The Ottoman Tales II: Why All the Movie Eunuchs are Black, and Some Thoughts on Slavery

This continues a series inspired (somewhat) by Noel Barber’s The Sultans.  The previous instalment is here.

Ottoman culture has seeped into ours in ways we’re not aware of.  When we hear words such as divan, caftan and ottoman itself, we’re hearing about things that came from that culture.  Like most people, I like to take in the old movie.  Ever wonder why, when the movie involves a harem, the eunuch is always black?

The reason for that is simple: in the Ottoman Sultan’s palace, the head eunuch–the Kislar Aga, literally the head of the women–was always black, as were his underlings.  How he got to Constantinople and his high position was not a pretty process, as Thomas Sowell describes in Black Rednecks and White Liberals:

By a variety of accounts, most of the slaves who were marched across the Sahara toward the Mediterranean died on the way.  While these were mostly women and girls, the males faced a special danger–castration to produce the eunuchs in demand as harem attendants in the Islamic world.

Because castration was forbidden by Islamic law, the operation tended to be performed–usually crudely–in the hinterlands, before the slave caravans reached places within the effective control of the Ottoman Empire.  The great majority of those operated on died as a result, but the price of eunuchs was so much higher than the price of other slaves that the practice was still profitable on the balance.

The British, with their newly found aversion for slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century, found that their appeals to the Ottomans to end the institution went over like a lead balloon:

When the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire first raised the issue of abolishing slavery with the sultan in 1840, he reported this response:

…I have heard with extreme astonishment accompanied with a smile at a proposition for destroying an institution closely inter-woven with the frame of society in this country, and intimately connected with the law and with the habits and even the religion of all classes, from the Sultan himself on down the lowest peasant.

The Ottomans eventually “officially” abolished slavery, an abolition largely honoured in the breach.  The British for their part tried to help out, but sometimes it backfired.  Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon tried to stop the 80,000-100,000 slave trade through the Sudan, and the Sudanese responded with the revolt of the Mahdi. Gordon was killed and the British sent Lord Kitchener to finally put down the revolt.

As the British ambassador was told, slavery was interwoven into society from top to bottom.  In addition to the eunuchs, all of the harem women were slaves.  The Ottomans invented the devşirme whereby young Christian men, mostly from the Balkans, were taken, forcibly converted to Islam, and became the feared Janissaries of military fame.  The white Circassians contributed generously to the harem slaves; they had pride of place there.

And slavery was there at the end.  When Abdul Hamid II abdicated in 1908 as the Young Turks revolted, his Kislar Aga was executed for cruelty.  When the last Sultan, Mahomet VI, abdicated, a eunuch helped him aboard the HMS Malaya for his voyage into Italian exile, and followed his five wives who came later.

The Ottomans’ reluctance to part with involuntary servitude should give us pause about how “obvious” it was to eliminate it.  As Sowell notes:

While slavery was common to all civilisations, as well as to peoples considered uncivilised, only one civilisation developed a moral revulsion against it, very late in its history–Western civilisation.  Today it seems so obvious that, as Abraham Lincoln said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”  But the hard fact is that, for thousands of years, slavery was simply not an issue, even among the great religious thinkers or moral philosophers of civilisations around the world.

We may wonder why it took eighteen centuries after the Sermon on the Mount for Christians to develop an anti-slavery movement, but a more profound question is why not even the leading moralists in other civilisations rejected slavery at all.  “There is no evidence,” according to a scholarly study, “that slavery came under serious attack in any part of the world before the eighteenth century.”  That is when it first came under attack in Europe.

Themselves the leading slave traders of the eighteenth century, Europeans nevertheless became, in the nineteenth century, the destroyers of slavery around the world–not just in European societies or European offshoot societies overseas, but in non-European societies as well, over the bitter oppositions of Africans, Arabs, Asians and others.  Moreover within Western civilisation, the principal impetus for the abolition of slavery came first from very conservative religious activists–people who would today be called the “religious right.”  Clearly, this story is not “politically correct” in today’s terms.  Hence it is ignored, as if it never happened.

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