Were people vying to become slaves in the Ottoman Empire?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Keener: Hey, Jane. Now I really hope that you have a lot of time on your hands, because I thought I would cover the entire history of the Ottoman Empire today.

Jane McGrath: Let me get some coffee.

Candace Keener: I know. No, I'm just kidding. We're not going to do that. There are a couple of highlights we need to go over in order to put into context this crazy idea that Jane has written about, and that is why were people actually vying to become slaves in the Ottoman Empire?

Jane McGrath: When I first heard the assignment, I had no idea. But it actually ended up being a fascinating development that happened in the Ottoman Empire.

Candace Keener: And it actually came from one of our podcast listeners.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Keener: He wrote to us and he challenged us to research this and answer the question why. Why would anyone want to be a slave? It's just so ludicrous.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And he was helpful, as well, with the research.

Candace Keener: He was. So many thanks.

Jane McGrath: So it all dates back to the 14th century. And at this time, the Ottomans went by the Muslim law, ganimat. And this law stated that the sultan could basically take one fifth of the booty his soldiers collected in battle. And usually this has to do with material goods that soldiers collected. But one ruler, Örjan, actually adapted this law to apply to people in addition to things. And so he started taking one out of five captured people that his soldiers took over. And he took them in as his slaves - but not just normal slaves. He made them his personal army. And they became a very elite corps known as Janissaries.

Candace Keener: That's right. So it seems like a remarkable idea, having slave soldiers essentially manufactured from the spoils of war. And this is not a concept that stuck just under this one sultan. His son actually followed the same principle. And Örjan I actually wanted to increase the number of his troops. So he started going into conquered Christian territories and taking young boys between the ages of 8-18, and picking the very best ones to make this incredibly prestigious core of soldiers that would serve the sultan exclusively.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and one important distinction that Urad had to deal with was the fact that he wasn't acquiring as many lands as his dad did. Although according strictly to Muslim - at least from what I read - it was okay for Örjan to do what he was doing. But what his son was doing was a little bit more shady because he was going into lands that were previously conquered, not freshly conquered. And those these were decendents of conquered people and so they tried to rationalize what they were doing by saying it was okay. But even Muslims at this time argued against this practice of taking these boys.

Candace Keener: And at this point, I think it might be helpful to know a little bit about the Ottoman Empire and it's principles of expansion and how it maintained pockets of Christian people throughout what was ostensibly a Muslim Empire. The Ottoman Empire actually lasted a remarkably long time - from 1301 to 1922. It didn't really crumble into pieces until after World War I and the Balkan Wars. And what's so interesting about the Ottoman Empire is that it picked up where the Byzantine Empire left off. And when the conquered the Christians from the Byzantine Empire, they actually maintained the same capital city, only they changed the name. So instead of Constantinople, Istanbul became the seat of the Ottoman Empire.

Jane McGrath: So if ever heard that song about Istanbul and Constantinople, you'll know that this is why. Different people would take over and rename it.

Candace Keener: And according to some history books, when the sultam rode into Constantinople to take it over, he came in on a white horse. There was this crowing moment of Constantinople going by the wayside and Istanbul becoming established. And it was run by Muslim religious principles and military principles, and they were very rigid. But one of the codes actually dictated that they were respect other religions. And it really behooved the sultan to allow the Christians in the empire to continue practicing their religion. First of all, there were so many of them, that if you tried to get them to convert it would resort to an awful uprising. And rather than oppress the people, he just decided to live along with them.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. But this caused problems because he saw a dilemma. When he wanted to boost his Janissary corps, he would've taken Muslim kids. But the problem with that is that he reasoned when they grew up they would remain faithful to their family. And their relatives would just assume that they wouldn't have to pay taxes because they had these friends in high places. So the sultan reasoned that if he took Christian boys instead, and converted them to Islam, they would grow to hate their Christian families and the Christian religion in general, so that they would not have any loyalty to their old families, their old life, and they would be loyal to the sultan alone.

