sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 6

Stephan Conermann / Gül Şen (eds.): Slaves and Slave Agency in the Ottoman Empire

Slaves and Slave Agency in the Ottoman Empire is not only a welcome addition to the growing body of Ottoman enslavement studies, but a ground-breaking effort to move beyond the binary dichotomy of slavery and freedom that distorts our vision when it comes to degrees of dependency and forms of enslavement. This volume was produced following the international conference, New Perspectives on Slavery: The Ottoman Empire, organized by the Bonn Centre for Dependency and Slavery Studies in 2018. In their introduction, the editors of the volume, Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen, present new perspectives and suggest new concepts. They argue that slaves in the Ottoman realm were not entirely deprived of freedom and had different degrees of agency in various asymmetrical dependencies.

There are six sections in total. The first chapter of Part I, "Modes of Global Enslavement" by Ehud R. Toledano, reviews the two major themes of the conference: the notions of asymmetrical dependency and agency. Contemplating the "form of human on human exploitation", Toledano claims that the first concept is not designed "discursively", but "intuitively" due to the lack of certain writing in sociology and social history. Therefore, "whenever it has been used, what it means taken for granted," as Toledano notes (31). Even so, he does not omit to appreciate the effort by stating that the model is "a great enabler that facilitates the replacement of enslavement and other such relationships." (32). Toledano mentions the "comparative turn" in enslavement studies to better place this new model within the context of other pioneering models, such as those of Finley, Patterson, Lenski, and Fynn-Paul. He asserts that the notion of agency in the enslaver-enslaved relationship "was distributed and displayed on a continuum" (48) and performed in different ways and extents due to the several forms of enslavement in MENA societies. Toledano's assessment of this recent theoretical attempt is a valuable contribution as it sets the scene for the following essays.

The second part of the book, "Comparative Perspectives", contains articles by Suraiya Faroqhi, Christoph Witzenrath, and Gül Şen. Faroqhi's article, "Slave Agencies Compared: The Ottoman and Mughal Empires", presents a comparative analysis of slave agencies in both empires. According to the author, while court registers have mostly been preserved in the Ottoman Empire from the early sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, the same is unfortunately not true for the Mughals. In the absence of archives, it becomes particularly difficult to trace slave agency in the Mughal Empire. Faroqhi's article is however still valuable and fills a huge gap in our knowledge of comparative enslavement practices in the Ottoman and Mughal empires.

Faroqhi argues that varieties in slavery should be cautiously treated since the degree of agency enjoyed by slaves differed according to their status and gender. She emphasizes that while elite male and female and military slaves or eunuchs could rise high, hold large wealth, have authority and power and enjoy more agency, non-elite household slaves, especially women, had less chance to change their destinies. Despite the limitations of her sources, Faroqhi handles highlights similarities and differences of slave agencies in the Ottoman and South Asian spheres, asking the question, "What could happen, what did happen, and what do we learn from the comparison?"

Christoph Witzenrath's article, "Agency in Muscovite Archives: Trans-Ottoman slaves Negotiating the Moscow Administration", unlike Faroqhi's piece does not suffer from a lack of archival sources on the evidence of slave agency. According to the author, "documents related to returning slaves, petitions and investigations, contain at least some shreds of evidence of agency." Witzenrath starts by analysing serfdom and slavery in Muscovy and puts them in two different categories of bondage despite many similarities. Following a thorough analysis of Islamic slavery, manumission, and law, Witzenrath proposes a framework of agency and loyalty. Extending loyalty to encompass agency allows us to see that "one man's loyalty is another man's agency". Crucially, Witzenrath includes the loyalty of returning freed slaves to their hometowns. He unearthed the petitions of returning captives to Moscow from RGADA archives, who tried to prove their loyalty to the Tsar, as well as the petitions of ransom seekers whose families had fallen into captivity. Successfully interpreting the case of the Greek Kostiantinov, Witzenrath emphasizes that captivity not only produced unilateral agency but also uni-relational interagency, power shifts, and interference from the authorities. Overall, this paper is valuable in terms of enabling us to see the other side of the coin, i.e. captivated and enslaved subjects of Muscovy by the Ottomans.

