the New World, where the slave population increased very rapidly. Several factors contributed to this difference, perhaps the most important being that the slave population in the Islamic Middle East was constantly drained by the liberation of slaves -- sometimes as an act of piety, most commonly through the recognition and liberation, by a freeman, of his own offspring by a slave mother. There were also other reasons for the low natural increase of the slave population in the Islamic world. They include

  • 1. Castration. A fair proportion of male slaves were imported as eunuchs and thus precluded from having offspring. Among these were many who otherwise, by the wealth and power which they acquired, might have founded families .
  • 2. Another group of slaves who rose to positions of great power, the military slaves, were normally liberated at some stage in their career, and their offspring were therefore free and not slaves.
  • 3. In general, only the lower orders of slaves -- menial, domestic, and manual workers -- remained in the condition of servitude and transmitted that condition to their descendants. There were not many such descendants -- casual mating was not permitted and marriage was not encouraged.
  • 4. There was a high death toll among all classes of slaves, including great military commanders as well as humble menials. Slaves came mainly from remote places, and, lacking immunities, died in large numbers from endemic as well as epidemic diseases. As late as the nineteenth century, Wes ern travelers in North Africa and Egypt noted the high death rate among imported black slaves.

Purchase: This came to be by far the most important means for the legal acquisition of new slaves. Slaves were purchased on the frontiers of the Islamic world and then imported to the major centers, where there were slave markets from which they were widely distributed. In one of the sad paradoxes of human history, it was the humanitarian reforms brought by Islam that resulted in a vast development of the slave trade inside, and still more outside, the Islamic empire. In the Roman world, the slave population was occasionally recruited from outside, when a new territory was conquered or a barbarian invasion repelled, but mostly, slaves came from internal sources. This was not possible in the Islamic empire, where, although slavery was maintained, enslavement was banned. The result was an increasingly massive importation of slaves from the outside. Like enslavement, mutilation was forbidden by Islamic law. The great numbers of eunuchs needed to preserve the sanctity of palaces, homes, and some holy places had to be imported from outside or, as often happened, "manufactured" at the frontier. In medieval and Ottoman times the two main sources of eunuchs were Slavs and Ethiopians (Habash, a term which commonly included all the peoples of the Horn of Africa). Eunuchs were also recruited among Greeks (Rum), West Africans (Takrurl, pl. Takarina), Indians, and occasionally West Europeans.

The slave population of the Islamic world was recruited from many lands. In the earliest days, slaves came principally from the newly conquered countries -- from the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, from Iran and North Africa, from Central Asia, India, and Spain. Most of these slaves had a cultural level at least as high as that of their Arab masters, and by conversion and manumission they were rapidly absorbed into the general population. As the supply of slaves by conquest and capture diminished, the needs of the slave market were met, more and more, by importation from beyond the frontier. Small numbers of slaves were brought from India, China, Southeast Asia, and the Byzantine Empire, most of them specialists and technicians of one kind or another. The vast majority of unskilled slaves, however, came from the lands immediately north and south of the Islamic world -- whites from Europe and the Eurasian steppes, blacks from Africa south of the Sahara. Among white Europeans and black Africans alike, there was no lack of enterprising merchants and middlemen, eager to share in this profitable trade, who were willing to capture or kidnap their neighbors and deliver them, as slaves, to a ready and expanding market. In Europe there was also an important trade in slaves, Muslim, Jewish, pagan, and even Orthodox Christian, recruited by capture and bought for mainly domestic use.

Central and East European slaves, generally known as Saqaliba (i.e., Slavs), were imported by three main routes: overland via France and Spain, from Eastern Europe via the Crimea, and by sea across the Mediterranean. They were mostly but not exclusively Slavs. Some were captured by Muslim naval raids on European coasts, particularly the Dalmatian. Most were supplied by European, especially Venetian, slave merchants, who delivered cargoes of them to the Muslim markets in Spain and North Africa. The Saqaliba were prominent in Muslim Spain and to a lesser extent in North Africa but played a minor role in the East. With the consolidation of powerful states in Christian Europe, the supply of West European slaves dried up and was maintained only by privateering and coastal raiding from North Africa.

Black slaves were brought into the Islamic world by a number of routes -- from West Africa across the Sahara to Morocco and Tunisia, from Chad across the desert to Libya, from East Africa down the Nile to Egypt, and across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Turkish slaves from the steppe-lands were marketed in Samarkand and other Muslim Central Asian cities and from there exported to Iran, the Fertile Crescent, and beyond. Caucasians, of increasing importance in the later centuries, were brought from the land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian and were marketed mainly in Aleppo and Mosul.

