In the early-modern period, the Ottoman state followed the tendency of European powers of no longer punishing crimes and violations of the public order by the physical destruction of the delinquent, but to place their labor in the service of the public. The prison registers of the Imperial Naval Arsenal in Istanbul document that in some cases minor offenses could result in a condemnation to forced labor on the galleys and at the facilities of the Naval Arsenal. Such cases in particular suggest that law enforcement was seen here as a convenient means of recruit naval workforce that was enormously required due to the ships’ technology, i.e., the use of rowing ships in order to adapt to the nautical conditions in the Mediterranean. Especially during the navigating season of the year, the need for workforce in order to maintain the military dominance at sea was enormous. Thus, naval warfare in the Ottoman Empire was based to a large extent on the use of unfree labor, such as war captives and criminals; a practice which displays a wide range of patterns of human mobility in the Transottoman sphere and its organization by the authorities.
From a perspective of mobility dynamics, this paper investigates the largely unstudied issue of recruitment of criminals for the Ottoman Navy and the function of the Naval Arsenal not only as a military facility, but also as a penal institution; a common practice among the sea powers of the Mediterranean world. The main source for this study are the unpublished prison registers of the Naval Arsenal, in which hundreds of sentences criminals to the galleys (so-called “kürek”) are listed. These entries also offer new insights into private and organized crime in the Ottoman Empire, and the social structure of the Ottoman “underworld”.