Candace Keener: And the practice of collecting these Christian boys was called the devsirme system. And it essentially gave the sultan the right to go in and inspect all the Christian boys from a certain village, pick them over, and deem which ones were well behaved enough and untrained in any sort of combat, and hansome enough, and desireable enough for him to want to have essentially living in his palace under him one day.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and these were fascinating things that would go on. The officials would be sent into these conquered territories. Right now we would know them as Greece, Austria, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary - all these places. And the officials would go into these villages there and they would tell the fathers to bring out their sons of the right age and bring out the baptism certificates to make sure they fit some of this criteria. For instance, they couldn't be orphans or only sons. And it's estimated that about one in forty families in a village had to sacrifice a boy to the Janissary corps.

Candace Keener: And once the boy was selected, they'd be taken to Istanbul and for three to seven years they would undergo rigorous training. First the would learn Turkish and then they'd be schooled in combat. And depending on the type of talent they showed and their potential they'd be put on different paths. So some went directly to labor in fields or to serve as assitstants to different government officials. And then there were some who were deemed intelligent enough to be schooled in academic subjects, such as math, law, theology, horsemanship, military strategy. And these were going to be the great elite soldiers.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. So if you were a Janissary, you aspired to be a part of the standing army at the sultan's palace. And that's where these soldiers on the highest track would end up going. And I think the most prominent one would actually be a personal servant of the sultan. And they basically had such great prospects ahead of them, that once they proved themselves they could go on to have administrative posts and have so much power involved. Even though they were always technically personal slaves of the sultan, they were able to attain amazing amounts of power.

Candace Keener: And to give you a visual image, they wore pretty elaborate uniforms, too. They had fancy hats, ornately embroidered cloaks. And I think the sultan gave each boy a particular cloak, or there was some unique aspect to each of their attire. And they were celebate. They couldn't marry, at least until the 16th century. The rules changed a little bit there.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that was a big issue.

Candace Keener: And they were upheld to very rigorous standards. They had to follow all of the rules and if they broke any of them, there was you know what to pay.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. There were cases like they would whipped with a thin cane on the soles of their feet. That was one punishment for disobeying rules and training.

Candace Keener: So historians suspect that over the course of history and over the course of the different sultans, nearly 5 million Christian boys were taken from the homes to become Janissaries.

Jane McGrath: That's an astounding figure when you think about it.

Candace Keener: It really is. And it's very problematic for us today with our contemporary mindsets, looking at this idea of a foreign force coming in and essentially kidnapping - I guess that's a debatable term to use, but taking children from their homes and repurposing them into slavery. But the term slavery is used loosely in the Ottoman Empire. And the idea of a slave was comparable to that of a servant. And it was considered more prestigious than that of a subj ect. So if you were the sultan's slave, or the sultan's servant, you had a higher regard in society than his subject.

Jane McGrath: This had to do with the idea that they had so many prospects ahead of them as a Janissary. Like I mentioned, they got a lot of power. There was at least one situation where someone rose from the ranks - he was originally taken in through the devsirme system as a boy and kidnapped. And he rose through the ranks to the Grand Vizier, which basically means the chief minister. I think it's one of the highest positions you can get aside from all out sultan. So it's just astounding to think that this technical slave was second in command in this empire.

Candace Keener: And to put it in another type of perspective, the Ottoman Empire was able to grow and flourish because it kept expanding it's lands. It was like a house of cards empire. If you can say business model, the business model of the empire was entirely based on the fact that it had to keep growing in order to thrive. And once it stopped growing, the empire collapsed. Kind of like a scheme. Jane's giving me this look and I know exactly what she's thinking. And the reason that it had to keep growing was because when it went into a territory it would use up all of the resources there and all of the people, virtually drain everything to the ground. So if you look at the territories that have been conquered and filled with Christian people, if the Ottoman's were coming in and depleting their resources and working the people to their bones, they had children - what could they really provide them with except live in stasus, life in these poor conditions. So for many Christian families, the idea of giving up their child to the sultan for a life in the palace and a very high administrative position, was a much better trade off than living in poverty.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, so while at first you have the situation where some Christian parents are trying to buy their children out of the system and trying to switch out - I read about a situation where Christian parenst would try to switch out their child for someone else's early on, when this was first starting. And then much later, when they saw the prospects these kids would have, they would actually try to bribe the officials into taking their child into the system. These must not have been extremely devout Christians, because even though they had to be converted to Islam, these parents were willing to get their kids out of the penury in which they lived.