By Ottoman times, the first for which we have extensive documentation, the pattern of importation had changed. At first, the expanding Ottoman Empire, like the expanding Arab Empire of earlier times, recruited its slaves by conquest and capture, and great numbers of Balkan Christians were forcibly brought into Ottoman service. The distinctively Ottoman institution of the devsirme, the levy of boys from the Christian village population, made it possible, contrary to previous Islamic law and practice, to recruit slaves from the subject peoples of the conquered provinces. The devsirme slaves were not servants or menials, however, but were groomed for the service of the state in military and civil capacities. For a long time, most of the grand viziers and military commanders of the Ottoman forces were recruited in this way. In the early seventeenth century, the devsirme was abandoned; by the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman advance into Europe had been decisively halted and reversed. Sea raiders operating out of North African ports continued to bring European captives, but these did not significantly add to the slave populations. Pretty girls disappeared into the harem; men often had the choice of being ransomed or joining their captors -- a choice of which many availed themselves. The less fortunate, like the Muslim captives who fell to the European maritime powers, served in the galleys.

The slave needs of the Ottoman Empire were now met from new sources. One of these was the Caucasians -- the Georgians, Circassians, and related peoples, famous for providing beautiful women and brave and handsome men. The former figured prominently in the harems, the latter in the armies and administrations of the Ottoman and also the Persian states. The supply of these was reduced but not terminated by the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the early years of the nineteenth century. Another source of supply was the Tatar khanate of the Crimea, whose raiders every year rode far and wide in Central and Eastern Europe, carrying off great numbers of male and female slaves. These were brought to the Crimea and shipped thence to the slave markets in Istanbul and other Turkish cities. This trade came to an end with the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 1783 and the extinction of Tatar independence.

Deprived of most of their sources of white slaves, the Ottomans turned more and more to Africa, which in the course of the nineteenth century came to provide the overwhelming majority of slaves used in Muslim countries from Morocco to Asia. According to a German report published in 1860,

"the black slaves, at that time, were recruited mainly by raiding and kidnapping from Sennaar, Kordofan, Darfur, Nubia, and other places in inner Africa; the white mostly through voluntary sale on the part of their relatives in the independent lands of the Caucasus (Lesghi, Daghestani, and Georgian women, rarely men). Those offered for sale were already previously of servile status or were slave children by birth."

The need, from early medieval times onward, to import large and growing numbers of slaves led to a rapid increase, in all the lands beyond the frontiers of the Islamic world, of both slave raiding and slave trading -- the one to procure and maintain an adequate supply of the required commodity, the other to ensure its efficient distribution and delivery. In the ancient world, where most slaves other than war captives were of local provenance, slave trading was a simple and mostly local affair, often combined with other articles of commerce. In the Islamic world, where slaves were transported over great distances from their places of origin, the slave trade was more complex and more specialized with a network of trade routes and markets extending all over the Islamic world and far beyond its frontiers and involving commercial relations with suppliers in Christian Europe, in the Turkish steppe-lands, and in black Africa. In every important city there was a slave market, usually called Suq al-Raqiq. When new supplies were brought, government inspectors usually took the first choice, then officials, then private persons. It would seem that slaves were not normally sold in open markets but in decently covered places -- a practice which continued in some areas to the nineteenth, in others till the twentieth, century.

There is a fair amount of information on slave prices, most of it too heterogeneous in date and provenance to provide more than a general impression. The best-documented data come from medieval Egypt and show a remarkable consistency in price levels. Slave girls averaged twenty dinars (gold pieces), corresponding, at the rate of gold to silver current at that time, to 266 dirhams (silver pieces). Other medieval data show somewhat higher prices. Black slaves seem to have cost from two to three hundred dirhams; black eunuchs, at least two or three times as much. Female black slaves were sold at five hundred dirhams or so; trained singing girls or other performers, at ten or even twenty thousand. White slaves, mainly for military purposes, were more expensive. Prices of three hundred dirhams are quoted for Turks near the source in Central Asia, and much higher prices elsewhere. In Baghdad they fetched four to five hundred dirhams, while a white slave girl could be sold for a thousand dinars or more. The mid-nineteenth-century German report from Turkey quotes prices of four thousand to five thousand piasters, or two hundred to three hundred dollars, as the current price in Istanbul for a "trained, strong, black slave," while "for white slave girls of special beauty, fifty thousand piasters and more are paid." In general, eunuchs fetched higher prices than other males, younger slaves were worth more than older slaves, and slave women, whether for work or pleasure, were more expensive than males. Olufr Eigilsson, an Icelandic Lutheran pastor who was carried off to captivity with his family and many of his flock when his native village was raided by Barbary Corsairs in 1627 and who wrote an account of his adventures, notes that his young maidservant was sold for seven hundred dollars and later resold for a thousand.

