Slavery & Manumission in Ottoman Galata, 1560-72


A review of Slaves without Shackles: Forced Labour and Manumission in the Galata Court Registers, 1560-1572, by Nur Sobers-Khan.

For scholars of the early modern Mediterranean, the captivity and ransoming of Europeans—taken in battle with the Ottomans or in seaborne raids by corsairs affiliated with them—is a perennially popular topic. Far less well understood, however, is what happened to the multitudes brought forcibly to the Ottoman Empire who never returned home. For many, especially those with valued skills, slavery was a temporary condition, one which gave way to manumission and gradual integration into Ottoman society. This was certainly the case in the jurisdiction (kaza) of the court of Galata, the seafaring hub of greater Istanbul which is the focus of Nur Sobers-Khan’s valuable study of early modern Ottoman slavery and manumission practices.

The Ottoman imperial arsenal was located in the kaza of Galata, and it depended on the labor of skilled slaves—such as shipwrights, caulkers, and carpenters—alongside free workers to build the massive numbers of warships needed to realize the Ottoman imperial project in the Mediterranean. Such ships brought the Ottomans victory at naval engagements like the Battle of Jerba in 1560, supported the invasion and conquest of Cyprus in 1570-1, and ultimately brought more captives back to the Ottoman Empire. Those captives joined a diverse community of slaves in Galata, the composition and size of which fluctuated according to the rhythms and direction of Ottoman military efforts on land and sea, the activities of the Tatar slave-raiders north of the Black Sea, and manumission rates. Reflections of that community are preserved in the court registers (şeriyye sicilleri) of Galata, where manumission agreements, inheritance inventories, and other slave-related entries were regularly recorded.

Constructed on the basis of an exhaustive examination of three of the earliest complete surviving registers from the Ottoman court of Galata—14/2, 14/3, and 14/4, together covering the period 1560-1572—Slaves without Shackles catalogues the evidence the court records provide for the origins and employment of enslaved persons in Galata and the patterns of their conversion and manumission. In particular, it argues convincingly that skilled male slaves were ultimately meant to be integrated into Ottoman society as free, adult male Muslims through the extensive use of pre-negotiated manumission contracts (mukātaba). This is an important contribution to a woefully understudied field. Although a number of monographs have been published on Ottoman slavery, these have focused on the late empire or the abolition of the slave trade (e.g., Madeline Zilfi, Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Hakan Erdem, Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and Its Demise, 1800-1909, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996; Ehud Toledano, Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998; idem, The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression: 1840-1890, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982). The early modern period has not received the same level of attention, and has instead largely been approached piecemeal through articles. These have shed light on a variety of topics, but they remain too few in number and scattered in focus to permit extensive generalization or serve as the basis of a synthetic study.

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that local Ottoman court records, like those from Galata utilized by Sobers-Khan, are the richest source available for the study of premodern, non-elite Ottoman slavery. Ottomanists have been profitably exploiting court records to do social and economic history since the 1970s, though slavery has rarely been the object of inquiry. One of the early pioneers of research in Ottoman sicils, Ronald Jennings, published an article in this area (“Black Slaves and Free Blacks in Ottoman Cyprus, 1590-1640,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 31/3 (1987): 286–302), but to date he has been joined by surprisingly few scholars making use of original research in these sources, most notably Suraiya Faroqhi, Halil Sahillioğlu, Yvonne Seng, and Madeline Zilfi. Besides the work under review here, Sahillioğlu’s article (“Slaves in the Social and Economic Life of Bursa in the Late 15th and Early 16th Centuries,” Turcica 17 (1985): 43–112) is the only detailed study of how skilled slaves were employed in Ottoman industry and how manumission contracts were utilized to incentivize quality production, though Sobers-Khan goes much further in documenting this practice for Galata and arguing for its importance in facilitating the integration of former slaves into Ottoman society as free workers. As Sobers-Khan remarks, “it seems odd, and improbable, that the role of slaves in the socioeconomic fabric of the central metropolis of the empire at its height has been overlooked, although this is indeed the case” (p. 24). Slaves without Shackles is thus the first attempt to fill this gap in the scholarship.

