Slavery in the Ottoman Empire
The comparatively mild character of Turkish slavery was due to the fact that slaves were not valued primarily for the economic usefulness of their labor. Slaves were used instead to satisfy the desire of upstart Ottoman notables (often slaves themselves) to accumulate a large household of attendants, thus attesting to their own personal greatness. Moreover, since a numerous, well-equipped, and loyal slave household helped to assure a great man’s personal safety, precautionary considerations impelled every Turkish magnate to treat his slaves with at least a modicum of generosity and kindness.
Slaves in Ottoman society, therefore, were primarily personal servants and bodyguards. Slave women also regularly played the role of concubine, and mothered the heirs of the Turkish ruling class. The great dignitaries directed the affairs of Ottoman society, especially statecraft and war, through their slave households. This meant that slaves managed important facets of Ottoman life. In particular, the imperial slave household administered the secular side of the sultan’s government, and constituted the backbone of the sultan’s field army.
Individuals who survived capture and the hardships of transport to the urban slave markets entered a strange, rich, wonderful new world. They migrated from remote, isolated, and often poverty-stricken villages to the metropolitan center of Ottoman civilization itself. The new style of life which opened to their eyes, with all its pomp and luxury, sophistication and scope, had wide appeal. This is not surprising, for the slave career among the Turks was sometimes extremely advantageous. The most powerful and wealthy men of the empire were slaves of the imperial household. Slaves commanded the Ottoman armies, governed the provinces, and framed the policy of the Ottoman state. Rise to the pinnacle of the Ottoman power structure was always unusual, of course; yet in the households of the great, even the humblest slave enjoyed, if only as a spectator, a richly variegated experience of the great world.
In the 15th and 16th centuries [C.E.], the energy and formidability of the Ottoman polity, the vigor of its officials, and the valor of it soldiers depended upon massive enslavement of peasant sons drawn from the fringes of the territories under Ottoman influence. Simple peasant boys, once drafted into the imperial household, were systematically trained for the tasks of defending, extending, and governing one of the world’s greatest empires, all on behalf of a monarch half-slave himself.
A career open to talents—wide open—regularly tended to project men of unusual abilities to the top of the official ladder; and so long as authority within the Ottoman state continued to be wielded by men who well remembered their peasant childhood, the bias of officials’ actions and inactions tended to show a modicum of sympathy for the peasantry whence they, as individuals, had sprung.
This meant, in particular, that the high officials of the Ottoman Empire exhibited a general will to enforce legal limits upon the goods and services a Muslim landholder could require from the peasants living on the lands granted to him in return for military service with the sultan’s army. A built-in tension between the sultan’s slave officials and the Muslim cavalrymen and fief holders resulted. It was from such a balance that both the sultan’s personal power and the welfare of the Balkan peasantries under the sultan’s administration proceeded. As long as this balanced tension was maintained, the Ottoman polity remained formidable.