Under the title of "Galley Slaves and Agency: The Driving Force of the Ottoman Fleet" in Part II, Gül Şen deals with one of the understudied forms of enslavement in the early modern Mediterranean. The author begins by examining the extent to which the concept of agency is fruitful for understanding galley slavery. She further questions whether there was a lack of agency or interagency in this particular form of dependent labour. In light of the variety in primary sources, namely registers in the Ottoman archives, travelogues, chronicles, and histories, the author reveals the agencies of the enslaved in different settings, eventually showing that galley slavery indeed incorporated different categories of agency, from performing labour and the ransoming process to resistance, depending on the context and conditions of the dependency.

Part III consists of two articles on the slaves of the Ottoman imperial harem, one of the topics that have always been captivating; "Palace Slaves". Articles in this part are written by notable scholars of Ottoman history: Jane Hathaway and Betül İpşirli Argιt. Jane Hathaway's article, "The Ottoman Chief Harem Eunuch (Darüssaade Ağasι) as Commissioner of Illuminated Manuscripts: The Slave as Patron, Subject, and Artist?", is based on her latest book on harem eunuchs, "The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Harem: From African Slave to Power-Broker" The article explores the competency and political capacity of the chief eunuchs of the imperial harem in Topkapι, who headed the East African eunuch guards in the palace. Hathaway studied the court-commissioned chronicles and festival books through which she explores the agency of the chief eunuch in political and religious activities. In her very elaborately structured article, Hathaway successfully demonstrates various cases from different periods where the agency - especially in political terms - of the chief eunuchs of the imperial harem are visible through manuscripts. With this erudite research, the author contributes both to gender studies and to slavery and agency studies in Ottoman historiography from a very unique perspective.

The second paper in this section is "Manumitted Female Palace Slaves and Their Material World" by Betül İpşirli Argιt. The article, which looks at the manumitted female palace slaves who lived in Topkapι in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is based on her latest book, "Life after the Harem: Female Palace Slaves, Patronage and the Imperial Ottoman Court". The author explored numerous rolls in the state archives, Istanbul sharia court records and historical chronicles as primary sources to trace the journeys of manumitted female slaves in their post-harem life. In the first part of the article, she sets forth one of her main arguments, i.e. that even if the women had been manumitted, their bond with the palace continued, as members of the imperial court were provided with material means. The second part of the paper focuses on the material activities of the manumitted women to seek out the ways in which they developed strategies with dependencies and experienced different forms of agencies. Although the discussion on the topic of agency is somewhat flawed, the article introduces a very comprehensive work in an unstudied area: the post-palace lives of the once enslaved female members of the court.

In Part IV, the articles penned by Veruschka Wagner, Yeshoshua Frenkel, and Joshua M. White address the practice of enslavement in the light of Islamic legal texts. Veruschka Wagner's article, "'Speaking Property' with the Capacity to Act: Slave Interagency in the 16th- and 17th-Century Istanbul Court Registers," asks what sorts of slave agency can be found in court registers and "which aspects affected slave interagency" in these documents. The aim of the chapter is to better understand slavery in the Ottoman Empire, focusing particularly on slaves' interagency and the capacity to act. To do so, Wagner first states that she prefers to use the term "interagency" over "agency", since any slave agency can be considered interagency in relation to others. Evaluating cases of manumission (mukâtabe), escape, and donation (hibe) in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Istanbul court registers, Wagner discusses forms of agency within the limits of slavery. Challenging the traditional dichotomy of the free and slave (unfree) status of people, Wagner posits that slaves had opportunities of codetermination, and that there were different types or degrees of interagency in which no doubt slave owners also had a great part to play.

Yehoshua Frenkel's article, "Slavery in 17th-Century Ottoman Jerusalem in light of Several Sharia Court Records", is one of the three papers in the section on "Slaves in Legal Texts" of the book. The author argues that Ottoman slaves, especially female ones, litigated with their owners in court and interrogated demanded their freedom. Cases from seventeenth-century Jerusalem reflect the non-violent methods employed by slaves to ask for their manumission. One of the main arguments put forward is that the cases show that emancipation does not necessarily mean freedom or liberty. Frenkel contends that although the legal position of the slave was transformed, the slave continued to be in a servile position vis-à-vis their former owner. While Frenkel carried out estimable work by studying the court records to cast light on Ottoman slavery in the seventeenth century, the article, unfortunately, fails to present the research adequately due to its limitation in length.

