Slavery in the Mediterranean: From trade to abolishment

We know in European history, terms like “clientele”, “servants” or “serfs” come up every now and then. But how do we determine if somebody was a “slave” or merely “unfree”? I have the impression that slavery in Europe is mostly overlooked. The only time I see that brought up in public discourse is as a whataboutism to either defame the Black liberation movement or to portray Europeans as victims of foreing religions and people, but never to just study our past.

 

The estimates on the percentage of slaves in Mediterranean societies vary from 5% up to 40%, depending on region, period and definition. This raises questions for the most simple terms. Who was even free? As a mattter of fact, in those days, nobody was “free” in the modern sense of the word. The transition between “free” and “unfree” was fluid, in both directions. You could be “free” in one place, but at another place you had the same rights as a “slave”.

To define slavery, we can take several different things into account: The rights and duties of the enslaved people, their place of origin, or the legal reasons why they were deprived of their freedom. The following is a good working definition we can use here:

“People who are subordinated to others to do work and services for them. Those affected are torn out of their social networks by force and their bodies have been commodified.” (Ott 2014: 34, own translation1)

Let’s have an overview over the slave markets and trade routes of late Antiquity/early Medieval Age. Important trading centers for slaves were in Byzantium, the Caliphates of North Africa and West Asia. Slaves were mostly deported from Central Asia, South East Europe, the Caucasus and from Subsaharan Africa. So the whole slave trade network stretched from Central Asia to Portugal, from Scandinavia to Arabia.

Map of the Medieval slave trade, 9th-11th c. (Rotman 2017)
Map of the Medieval slave trade, 9th-11th (Rotman 2017)

There were various reasons for someone to go into slavery. There are many forms of social and hierarchical dependence that do not necessarily involve violence and do not have a negative connotation per se (Ott 2014: 34). For example the “ghilman” (Arabic for “servants”) were slaves according to our definition, but could also be mercenaries who voluntarily placed themselves in the service of a warlord. Slavery was usually a temporary relationship, for example to pay debts (debt slavery) or to atone for a crime (penal slavery). At that time – unfortunately, today as well – slavery was above all a way to pay debts. People could sell themselves into slavery or they were illegally kidnapped and sold.

“Overall, the sources give the impression that potentially all the communities that populated eastern Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries enslaved their neighbors as soon as the opportunity arose and […] there was sufficient mobility.” (Ott 2014: 41, own translation2)

Slaves were not only traded for local use, but above all as a commodity to redistribute, for example along the Silk Road to the Samanid Empire. Enslaved people were a valuable commodity. The price for a slave was on average around 20-30 gold coins. To visualize the profitability of the slave trade of that time, according to Youval Rotman (2014) a slave’s market value was equivalent to
– a house in Constantinople,
– 3 stores in Constantinople,
– an annual income of a civil servant
– 6 times of a worker’s annual income

Mamelukes and janissaries, military slaves in the Ottoman Empire, were able to enjoy great social prestige. They could generate their own entourage and become so powerful that they could be a potential threat to the state authorities . One of the most famous cases of a janissary that revolted against the Ottomans was Vlad III Draculea.

Another misconception is the idea that slave trade was an exclusive industry of certain ethnic or religious groups. Every religion was represented among the slaves and slave traders. It was not until the 9th century that it became increasingly taboo to enslave “brothers and sisters in faith”. It happened nevertheless. The reason why the slave market was transferred to the “pagans” and “barbarians” from the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia was not denominational:

In these regions, the centralization of power was not as advanced as in the rest of Europe (Ott 2014: 42). The denominational differences — note that there were Christians in those areas — might have provided a moral excuse, but the practical political factors were the reason why they colonized and enslaved these people. Religious affiliation, as well as national affiliation per se, played no role here.

From the 13th century onwards, new centers for the slave trade emerged in Western Europe, especially on the Iberian Peninsula. Italy, too, became a new power in the global slave market and finally replaced Byzantium. In colonialism a new factor emerged that would change the slave market and world history: The concept of race.

It is no novelty that more “exotic” slaves were more expensive. In Egypt, for example, European slaves were 50% more expensive than African slaves. In the Italian markets, slaves were soon judged by physiognomic characteristics and haggled over accordingly. “Turkish” slaves were valued for their courage. Female slaves from the Caucasus were sought after as sex servants and were more expensive than other female slaves (sexual violence nevertheless affected everyone equally).

The Ottoman Empire continued to obtain its slaves from imports, while Byzantium lost its importance as a trading center and increasingly resorted to local slave markets and, from the 16th century onwards, to trade with pirates.

Pirates were an important factor for the slave trade but also for the general politics and economy in the Mediterranean area and beyond.  Governments have paid pirates to spare certain trade routes or to sabotage foreign ones. There were organizations and walthy individuals who bought slaves from pirates. On the one hand, they could free fellow believers from the yoke of slavery under a nonbeliever, on the other hand, there was a catch to their alleged Christian charity: The victim owed their liberator. They and their families had to pay the debt or the slave was sold back to the market. The fact that pirates sold their slaves for a higher price than the regular market made the debt even higher.

Until the abolition of slavery, slaves remained an important market commodity. Great Britain abolished slave trade in 1807 and put the merchants on the same level as pirates, who – as already mentioned – were nevertheless an economic factor, especially because slavery in itself continued to exist. The Slavery Abolition Act was not passed until 1833, although they were relatively progressive compared to the other colonial powers (for comparison: France in 1848, Portugal in 18653, Spain in 1880).

The Ottoman Empire lost its slave colonies in North Africa to France, meanwhile the British Empire gained control over the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Under pressure of the international abolition movement, the Ottoman Empire abolished slavery in 1891.

Forms of slavery in the Mediterranean area are a largely overlooked topic. One of the reasons is that European slavery was studied with the same standard as the transatlantic area, which contributed to rough comparisons and dangerous trivializations. Slavery — or rather “slaveries” — were a core component of Mediterranean economy, politics and history.

 

(Updated December 10th, 2020)

Notes:

1 “Menschen, die sich in die Verfügungsgewalt anderer bef[i]nden um Arbeit und Dienste für sie zu leisten. Die beroffenen sind unter Anwendung von Zwang aus ihren sozialen Netzen herausgerissen und Ihre Körper zu einem Tauschmittel gemacht worden”. (Ott 2014: 34).

2 “In der Gesamtschau vermitteln die Quellen den Eindruck, dass potentiell alle Gemeinschaften, die im 9. und 10. Jahrhundert das östliche Europa bevölkerten, ihre Nachbarn versklavten, sobald sich nur die Gelegenheit dazu bot und man […] ausreichend mobil war.“ (Ott 2014: 41)

3 Britain forced Portugal to abolish slavery in Brazil as early as 1950.

Literature:

    • Ott, Undine (2014): Europas Sklavinnen und Sklaven im Mittelalter: eine Spurensuche im Osten des Kontinents. Werkstatt Geschichte 66/67, p. 31-53.
    • Rosu, Felicia (2016): Muslim slaves in early modern Europe: a forgotten history of slavery.  Leiden Islam Blog (Link
    • Rotman, Youval (2014): Forms of Slavery in Mediterranean History.
    • Rotman, Youval (2016): The Medieval Mediterranean slave trade.  In: Trade in Byzantium: Papers from the Third International Sevgi Gönül Byzantine Studies Symposium.