Saturday, July 13, 2013

The other slave trade

Although the slave raiders usually left infants behind, older girls and boys could be taken, if suitable for immediate sale (Selling a child-slave, painting by Vasily Vereshchagin – source).

Europe used to export slaves to the non-European world. Such a statement would astonish most people today, even among the university-educated. Surely, those slaves were few in number, certainly fewer than the African slaves taken across the Atlantic.  And surely all of that happened long before the Atlantic slave trade. 

Well, no and no. The numbers were huge. At the height of that trade, over 10,000 Eastern Europeans were enslaved each year between 1500 and 1650 for export to North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia … a total of 1.5 million. By comparison, the Americas received fewer than 300,000 African slaves before 1600 and another 1.5 million between 1600 and 1700 (Fisher, 1972; Kolodziejczyk, 2006). Western Europeans were likewise enslaved and taken abroad, mainly to North Africa. How many? More than 1 million between 1530 and 1780 (Davis, 2004).

And, yes, those European slaves were going across the Mediterranean while African slaves were going across the Atlantic. Officially, the “harvest” ended with the Treaty of Carlowitz (1699), which called on the Ottoman Empire to stop all slave raiding (Abou-el-Haj, 1969). Unofficially, it did not end on a large scale until Russia annexed the Khanate of the Crimea in 1783—a quarter-century before the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. Fair-skinned women were thereafter exported on a smaller scale until the late 19th century, mainly from the Caucasus.  

Differences from the African Slave Trade

The white slave trade differed from its black counterpart in a few key ways. In Africa, a slave-trader typically purchased prisoners of war who had already lost their freedom through local conflicts. In Europe, he played a more active role.  

This was the case with the Crimean Tatars who lived under Ottoman protection in the Black Sea region. Beginning in the mid-15th century, they would fan out each year on raids into what is now Ukraine and southern Russia. These raids served no military purpose, being driven by the profits to be made in the slave trade:

[…] most of these raids do not appear to have had any military purpose and, moreover, had little or no relationship to Ottoman policy. They were an integral part of the Crimean economy, a "harvesting of the steppe" as the Tatars explained it. (Fisher, 1973)

In a royal [Polish] document dated 1555 we read: “There are many Turks who send Tatars supplied with their horses and armour into our domains, and later share the profits in the fields”, this last expression referring to the fact that the division took place far from the eyes of the Ottoman police and customs officers who might have viewed negatively the breaking of the peace treaty or the failure to pay taxes due by those involved in the slave trade.  

Notwithstanding such efforts to escape the tax duties, the Ottoman state was among the principal share holders in the Black Sea slave trade. According to Pretwicz, the sultan's income from the slave trade in Akkerman and Ocakiv (Turkish Özü ) amounted to a few 100,000 akçe a year. Strikingly similar are the numbers for Caffa established by Inalcik on the basis of Ottoman tax registers. The slave tax collected in Caffa amounted to 620,000 akçe in 1520 and 650,000 akçe in 1529.26 The same author estimates the total state revenue from the slave trade as approaching 100,000 gold florins (i.e. circa 6,000,000 akçe) in the mid 16th century. (Kolodziejczyk, 2006)

The white slave trade was different in a second way. Most black slaves were destined for physical labor on plantations. There was thus a stronger preference for men over women. In contrast, white slaves were used more for domestic service, particularly concubinage and marriage. There was thus a stronger preference for women, as reflected in the sex ratio of the slave population: black slaves were predominantly male, and white slaves predominantly female. Furthermore, while blacks of both sexes sold for the same price, Russian and Circassian women fetched 50% more than men of the same nationality. (Verlinden, 1977, pp. 211, 224, 306, 315, 330-331, 460, 517; see also Frost, 1990). This price differential continued until the end of white slavery. A mid-19th century report from Turkey states that a “trained, strong, black slave” would cost 4,000 to 5,000 piasters, whereas “white slave girls of special beauty” were worth 50,000 piasters or more (Lewis, 1990, p. 13).  


Slave trading existed in many parts of the world and during many historical periods. Trading in fair-skinned women, however, was much more limited in space and time. There is no evidence of it during Roman times, at least not on a large scale. If a Roman notable wanted a bride with milk-white skin, he would look among the families in his entourage and not among the slaves at the local market. After all, a native-born woman of good family would bring a dowry and valuable family connections.

