Saturday, September 14, 2013

From Slavs to Slaves

The Slave Market, painting (c. 1884) by Jean-Léon Gérôme (source)

Can Europeans, and European women in particular, become objects of trade? The idea seems laughable, since the term ‘slave trade’ almost always brings Africans to mind. Yet there was a time not so long ago when Europe exported slaves on a large scale. Between 1500 and 1650, Eastern Europe exported 1.5 million slaves to North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia (Fisher, 1972; Kolodziejczyk, 2006). Western Europe exported a little over a million between 1530 and 1780 (Davis, 2004).

These slaves were taken during hit-and-run raids by either Crimean Tatar horsemen or North African corsairs. A raiding party would typically descend on an isolated village and carry away its inhabitants—or rather those who were commercially useful, particularly young women and young boys.

There was a time farther back, however, when Europeans were accomplices in this trade and when it provided most of their foreign exchange. This was during the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages, specifically the 8th to 12th centuries.

The slave trade was a godsend for the elites of France, Germany, and Italy. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, they had to dip into their gold reserves to buy foreign luxury goods from the Middle East, generally clothing, upholstery, tapestries, carpets, and other precious fabrics (Skirda, 2010, pp. 56-57). By the 8th century, these reserves had been almost completely exhausted. Gold was giving way to silver, and even that medium of exchange was being debased. Western Europe had largely reverted to an economy of autarky, its shrunken towns and cities no longer major centers of trade. Most people produced everything they needed within their local village or manor.

Would Western Europe have eventually returned on its own to an international trading economy? Perhaps, although revival of trade would have become more difficult once the elites had become accustomed to autarky. As things turned out, they found the means to buy foreign luxury goods almost at the same time their gold reserves ran out. The 8th century brought the rapid expansion of a new civilization, Islam, into the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. Its Arab elite was darker-skinned than the Greco-Roman or Visigothic elites it displaced. It was also more polygynous. A new market had come into being, a market for wives and concubines. European women were especially sought after, not because they were exotic but because their fair skin and fine facial features corresponded to notions of beauty that were indigenous to Arab culture (see previous post).

And so began the commodification of European women. Initially, this trade involved prisoners of war captured during the Islamic wars of expansion. Soon, however, a peaceful trading relationship developed. It was officially prohibited by Christian emperors and popes alike, but “in reality, people closed their eyes and everything was tolerated in exchange for good gold dinars” (Skirda, 2010, p. 75).

The women came from a belt of territory stretching from the Elbe in the West to the Volga in the East. This territory was inhabited by Slavic tribes—the ancestors of today’s Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Russians. They were typically prisoners of war who had been taken during fighting either between Germans and Slavs or among different Slavic tribes:

Only the adolescent boys and girls—the Slavonici—were spared, enslaved, and immediately sold to the merchants accompanying the armies. The Barbarian-ruled West, abandoned by major international trade and bereft of gold, was able to get gold by trading in slaves, who were almost exclusively Slavs. These objects of servile trade and commerce would be integrated into harems and used as military slaves or eunuchs. Adults and children were eliminated for obvious reasons. They did not correspond to the Muslim demand for young virgin girls and beardless boys and it was out of the question to gather children and raise them. The traders had neither the time nor the willingness and more importantly it would not have been cost-effective. Later, they would spare the lives of more captives, by selecting them according to their capacities for productive work and by using them to the limit of their strength at laborious physical tasks (Skirda, 2010, pp. 85-86).

The captives were taken overland by various routes: through Germany and France to Muslim Spain; through Venice and by ship to the Middle East; or down the Dniepr, the Don, or the Volga to the Middle East via the Black Sea or the Caspian. How many were traded? It’s difficult to say, but Skirda (2010, p. 6) advances a figure between several tens of thousands and several hundreds of thousands for the period extending from the 8th to 12th centuries.

It was this trade, more than any other, that revived the old trading networks not only between Europe and the Middle East, but also within Europe itself. The balance of foreign exchange also shifted in Europe’s favor, thus giving the elites of France, Germany, and Italy the means to buy not only foreign goods but also local products, thereby stimulating a long economic recovery that would take Europe out of the Dark Ages. As Skirda notes ironically:

The Italians who […] were the “great initiators of Europe” […] became the promoters of trading companies, creators of credit, restorers of currency. The only major oversight [of historians]: all of that was accomplished through the trade in Slavs. It is easier to understand why almost all historians and commentators have silently observed this phenomenon. It is difficult for them to acknowledge that the economic renaissance of the West of the 10th and 11th centuries was achieved through human trafficking! (Skirda, 2010, p. 112)


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

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

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.