Slaves were employed in a number of functions -- in the home and the shop, in agriculture and industry, in the military, as well as in specialized tasks. The Islamic world did not operate on a slave system of production, as is said of classical antiquity, but slavery was not entirely domestic either. Slave laborers of various kinds were of some importance in medieval times, especially where large-scale enterprises were involved, and they continued to be into the nineteenth century. The most important slaves, however, those of whom we have the fullest information, were domestic and commercial, and it is they who were the characteristic slaves of the Muslim world. They seem to have been mainly blacks, with some Indians, and some whites. ln later times, for which we have more detailed evidence, it would seem that while the slaves often suffered appalling privations from the moment of their capture until their arrival at their final destination, once they were placed with a family they were reasonably well treated and accepted in some degree as members of the household. In commerce, slaves were often apprenticed to their masters, sometimes as assistants, sometimes advancing to become agents or even business partners.

The slave and also the liberated ex-slave played an important part in domestic life. Eunuchs were required for the protection and maintenance of harems, as confidential servants, as palace staff, and also as custodians of mosques, tombs, and other sacred places. Slave women were required mainly as concubines and as menials. A Muslim slaveowner was entitled by law to the sexual enjoyment of his slave women. While free women might own male slaves, they had of course no equivalent right.

The economic exploitation of slaves, apart from some construction work, took place mainly in the countryside, away from the cities, and like almost everything else about rural life is sparsely documented. The medieval Islamic world was a civilization of cities. Both its law and its literature deal almost entirely with townspeople, their lives and problems, and remarkably little information has come down to us concerning life in the villages and the countryside. Sometimes a dramatic event like the revolt of the Zanj in southern Iraq or an occasional passing reference in travel literature sheds a sudden light on life in the countryside. Otherwise, we remain ignorant of what was happening outside the cities until the sixteenth century, when for the first time the surviving Ottoman archives make it possible to follow in some detail the life and activities of rural populations -- and the exploration of this material has still barely begun. The common view of Islamic slavery as primarily domestic and military may therefore reflect the bias of our documentation rather than the reality. There are occasional references, however, to large gangs of slaves, mostly black, employed in agriculture, in the mines, and in such special tasks as the drainage of marshes. Some, less fortunate, were hired out by their owners for piecework. These working slaves had a much harder life. The most unfortunate of all were those engaged in agricultural and other manual work and large-scale enterprises, such as for example the Zanj slaves used to drain the salt flats of southern Iraq, and the blacks employed in the salt mines of the Sahara and the gold mines of Nubia. These were herded in large settlements and worked in gangs. Large landowners, or crown lands, often employed thousands of such slaves. While domestic and commercial slaves were relatively well-off, these lived and died in wretchedness. Of the Saharan salt mines it is said that no slave lived there for more than five years. The cultivation of cotton and sugar, which the Arabs brought from the East across North Africa and into Spain, most probably entailed some kind of plantation system. Certainly, the earliest relevant Ottoman records show the extensive use of slave labor in the state-maintained rice plantations. Some such system, for cultivation of cotton and sugar, was taken across North Africa into Spain and perhaps beyond. While economic slave labor was mainly male, slave women were sometimes also exploited economically. The pre-lslamic practice of hiring out female slaves as prostitutes is expressly forbidden by Islamic law but appears to have survived nonetheless.

The military slaves were in a sense the aristocrats of the slave population. By far the most important among these were the Turks imported from the Eurasian steppe, from Central Asia, and from what is now Chinese Turkistan. A similar position was occupied by Slavs in medieval Muslim Spain and North Africa and, later, by slaves of Balkan and Caucasian origin in the Ottoman Empire. Black slaves were occasionally employed as soldiers, but this was not common and was usually of brief duration.

Certainly the most privileged of slaves were the performers. Both slave boys and slave girls who revealed some talent received musical, literary, and artistic education. In medieval times most singers, dancers, and musical performers were, at least in origin, slaves. Perhaps the most famous was Ziryab, a Persian slave at the court of Baghdad who later went to Spain, where he became an arbiter of taste and is credited with having introduced asparagus to Europe. Not a few slaves and freedmen have left their names in Arabic poetry and history.

In a society where positions of military command and political power were routinely held by men of slave origin or even status and where a significant proportion of the free population were born to slave mothcrs, prejudice against the slave as such, of the Roman or American type, could hardly develop. Where such prejudice and hostility appear -- and they are often expressed in literature and other evidence -- they must be attributed to racial more than to social distinction. The developing pattern of racial specialization in the use of slaves must surely have contributed greatly to the growth of such re judice .

