As in the case of many other regions in the Mediterranean, public slaves were kept in the Ottoman State. Istanbul was a city that had harbored people of slave status since the Byzantine Empire. Apart from the slaves used for household service, slaves for public service were also part of the social structure of the city. Whereas distinguished captives were released in exchange for a ransom, soldiers were used as slaves.

After the Turks started to rule the city, the slave population of Istanbul continued to exist. As the capital city and the most populous city of the Ottoman State, Istanbul was also the city with the largest slave population, as it was the center of government industry. The slave population was divided into two groups: private and public slaves. Private slaves came from the slave market in exchange for payment of a price and were employed in private houses, in which they also lived. These slaves, who ended up in Istanbul as the result of a number of different situations, served in their owners’ houses or work places and generally blended into society. Since these slaves generally lived in houses, after payment of their taxes, almost no records about them were kept. Slaves who were reserved as part of the sultan’s share stayed under the control of the state from the time they first arrived in the city.

The provision of slaves was a system which the Ottoman State approached with care, with a logistic and financial network being established to this end. Slaves who could be employed in state facilities or could easily be put to work were brought by land or sea from the north, south or the west. One of the responsibilities of the governors, commanders, captains and other high-ranking officials of the government was to send the sultan’s share of the slaves, or those who would be use, to the capital city. Even the grand vizier, the highest ranking officer in the government, was responsible for enlisting and sending captives to Istanbul. In addition to this long standing system, slave trade bringing slaves from Africa, the Caucuses and the Northern Steppes was also a mechanisms providing slave to the capital city. As wars and invasions diminished in strength and frequency, the slave trade became the only means of supplying slaves.

Prisoners of war brought to Istanbul were delivered to the Tersane Eminliği (Chief of the Naval Docks). In the lists that were kept in this facility it was stated 1) who had sent a certain group of slaves, 2) the origin of the group, 3) and how many slaves were in the group. In the first examples of these lists that are extant, the total number and all the names of the slaves are provided. Over time, the origin of these names and physical characteristics were inscribed in the notebooks as well, and the place that was taken up by a captive’s entry in a document was somewhat enlarged. Captives who were delivered to the Tersane-i Amire were later determined to be employed as oarsmen, tailors, carpenters or rope makers, and this new job would be noted in one word in the space on the record book’s page where their names and physical descriptions were given. Records of private slaves were kept in the Gümrük Eminliği (Imperial Customs Office). Those slaves who had been paid for at customs would then be sent to the slave bazaar.

Captives brought to the city were usually kept together in order to be ready quickly in case it was necessary for the government to make an exchange. However, most of them fell into the hands of private persons until a peace treaty was signed. On these occasions, if captives were scattered to various places, the government issued a general order to offer partial compensation if the captives were taken from their owners. As a rule, once a slave became Muslim, they were not returned. The government’s release of war captives did not constitute a problem as long as the captives remained Christian. Captives were sometimes employed in the houses of the pashas as servants, but the Ottoman government tried to prevent these kinds of abuses, paying strict attention to keep these captives together, as they had the potential of being exchanged; it was also necessary that these captives be treated well until they were exchanged.

1- Istanbul slave market also known as women bazaar (Allom)

Almost all of the captives who were kept and worked in the Tersane were subjects from European Christian states. Seldom, if ever, did people of other nationalities work as the sultan’s slaves. Particularly during or after eastern campaigns, Persian or North African captives could be found in the Tersane prison, and Ottoman citizens who had come from a region that had rebelled could also be found among the slaves owned by the state. Slaves from peoples along the Black Sea region were usually brought to the city by the slave trade.

Slaves trained in every kind of profession, of all ages and of every ethnicity were sent to Istanbul in order to provide staff for public institutions. These people were sent to the city, and then delivered to the Tersane Eminliği by the state and sancak (provincial) directors, where they were interviewed. The jobs assigned to them were recorded above their names in the register.

Captives who were kept in the Tersane in the winter or in galleon ships during the summer were listed according to mevacib (tri-monthly salary) or eşkal (descriptive) notebooks. Even though it was normal to see names recorded in the eşkal records, the number of nefer (private/soldier), as well as the daily amount for each person were also recorded. The number of oarsmen who were prisoners or felons and who had been sent to ships of the imperial navy were regularly kept, as were tallies of the sick and injured. The number and qualities of the captives employed in public service were also stated.

Captives could be easily noticed as they were kept together. It was possible to come across public captives all around the city. Around the palace, in the Tersane and Tophane (artillery), in the bazaar or at the construction site of a vizier’s palace, it could immediately be understood the kind of business in which these individuals were employed. Their status within the city’s social structure could immediately be discerned from their clothing, from their chains if they were wearing them, and from their baratas (a long red Ottoman piece of clothing).

The slaves who were foreign to the city were not encouraged to mix with the Muslim population in Istanbul. Moreover, the conversion of a Christian captive to Islam was not preferable, as this meant a loss in manpower. Public slaves would mix with Istanbul residents only when they went to the market to take care of material needs or when they were brought into the neighborhoods to work. This latter situation, however, would only be for a short time, and the slaves would remain at a distance from the residents. A limited kind of communication would take place when captives were buying something from the craftsmen or when a charitable Istanbul resident provided sadaka (charity) to pay for the ransom of a slave.