The dissertation is organized thematically into five chapters, followed by a brief conclusion. In the first, Sobers-Khan lays the groundwork, describing the historical context, surveying the existing secondary literature, and outlining her methodology. Eschewing the choice between the exclusively “quantitative” or “narrative” methodologies typical of most sicil-based studies (on which see Dror Ze’evi, “The Use of Ottoman Sharīʿa Court Records as a Source for Middle Eastern Social History: A Reappraisal,” Islamic Law and Society 5/1 (1998): 35–56), Sobers-Khan adopts what she calls “textual” and “numerical-empirical” approaches to her sources (p.32). For her, the former entails in-depth analysis of the texts themselves, exploring how word-choice and syntax “may reveal a more nuanced picture of the interactions between the scribe, master, and slave” (p. 32) and provide us with clues as to how the Ottoman legal culture surrounding slavery may have assimilated or built upon Byzantine, Genoese, and earlier Islamic slave-holding and manumission practices. Although well aware of the dangers of quantitative approaches to sicil-evidence, which often result in questionable conclusions owing to their reliance on samples that cannot be assumed to be representative, Sobers-Khan endeavors to sidestep these issues by confining the conclusions based on her “numerical-empirical” analysis to the sample itself. That is, Sobers-Khan attempts to tease out the patterns—of slave origins, values, lengths of service, conversion rates, etc.—within her sample of roughly 600 slaves identified in the three registers without falling into the tempting but perilous trap of presuming that the sample is representative of Galata or the empire at large.

In Chapter 2, Sobers-Khan embarks on a detailed description of the corpus of texts that is the subject of her study. Here and throughout the dissertation, there is a strong focus on the “hybrid” language of the Galata court, which in those years was syntactically Arabic, though informed by Turkish usage and peppered with Turkish words. Galata had not yet made the move to the “Ottoman” legal language, syntactically Turkish but permeated with Persian and especially Arabic words and phrases, that was already prevalent in courts throughout the Turkish-speaking provinces of the empire. This is followed by an extensive discussion of the types of manumissions represented in the registers and their respective importance for understanding the social and economic role of slavery in sixteenth-century Galata. The three registers examined contain entries of primarily two types: muhallafat defterleri (inheritance inventories) and hüccets (suits, legal declarations or notarial entries). Slaves sometimes appear in the former, from which data concerning the value assigned to slave’s bodies may be gleaned, but it is the latter that receive the most attention here.  All three of the registers contain large numbers of slave-related hüccets—for instance, exactly half of the 222 total hüccets in Galata 14/2 (p. 61)—nearly all of which concern manumission.

There were four canonical mechanisms for manumission available: ‘itq/’itaq, unconditional manumission, effective immediately and characterized as a pious act of charity; tadbir, manumission agreed upon in advance, effective upon the death of the master (thus preventing the slave from being included in the deceased’s inheritance inventory); umm walad, in which a female slave who gave birth to a child by her master was to be automatically manumitted upon the master’s death; and finally mukātaba, a manumission contract promising the slave freedom upon the payment of an agreed upon sum (lump or in pre-determined installments), the production of a specified quantity of goods, or after working for a specified period of time. The standard mukātaba contract, in its lump sum form, could also serve “as a convenient legal instrument to record a ransom” (p.87). All the hüccets resulting from these manumissions contain valuable demographic information about slaves that Sobers-Khan skillfully mines in subsequent chapters. However, the mukātaba contract, in its work-release form, is at the center of the dissertation, as it was through these arrangements that skilled slaves could be most reliably employed, especially in the maritime sector.

Chapter 3 explores the question of slave origins and the ways in which court scribes categorized those origins, assigning them standardized ethnic (cins) labels that carried certain expectations about the slave’s appearance, personality, behavior, and suitability for certain tasks. Sobers-Khan suggests that “the descriptors applied to slaves in the court registers perhaps served the purpose of constructing a cins identity, based loosely on actual origin, for the soon-to-be manumitted slave and articulated the possibility of inserting him (or her) into a fictive kinship group” (p.100). The chapter thus operates on two levels. First, it charts the changing geographical origins of Galata’s slave population between 1560 and 1572, the circumstances that led to capture, and conversion rates. It subsequently asks what the origins ascribed to slaves actually signified, integrating research in the works of contemporary Ottoman literary figures, especially Mustafa Ali, to show how the cins labels represented Ottoman bureaucratic-literary “types” (such as the notoriously nonspecific Ifrinji, or “Frankish” label) that carried tremendous cultural freight.