Chpt. 9 Slaves in Arms

The military slave, who bears arms and fights for his owner, was a known but not common figure in antiquity. In the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C., the city of Athens was policed by a corps of armed Scythian slaves, originally numbering some three hundred, who were the property of the city. Some Roman dignitaries had armed slave bodyguards; some owned gladiators, as men in other times might own gamecocks or racehorses, but in general the Greeks and Romans did not approve of the use of slaves in combatant duties. It was not until the medieval Islamic state that we find military slaves in significant numbers, forming a substantial and eventually predominant component in their armies.

The professional slave soldier, so characteristic of later Islamic empires, was not present in the earliest Islamic regimes. There were indeed slaves who fought in the army of the Prophet, but they were there as Muslims and as loyal followers, not as slaves or professionals. Most of them were freed for their services, and according to an early narrative, when the Prophet appeared before the walls of the Hijaz town of Ta'if, he sent a crier to announce that any slave who came out and joined him would be free. Abu Muslim, the first military leader of the Abbasid revolution which transformed the Islamic state and society in the mid-eighth century, appealed to slaves to come and join him and offered freedom to those who responded. So many, we are told, answered his call that he gave them a separate camp and formed them into a separate combat unit. During the great expansion of the Arab armies and the accompanying spread of the Islamic faith in the seventh and early eighth centuries, mally of the peoples of the conquered countries were captured, enslaved, convcrted, and liberated, and great numbers of these joined the armies of Islam. Iranians in the East, Berbers in the West, reinforced the Arab armies and contributed significantly to the further advance of Islam, eastward into Central Asia and beyond, westward across North Africa and into Spain. These were, however, not slaves but freedmen. Though their status was at first inferior to that of freeborn Arabs, it was certainly not servile, and in time the differences in rank, pay, and status between free and freed soldiers disappeared. As so often, the historiographic tradition foreshortens this development and attributes it to a decree of the Caliph 'Umar, who is said to have ordered his governors to make the privileges and duties of manumitted and converted recruits "among the red people" the same as those of the Arabs. "What is due to these, is due to those; what is due from these, is due from those." The limitation of this concession to the "red people," a term commonly applied by the Arabs to the Iranians and later extended to their Central Asian neighbors, is surely significant. The recruitment of aliens, that is, non-Arabs and often non-Muslims, was by no means restricted to liberated captives, and the distinction between freed subjects, free mercenaries, and bought barbarian slaves is often tenuous.

In recruiting barbarians from the "martial races" beyond the frontiers into their imperial armies, the Arabs were doing what the Romans and the Chinese had done centuries before them. In the scale of this recruitment, however, and the preponderant role acquired by these recruits in the imperial and eventually metropolitan forces, Muslim rulers went far beyond any precedent. As early as 766 a Christian clergyman writing in Syriac spoke of the "locust swarm" of unconverted barbarians -- Sindhis, Alans, Khazars, Turks, and others -- who served in the caliph's army. In the course of the ninth century, slave armies appeared all over the Islamic empire. Sometimes, as in North Africa and later Egypt, they were recruited by ambitious governors seeking to create autonomous and hereditary principalities and requiring troops who would be loyal to them against their immediate subjects and their imperial suzerains. Sometimes it was the caliphs themselves who recruited such armies. Such, for example, were the palace guards recruited by the Umayyad Caliph al-Hakam in Cordova and the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu'tasim in Iraq.

This was a new institution in Islam. The patriarchal caliphs, and their successors for more than a hundred years, had no slave praetorian guards, but were protected in their palace by a small force of free Arabs and, under the early Abbasids, freed soldiers and their descendants from Khurasan. Within a remarkably short time, the slave palace guard became the norm for Muslim rulers, and rapidly developed into a slave army, serving both to maintain the ruler in his palace and his capital and, for a sultan, to uphold his imperial authority in the provinces. In the East, slave soldiers were recruited mainly among the Turkish and to a lesser extent among the Iranian peoples of the Eurasian steppe and of Central and inner Asia; in the West, from the Berbers of North Africa and from the Slavs of Europe. Some soldiers, particularly in Egypt and North Africa, were brought from among the black peoples farther south. As the frontiers of Islam steadily expanded through conversion and annexation, the periphery was pushed farther and farther away, and the enslaved barbarians came from ever-remoter regions in Asia, Africa, and, to a very limited extent, Europe.

Some of these soldiers were captured in wars, raids, and forays. The more usual practice, however, was for them to be purchased, for money, on the Islamic frontiers. It was in this way that Muslims bought and imported the Central Asian Turks who came to constitute the vast majority of eastern Muslim armies. Captured and sold to the Muslims at a very tender age, they were given a careful and elaborate education and training, not only in the military arts but also in the norms of Islamic civilization. From their ranks were drawn the soldiers, then the officers, and finally the commanders of the armies of Islam. From this it was only a step to the ultimate paradox, the slave kings who ruled in Cairo, in Delhi, and in other capitals. Even the Ottomans, though themselves a freeborn imperial dynasty, relied for their infantry on the celebrated slave corps of Janissaries, and most of the sultans were themselves sons of slave mothers.

