New Perspectives on Slavery, Abolition, and Race in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman World and Beyond
Panel VIII-20, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am
Building on the existing literature on slavery, abolition, and race in the Ottoman world that has flourished in the last decades, the presenters of this panel aim to demonstrate the state-of-the-field by each’s unique contribution. Drawing from previously untapped sources and utilizing a variety of methods, this panel centers on the nineteenth-century Ottoman world. The first three papers tackle questions pertaining to the end of slavery. The first paper charts the manifold histories of Africans from enslavement to manumission through a central focus on guesthouses - temporary housing for manumitted Africans. It reads the network of Ottoman guesthouses as centers of detainment within an emerging space of surveillance and further suggests that the break between enslavement and manumission was tenuous, at best. The following paper examines the Ottoman efforts to restrain the slave trade and facilitate the manumission of the remaining enslaved people in the Ottoman provinces of Trablusgarb and Benghazi and argues that the population of servile status appropriate the legal logic of the state to claim their freedom and gain rights. The third paper focuses on black-Afro-European abolitionism through the voices of Morettis-Sub-Saharan children “rescued” from slavery by missionaries but then brought and raised in Europe, bringing up a bottom-up perspective on the end of slavery discussion. The last two papers zoom in on practices of enslavement within dyadic relationships between free and enslaved children, senior and junior enslaved Africans, and enslaver and enslaved. In this vein, the next
paper highlights the underexamined experiences of enslaved children within elite Ottoman Istanbul households and contends with the presumed innocuity of play, amusement, and games within the confines of enslavement. In examining an enslaved child’s relation to others in and outside of the household, the paper interrogates ownership of a child by a child. The final paper attends to the life histories of Black eunuchs in the nineteenth-century Ottoman harem through a court record case concerning the murder of a Black eunuch by another Black eunuch. By tracing the information surrounding the case, it reveals how the murder became source material for constructing a loathsome archetype of Black eunuchs.In bringing together sources such as Ottoman and British archival documents, court records, newspaper articles, memoirs, missionary sources, ego documents, and methodologies from gender and sexuality studies, literary studies, and Black studies, this panel encourages a reconsideration of key points in the histories and narratives of the late Ottoman Empire.
On September 4, 1888, a murder took place on the premises of Yıldız Palace. Nedim Agha, the senior black eunuch, shot with a revolver and killed another black eunuch, Firuz Agha, who was his junior in rank. After the legal investigation, Nedim Agha was immediately put on trial, both before military and sharia courts, convicted, and publicly hanged in Besiktas, one of the central neighborhoods of Istanbul. Information on this incident comes from various sources, including archival records, newspaper clippings, and contemporary memoirs. A closer look at these sources suggests that there was a more general tendency among the authors of newspaper articles and memoirs to reduce black eunuchs to loathsome characters along the lines of gender, race, and sexuality, while archival sources assist us on other matters on which the historical record of the Ottoman nineteenth century is relatively silent: the daily lives of black eunuchs and their interaction with each other. Moreover, the inheritance registers of Nedim and Firuz Aghas provide a window through which we can gather information about their personalities, thus allowing us to engage with questions pertaining to the agency of enslaved Africans.
Upon signing and ratifying an 1880 convention with the British Empire for the suppression of the African slave Trade, the Ottoman Empire was tasked with ensuring the "liberation" of enslaved Africans within its domains and "to see that they are properly cared for". Over the course of the next decade, the Empire sought to establish a network of guesthouses in and across the Mediterranean by linking areas such as Istanbul, Bingazi, Trablusgarb, Cidde, and Hudeyde to the central guesthouse in Izmir. Given the supposed impossibility of sending enslaved Africans back to their homes, the guesthouses were constructed as temporary housing and schools, where gender classification determined what labor and instruction Africans were to receive. Among those counted as men, those appropriate for work would be registered at the Industrial School and registered for the Ottoman army; those counted as women would be (re)trained as salaried domestic servants to be given to Islamic households. Moreover, for those who married among themselves, proper housing was to be constructed in Izmir's neighborhoods and they would be resettled there.
Extant literature on the guesthouses is sparse; extensive archival documentation on a single guesthouse has, thus far, proved elusive. While writing a single history of a guesthouse might appear impossible, through a plurality of Ottoman and British archival documents produced in relation to the guesthouse network, this study gathers the fractured histories of splintered pasts to read the guesthouses as a yet-to-be-considered site of containment that emerges within an inter-imperial matrix of surveillance across the Mediterranean. Moreover, by focusing on the quotidian elements of African livelihoods and prospects within and outside of the guesthouse, this study highlights the entanglement of slavery and liberation as evinced by enduring modes of African servitude. The intellectual scaffolding of this paper draws from, among others, African diaspora studies, gender studies, cultural studies, literary studies, and Black studies.
The Ottoman Empire banned the African slave trade in 1857 in the context of the implementation of legal and administrative reforms but also under British diplomatic pressures. Despite this prohibition, traffickers still brought hundreds of enslaved West-African men and women to the Ottoman provinces of Tripoli and Benghazi (nowadays Libya) located at the frontier of the Greater Sahara. While struggling to curb this illicit trade, the local authorities facilitated the manumission of the remaining slaves. Moreover, Istanbul provided the manumitted people with some resources for their inclusion in Ottoman society. In this presentation, I will study the process of manumission and reinsertion from the enslaved people’s own narratives. The petitions in Turkish and Arabic that these enslaved men and women signed and that are held in Ottoman archives give insight into their agency and their ability to speak up and gain rights. How did the remaining population of servile status appropriate the legal-rational logic of the state to claim freedom? How did the people with slave backgrounds engage with the imperial social policy? This bottom-up approach to the end of human bondage reveals the entanglement of old and new patterns of manumission in the era of abolition as well as the social integration of these liberated slaves within Ottoman society during the reform era.
In 1848, the French Second Republic abolished slavery. Credit for this was given mostly to the politician and journalist Victor Schoelcher. Forty years later, Pope Leo XIII started a catholic campaign against slavery, at the head of which he placed the well known French Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, archbishop of Algiers and Carthage (Tunis). In both cases, the protagonists were apparently only Europeans. In this paper I will try to step outside this traditional Eurocentric narrative to emphasize some of “Moretti”’s unknown stories. Hailing mostly from Sudan and Lake Tchad, these “Moretti” were Sub-Saharan children “rescued” from slavery by missionaries but then brought and raised in Europe. Some of them joined the anti-slavery campaign when they grew up, providing a peculiar double Afro-European perspective. I will emphasize the contribution of two of them, who became among the first black African Catholic priests of contemporary times: Jean-Pierre Moussa (1815-1860) and Daniele Sorur Pharim Den (1860-1900). The first one was born in Senegal, studied in France, returned to his country and then spent the rest of his days in Haiti; he spoke against slavery at the very end of 1847 and then denounced the link between slavery and colonialism, which took away freedom from African people. Sorur was born in South Sudan and raised at the Collegio Urbano of Propaganda Fide in Rome. A former slave in Sudan, he spoke and wrote against slavery and claimed for himself and for other African intellectuals the right to be protagonists of their continent's future.