Prof. Suraiya Faroqhi published a book chapter in the volume edited by Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen, Slaves and Slave Agency in the Ottoman Empire. This book offers a new perspective to slavery studies in the Ottoman history field. Given the fact that the classical binary of ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom’ derives from the transatlantic experience, this volume presents an alternative approach by examining the strong asymmetric relationships of dependency documented in the Ottoman Empire. A closer look at the Ottoman social order discloses manifold and ambiguous conditions involving enslavement practices, rather than a single universal pattern. The authors examine various forms of enslavement and dependency with a particular focus on agency, i.e. the room for maneuver, which the enslaved could secure for themselves, or else the available options for action in situations of extreme individual or group dependencies.
Prof. Faroqhi’s chapter on the comparison of the slave agencies in the Ottoman and Mughal Empires will help us understand what slavery and slave agency might have meant (or not meant) in two early modern empires. Here is a piece of introductory information about the subject, written by Prof. Faroqhi herself.
What do we mean by the term ‘slave agency’? This term covers a wide spectrum of actions that slaves may undertake: an attractive girl may flatter her owner and otherwise please him in the hope that he will manumit and perhaps marry her. Cajoling is a certainly a kind of agency, but we can say the same thing of a slave who enters into a contract with his/her owner which obliges him/her to perform a certain service in view of manumission (mükâtebe). Moreover, a slave usually male, may run away; and that is certainly a type of agency. In extreme cases, a few desperate slaves (probably often women) are on record as having committed suicide; and that gesture too being a refusal to submit ot further ill-treatment, is a kind of agency as well.
Slave agency is a difficult topic, and frequently we need some ingenuity even to detect it. After all, in any slave holding society, the law limits the capacity of slaves to show initiative; and this rule applies to the sharia as well as to any other law. Thus, the slaves, and perhaps their non-slave partners in love, business or crime, may have had reason to hide examples of agency from whoever compiled the records with which the historian now works, a tactic facilitated by the illiteracy of many—if not most—of the actors at issue. Especially the successful examples of slave agency often remained undocumented. A male slave working in an Anatolian town might escape to Istanbul and manage to board a ship that might carry him home—flights of this kind were almost impossible for women. Or else, he disappeared into the crowds making a living by petty trades in Istanbul. If detected, such a man might have left a paper trail; if undetected, his fate would normally remain unknown.
When comparing the agency of slaves in the Ottoman and Baburi or Mughal context, we focus on certain Ottoman practices with their counterparts in South Asia. With some good fortune, comparison will help us understand what slavery and slave agency might have meant (or not meant) in two early modern empires, both extensive in size and non-capitalist in character.
Dealing with the period between the early 16th and the mid-19th century, in the Ottoman case, we thus cover the period of imperial maturity, leaving out the very different modes of enslavement current in the formative years of the empire as well as most of the changes that accompanied the administrative restructuring of the mid-1800s known as the Tanzimat. In the South Asian instance, we begin with Bābur’s establishment of a kingdom in the Ganges-Yamuna plain in 1526 and end with the fall of the Mughal Dynasty in 1857. While the ‘empire’ was at most a regional kingdom in the mid-1700s and had lost all physical power to the British East India Company around 1800, the Mughal monarchs of the early 19th century still retained a good deal of respect, among Muslims and in certain Hindu circles as well. Moreover, sources become more abundant in the 18th and early 19th centuries, simply inviting a closer look.
To understand slave agency and its limits, we need to study the legal framework. As the sharia in its Hanefi (Ḥanafī) version governed human relations in the Ottoman and Mughal empires, the overall framework was similar in both cases. However, upon occasion, we will refer to the sultanates of the Deccan, where other versions of the sharia might be in use as well. Moreover, in South Asia, different Hindu communities had different views on slavery, particularly, the slavery of women. Furthermore, we have to remember that when one human being is closely dependent upon another, as in the relations between slaves and their masters or mistresses, extra-legal violence will occur, with local customs often approving such violence.
Put differently, the customs of a given region determine whether extra-legal violence is widespread or exceptional. If the owner is a male and the slave a female, not a rare case, certain gender-based privileges of males will be part of the legal framework, and in addition, the owners can freely transgress whatever boundaries the law has set, as the imbalance of power does not allow the slave women to protest. To mention but one example: even in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, freed slaves, especially if female, have often found that protection by the Ottoman courts did not necessarily suffice to prevent re-enslavement.
We discuss three examples, namely Mamlūks or military slaves, female slaves in royal harems, and eunuchs. Given the limitations of space—and above all, of the present author—these three examples will stand for the many other topics that we might treat in a comparative study of slave initiatives. As a final step, we attempt to find out what these case studies tell us about the similarities and differences between the types of slave agency possible in the Ottoman and South Asian ambiances, between the early 16th and the mid-19th century. To express it briefly: what could happen, what did happen, and what do we learn from the comparison?