Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. – Review

Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. – Review – book review

Michel M. Mazzaoui

Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. By Ehud R. Toledano. (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 185. $18.00.)

The author of this book acknowledges that a seemingly large part of the material presented in this study has appeared before now in several of his own publications, listed in the preface and in the bibliography. In fact, Ehud R. Toledano’s earliest publication, The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression, carries almost the same title as the present volume. In one place he states: “These were either thoroughly revised, updated with few changes, or just reassessed in light of recent research. In some cases, sections were taken out of articles and woven into the narrative of other chapters” (xi). Referring to certain items in the text, the author adds in a footnote, “substantially revised versions of the last three items are woven into various parts of the present book” (136).

These and other such “confessions” should not detract from the ultimate value of putting together in one volume the end product of several years of research on a topic that still engages and fascinates the modern reader. At least one thing Toledano finally puts to rest, namely the romanticized concept of the Ottoman harem system, which he shows was chiefly the result of many a European traveler’s fertile imagination!

In addition to military-administrative slavery, the author distinguishes other forms of slavery: the Kul/ Harem system, agricultural slaves, and domestic slavery. He accomplishes this in an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. Aside from passing references to earlier periods, the discussion is limited to the situation as it existed during the nineteenth century and its abolition before the First World War.

The introduction, “Ottoman Slavery and the Slave Trade,” deals in general terms with slavery and challenges many of the standard writers on the subject (e.g., Inalcik, Pipes, Findley, Patterson, and Lewis) regarding the question of the servility of slaves. Several times the reader is asked to see “further below”–a rather disruptive request!

The first two chapters deal with Kul/ Harem slavery, which was by far the most important aspect of the Ottoman slave system. There are special sections on African eunuchs and slave dealers. Also included here is the firsthand report (in translation from the original Turkish text) of the story of a Circassian slave-girl that Toledano had published in a previous article.

Agricultural slavery is dealt with in the third chapter, where the story is told of large groups of Circassians, “ostensibly Muslim,” who were thrown out of southern Russia and then showed up in Ottoman territory to become what the author refers to as “agricultural slaves” (84). A historical background section on Russian-Ottoman confrontation in the Caucasus region would have been welcome to help explain the exodus of Circassians from that region; an aspect of the problem is still with us, in the issue of Chechnya.

In Chapter four, the author reviews the reform policies of the Ottoman government (the so-called Tanzimat), and how these policies ultimately led to the abolition of the institution of slavery. Chapter five, which is perhaps the most useful chapter for the researcher on Ottoman and general Middle Eastern slavery, brings the reader up-to-date on recent publications on the subject. Rather immodestly, Toledano includes himself writing, “My own ventures into the suppression of the Ottoman slave trade … have attempted to rescue the topic from the oblivion it does not merit” (138). The concluding section, “Ottoman Slavery in World Slavery” attempts to place the topic within a wider context, but Toledano gives up that exercise and quickly returns to make further comments on some of the points made earlier in the discussion.

The book would have benefited from a glossary of technical terms, especially those in Turkish and Arabic, for there are scores of such terms in italics throughout the book. The index is rather skimpy and needs to be more comprehensive.

Toledano’s book will become a standard work on the subject together with Leslie P. Peirce’s The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (1993). Both studies seem to be quite indispensable for a proper understanding of the subject.

Michel M. Mazzaoui University of Utah

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