Various explanations have been offered for the reliance of Muslim sovereigns on slave armies. An obvious merit of the military slave, for the kings or generals who owned him, was his habit of prompt and unquestioning obedience to orders -- a quality less likely to be found among freeborn volunteers or even among conscripts, in the relatively few times and places when conscription was known or feasible before the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most convincing explanation of the growth of the slave armies is the eternal need of autocratic rulers for an armed force which would support and maintain their rule yet neither limit it with intermediate powers nor threaten it with the challenge of opposing loyalties. An army constantly renewed by slaves imported from abroad would form no hereditary nobility; an army manned and commanded by aliens could neither claim nor create any loyalties or bases of support among the local population.

Such soldiers, it was assumed, would have no loyalty but to their masters, that is, to the monarchs who bought and employed them. But their loyalty, all too often, was to the regiment and to its commanders, many of whom ultimately themselves became kings. The mamluk sultans and emirs who ruled Egypt, Syria, and western Arabia for two-and-a-half centuries, until the Ottoman conquest in 1517, rigorously excluded their own freeborn and locally born offspring from the apparatus of political and military power, including even the sultanate itself. They nevertheless succeeded in maintaining their system for centuries. In part, the common bond of mamluk regiments was ethnic. Many regiments, and the quarters which they inhabited, were based on ethnic and even tribal groups. But in the main, the bond was social rather than racial. At a certain stage in his career, the mamluk was emancipated, and, on becoming a freeman, himself bought and owned mamluks who, rather than his physical sons, were his true successors. The most powerful bond and loyalty, within the mamluk system, was that owed by the slave to his master, and, after manumission, by the freedman to his patron.

In the military sense, the slave armies were remarkably effective. In the later Middle Ages, it was the mamluks of Egypt who finally defeated and expelled the Crusaders and halted the Mongol advance across the Middle East, the Ottoman Janissary infantry who conquered Southeastern Europe. It was in accordance with the logic of the system that the mamluk armies of Egypt consisted mainly of slaves imported from the Turkish and Circassian peoples of the Black Sea area, while the Ottoman Janissaries were recruited mainly from the Slavic and Albanian populations of the Balkans.

Ibn Khaldun, surely the greatest of all Arab historians, writing in the fourteenth century, saw in the coming of the Turks and in the institution of slavery by which they came, the manifestation of God's providential concern for the safety and survival of the Muslim state and people:

"When the [Abbasid] state was drowned in decadence and luxury. . . and overthrown by the heathen Tatars . . . because the people of the faith had become deficient in energy and reluctant to rally in defense . . . then it was God's benevolence that He rescued the faith by reviving its dying breath and restoring the unity of the Muslims in the Egyptian realms.... He did this by sending to the Muslims, from among this Turkish nation and its great and numerous tribes, rulers to defend them and utterly loyal helpers, who were brought . . . to the House of Islam under the rule of slavery, which hides in itself a divine blessing. By means of slavery they learn glory and blessing and are exposed to divine providence; cured by slavery, they enter the Muslim religion with the firm resolve of true believers and yet with nomadic virtues unsullied by debased nature, unadulterated by the filth of pleasure, undefiled by ways of civilied living, and with their ardor unbroken by the profusion of luxury.... Thus one intake comes after another and generation follows generation, and Islam rejoices in the benefit which it gains through them, and the branches of the kingdom flourish with the freshness of youth."

Most of the military slaves of Islam were white -- Turks and Caucasians in the East, Slavs and other Europeans in the West. Black military slaves were, however, not unknown and indeed at certain periods were of importance. Individual black fighting men, both slaves and free, are mentioned as having participated in raiding and warfare in pre-Islamic and early Islamic times. According to the biographies and histories of the Prophet, there were several blacks, both in his army and in the armies of his pagan enemies. One of them, called Wahshi, an Ethiopian slave, distinguished himself in the battles against the Prophet at Uhud and at the Ditch; and later, after the Muslim capture of Mecca, he fought for the Muslims in the wars that followed the death of the Prophet. Black soldiers appear occasionally in early Abbasid times, and after the slave rebellion in southern Iraq, in which blacks displayed terrifying military prowess, they were recruited into the infantry corps of the caliphs in Baghdad. Ahmad b. Tulun (d. 884), the first independent ruler of Muslim Egypt, relied very heavily on black slaves, probably Nubians, for his armed forces; at his death he is said to have left, among other possessions, twenty-four thousand white mamluks and forty-five thousand blacks. These were organized in separate corps, and accommodated in separate quarters at the military cantonments. When Khumarawayh, the son and successor of Ahmad ibn Tulun. rode in procession, he was followed, according to a chronicler,

