The Islamic Trade in European Slaves

The following essay by Emmet Scott was published previously at The New English Review in a slightly different form. It provides apposite material to accompany Matt Bracken’s new novel, The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun.

The Islamic Trade in European Slaves

by Emmet Scott

It is common knowledge that for over a thousand years, Arab and Muslim slavers took enormous numbers of men, women and children from sub-Saharan Africa. What is not so well known is that they took equally large numbers of people from Europe. As with Africa, Arab slave-taking in Europe began in the seventh century — shortly after the rise of Islam — and continued virtually without interruption into the modern epoch.

Modern Western culture, with its Anglo-centric worldview, has an almost obsessive preoccupation with the European trade in African slaves, a trade that commenced in the late fifteenth century and ended in the mid-nineteenth, but seems to have little knowledge of or interest in the equally intense Muslim trade in European slaves during the same epoch. This is a strange state of affairs, given the fact that, in general, the Europeans enslaved by the Muslims between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries were treated appallingly, and the trade had a long-term and devastating impact upon large areas of the continent.

As noted, Muslim slave-taking from Europe commenced almost immediately after the arrival of Islam on the word stage. These early slave raids had an immense impact upon European civilization and, as I have argued in some detail in Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited, turned the entire Mediterranean into a war zone, broke the unity of the eastern and western branches of Roman civilization and Christendom in general, and essentially gave birth to the medieval world. With the Christian counter-attack, which commenced in the eleventh century with the Reconquista in Spain and the Crusades, Muslim slave-raiding abated somewhat, though it never actually ended. But following the emergence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Islam was once again on the offensive; and with this renewed aggression came a vast expansion of the slave trade.

It is impossible to be precise or anything approaching it when talking about the number of slaves taken from Europe in the five centuries following the rise of Ottoman power. However, what is clear is that three main theatres of slave-raiding emerged. The first and by far the most important of these was in south-east and central Europe, where Ottoman armies engaged in annual assaults upon Christian territories. As the Turkish armies moved ever northwards and westwards they captured and enslaved great numbers of Europeans, the vast majority of whom were sold in Constantinople and Anatolia. Raiding Christian territories was incessant and we hear that, “The primary aim of the [Ottoman] raiders was the acquisition of booty. The most important booty was humans who could be sold at the slave markets for a high price. After a successful attack thousands of prisoners of war were driven to the Ottoman markets. … No one was safe in the endangered areas — nobles and serfs could equally become slaves.” (Eniko Csukovits, “Miraculous escapes from Ottoman captivity” in Geza David and Pal Foder (eds.) Ransom Slavery along the Ottoman Borders (Early Fifteenth-Early Eighteenth Centuries) (Leiden etc. Brill Academic, 2007) p. 5) As in other parts of the world, the Muslim slavers preferred young women and boys and these offered the highest price in the Turkish heartlands. Most of the boys were castrated and served as eunuchs, whilst the girls and women were destined for the harems of the Ottoman nobility.

It must not be imagined, as some might, that once a Christian territory was conquered and under tribute to the Ottomans that it was then immune from the attentions of the slavers. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Under sharia law the position of Christians was never secure, and Christian girls were regularly kidnapped by Muslim raiders and sold into the harems of Constantinople and Anatolia. In addition to this, Ottoman policy was to recruit Christian boys into the army, and these youths formed the elite core of Janissaries. But they were “recruited” by force, essentially kidnapped from their families and never again seen by them. So, although the Janissaries cannot, strictly speaking, be described as slaves, they were the victims of kidnap and forcible conversion to an alien faith. We should note, too, that rebellion against Ottoman rule, a common enough occurrence in Europe, was invariably met with savage reprisal, involving massacre, torture and enslavement; so that the total number of Europeans enslaved by the Ottomans grew, over the centuries, to enormous proportions. How many, it is impossible to say, mainly because no reliable records are available. However, it is beyond question that the number ran into many millions, with estimates ranging anywhere from ten to forty million.

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