The situation of household slaves was quite different from that of public slaves. Slaves who lived with their owners were able to blend into society. Slaves lived within the privacy of the houses in which they served, usually converting to Islam and completing their lives as Muslims. These people who lived as private slaves only became apparent in public if there was an inheritance trial or if they applied for emancipation.

2- The chief eunuch and a concubine taken to the palace as slaves (Castellan)

Even though the slave population of Istanbul generally fluctuated, with the help of various sources its size at different points in time can be determined. The most reliable form of information is undoubtedly the reports from the Venetian ambassador. Halil İnalcık states that these reports demonstrate the total population of slaves, war captives and spoils in Istanbul was 60,000 in 1568, and 100,000 in 1609; these figures were equivalent to 1/50 of the city’s population. The population of war captives was far below this number, so much so that the resulting captive manpower gap in state enterprises had to be filled with slaves bought from the slave bazaars. Rinaldo Marmara narrates in his four texts that the number of captives was 4,000 in 1583, between 2,000 and 4,000 in 1592, 2,000 in 1664 and 3,000 in 1695. Although most of these people were slaves of the sultan, statesmen were also known to have kept large numbers of slaves. For instance, it has been related that one of the courtiers of Suleyman I, İskender Çelebi, possessed 6,000 to 7,000 slaves. Sources also indicate that as there were no military campaigns in winter, approximately 2,000 Christian prisoners of every nationality, who in a different season would have been sent to the navy, were kept in the Tersane prison. Another 1,500 captives were either away on a campaign in galleons in Rhodes, employed transporting stone for construction projects in Istanbul, or in various prisons in the city.

During the Byzantine Era, public slaves in Constantinople were kept in a dungeon in Pera, while under the Ottomans they lived in a Tersane prison known as the banyol. Captives lived here with another group who were employed to meet the manpower need, the felons. There were prison houses in other places of the city, but it was more convenient to take captives from this place, close to Tersane to the workshops and galleons where they worked. Here all the captives that helped to construct galleons, such as carpenters, caulkers, oar makers, potters, rope makers, were pressed into service in the morning. Because captives belonging to the military and executive classes of the countries at war with the Ottomans could be useful at any minute, they would not be sent to these types of labor, but instead were kept away from the slave centers in neighborhoods like Rumelihisarı, Yedikule or other places, which would not require them to be constantly transferred.

The clothing of the captives needed to be distinctive so that their identity could be understood at a glance. For that reason, captives wore uniforms, forced to change from their former clothes. Just as the Italian galleon volunteers were ordered to sport a moustache, shackled captives were ordered to shave their faces and heads, while other captives had to keep the hair on their heads.

One of the most important symbols of Istanbul’s slave trade was the slave bazaar. Along with those of Crete, the slave bazaar located near the Grand Bazaar during the Byzantine Era in Constantinople was one of the most important slave bazaars of the region. In time, however, the slave bazaar moved to the area known as Tavukpazarı, located between the Grand Bazaar and Nuruosmaniye; the market remained there until the seventeenth century.

Parades of captives were typical scenes of daily life in Istanbul. After a successful military campaign, the most powerful evidence of victory would be these captives, who paraded through various parts of the city before being presented to the sultan. The captives would be marched in front of the residences of the foreign ambassadors and envoys, serving a psychological purpose in addition to providing a clear motivational objective to raise the morale of the public during wartime. These captive people, linked to each other by chains attached to iron rings around their necks, and marching in lines in their military costumes, were a familiar spectacle for the residents of Istanbul.

Even though details about the employment of private slaves were often obscure and not recorded, we do know that public slaves were generally employed as oarsmen in ships or in the Tersane, where they would be involved in ship construction. The living standards of the slaves employed under difficult circumstances, such as in the ship galleys, were very poor -much worse than for the private slaves- and the death rate among these slaves was quite high. Some of the captives that were employed in agriculture, weaving, mining or construction would be taken on as Enderun students, or in ehl-i hıref, an institution that consisted of distinguished artists and craftsmen, such as poets, goldsmiths, book binders, potters, carpenters, clerks, damask makers and translators; even though these people were affiliated to the sultan, they were essentially free. This was the most remarkable part of the slave population, which formed a significant part of the social strata of Istanbul. The Ottoman palaces were an important place of employment in which captive labor was utilized. Jobs in the palace offered a more positive working environment and were more convenient for the captives, in comparison to other employment areas. The Ottoman palaces were at the same time the one and only place where women worked as public slaves.

Household slaves had greater opportunity to be emancipated than public slaves. Communication with their master raised a slave’s chances of being emancipated, and there were also some social conventions concerning when and how certain slaves could be emancipated. Some slaves would make an agreement, known as a mukatabe, with their master. According to this agreement, if the slave served a predetermined length of time, they would receive a certificate of emancipation from a qadi. In this way, the owner of the slave earned back the price he had paid for the slave. Even though there was a similar system for public slaves, it was not very prevalent. This difference was logical: because the system would only create a loss instead of a gain in valuable manpower, this practice only made sense in cases where the slave was elderly. While some of the slaves who were emancipated returned to their countries, some others stayed in Istanbul and carried out the jobs they had learned while they were slaves. It is known that the European public usera (slaves) in particular started to mix with the Latin community and to live in Pera. Some of them converted to Islam and lived the rest of their lives in Istanbul.

This slave population, which constituted one of the social layers in Istanbul, existed until the end of the Ottoman State, even though it is true that slavery practices were also gradually dying out at the same time.


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This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.