CfP: Slavery and Other Forms of Strong Asymmetrical Dependencies in Ottoman South Eastern Europe

Call for papers, deadline 31 August 2021

The research group “The Ottoman Europe: Methods and Perspectives of Early Modern Studies on Southeast Europe” ( is a Germany-based, open circle of scholars from different fields of historical research as East- and Southeast European history, Ottoman studies and philology of all relevant languages. Our common interest lies in multidisciplinary Early-Modern studies on Southeast Europe, roughly the zone of Ottoman dominance or influence. As such, a special aim is to bring scholarly research on Western Europe and on the Ottoman Empire closer together. We consider the Ottoman Empire not only with its European provinces as an integral part of Late Medieval and Early Modern European History that still has to be discovered by mainstream-research on European history.

We look to the Ottoman Empire from different angles and are thus interested not only in an Istanbul-centered perspective, but also in studies concerning regional aspects in its European provinces and border-regions – from the Crimean Khanate to Dalmatia, from Hungary to Crete, including connections with neighbouring regions. In this context we launch this Call for Proposals:

French revolutionists and philosophers of the Enlightenment proclaimed “freedom” to be one of the most important universal values of mankind, while using “slavery” as an episteme to condemn all sorts of unjust power relations. Paradoxically, this conceptual pair (“slavery” versus “freedom”) began its intellectual takeover of Europe precisely at the time when the economic practice of enslavement, i.e. the systematic employment of non-Europeans as slave laborers in the European colonies overseas, spread and eventually formed the basis of the economic system of the West in the mid-eighteenth century. However, as Susan Buck-Morss illustrated in her seminal essay on “Hegel and Haiti”, “the exploitation of millions of colonial slave laborers was accepted as part of the given world by the very thinkers who proclaimed freedom to be man’s natural state and inalienable right” (Buck-Morss 2000: 822).

New research, however, has shown that this “slavery versus freedom” master narrative tells much more about Europe’s self-conception as a cradle of modernity and as a pioneer for human rights and democracy than about the complex historic phenomenon itself. Even more importantly, the strong dichotomy between “slavery” and “freedom” has obstructed the view on related forms of dependency in and outside the modern West and has downplayed the historical importance of other types of bondage and coercion found in debt bondage, convict labor, servitude, serfdom and tributary labor, as well as in wage labor and various types of patronage. Yet if we stop thinking of slavery exclusively as a legal form, a social institution or as a mode of production and start studying “processes of creating slavery” and “enslavement as particular contextualized strategies” and “as a human experience”, a new understanding of “slaving” and its interrelation to other forms of asymmetrical dependency becomes possible.

The workshop wants to analyze slavery and other forms of strong asymmetrical dependencies in Ottoman Europe. Surprisingly few studies on dependency in this area exist, even in comparison to the field of Ottoman slavery in general which recently took the lead (Moustakas 2014). Recent departures in the latter underline the many options of slaves for exit – escape, limited time contracts, manumission, ransom and prisoner exchanges. Slaves enjoyed some form of access to courts of law and some used them. Prisoners of war in the late Ottoman period were increasingly treated according to international modes of conduct. Forms of dependency were not only very differentiated, they are also not lined up on a single scale – some were appointed to high positions holding vast powers, yet at the same time fully depended on their master. Devşirme were sometimes taken by force, while other parents appeared to see the levy of boys as a chance for their offspring, even as an honor. Female slaves might become mothers of their master’s heir with full rights of marriage, or remain with menial labor. Some manumitted slaves still lived in some form of clientage relationship to their former masters. For slaves in mining, however, there appears to have existed only one way – into the mine, never out.

In agriculture and crafts, evidence is circumstantial except for the share-cropping ortakçı kullar on sultanic or large private estates; the pre-history of azade manumitted peasants is murky so far except for initially selling them. Fields of inquisition might cover many questions, ranging among others from memory of slavery and strong asymmetrical dependency in Near Eastern and East European societies and historiography to transformations of slave status, peasants or slaves obtaining slaves, forms of sale, patterns of distribution and enslavement, norms and practices in court, slaves in cities, in crafts and households and their use as extensions of powerful households in trans-regional politics and trade. What kind of tasks were delegated to dependents? How did slavery differ in Ottoman Europe from other parts of the Ottoman Empire, was it in any way distinctive or peculiar compared to other Ottoman areas or beyond? Is it possible to distinguish between wage laborers and enslaved in skilled professions, such as in wharfs? How did the uneasy cohabitation of various forms of law, Islamic, sultanic and local or customary law play out for slaves, and what kind of religious or ideological confrontations occurred in questions related to slave law? What practices and material artefacts or tactical means were used to enslave people? Could the introduction of slaves into communities change the internal political balance? How did various social roles and ascribed status beyond slavery affect slaves? How did capitalism influence slavery in Ottoman Europe before abolition?

With the conference of the study group Ottoman Europe at Bonn (June, 23-24, 2022) we want to address these questions and are open for topics that focus on the pre- and the early modern period and/or their continuation into the long 19th century. Please send proposals (about 2000 to 3000 characters) for presentations until August, 31th, 2021: