Pre-20th Century History: Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East

By Fischbach, Michael R. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Pre-20th Century History: Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East


Fischbach, Michael R., The Middle East Journal


Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East, by Ehud R. Toledano. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1998. xii + 168 pages. Bibl. to p. 177. Index to p. 185. $18 paper.

Reviewed by Michael R. Fischbach

Bringing together some 20 years of expertise, noted Ottomanist Ehud R. Toledano has produced an excellent short work that is designed to attract a wide audience by connecting the study of Ottoman slavery with the literature on global slavery. The result is a very readable account that not only surveys slavery, the slave trade, and abolition in the half century of waning Ottoman rule but also makes a contribution to the extensive theoretical literature on slavery. Toledano does this by discussing the complex series of relationships of slavery in the empire that often militate against attempts to categorize them.

Toledano approaches the subject in a way that situates him within the debate about precisely what constitutes "slavery." He predicates the book on the belief that, for all their variety, the "various manifestations of servile status" (p. x) in the Ottoman Empire all reflect one form or another of slavery. Thus, in addition to a discussion of domestic and agricultural slavery, we find Toledano discussing the elite phenomenon of what he calls kul/harem (male/female) slavery. He highlights the differences among these forces but also notes the ways in which they all represented types of slavery. Throughout the author's attempt to develop a model to explain Ottoman slavery and place it within a wider international context, he strives, in his words, to "humanize the narrative" (pp. x-xi) by focusing on the social and cultural dimensions of slavery and even detailing the lives of individual slaves.

Toledano begins with a useful outline of Ottoman slavery and the slave trade. He discusses the state of slavery in the empire during what he calls the "long Tanzimat [reforms]" (p. 4) of the 1830s-1880s and notes the categories of slavery that existed at the time: male and female, elite and domestic, African and white. He also attempts to quantify slavery during the 19th century and notes that, despite the scholarly interest in elite male (kul) and female (harem) slavery-a topic which, by his own admission, also comprises a sizeable percentage of the present study-the average slave in the empire, numerically speaking, was an African female working as a domestic laborer (about whom he writes little; see his explanation on p. 112). Toledano generally focuses on elite servitude.

The author details the life of harem slaves, including that of concubines, as well as the eunuchs who guarded the harems. Throughout, Toledano notes the important role played by the imperial household in Istanbul, which both functioned as the empire's largest customer of harem slaves and served as a model for its elite households, especially in Cairo.

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