All of this changed in the 7th century with the dramatic expansion of the Arab world into the Middle East and thence into North Africa and Spain. The new elites were darker in skin tone and, also, more polygynous. It was these two factors that would fuel demand for fair-skinned brides and concubines. 

A third factor was of course the relative weakness of European societies, particularly during the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. With the gradual strengthening of European states, this trade increasingly took the form of hit-and-run raids that focused on poorly defended areas, such as the plains north of the Black Sea. This raiding would finally end only with European annexation of those “states” that earned most of their income from the slave trade, such as the Khanate of the Crimea and the Beyliks of North Africa.

Would this trade have continued if Europe had remained weak? Probably. Would it have eventually become more humane and sustainable? Doubtful. Though often described as “harvesting,” there never was any effort to make it sustainable. A Tatar raid typically left behind the old and the very young, as a Polish report noted: “In the fields and forests they [i.e. the Tatars] left behind over 200 poor children whom they could not take along since everyone preferred to take horses and oxen rather than children” (Kolodziejczyk, 2006).

The result was widespread depopulation of much of Ukraine and southern Russia, which in turn forced the Tatars to raid farther and farther afield, even as far as present-day Poland. Demographic wastage was considerable: 

The Crimean Tatar society was based on raiding the neighbouring Slavic and Caucasian sedentary societies and selling the captives into the slave markets of Eurasia. Approximately 75 percent of the Crimean population consisted of slaves or freedmen, and much of the free population was highly predatory, engaged either in the gathering of slaves or in the selling of them. It is known that for every slave the Crimeans sold in the market, they killed outright several other people during their raids, and a couple more died on the way to the slave market. (Britannica, 2013)

There was no resource management, only resource depletion (Wikipedia, 2013). As Kolodziejczyk (2006) notes:

We should not close our eyes to the consequences of depopulation, affecting large Slavic territories in Eastern Europe. If an "alternative" history of Ukraine were imaginable, perhaps the country's historical development would have looked different had it not been for the slave trade.

Ukraine is considered to be part of ‘Old Europe’ yet the plains north of the Black Sea were finally opened for settlement at about the same time as the plains of the United States and Canada. 


Abou-el-Haj, R.A. (1969). The Formal Closure of the Ottoman Frontier in Europe: 1699-1703, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 89(3), 467-475. 

Britannica. (2012). “Slavery” in Encyclopedia Britannica’s Guide to Black History. 

Davis, R. (2004). Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800, Palgrave-Macmillan.

Fisher, A.W. (1973). Azov in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, 21(2), 161-174. 

Fisher, A. (1972). Muscovy and the Black Sea slave trade, Canadian American Slavic Studies, 6, 575-594.

Frost, P. (1990). Fair women, dark men: the forgotten roots of colour prejudice, History of European Ideas, 12, 669-679.

Kolodziejczyk, D. (2006). Slave hunting and slave redemption as a business enterprise: The northern Black Sea region in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, Oriente Moderno, 86, 1, The Ottomans and Trade, pp. 149-159.

Lewis, B. (1990). Race and Slavery in the Middle East, New York: Oxford University Press. 

Verlinden, C. (1977). L’Esclavage dans l’Europe médiévale, vol. II, Ghent.

Wikipedia (2013). Crimean-Nogai Raids,


Sean said...


Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

It has always been known for several centuries that eastern women are the most beautiful in Europe. Genghis Khan had a penchant for beautiful slavs. During the invasion of the Mongol armies, all the young captives girls were then exhibited and Khan chose as concubines those females of the highest quality. Emperor Napoleon had several mates, and their preferred mistresses were eastern women, like Maria Countess Walewska, a Polish noblewoman.

As Peter has posted, Tatars attacked the Ukrainian Black Sea coast for getting concubines and sexual slaves. The Nordic Vikings also took local wives for their settlement in the region.

Perhaps the key is the Hajnal line, and digital radio correlations and other parameters. The Slav features seem to be more feminine than in Western women.

Anonymous said...

What's may be of interest to my western friends, the reason the raids continued is because first when nobles wanted to have a standing army, the king sabotaged all the reforms because they were advanced by middle nobility and he prefered aristocracy (and the issues who would pay for that were reallyy dividing them). Later, when kings wanted to increase the army, nobles were suspicious that kings wanted really to attack parliament and change the system into absolutist monarchy (even when Sobieski desperately wanted to amass the army to fight the Turks, the pamphlets were making rounds through Poland that the danger is imaginary and the real reason king is seeking to increase the army is that he wants to introduce heritable monarchy and destroy golden freedom principles...