The chapter’s treatment of conversion to Islam (converts being identified by the ibn/bint Abdallah patronymic) is comprehensive, breaking down the values from within her sample across gender and geographic origin. While it is clear that these data cannot be assumed to be representative of conversion rates of slaves at other times or places—or even for Galata as whole—they are nevertheless thought-provoking.  In particular, Sobers-Khan is able to correlate conversion rates with the types of slavery and manumission represented in the registers. Thus, she finds, for example, that slaves who had entered into mukātaba contracts with their owners appear to have converted at a far lower rate than those ultimately freed through other mechanisms of manumission. Armed with the knowledge of when and how they would be released—and that conversion would do nothing to hasten it—such slaves would likely have less motivation to convert than those slaves, male and female, who might expect conversion to lead to better treatment from their masters and a higher probability of freedom (p. 142). Such conclusions are unsurprising, but it is useful to see them so exhaustively documented.  The chapter is followed by a lengthy series of tables, charts and graphs illustrating the gender and geographical origin of the slaves recorded in each of the three register books under study, percentage distributions of gender and origin across the sample and change over time, and finally percentage breakdowns of converted vs. unconverted slaves according to every possible permutation of geographical origin, gender, and type of slavery. Sobers-Khan’s care in arranging these data is readily apparent, and they should be of considerable use to scholars.

Chapter 4 turns to the maritime slave labor force of Galata in the second half of the sixteenth century and the role of the mukātaba contract there. It argues persuasively that most of the mukātab slaves of Galata “were employed in the maritime economy in some respect” and that the mukātaba contract itself was a “meritocratic system, in which the value of slave labour did not differ according to ethnic categories or religion” (p.182). Many of these mukātab slaves were “Franks,” in this instance mostly southern European Catholics taken as prisoners of war in the wake of the Ottomans’ successful naval battles or captured in coastal raids and ship-seizures perpetrated by pirates and corsairs. Although the registers generally do not specify what work mukātab slaves were engaged in, the titles of their owners, the amount of money expected for their freedom, the timing of the contracts, and of course the court’s location in Galata provide clues. Sobers-Khan notes that 34% of the slaves recorded in the registers were owned by men with obvious seafaring titles like captain or admiral (reis, kapudan, etc.), a value that does not include people with more ambiguous titles who might also have been involved in seafaring or auxiliary professions (p.188), and she finds that the size of the monthly installments due from mukātab slaves often tracked with the Mediterranean “sea season,” with larger payments expected in the summer than in the winter. This strong circumstantial evidence, combined with contemporary travel narratives and other literary sources, indicates that the majority of the “Frankish” mukātab slaves of Galata were indeed skilled workers employed in ship-building, sailing, or auxiliary trades.

The mukātaba system, she argues, can “be best understood as a process that involved the forced (or perhaps willing) inculcation of skilled slaves into social and cultural norms of Galata’s households related to seafaring and the Ottoman navy” (p.203). By tying future release to a monetary value to be paid in regular installments rather than to a specified amount of time, it potentially rewarded harder work with a faster release and provided an incentive for slaves to sustain their efforts rather than bide their time doing the bare minimum. Based on the aggregate data from the mukātaba contracts, Sobers-Khan calculates terms of service of 5-6 years (or their monetary equivalent) to be standard (pp. 195-6). By this point, being sufficiently acculturated, promised well-paid work and opportunities for advancement, most manumitted slaves (converted or not) would probably choose to remain in Ottoman society rather than risk attempting to return to uncertain lives in their places of origin.

Like Chapter 3, Chapter 4 is followed by a series of charts and graphs detailing the terms of the mukātaba contracts recorded in the registers, the breakdown by origin of the mukātab slaves within each register, and a particularly interesting line graph representing the relative value of slaves’ labor as recorded in the mukātaba contracts as opposed to the value of slaves’ bodies as recorded in inheritance inventories. Sobers-Khan finds that, over the twelve years surveyed, the value of the average mukātaba contract increased even as the values assigned to slave bodies held steady, reinforcing her claim that “skilled labour cost more than the body of a domestic slave” (p. 251).

Chapter 5 focuses on the manumission documents themselves, analyzing the language and terminology that mediated the slave’s transition to freedom. This includes a discussion of slave onomastics—as converts, male and female Muslim slaves chose or were given new names—and the formulaic physical descriptions of the slave (hilya) required in all documents relating to slaves. Sobers-Khan argues that the scribes’ wording of these descriptions and the legal instruments that contained them was intended to underscore the hierarchical relationship between master and (former) slave. This took on added importance because the manumitted slave, though technically free, was still socially and legally tied to his former master, now as client to patron. As such, the former slave “passed from one form of subjugation to another upon his manumission, occupying a new, and often rather low, place in the social hierarchy of Ottoman Galata” (p. 277).