Skirda, A. (2010). La traite des Slaves. L’esclavage des Blancs du VIIIe au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Les Éditions de Paris Max Chaleil.


Anonymous said...

Only tangentially related, but Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited has interesting ideas on the question of DME (Along the lines of DJE).

J said...

In Spanish, the female slave trade is still called "Trata de Blancas" that is, White Women Trade.

Beyond Anon said...

In Spanish, the female slave trade is still called "Trata de Blancas" that is, White Women Trade.

I thought that is what modern Western Universities were for.

J said...

It would be interesting to verify if this massive trade can be recognized in the Maghreb and the Turkish populations genotype.

Anonymous said...

Arab = Caucasian

Arab/Euro mixtures usually look more white than those who are Euro/Afro and Euro/Oriental Asian.

Heck, some Arabs from North Africa, Middle East and West Asia can sometimes pass for Mediterranean.

I once knew this girl who was half Italian/half Arab. Quite white-looking with fine features (straight nose, almond eyes, medium sized lips), light eyes (light brown? hazel?), brunette hair, fair white skin, oval face and wavy/straight hair. She was also thin but had a medium-sized body build.

I'd guess most people would guess her as a white European woman and they would be somewhat right about that.

Anonymous said...

Slavery existed in England in the 11th century - Domesday book records how many slaves in each village. The Norse and Vikings had their 'thralls'. Eleventh century Bristol shipped English slaves to the Viking city of Dublin - the then Bishop of Worcester, St Wulfstan, preached against the trade.

The Barbary Corsairs raided northern Europe for slaves on many occasions.

Even getting as far north as Iceland - the story of "Gudda The Turk".

Jon Claerbout said...

A popular book on this topic is "White Gold" by Giles Milton.

Luke Lea said...

I've read (from Jewish sources) that European Jews were sometimes involved in this trade, as middle-men I presume. Is this true and, if so, do you know how extensive their involvement was? Are there any good scholarly sources?

Anonymous said...

I've read (from Jewish sources) that European Jews were sometimes involved in this trade, as middle-men I presume. Is this true and, if so, do you know how extensive their involvement was? Are there any good scholarly sources?

A good source is the book Jews in Poland: A Documentary History: The Rise of Jews as a Nation from Congressus Judaicus in Poland to the Knesset in Israel by Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski (Hippocrene Books, New York, 1998)

Here are some passages from it on the medieval slave trade:

“The situation of Jews within the Arab Empire was normalized in A.D. 637 by the decree of Omar I. Jews in Islam were recognized as “tolerated infidels.” Most medieval Jews resided in Spain. Jewish medieval merchants were known as “Radanites.” They included western European Jews from France and Germany, as well as those from Arab Spain.

The term “Radanites” was derived from the name of the Arab-Christian border along the river Rhone (in Latin Rodanus) because of an intense slave trade which was conducted across it. The slaves were castrated in Verdun, Venice, and Lyon and sold by Jewish Radanite slave-traders to the Arabs of Spain. This Jewish slave trade also included girls and small boys who were properly indoctrinated in order to be used later by Arab rulers as bodyguards, slave soldiers and bureaucrats.

An alternate origin of the name “Radanite” was a Persian word for those who “knew the way.” This explanation was related to the leading role of Jewish merchants in trade after the fall of the Roman Empire. From the 7th century to mid-10th century Radanites controlled the trade which encompassed Europe, North Africa, and southern Asia including China. It was a period when Hebrew was the only language of world trade.”


“Arab Spain was the main market for slaves (eunuchs, girls, and young boys). Some slaves were sold as far away as China, which also bought furs, beaver skins, silk, and weapons. Exports from China to Europe included cinnamon, spices, musk, and camphor. The capital of Khazaria, Itil, was an important Jewish trading center. Jewish merchants played an important role in international trade after the fall of the Roman Empire. For two centuries they made Hebrew the only language of world commerce. Slavery, which was the foundation of the Roman economy, was important in the Arab Empire in which the Jews became the main merchants, trading with the infidels and bringing European slaves to Islam.”


“Jews in service of Boleslaus the Great minted his coins and inscribed on them the name of the Polish sovereign with Hebrew letters. Besides such highly valued craftsmen there were active in Poland Jewish slave-traders. Ever since the time when the economy of Rome was based on slavery the slave trade has continued. In the 11th century the main slave market was in Arab Spain, then the most civilized country in Europe. The Catholic Church fought against slavery and this fight is documented in the treatise “Infelix Aurum” by the first patron saint of Poland, and since A.D. 997 the first bishop of Gdansk, Adalbert or Wojciech (voy-chekh). In the struggle against the slave trade the family of St. Adalbert lost the Czech throne in Prague to their opponents supported by Jewish slave traders. One of 18 sculptures on the 1170 bronze door made for the cathedral of Gniezno depicted the scene of redeeming manacled Christian slaves by a Polish bishop from Jewish merchants in the presence of the son of King Boleslaus the Great, the second formally crowned King of Poland, Mieszko II (990-1034).”

