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Contested Histories of (Ottoman) Slavery and Race in Turkey

Panel II-20, sponsored byOttoman and Turkish Studies Association, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Slavery and race have long been neglected fields of research in Ottoman and Turkish studies, as both topics have been deemed irrelevant to understanding contemporary Turkey as well as the Ottoman society. This trend has recently begun to change with the surge of interest in the historical entanglements of race, Islam and slavery in the Middle East and beyond. Our panel is in conversation with the burgeoning scholarship on the racialization processes embedded in the institutions of slavery that historically fall outside of the transatlantic model, yet evolve in a dynamic relationship with it. Our presentations critically engage with the history of Ottoman slavery and its legacies and contestations in Turkey by unpacking the strategic forgettings and rememberings of the Ottoman as well as Atlantic slavery. More specifically, we will focus on the overwhelming representation of Atlantic slavery that goes hand in hand with the misrepresentations of Ottoman slavery in mainstream discourses since the early twentieth century. Looking at this socio-historical context will help us dissect how slavery was racialized at the Ottoman court and how racial imaginations that were instilled in the newly founded Republic are utilized in today’s neo-Ottomanist discourses. Covering this long socio-historical arc, our objective is to understand race-making in the longue durée and the enduring legacies of slavery in Turkey.
  • Dr. Baki Tezcan -- Presenter
  • Dr. Ipek K. Yosmaoglu -- Chair
  • Prof. Mostafa Minawi -- Discussant
  • Ezgi Cakmak -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Aysegul Kayagil -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Ezgi Guner -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Ezgi Guner
    During a diplomatic visit to Senegal in 2013, President Erdoğan and his wife visited the Maison des Esclaves, the House of Slaves on the Gorée Island. Located near the coast of Dakar, the Gorée Island is a UNESCO world heritage site known to be a major point of departure in the transatlantic slave export. In this paper, I analyze how the island became a new symbolic site for the condemnation of the West and vindication of the Ottoman past in Africa following the President’s diplomatic visit. As the Movement for Black Lives gained power globally, denying anti-black racism in the past and present of Turkey has become an urgent political necessity. Atlantic slavery was a timely discovery to do just that. It not only served as the ultimate symptom of the racist violence unleashed by the West but helped render anti-black racism a social ill endemic to the Western civilization and alien to the Ottoman-Islamic civilization. Analyzing the historical constructions of European culpability, African suffering and Ottoman innocence, this paper examines the deep connections between commemorating the victims of Atlantic slavery and systemic denial of Ottoman slavery in Turkey.
  • Ezgi Cakmak
    The Ottoman slavery passed to a new phase by the second half of the nineteenth century with the general prohibition of the slave trade in Africans. While discussions of slavery created a controversy for the intellectual and political agenda of the empire, the matter of African enslavement was received more as an international problem that should be handled on the humanitarian ground. Relying upon parliamentary debates and literary pieces of the period, this paper lays out a discussion on the joint formulation of Africanness and slavery in the late Ottoman Empire. It highlights a genealogy of blackness through the currencies, practices, and discourses of the period that casted African bodies as “real slaves” within the Ottoman Empire. In doing so, the paper offers an insight to the history of African enslavement in the Ottoman Empire in a way to follow how that history produced and articulated through a certain set of racialized perceptions and affects around the notion of Africanness. It finally argues that vocabularies and perceptions pertaining to blackness currently were hailing from the history that interlinked to and operated through racialized labor systems of the imperial past.
  • Aysegul Kayagil
    Afro-Turks’ ancestors were brought to the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922) as slaves from various parts of Africa. Despite their longstanding presence, the descendants of these enslaved Africans—today, citizens of the Republic of Turkey—have until recently remained invisible both in the official historiography and in social research. This led to a collective amnesia that resulted in the invisibilization of the Afro-Turk community in the Turkish public imagination, and consequently was utilized in representing “race” as an external category: an imported problem from the West. Alongside race and racialization, discussions on slavery in the Ottoman Empire have also been consistently silenced, or represented as “benign.” The glorification of domestic work as a gateway into “becoming a part of the family,” for instance, obfuscated the truth around female labor and the exploitation of women. These (mis)representations continued to actively occupy an overwhelming space in mainstream discourses and operated in tandem with the erasure of enslaved female labor. Exploring the simultaneous existence and denial of slavery within the Ottoman Empire and of a racialized history in modern Turkey, this paper argues that this trivialization eventually had an impact on the invisibilization of domestic slavery from the studies of labor history and slavery in the region.
  • Dr. Baki Tezcan
    We take it for granted that there were “white” and “black” eunuchs at the Ottoman palace with each group having a different set of tasks and career paths, as well as their own chief eunuch as in the Chief “Black” Eunuch and the Chief “White” Eunuch. This paper aims to unpack how this color-coded division of labor was developed through the racialization of African as well as European eunuchs. Eunuchs had been employed at royal and imperial courts for centuries before the Ottomans. Among Muslim dynasties, one comes across to thousands of eunuchs who were employed at the Abbasid caliphal courts, for instance. As far as the available evidence go, many an African eunuch held governmental positions during the Abbasid era, as well as other Muslim dynastic polities, both in the Middle East and in South Asia. The Ottoman royal family had eunuchs from very early on as attested by some early fourteenth century documents. Unfortunately, the ethnic identity of early Ottoman eunuchs is difficult to ascertain. When we get to the late-sixteenth century, however, the above-mentioned color-coded division of labor seems to have been stabilized. While eunuchs of European origin were employed in the part of the palace where the future Ottoman administrators, generals, and elite soldiers were educated, African eunuchs were exclusively employed in the residential part of the palace where the emperor’s concubines lived and his children were raised. Moreover, while some eunuchs of European origin could receive appointments to posts outside the palace and become, for instance, governors of Egypt, we do not know any African eunuch who was appointed to a governmental position outside the court. This paper argues that the color-coded division of labor at the Ottoman court was not a simple continuation of pre-Ottoman practices of Muslim dynastic courts. To the contrary, it seems to have been developed as a conscious choice to keep African eunuchs’ career prospects limited to the confines of the Ottoman palace. The Ottoman administrators who built this system contributed to the racialization of Africans in the Ottoman Empire as “Black” and qualitatively different from and inferior to “Whites,” which might well have had an impact on their relative undesirability in slave markets.