In his article, "Slavery, Manumission, and Freedom Suits in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire," Joshua M. White examines the relationship between slaveholders and enslaved. Investigating selected Ottoman court records and supplementing them with some judicial praxis manuals, White further argues that the concepts of manumission and freedom frequently overlapped. For White, being free meant having the full range of legal and religious rights and responsibilities of an Ottoman subject. In tracing the manumitted Ottoman subjects who fought for these rights, White reveals the complex and nuanced structure of manumission proceedings the difficult procedure of bringing proof for illegal enslavement.

In Part V, Zübeyde Güneş-Yağcι's article "Slave Traders (Esirciler) in the Ottoman Istanbul" concentrates on the slave trade and explores the ways in which slaves were exported, who was eligible to engage in slave trading, and eventually the places where slaves were traded in eighteenth-century Istanbul. Using Ottoman archival documents and court registers, the author reveals the structure and organization of Istanbul's slave market, the guild organization of slave dealers, their responsibilities, and duties. More significantly, Güneş-Yağcι figuratively shows two sides of the same coin, in this scenario, the slave business, and uncovers how some slave dealers abused their slaves, mainly female, for prostitution, and the ways in which some also engaged in illegal enslavement by trading other free humans. While the application of theoretical concepts remains relatively uninspired and vague in this article, it is still a welcome preliminary contribution to the growing literature on Ottoman slave markets.

In Part VI, Natalia Krolikowska-Jedlinska's paper look at "The Role of Circassian Slaves in the Foreign and Domestic Policy of the Crimean Khanate in the Early Modern Period". She addresses various types of dependency in the two societies under consideration, and suggests that Circassian territory was considered both a "slaving zone" and "non-slaving zone". She argues that slave raids into Slavic territories became a serious problem for Crimean Tatars after the treaties of Karlowitz (1699) and Istanbul (1700), which resulted in hyper-exploitation of the northern Caucasus tribes in terms of abductions for enslavement. Krolikowska-Jedlinska bases her argument on mühimme defterleri (Registers of Important Affairs) from the Başbakanlιk Osmanlι Arşivi (BOA), Crimean court records (sicills), narrative accounts, and the correspondence of Catholic missionaries which is kept in Propaganda Fide Historical Archives in Rome. Although she provides extensive information on the status of Circassian chieftainships and their relations with the Crimean Khans and the Ottoman Sultans, the social structure of the Circassians, and the period of Khan Saadet Giray (1721-23), there is almost no mention of agency among the Circassian slaves in the Crimean Khanate, which the reader might expect in accordance with the title of the book.

Sarah and Johann Buessow's article, "Domestic Workers and Slaves in Late Ottoman Palestine at the Moment of the Abolition of Slavery: Considerations on Semantics and Agency", explores slavery and unfree labor in late Ottoman Palestine by employing a micro-study approach. Ottoman census registers are the main primary sources, supplemented by newspaper and magazine articles and memoirs in various Western languages. The first part of the article draws a general picture of slavery and unfree - mostly domestic - labor in Ottoman Palestine. After this more general introduction on the situation regarding slavery, the second part focuses on policies of abolition and post-abolition conditions. One of the authors' main arguments is that each enslavement should be studied within its context. They provide a very detailed, in-depth demographic analysis of the selected registers from the Ottoman census and open up a promising discussion on the agency of the enslaved people from Ottoman Jerusalem and Gaza.

Each contributor in Slaves and Slave Agency in the Ottoman Empire presents slave agency in its own specific context. The articles are in line with the book's aspiration: they enhance the discussion of enslavement and slave agency in the Ottoman context.

Rezension über:

Stephan Conermann / Gül Şen (eds.): Slaves and Slave Agency in the Ottoman Empire (= Ottoman Studies / Osmanistische Studien; Bd. 7), Göttingen: V&R unipress 2020, 448 S., ISBN 978-3-8471-1037-8, EUR 60,00

Rezension von:
Bahar Bayraktaroğlu / Turkana Allahverdiyeva / Zeynep Y. Gökçe
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Bahar Bayraktaroğlu / Turkana Allahverdiyeva / Zeynep Y. Gökçe: Rezension von: Stephan Conermann / Gül Şen (eds.): Slaves and Slave Agency in the Ottoman Empire, Göttingen: V&R unipress 2020, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 6 [15.06.2022], URL:

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