Johnny Sins said...

"There is no evidence of it during Roman times, at least not on a large scale. If a Roman notable wanted a bride with milk-white skin, he would look among the families in his entourage and not among the slaves at the local market. After all, a native-born woman of good family would bring a dowry and valuable family connections."

Ancient romans had Nordic racial features so maybe for these reason were not stunned by lighter pigmented features of north or eastern european females. The facial type of ancient Romans were not native to the Mediterranean basin, but is more at home in the north. The movements from the north introduced Nordics of two varieties; the classic Hallstatt type, and the Keltic Iron Age type which was later to form the basic racial element among the Roman patricians.

Estimates of the percentage of the population of Italy who were slaves range from 30 to 40 percent in the 1st century BC, upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the 1st century BC, about 35% to 40% of Italy's population. Slaves were drawn from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, including Celts, Germans, Thracians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and black Africans, usually called "Ethiopians" in Greek and Latin sources.

Anonymous said...

As a fair-skinned White person I should probably demand an apology and some economic compensation ; )

Is there some evolutionary explanation for having an exotic taste? It seems the opposite, mild inbreeding would increase your fitness.

Peter Frost said...


Eastern European women certainly met the criteria that the buyers were looking for, but there was another factor: the relative military weakness of Eastern Europe, particularly in the territories north of the Black Sea.


Internal quarrels were a problem for all European states at that time. The Turks were apparently invited into Hungary as part of a dynastic dispute. Later on, Great Britain proved to be just as bad by supporting the Ottoman Empire against Russia.


Yes, the difference in skin color was not as great, and there was much overlap.


Preference for hair color is frequency-dependent, i.e., the less common the hair color, the more attractive it becomes. There may be a similar frequency dependence with skin color, although I'm not aware of any studies on the subject

Anonymous said...

On the skin color question...

I can buy that selection for fairer skin operates in most cultures.

On the other hand, it seems like that would be limited, by the sun, even if the selective pressure was the same.

On the basis that, who would really sexually select English folks, for example, in an environment where the genetics for paleness led to them being permanently sunburned?

Sunburn just doesn't look that good. It gets infected and aged and all fucked up. That might not present a risk of death (and skin cancer would be a small risk to fitness), but it would mess up sexual appeal completely.

A light but burned European skin wouldn't be sexually selected for in a sunny climate like the Middle East. Rather a darker but less burned skin tone would be sexually selected for.

Shawn said...

Thanks for writing this. I found it fascinating. It is surprising how little people know about the slavery of Europeans.

Sean said...

The use of black slaves by Europeans ended because of an ideological shift within the European intelligentsia, not because it was imposed on them. Europeans had a total monopoly of military force, but abolition of slavery came about through acceptance of abstract ethical principles.

Non European societies enslaved Europeans for a millenium without ever moving beyond their traditional view of Europeans as fair game. Their woman stealing only ended because they no longer were strong enough to take Europeans as sex slaves.

Without slave traders preying on settlers, the 'black earth' of Ukraine would have fed all Europe. Who knows how that would have affected European expansion into the Americas.

Anonymous said...

"A light but burned European skin wouldn't be sexually selected for in a sunny climate like the Middle East. Rather a darker but less burned skin tone would be sexually selected for."

I think the female slaves were for harems so they'd be out of the sun

Anonymous said...

I think the female slaves were for harems so they'd be out of the sun


I'm talking about how, even if the same sexual selective dynamics played out in all regions of the world, we'd expect darker skins to be the sexual selective optimum in sunnier countries, because of photodamage, such as sunburn (which doesn't hit fitness, but makes people look uglier).

Anonymous said...

Without slave traders preying on settlers, the 'black earth' of Ukraine would have fed all Europe. Who knows how that would have affected European expansion into the Americas.

Er... How many slaves do you think these guys actually took?

Also, didn't this stuff happen through local intermediaries?

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Noor al Haqiqa said...

Do not forget the influence of the oldest traders of white female flesh from Europe ~ there is no mention made here of the contribution of Jews to White slavery, a problem that is still huge especially in Israel where slavery is still legal.

Study the Zvi Midgal, for example.

Also here:

Donar said...

The Crimean and Nogai Khanates were the ones who did the actual raiding. They did this many times every year. It's estimated that at least three million people were enslaved.