The other skeptic said...

Is there an on-line version of that book?

It is interesting that the legacy of slavery plays such an important role in the US.

Anonymous said...

By a coincidence, I have just read "Sulejman the Great" book (in Polish). The constant Tatar raiding and counter-raids by Cossacks and Polish magnates were ever-present issue in Polish-Ottoman relations in XVI century. While reading the description, it's almost boring: the year so-and-so Tatars raided villages, they cavalry hit them and recaptured part of captives; the same year conter-raid hit Oczakow, killing Tatars and recapturing slaves. The next year another Tatar raid hit so-and-so areas... and so it went, for a hundred of years...

ben10 said...

I took the pain to translate a video from Tidiane N'Diaye, expert in the trans-arabic slave trade. here is what N'Diaye said:

Q:...So, the title of your book is : "The hidden genocide, historical investigation on the (nigger) trade", You say "The hidden genocide", after I read your book, I feel this expression is actually an understatement.

T. N’D. : Yes, because there're so much talk about the trans-atlantic (slave) trade, which undoubtly qualifies as a crime against humankind, but what has to be said now is that the slave trade organized by arabo-muslims was a REAL genocide. Under this trade, the fate of african slaves appears now like an ethnic extinction, planned and organized using a massive castration practice. Despite huge number of slaves deported in arabo-muslim countries, we now know that these african slaves have all disappear. This is why I prefer to use the word genocide. When you have 17 millions deported submitted to massive castration, and that only a minority were able to survive in these muslim countries, and you compare that to the trans-atlantic trade, where the sons and daughters (or metis) of african slaves now compose 70 millions individuals in all the american continent, including the caribeans, while they all have disappear in arabo-muslim countries.
Q : you say that this trade should be more exposed as an historical fact. Would you say that this is not very well known or voluntarily occulted ?
T. N’D. : Yes, voluntarily hidden, no doubt about that. (...) This volunteer amnesia from the black elite can be explained by religious solidarity, it's obvious. To write this book I had to cross check references from explorers like Livingstone, Stanley, Lavigerie and direct reports from arab merchants operating from Eunuchs Center factories. I also used data from my american colleague Ralph O'sealt (approximate phonetic translation of this name from the video). So the outcome is terrifying, just for the Sahara area, we can estimate the number of captives to 9 millions, deported in absolutely inhuman conditions, of which 2 millions died or were confined in the edges of the desert. For the Oriental trade, near the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, our estimate is about 8 millions victims. Globally we reach a total of 17 millions dead, deported, or castrated by arabs. It is therefore a genocide.
Q : (....) so you say that the arabo-muslim trade was devastative for Black Africa, much more than the trans-atlantic trade.
T. N’D. : Yes, (...) you had arabs leaders from the fourteen century like Ibn' al Randoun (approximate phonetic translation) who considered black africans like animals, calling them anthropophages and spread the idea that they were sub-humans. And it must be said that no voices from the arab world ever contested that idea, as opposed to the europeans intellectuals of the enlightment period. This explain that inhuman treatments and generalized mutilations of captives were well accepted in the arabo-muslim populations. This explain why the slave descendants have disappeared in Turkey, Iran, Yemen, and very few can be found in Saoudia and North Africa.

ben10 said...