Candace Keener: And according to some historical accounts, there were some Muslim families who were trying to get the sultan to take their kids.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and that's understandable. If you're a Muslim and you see all these Christian kids getting these opportunities, you're like, "Why can't I get that for my child?

Candace Keener: And that was forbidden. No Muslim children had that opportunity. But a question that I had for Jane when she originally wrote this article about the Janissaries was, what did the Janissaries themselves think of their lives? Their parents were vying for them to become slaves in many instances. And many people wanted into this system. But once they were there, what did they think of their life?

Jane McGrath: Well, I don't know. I mean, that's a good question. But because of all their prestige and how they showed themselves off with their nice clothes and everything, it seems like you would have a pretty sweet life and you would appreciate it. That's the impression that I got from Janissaries.

Candace Keener: And then along in 1826 came the auspicious incident.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, this was a major problem. The power went to their heads a lot. All throughout history, Janissaries would revolt and would try to get more power than they had, often to get reform or to just get more of a say into who became sultan. In the 19th century, 1826 like you said, they revolted again. And this time it was disaster.

Candace Keener: Yeah. The sultan was none too happy. He essentially dissolved the Janissary corps. And to quell the rebels, he fired cannons at them. And most of them actually died. It was pretty tragic.

Jane McGrath: And those who didn't die were fleeing from the carnage. I'm not sure why it's called the auspicious incident, but it's pretty nasty.

Candace Keener: Maybe the Janissaries had a good sense of irony. I'm not sure. But that in itself, if there's not a lot of information about how the Janissaries felt about being Janissaries, I think that the auspicious incident would indicate that certainly they were pretty fed up with their conditions. And it's important to note, too, that the idea of sultan had evolved throughout the Ottoman Empire. At first there was strict adherence to codes and the sultan was not a figure to be messed with. He was very well regarded in public society. But as the empire stretched on, the sultan became less concerned about what people thought about him, so he became a little bit less popular. I think the rules were relaxed and there is some unrest brewing. And there were other cultures around the world who were looking at Turkey and Istanbul. And they started calling Turkey the sick man of Europe. And this is when the term Oriental - which we consider now a disparaging term. And even back then it was a disparaging term, too. But this is when it came into conversation about what was going on in the Ottoman Empire, and they were seen as revelers, people who engaged in far too much debauchery. It was associated with the harem and this sort of strange and lazy lifestyle. And the Janissaries, it was almost like an institution of decadence. They had once been really great soldiers in high regard under the sultan, and who wouldn't want to be in service to the sultan? But as the sultan became less popular and they were serving this man who was despised by their country and other cultures, I guess there wasn't that sense of pride and honor anymore.

Jane McGrath: It's such a fascinating situation, just thinking about how they have this very contrary term - it seems like an oxymoron to be a slave soldier in this very elite powerful corps. And I should mention, when I first got this assignment it was pretty funny because, a couple of weeks beforehand, our colleague Molly Edmonds, you many know from the Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast - she was actually coming up with nicknames for everyone in the office out of the dictionary. And she ran across Janissaries and that became my nickname. And a couple of weeks later I had to write about them. So I had to mention that.

Candace Keener: Does she still call you Janissary?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, she does.

Candace Keener: Well, we'll have to talk about that later. Meanwhile, if you like the podcast you will love our new Stuff You Missed in History Class blog.

Jane McGrath: Both Candace and I write on this blog once a day. We write about history in the news and relevant stuff that interests us and we think will interest you, too.

Candace Keener: So be sure, when you come to the website, to look at this article that Jane has written about why people were vying to become slaves in the Ottoman Empire, that you also check out the blog on howstuffworks.com.

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