Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Slavery in the Ottoman (and the British) Empire

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Thus far, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's writings about slavery have only been examined in a very limited way. In recent critical work on Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters, scholars frequently argue that her text represents a feminist departure from previous male writings that are suffused with Orientalist tropes and lascivious assertions about the enslavement of Turkish women. (1) Montagu challenges this Orientalist tradition by representing elite Ottoman women as "the only free people in the Empire" (2) because of their control over property, their autonomy in specifically female spaces like the bathhouse and the harem, and the anonymity and concomitant sexual liberty offered to them by the wearing of veils. Responding to these aspects of the text, Srinivas Aravamudan asserts that Montagu "inaugurates a phantasmatic identification with Turkish aristocratic womanhood." (3) In his reading of the well-known letter depicting the Turkish bath, he also argues that Montagu constructs a scene in which "the European aristocratic woman is momentarily rendered the slave, while the object of her reflection, Turkish ladies of quality, are seen as completely unfettered. Female subjectivity is divided down the middle, revealing agency all on one side and subjection all on the other.' (4) Aravamudan astutely demonstrates how Montagu's feminist project hangs upon idealized representations of her elite Ottoman counterparts, which she uses to contrast with her own relative--and metaphoric--enslavement within her marriage and, more generally, within the confines of oppressive English laws and customs.

While scholars have consistently noted the extent to which Montagu's feminism is bound and limited by her investments in class hierarchy, they have not generally devoted much attention to the substantial portions of her text that depict actual slaves in the Ottoman Empire. In these passages, Montagu consistently represents herself as an authority on and admirer of Ottoman slave institutions. Scholars have generally overlooked how much Montagu's idealized vision of her elite Ottoman counterparts hinges upon her appreciation for the way they select, maintain, and control large retinues of mostly female slaves. For this reason, I propose that Montagu's work is in need of a rigorous post-colonial critique that is willing to confront the enormous human tragedies spawned by Ottoman slave institutions, to which Montagu and, for the most part, her critics, simply turn a blind eye.

By taking account of slavery in the Ottoman world, we can reappraise Montagu's texts on Turkey with the understanding that they describe contact zones in which female elites from two very different and powerful slave-holding empires encounter each other. In this way, we can delineate Montagu's admiration for Turkish slave institutions without losing sight of the fact that Montagu herself traveled as part of a diplomatic entourage representing a British nation that was itself heavily invested in its own particular system of enslavement. While Montagu's views on British slavery are much less developed in her writings, they strike, as I will demonstrate at the end of this essay, a similar chord to her depictions of bondage in the Ottoman world. In the end, Montagu's work should be read against a global context that includes the Ottoman and British empires, the voracious slave systems of each, and the enormous destruction they simultaneously unleashed upon the early modern world. When viewed within such a reconstituted post-colonial paradigm, the progressive and critical potential of Montagu's feminism appears to be even more limited than most critics have recognized. (5)

I begin with Montagu's neglected poem "Constantinople, To--" (1720), which provides a fairly clear key to understanding her representations of slavery in the Ottoman Empire. In the poeta, Montagu begins with a paean to her beautiful rural retreat outside Istanbul before moving to an extended section on the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the transformation of the city's magnificent churches into mosques, and the now ironic meaning behind the "Labour'd Pillars" that were erected by its emperors to celebrate their military triumphs. …