Slavery, Freedom, and Property Rights in the Reform-era Ottoman Empire

By Ceyda Karamursel
Submitted to Session P5132 (Fortune, Crisis, Catastrophe: Histories of Capitalism in the Global Middle East, 2018 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In June 1909, when the constitutional amendments were underway at the Ottoman parliament, three deputies presented a formal proposal that the Ottoman constitution—like its equivalents in the globe, they underlined—should include a clause that would ban the sale and purchase of individuals. Their proposal was consequently rejected by the majority of the parliamentarians who staunchly maintained that all Ottomans were already in full possession of their freedom and any violation to that effect was punishable by common/criminal law. The small group of proponents of the addition of the clause thought otherwise, however. For them, not only the imperial palace and the elite households continued to buy slaves for domestic (including sexual) services, but the ongoing sale and purchase of the Armenian and Kurdish peasants (and the extralegal practice of multiple taxation) in the eastern provinces such as Mus, Kozan, and Erzurum gravely injured the liberal constitutional order and its ‘market rendition of the individual.’ It was thus that they insisted to tie the matter to an all-encompassing law rather than the common law, which was ordinarily dismissed by the local elites and the high ranking state officials, let alone the sultan himself.

This proposed (and subsequently dismissed) amendment came at the end of decades-long debates around the slaves’ intrinsically paradoxical status in the ‘era of freedom.’ Tracing these debates in the second half of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries, this paper explores the ways in which the Ottoman state, slave-owners and slaves themselves linked the notions of person, thing, and property. More specifically, it seeks to understand how the liberal right to freely dispose of one’s property was understood and translated (or failed to do so) into legal categories and how that shaped capitalist development in the reform-era Ottoman Empire.