(LMU München/Boğaziçi Üniversitesi Istanbul)
Slave Agencies in the Ottoman and Mughal Empires
Slavery being a worldwide phenomenon, the time has come for Ottoman historians to look at Ottoman slavery in a broader context than our discipline has usually attempted to do. As the early modern Ottoman polity cum economy was not a capitalist formation, it seems sensible to examine the Ottoman variety of slavery in connection with its counterpart in another major non-capitalist empire, rather than in conjunction with slavery in the Americas and the infamous transatlantic Middle Passage.
The Indian world seems a good choice, as a variety of slave types existed that are familiar to the historian of Ottoman slavery as well. Thus, we find military slaves of the Mamlūk type in the Deccan of the 1500s and 1600s. In addition, slavery in the harems of grandees occurred both in the Ottoman and Indian contexts. Most of these harem slaves were females, who performed personal services for their mistresses but who might be the concubines of male grandees as well. In South Asia, slave women working as singers and dancers might gain reputations that their Ottoman counterparts seemingly did not enjoy. The employment of eunuchs at the courts of Ottoman sultans and Mughal emperors makes the two types of slavery even more comparable. Given variants of Ottoman slavery on the one hand, and a large variety of early modern slaveries practiced in South Asia on the other, confronting the two sets of practices helps us understand what slavery might mean (or not mean) in two early modern empires, both extensive in size and non-capitalist in character.
Highly developed bureaucracies ran both the Ottoman and the Mughal empires, leaving paper trails for historians to follow. Admittedly, these archives have survived far better in the Ottoman than in the Mughal case, to say nothing of the Deccan sultanates, from which only a small number of documents have come down to us. Even so, the Deccan is of interest for our survey because in the 1500s and 1600s, in this region we find numerous instances of military slavery, important in Ottoman Egypt too but unknown in the Mughal Empire.
In all Muslim empires including the realms of the Ottomans and Mughals, as well as the Deccan sultanates, Islamic religious law (şeriat, sharia) was a highly respected legal tradition, governing slavery as well as many other matters. However, Ottoman and Mughal/ Indian interpretations of this law could differ vastly, and particularly, the question of who could – legitimately or otherwise – turn another human being into a slave received very different answers.
Apart from a common deference to Islamic law, the Ottoman and Mughal empires shared certain characteristics of governance, including a theoretically absolute ruler, although in both polities, some monarchs were figureheads in reality. At least for a while, the two dynasties moreover shared the rule that when a monarch died, the princes of an age to fight for the succession had the right and indeed the obligation to do so. With respect to slavery, the rivalries between princes are relevant because these men maintained large households, doubtless containing many slaves, whose fates thus depended upon the victory or defeat of their owners. In addition, some of the prisoners of war captured in the battles between princes might end up as slaves though originally free men.
Slavery and slave-like service to the sultan played a central role in the organization of Ottoman government, although its role in the working world was mostly limited to household service. As slavery was not of overall significance in agriculture, trade and manufacturing, the entire issue seems to have attracted attention only with the rise of the tertiary sector in Turkey, which is a recent development, and with the gradually increasing interest in women’s history. Perhaps in addition, the current discussion has benefited from a growing interest in palace culture the world over. While not all royal courts relied on the services of slaves, the phenomenon was frequent enough for historians dealing with ‘court studies’ to develop an interest in slavery.
In the South Asian context, the connection between court life and slavery is less obvious: thus the standard work on the emergence of the early Mughal harem, by Ruby Lal, has no index entry mentioning slaves or slavery. Even so, in the later sixteenth century, Akbar’s associate Abū’l-Faẓl ‘Allamī refers to the large number of serving women in the imperial harem, and recently, Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi has assigned to these people the large courtyard in Akbar’s residence of Fatehpur Sikri that earlier historians had considered a bazaar. Presumably, many of these palace women being slaves, the manumission decreed by the empress Nūr Jahān (1577-1645) becomes especially meaningful.
Perhaps the issue of slavery, which after all has become popular among Ottoman historians only during the last twenty to thirty years, in the future will interest more historians of South Asia given the emergence of world history as a separate discipline. For this development has encouraged historians to view the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires as social formations that had significant features in common, including the major role of slavery in the ‘luxury service sector’ but not in commerce, agriculture or craft production. Who knows, maybe this short survey can even contribute, albeit very modestly, to stimulate interest in this issue.
Vortrag in englischer Sprache
Zeit & Ort
28.11.2019 | 18:00 c.t.
Freie Universität Berlin
Seminarzentrum, Raum L 115
Habelschwerdter Allee 45