"by a thousand black guards wearing black cloaks and black turbans, so that a watcher could fancy them to be a black sea spreading over the face of the earth, because of the blackness of their color and of their garments. With the glitter of their shields, of the chasing on their swords, and of the helmets under their turbans, they made a really splendid sight. "

The black troops were the most faithful supporters of the dynasty, and shared its fate. When the Tulunids were overthrown at the beginning of 905, the restoration of caliphal authority was followed by a massacre of the black infantry and the burning of their quarters:

"Then the cavalry turned against the cantonments of the Tulunid blacks, seized as many of them as they could, and took them to Muhammad ibn Sulayman [the new governor sent by the caliph]. He was on horseback, amid his escort. He gave orders to slaughter them, and they were slaughtered in his presence like sheep."

A similar fate befell the black infantry in Baghdad in 930, when they were attacked and massacred by the white cavalry, with the help of other troops and of the populace, and their quarters burned. Thereafter, black soldiers virtually disappear from the armies of the eastern caliphate.

In Egypt, the manpower resources of Nubia were too good to neglect, and the traffic down the Nile continued to provide slaves for military as well as other purposes. Black soldiers served the various rulers of medieval Egypt, and under the Fatimid caliphs of Cairo black regiments, known as 'Abid al-Shira', "the slaves by purchase," formed an important part of the military establishment. They were particularly prominent in the mid-eleventh century, during the reign of al-Mustansir, when for a while the real ruler of Egypt was the caliph's mother, a Sudanese slave woman of remarkable strength of character. There were frequent clashes between black regiments and those of other races and occasional friction with the civil population. One such inci- dent occurred in 1021, when the Caliph al-Hakim sent his black troops against the people of Fustat (old Cairo), and the white troops joined forces to defend them. A contemporary chronicler of these events describes an orgy of burning, plunder, and rape. In 1062 and again in 1067 the black troops were defeated by their white colleagues in pitched battles and driven out of Cairo to Upper Egypt. Later they returned, and played a role of some importance under the last Fatimid caliphs.

With the fall of the Fatimids, the black troops again paid the price of their loyalty. Among the most faithful supporters of the Fatimid Caliphate, they were also among the last to resist its overthrow by Saladin, ostensibly the caliph's vizier but in fact the new master of Egypt. By the time of the last Fatimid caliph, al-'Adid, the blacks had achieved a position of power. The black eunuchs wielded great influence in the palace; the black troops formed a major element in the Fatimid army. It was natural that they should resist the vizier's encroachments. In 1169 Saladin learned of a plot by the caliph's chief black eunuch to remove him, allegedly in collusion with the Crusaders in Palestine. Saladin acted swiftly; the offender was seized and decapitated and replaced in his office by a white eunuch. The other black eunuchs of the caliph's palace were also dismissed. The black troops in Cairo were infuriated by this summary execution of one whom they regarded as their spokesman and defender. Moved, according to a chronicler, by "racial solidarity" (jinsiyya), they prepared for battle. In two hot August days, an estimated fifty thousand blacks fought against Saladin's army in the area between the two palaces, of the caliph and the vizier.

Two reasons are given for their defeat. One was their betrayal by the Fatimid Caliph al-'Adid, whose cause they believed they were defendrng against the usurping vizier:

"Al-'Adid had gone up to his belvedere tower, to watch the battle between the palaces. It is said that he ordered the men in the palace to shoot arrows and throw stones at [Saladin's] troops, and they did so. Others say that this was not done by his choice. Shams al-Dawla [Saladin's brother] sent naphtha-throwers to burn down al-'Adid's belvedere. One of them was about to do this when the door of the belvedere tower opened and out came a caliphal aide, who said: "The Commander of the Faithful greets Shams al-Dawla, and says: 'Beware of the [black] slave dogs! Drive them out of the country!'" The blacks were sustained by the belief that al-'Adid was pleased with what they did. When they heard this, their strength was sapped, their courage waned, and they fled."

The other reason, it is said, was an attack on their homes. During the battle between the palaces, Saladin sent a detachment to the black quarters, with instructions "to burn them down on their possessions and their children." Learning of this, the blacks tried to break off the battle and return to their families but were caught in the streets and destroyed. This encounter is variously known in Arabic annals as "the Battle of the Blacks" and "the Battle of the Slaves.'' Though the conflict was not primarily racial, it acquired a racial aspect, which is reflected in some of the verses composed in honor of Saladin's victory. Maqrizi, in a comment on this episode, complains of the power and arrogance of the blacks:

"If they had a grievance against a vizier, they killed him; and they caused much damage by stretching out their hands against the property and families of the people. When their outrages were many and their misdeeds increased, God destroyed them for their sins."