...Q : So even today, that's something not to talk about, beacuse it could hurt the muslim world sensitivity...
T. N’D. Yes, I think we should not ignore this historical period. There's lots of talks about the transatlantic trade so we should also consider the arabo-muslim trade, also keeping in mind that the first victims of the slave trade were the slavic people, that phoenicians and people from marsalla (today's Marseille) used to abduct during razzias in central and oriental europeans territories, to be sold in the arabo-muslim world. This happened during all the carolingian period, under saxons monarchs like Henry l'Oiseleur et Otton I.
Only emergent and powerful states in Occidental Europe was able to stop the muslim expension in the Pyrenean Mountains. In fact the nigger slave trade was a prolongation of this trans-european (slavic ?) trade and all these trades must be denounced with the same severity.
Q: So, in your point of view, is the celebration of Malcom X or Farrakhan like ignoring History ?
T. N’D. (smiling) : I think it's a different context. As soon slavery was abolished in the US, african americans were victims of racial segregation, (economical etc), or were linked to increased criminality and considered unfit for many jobs. In reaction, this segregation brought the emergence of people like Malcom X. I think that if they could see Obama today, they wouldn't take the same positions, but we should not forget that he (note: Farrakhan ?) was a member of the "black muslims" and I was talking earlier about the volunteer amnesia of the black elite on this question (...) that explains why this slave trade is not denounced in the US. And so we can expect some anger from the english translation of my book.
Q : which brings us to the crisis in Sudan
T. N’D.: In Darfur yes. We should go back to pharaonic Egypt. After the Hebrews, other tribes were enslaved by egyptians, like Ethiopians or people from sudanese-nubian regions like Darfur.But it is during the arab invasion of 652 that the general emir Abdalah ben Said (phonetic translation) imposed the bah'rt ( or bah'rd ? muslim word by phonetic) to the nubian king. This was a forced agreement under which the nubian king had to deliver each year 360 (or 364 ?) healthy captives as slaves for the arab world. (...) this agreement is at the origin of a trans-saharian, and later oriental, traffic that spead largely outside the arab countries. The black slave trafficants involved were maghrebins, Turks of the Ottoman empire, or Iranians. Thousand of captives were sold even to India, since, for example in the middle of the 15th century, the Bengalish king owned almost 8000 slaves . Since the only common point of these niger trafficants was their religion, I cannot NOT use the expression arabo-muslims. But all of this started from Darfur and today, it comes back to Darfur. (...) It is indeed incredible that in 2008 these practices are still ongoing, under our eyes, and that international institutions are blocked by procedural issues.
Q : Thank you etc .

Anonymous said...

Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski is not a historian. He's considered a conspiracy theorist. His purported history of the Jews in Poland is NOT a reliable source.

Anonymous said...

Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski is not a historian. He's considered a conspiracy theorist. His purported history of the Jews in Poland is NOT a reliable source.

The book has a foreword by Richard Pipes, who was a historian at Harvard for many decades and is the father of Daniel Pipes.

The book is also recommended as reading material in university courses on Jewish history and culture:

Here are some excerpts from reviews of Pogonowski's book by historians:

“Mr. Pogonowski’s colorful compendium fills a very definite need. It is especially welcome on three counts. First it covers a wide span of history, from the earliest times to 1991. Second, among other things, it contains a mass of documentary material that is not readily available in English. Third, an extensive collection of maps and prints enlivens the body of detailed information, bringing it within the reach of wide audience. I learned much from reading the book. It will be a rare reader who does not do the same.”
— Professor Norman Davies, Oxford University

“The fact that today over ninety percent of Ashkenazic Jews trace their origins to the historical lands of the old Polish Commonwealth testifies to the importance of the Polish chapter of the Jewish history. Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski’s Jews In Poland: A Documentary History gives full documentation to this historic truth and places it in the permanent record.”
— Józef Gierowski, Professor of History and former President of the Jagiellonian University of Kraków

“Pogonowski shows us the wealth of the still living legacy of Polish and Lithuanian Jews carried by their descendants in the Diaspora and the State of Israel. This legacy represents an important element of the modern European and world culture.”
— Aleksander Gieysztor, Professor of History and President of the Polish Academy of Sciences

“The need for a good historical atlas describing the history of the Jews in Poland has long been recognized. This carefully researched and well drawn volume will enable students and the lay public to better understand the complex problems of the Polish-Jewish past and of Polish-Jewish relations.”
— Anthony Polonsky, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science; Professor of Jewish History at Brandeis University

"The book endeavors to ‘encompass’ Jews within the Polish discourse, a rarity in American scholarship and in the discourse about Jews. While Poles have often been encompassed within the Jewish discourse (and within other discourses), the other way around has never been attempted. This pioneering attempt, as well as the sheer volume of documentation gathered in this volume, make Pogonowski’s opus remarkable and unusual.”
— M. K. Dziewanowski, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; author of War at Any Price (1990)

“Even though Hitler selected Poland as the principal slaughter house for the “final solution”…, it must never be mistakenly believed that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Poles. Nor must it be ignored that three million Poles perished at German hands. ..The materials collected in this volume bring to life some of these tragedies, but also record of good will and exemplary heroism.”
— Richard Pipes, Professor of History at the Harvard University, former Director of East European and Soviet Affairs in the National Security Council, 1981-1982

Anonymous said...

Here is a full PDF of Pogonowski's Jews in Poland: A Documentary History:

Anonymous said...


