Ottoman Slavery

For the second half of the semester, I focused on slavery in the Ottoman Empire. This topic is particularly interesting because slavery in the Ottoman Empire was very different from what we think of when we think of slavery in the West, especially in the way the slaves were treated.

Slaves, like in the United States, were people that were treated as property and used to do work for a master. In the United States, slaves were treated extremely poorly, and their children would be basically guaranteed the same fate. Slavery in the Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, was a more temporary state, and the masters were required to provide their slaves with basic “shelter, clothing, food, and medical care” (Hurriyet Daily News), which would generally cost the master around 700 akces (one of the many forms of currency in the Ottoman Empire) per year. The slave would cost a few thousand akces, which would be comparable to the price of a house in the empire (Seng 144). Because of this extreme cost, masters would have to be particularly wealthy to start with, meaning that “no one can be regarded as poor if he possesses even a single slave” (Busbecq 101).

In order to make the huge investment worthwhile, the masters would have the slave doing a set job, which would vary based on the slave’s race, talents, and beauty. The majority of household slaves would be fair-skinned females, whereas males would be more likely to end up as an oar man in the bottom of a warship. They may also end up working in farms, making gold silk, or selling fish. The terms of a person’s enslavement were determined in a contract right when they are purchased, where how long they are a slave and how they could earn their freedom. The masters are only allowed to alter these terms in favor of the slave, such as reducing their silk production quota or the price they have to pay. Freeing a slave “was considered an act of piety and was most often done via an owner’s last will and testament” (Hurriyet Daily News).

The reason slaves were treated so well is that the citizens of the Ottoman Empire understood that someone who was enslaved for life would not be motivated to do good work (Inalcik), and the Koran forbids the harsh beatings that would be given in the Americas. While slaves were technically property, the Ottomans understood the difference between “mute property” like tables or books, and “property-with-voice” like livestock, which are living and therefore require to be treated well (Seng 139). It certainly did not hurt that the slaves were so expensive that thought of working one to death would not be a good option.

Once a slave was freed, they had the option of returning to their old home, or they could continue to work for their masters in a more equal way, like patron and client. By the time they were freed, they would have been given enough guidance that they could assimilate into the rest of Ottoman society quickly. For one, they would be taught some skills that would help them get by, such as Turkish, various performing arts, and trade. Additionally, the contact with their masters also helps them get ahead, as they would generally be pretty affluent people in the society, so that the slave would be integrated into a larger network of people. In this way, slavery is like a means of social mobility.

Slaves were generally acquired through raids on the outskirts of the empire by traders, in areas like modern-day Poland, the Balkans, and Ethiopia. Slaves were a constantly dwindling resource because they were freed so readily, whereas American slaves were in excess, since they were rarely freed, and any child born to a female slave would become a slave as well, whereas in the Ottoman Empire, if either parent was free, the child would be free too. Another way freedom could be acquired would be if the slave decided to convert to Islam, as the Koran has restrictions on people having slaves of the same religion as them. Christians and Jews were not allowed to have Islamic slaves, as following Islam makes the slaves superior to the other citizens of the empire.

Slavery lasted through the duration of the empire, as there was little resistance. The treatment of slaves was mostly fair, so there was little moral backlash, and slavery was so pivotal to the economy that they could not get rid of it. When attempts were made to remove slavery, there was little enforcement of these rules.


Works Cited

Gamm, Niki. “Slavery among the Ottomans.” Taste of the Past. Hürriyet Daily News, 28 Apr. 2012. Web. 13 Apr. 2017. <>.

Inalcik, Halil. “Servile Labor in the Ottoman Empire”in A. Ascher, B. K. Kiraly, and T. Halasi-Kun (eds), The Mutual Effects of the Islamic and Judeo-Christian Worlds: The East European Pattern, Brooklyn College, 1979, pp. 25-43.

Seng, Yvonne J. “Fugitives and Factotums: Slaves in Early Sixteenth-Century Istanbul.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 39, no. 2, 1996, pp. 136–169.,


Bubescq on Slavery

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