Sporadic resistance by groups of black soldiers continued, but was finally crushed after a few years. While the white units of the Fatimid army were incorporated by Saladin in his own forces, the blacks were not. The black regiments were disbanded, and black fighting men did not reappear in the armies of Egypt for centuries. Under the mamluk sultans, blacks were em- ployed in the army in a menial role, as servants of the knights. There was a clear distinction between these servants, who were black and slaves, and the knights' orderlies and grooms, who were white and free.

Though black slaves no longer served as soldiers in Egypt, they still fought occasionally -- as rebels or rioters. In 1260, during the transition from the Ayyubid to the mamluk sultanate, black stableboys and some others seized horses and weapons, and staged a minor insurrection in Cairo. They proclaimed their allegiance to the Fatimids and followed a religious leader who "incited them to rise against the people of the state; he granted them fiefs and wrote them deeds of assignment."

The end was swift: "When they rebelled during the night, the troops rode in, surrounded them, and shackled them; by morning they were crucified outside the Zuwayla gate."

The same desire among the slaves to emulate the forms and trappings of the mamluk state is expressed in a more striking form in an incident in 1446, when some five hundred slaves, tending their masters' horses in the pasturages outside Cairo, took arms and set up a miniature state and court of their own. One of them was called sultan and was installed on a throne in a carpeted pavilion; others were dignified with the titles of the chief of ficers of the mamluk court, including the vizier, the commander in chief, and even the governors of Damascus and Aleppo. They raided grain caravans and other traffic and were even willing to buy the freedom of a colleague. They succumbed to internal dissensions. Their "sultan" was challenged by another claimant, and in the ensuing struggles the revolt was suppressed. Many of the slaves were recaptured and the rest fled.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, black slaves were admitted to units using firearms -- a socially despised weapon in the mamluk knightly society. When a sultan tried to show some favor to his black arquebusiers, he provoked violent antagonism from the mamluk knights, which he was not able to resist. In 1498 "a great disturbance occurred in Cairo." The sultan (according to the chronicler) had outraged the mamluks by conferring two boons on a black slave called Farajallah, chief of the firearms personnel in the citadel -- first, giving him a white Circassian slave girl from the palace as wife, and second, granting him a short-sleeved tunic, a characteristic garment of the mamluks:

"On beholding this spectacle [says the chronicler] the Royal mamluks expressed their disapproval to the sultan, and they put on their. . . armour. . . and armed themselves with their full equipment. A battle broke out between them and the black slaves, who numbered about five hundred. The black slaves ran away and gathered again in the towers of the citadel and fired at the Royal mamluks. The Royal mamluks marched on them, killing Farajallah and about fifty of the black slaves; the rest fled; two Royal mamluks were killed. Then the emirs and the sultan's maternal uncle, the Great Dawadar, met the sultan and told him: "We disapprove of these acts of yours [and if you persist in them, it would be better for you to ride by night in the narrow by-streets and go away together with those black slaves to far-off places!" The sultan answered: "I shall desist from this, and these black slaves will be sold to the Turkmans."

In the Islamic West black slave troops were more frequent, and sometimes even included cavalry -- something virtually unknown in the East. The first emir of Cordova, 'Abd al-Rahman I, is said to have kept a large personal guard of black troops; and black military slaves were used, especially to maintain order, by his successors. Black units, probably recruited by purchase via Zawila in Fezzan (now southern Libya), figure in the armies of the rulers of Tunisia between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Black troops became important from the seventeenth century, after the Moroccan military expansion into the Western Sudan. The Moroccan Sultan Mawlay Ismaili (1672-1727) had an army of black slaves, said to number 250,000. The nucleus of this army was provided by the conscription or compulsory purchase of all male blacks in Morocco; it was supplemented by levies on the slaves and serfs of the Saharan tribes and slave raids into southern Mauritania. These soldiers were mated with black slave girls, to produce the next generation of male soldiers and female servants. The youngsters began training at ten and were mated at fifteen. After the sultan's death in 1727, a period of anarchic internal struggles followed, which some contemporaries describe as a conflict between blacks and whites. The philosopher David Hume, writing at about the same time, saw such a conflict as absurd and comic, and used it to throw ridicule on all sectarian and factional strife:

"The civil wars which arose some few years ago in Morocco between the Blacks and Whites, merely on account of their complexion, are founded on a pleasant difference. We laugh at them; but, I believe, were things rightly examined, we afford much more occasion of ridicule to the Moors. For, what are all the wars of religion, which have prevailed in this polite and knowing part of the world? They are certainly more absurd than the Moorish civil wars. The difference of complexion is a sensible and a real difference; but the controversy about an article of faith, which is utterly absurd and unintelligible, is not a difference in sentiment, but in a few phrases and expressions, which one party accepts of without understanding them, and the other refuses in the same manner.... Besides, I do not find that the Whites in Morocco ever imposed on the Blacks any necessity of altering their complexion . . . nor have the Blacks been more unreasonable in this particular."

