The End of Slavery and the Realignment of Legal and Administrative Institutions in the Ottoman Empire

By Ceyda Karamursel
Submitted to Session P3291 (What's in a Revolution?: Ideology, Practice and Social Change in the Second Constitutional Era, 2013 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Shortly after the Young Turk revolution, in September 1908, a slave girl of Circassian origin named Fatma Leman fled her mistress’ house, taking refuge to the Ministry of Justice in Istanbul. For her, if this revolution, heralded with the slogans of “freedom, justice, equality and brotherhood,” granted freedom to each and every Ottoman individual, then she too was free like the rest of her compatriots. She did have the right to demand her freedom, however, her intuition to seek for it at the recently established Ministry of Justice (in her view, more closely associated with the constitutional regime) instead of the religious sharia courts (where manumission deeds were normally issued) led only to an institutional paralysis in the ensuing months. Not knowing what to do with her, Ministry of Justice sent her to the Ministry of Police. In turn, the police, who knew that they could not return her back to her mistress but not let her go either, sent for her (ex-)mistress, for a possible negotiation between the two. The owner, whose trust to the old judicial order was intact, insisted that the slave girl be taken to the sharia court to “prove” her free status, whereas the slave girl herself decided to wait for the reinstatement of the parliament and make her appeal there. In all her vulnerability, the slave girl was kidnapped from where she was waiting in hiding and eventually made an odalisque to a high ranking provincial government officer.

Far from being an isolated case, Fatma Leman’s story well illustrates that the 1908 revolution is too readily referred to as the end of slavery in the Ottoman Empire. Focusing on the immediate aftermath of the revolution, at a time when “freedom” was publicly celebrated in carnival-like settings throughout the empire, this paper aims to look at what this “end” actually meant, particularly to the enslaved populations of this region, with the purpose of providing an insight to the ways in which Ottoman state, after a period of paralysis, realigned its administrative and legal institutions to handle slavery and its suppression.