The Radanites were one of three groups that dominated the white slave trade. They were the ones who controlled the western overland route from the Slav territories to Muslim Spain via Germany and France. The northern route, via the Baltic, was run by Viking traders. The various eastern routes, via the Dnieper, the Don, and the Volga, were run by either Viking or Khazar traders. This is a bit simplified because all three trading groups worked with each other, particularly the Radanites and the Khazars (who converted to Judaism).

Needless to say, this trade would have been impossible without the active collaboration of local elites. They were the main beneficiaries.


The same is true in French, “la traite des Blanches”. The English translation, "white slave trade", leaves out this aspect, although the term is often used as a synonym for international prostitution.

The other skeptic,

I’m away from home right now (and using a slow-speed Internet connection). I’ll see what I can find when I get home.


I'm not sure I agree. A lot has been written, notably by Bernard Lewis, about the black slave trade in the Muslim world. But it is true that many African American leaders and intellectuals downplay this trade or ignore it entirely. I guess it comes down to a misplaced sense of Third World solidarity.

Peter Fros_ said...

The above comment is by me, in case you're wondering.

Luke Lea said...

Anonymous said...

Here is a full PDF of Pogonowski's Jews in Poland: A Documentary History:

Thanks for that. I couldn't afford the book.

On the other side of the ledger I must say that it bothers me that Israel tolerates so much human trafficking from that part of the world even today. The authorities could stop it if they wanted to. And they should if only because it is not in Israel's long-term interest. This kind of thing plays terribly in the West. I know it does with me.

Anonymous said...


"While reading the description, it's almost boring...The next year another Tatar raid hit so-and-so areas... and so it went, for a hundred of years..."

Yes, it's also interesting as one of the triggers for early european imperial expansion especially Russia expanding east into central asia but also the northwestern maritime states vs the corsairs.

Ben10 said...

Hmm, what's the point of this topic?
1)anthropologic (genetic impact)

2)historic (to improve our historical literacy, thanks Peter, although it is gonna be hard to use this knowledge to impress female guests at a restaurant, since they typically don't give a s' about these sort of topics)

or 3) politic
Ah, here we are talking.
I've seen a video of Louis Farrakhan, saying that since jews got $$$$$ financial reparation for 12 years (only) of abuse by Nazis, then blacks should be entitled as well by their 400 years of slavery and deportation!
Oh wait, in this video, Farrakhan insists heavily on the jewish involvement and enrichment in the transatlantic slave trade, and he asks financial reparation to them, specifically! Ahem....
Waste of time. At this point in history, is it necessary to explain why?
My American wife (see point 2) asked me once, if there was a 'jewish lobby in uhmarica?', seriously?
She was past 30 and with all her mind, so I didn't laugh.
I said: nope, not anymore, it's called the '''''American''''' government.
So...I would guess that Farrakhan and his 400 years of enslavement have zero chance to see any shiny penny anytime soon. Shuptzah!

Forget about all that. I've read the excellent latest of Kim Stanley Robinson: 'Shaman'
Excellent beautiful and inspiring, and more in line with this blog.
Maybe a topic on this book soon?

Peter Fros_ said...


This topic interests me because it shows that the mental association between female beauty and fair skin (and more broadly the European phenotype) is not a side effect of European domination. The "traite des Blanches" took place at a time when Europeans were weaklings on the world scene.

Keep in mind that a lot of what I write on this blog is ultimately for my own use, i.e., its raw material for future articles.

Final note: In the future, please don't translate "nègres" by "niggers". The two words aren't really equivalent. "La traite des Nègres" is "the black slave trade" in Engilsh.

ErisGuy said...

"Yes, because there're so much talk about the trans-atlantic (slave) trade, which undoubtly qualifies as a crime against humankind”

Slavery may never vanish. Europeans re-instituted slavery from the Bay of Biscayne to the Bering Sea in 1943 and after. The perpetrators of these crimes against humanity will never be punished (though some were).

Luke Lea said...

Slavery may never vanish. Europeans re-instituted slavery from the Bay of Biscayne to the Bering Sea in 1943 and after. The perpetrators of these crimes against humanity will never be punished (though some were).

It exists today. In fact I think I met one recently on a train in France. A modern Saudi couple, very nice, modern, attractive, sat beside us with their two children nearby and a Philippine "Nanny" in tow, whom they commanded with startling insolence. I knew there was something strange in the visage and manners of the Nanny. It was only afterwards that I surmised this was the "look" of a person who had been brutalized and was probably a captive of the couple. I had read of such things inside Saudi Arabia but never suspected they could be found traveling abroad. Of course I may have been wrong.