Sobers-Khan finds that the primarily Arabic hilya patterns used for slaves in the Galata registers match those contained in earlier Hanafi contracts (shurut) manuals composed in Arabic, such as that of the twelfth-century jurist al-Marghinani. She insists, however, that one cannot simply dismiss these descriptions as meaningless formulae included to fulfill the requirements of Hanafi law. The inclusion of descriptions of the slaves’ appearance, scarring, handicaps, and other distinguishing features would have certainly facilitated identification of the person described in the document, which could help authorities apprehend fugitives and prevent the wrongful re-enslavement of the manumitted. But Sobers-Khan suggests that the significance of the hilya ran deeper. In a society obsessed with physiognomy (‘ilm al-firasa), it follows that one must consider what these descriptors actually meant to the manumission document’s audience. Embedded in the formulaic description, the hilya contained a wealth of information about the slave’s perceived personal qualities and aptitudes that was legible to both scribe and slave-owner. Incorporating research in contemporary physiognomic texts and literary works, Sobers-Khan reveals how the appearance of the slave—the orientation of his eyebrows, the color of his eyes, his complexion and height, etc.—was understood to contain within it critical information about his inner qualities and the ability to read these signs was an essential skill for the discerning slave-buyer. “The Ottoman social order expressed itself,” she argues, “by appropriating the sole right to describe the slave’s body and dictating the terms in which the description was recorded, thus establishing the legal hegemony of the Ottoman court over the slave” (p. 312).

The dissertation concludes by summing up the arguments and evidence presented in the preceding chapters. In the conclusion, Sobers-Khan emphasizes her conviction that skilled slavery in sixteenth-century Ottoman Istanbul was intended to be a temporary condition that “consisted of a process of socio-cultural and economic assimilation rather than exclusion” (p. 328). Indeed, one of the major contributions of this dissertation, with its mixture of textual and quantitative analysis of court registers, is its rigorous documentation of such preexisting but largely untested assumptions about the “nature” of Ottoman slavery. As such, it is an important step forward in the study of premodern Ottoman slavery and should serve as a useful springboard for future studies. Furthermore, the increasing accessibility of published Ottoman court registers will undoubtedly accentuate the foundational importance of this sort of philologically- and paleographically-grounded research.

Between 2008 and 2012, İSAM, the research library in Istanbul which houses digital copies of the extant Ottoman court registers from Istanbul and the rest of Turkey, published forty volumes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century court registers from Istanbul-area courts, each volume containing Latin-script transliterations of the entries with modern Turkish summaries, facsimiles of the original texts, and a concordance on CD (İstanbul Kadı Sicilleri, 40 vols, ed. Coşkun Yılmaz, Istanbul: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Araştırmaları Merkezi (İSAM), 2008-12; available online at Nine of the published registers are from Galata (there is no overlap with the registers studied by Sobers-Khan). Likewise, Timur Kuran has recently published a number of topically-divided volumes of transliterated court register entries, with modern Turkish translations and English summaries, resulting from the research he and his assistants carried out in seventeenth-century court registers from Istanbul and Galata (Social and Economic Life in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul: Glimpses from Court Records, 10 vols., Istanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası, 2010-13). In sum, a tremendous amount of source material has now been made available to scholars which—thanks to indices, concordances, and electronic search—can be mined efficiently for evidence relating to any number of topics, slavery included.

Publications of court registers like these will enable researchers to draw on a far larger sample of source material for their studies with minimal paleographical exertion and conceivably permit others to return to Sobers-Khan’s conclusions and test their applicability for other periods and other courts. Nevertheless, the sheer quantity, accessibility, and searchability of this kind of material make her study that much more important. When a researcher can pluck cases effortlessly from the undifferentiated mass, the culture of that court and its scribes and the historical context that produced the register and its entries may be lost in the process. Sobers-Khan’s work gives some indication of what might be missed; it is a valuable primer in how to read court records, what they can and cannot tell us, and the layers of meaning that may be discerned from careful examination of the scribe’s seemingly formulaic word choices. As a study of court registers, their language and the habitus that produced them, Nur Sobers-Khan’s dissertation should be required reading for anyone considering embarking upon a research project grounded in these sources.

Joshua M. White
Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia

Primary Sources

Galata court registers, 14/2-4, İstanbul Müftülüğü Arşivi (originals), İslam Araştırmaları Merkezi (facsimiles)
Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi
Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi
British Library

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2013. 392 pp. Primary Advisor: Charles Melville.


Image: View of Galata and the Imperial Ottoman Bank, Istanbul. Photograph by Abdullah Frères , ca. 1880-1893.

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