In 1757 a new sultan, Sidi Muhammad Ill, came to the throne. He decided to disband the black troops and rely instead on Arabs. With a promise of royal favor, he induced the blacks to come to Larache with their families and worldly possessions. There he had them surrounded by Arab tribesmen, to whom he gave their possessions as booty and the black soldiers, their wives, and their children as slaves. "I make you a gift," he said, "of these 'abid, of their children, their horses, their weapons, and all they possess. Share them among you.''

Blacks were occasionally recruited into the mamluk forces in Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century. "When the supply [of white slaves] proves insufficient," says a contemporary observer, W. G. Browne, "or many have been expended, black slaves from the interior of Africa are substituted, and if found docile, are armed and accoutred like the rest." This is confirmed by Louis Frank, a medical officer with Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt, who wrote an important memoir on the Negro slave trade in Cairo.

In the nineteenth century, black military slaves reappeared in Egypt in considerable numbers; their recruitment was indeed one of the main purposes of the Egyptian advance up the Nile under Muhammad 'Ali Pasha (reigned 1805-49) and his successors. Collected by annual razzias (raids) from Darfur and Kordofan, they constituted an important part of the Khedivial armies and incidentally furnished the bulk of the Egyptian expeditionary force which Sa'id Pasha sent to Mexico in 1863, in support of the French. An English traveler writing in 1825 had this to say about black soldiers in the Egyptian army:

"When the negro troops were first brought down to Alexandria, nothing could exceed their insubordination and wild demeanour; but they learned the military evolutions in half the time of the Arabs; and I always observed they went through the manoeuvres with ten times the adroitness of the others. It is the fashion here, as well as in our colonies, to consider the negroes as the last link in the chain of humanity, between the monkey tribe and man in intellect; and I do not suffer the eloquence of the slave driver to convince me that the negro is so stultified as to be unfit for freedom.

Even in Turkey, liberated black slaves were sometimes recruited into the armed forces, often as a means to prevent their reenslavement. Some of these reached of ficer rank. A British naval report, dated January 25,1858, speaks of black marines serving with the Turkish navy:

"They are from the class of freed slaves or slaves abandoned by merchants unable to sell them. There are always many such at Tripoli. I believe the government acquainted the Porte with the embarrassment caused by their numbers and irregularities, and this mode of relief was adopted. Those brought by the Faizi Bari, about 70 in number, were on their arrival enrolled as a Black company in the marine corps. They are in exactly the same position with respect to pay, quarters, rations, and clothing as the Turkish marines, and will equally receive their discharge at the expiration of the allotted term of service. They are in short on the books of the navy. They have received very kind treatment here, lodged in warm rooms with charcoal burning in them day and night. A negro Mulazim [lieutenant] and some negro tchiaoushes [sergeants], already in the service have been appointed to look after and instruct them. They have drilled in the manual exercise in their warm quarters, and have not been set to do any duty on account of the weather. They should not have been sent here in winter. Those among them unwell on their arrival were sent at once to the naval hospital. Two only have died of the whole number. The men in the barracks are healthy and appear contented. No amount of ingenuity can conjure up any conncxion between their condition and the condition of slavery."

While the slave in arms was, with few exceptions, an Islamic innovation, the slave in authority dates back to remote antiquity. Already in Sumerian times, kings appointed slaves to positions of prestige and even power -- or, perhaps more accurately, treated certain of their court functionaries as royal slaves. Different words were used to denote such privileged slaves, distinct from those applied to the menial and laboring generality. Under the Abbasid caliphs and under later Muslim dynasties, men of slave origin, usually but not always manumitted, figured prominently in the royal entourage. The system of court slavery reached its final and fullest development in the Ottoman Empire, where virtually all the servants of the state, both civil and military, had the status of kul, "slave," of the Gate, that is, of the sultan. The only exceptions were the members of the religious establishment. The Ottoman kul was not a slave in terms of Islamic law, and was free from most of the restraints imposed on slaves in such matters as marriage, property, and legal responsibility. He was, however, subject to the arbitrary power of the sultan, who was free to dispose of his assets, his person, and his life in ways not permitted by the law in relation to free- or freedmen. This perception of the status of political officeholders and their relationship to the supreme sovereign power was of course by no means limited to the Ottoman Empire, or indeed to the Islamic world.


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall, May 2023

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.   Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 6 October 2023