Blonde cargoes: Finnish children in the slave markets of medieval Crimea

Testing a female captive's teeth in an eastern slave market.

Testing a female captive’s teeth in an eastern slave market.

The horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade have left an ineradicable mark on history. In the course of a little more than three and a half centuries, 12.5 million prisoners – at least two-thirds of them men destined for a life of labour in the fields – were shipped from holding pens along the African coast to destinations ranging from Argentina in the south all the way north to Canada. It was the largest forced migration in modern history.

When we think of slavery, we tend to think of this African traffic. Yet it was not the only such trade – nor was it, before 1700, even the largest. A second great market in slaves once sullied the world, this one less well-known, vastly longer-lasting, and centred on the Black Sea ports of the Crimea. It was a huge trade in its own right; in its great years, which lasted roughly from 1200 until 1760, an estimated 6.5 million prisoners were shipped off to new and often intensely miserable lives in places ranging from Italy to India.

Slavery in the Crimea, however, differed in significant ways from the model made so familiar by the trans-Atlantic trade. The slaves sold there were drawn for the most part from the great plains of the Ukraine and southern Russia in annual raids known as the “harvesting of the steppe.” Their masters were successively Vikings, Italians and Tatars – the latter being, for nearly half of the trade’s life, the subjects of the Crimean Khanate, a state that owed its own long life to its ability to satisfy demand for slaves. And most of the slaves themselves were not male labourers. They were women and children destined for domestic service – a fate that not infrequently included sexual service. The latter sort of slave was always fairly commonplace in the Crimea. When the Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi toured the north shores of the Black Sea in 1664, he noted down some examples of the local dialect that he hoped other travellers to the region might find useful. Among the phrases that Çelebi selected were “Bring a girl” and “I found no girl, but I found a boy.”

Female slaves commanded a premium in the Crimean slave trade, a lucrative business that became the subject of many Orientalist fantasies.

Young female slaves commanded a premium in the Crimean slave trade, a lucrative business that became the subject of many Orientalist fantasies.

This special focus – in a market that lay at the intersection not only of Europe and Asia, but also of Christianity and Islam – produced remarkable consequences. More women than men were put up for sale in the Crimea, and they consistently fetched higher prices. The high value of females was established at a very early date – articles 110-121 of the twelfth century Russkaia Pravda, the oldest known Russian law code, noted that female slaves were worth more than males – and it persisted throughout the entire history of the Black Sea trade. Female slaves were twice as expensive as males in Crete in 1301 and 60 percent more expensive 30 years later; when a Turkish noble, Kenan Bey, wrote his will around 1600, a slave girl he left to his wife turned out to be his single most valuable piece of property. As a result, as many as 80 percent of all Black Sea slaves whose sexes and ages are known were females aged between 8 and 24.

The slave traders of the Crimean Khanate became expert at manipulating their stocks so that they could offer Christian slaves to Muslim customers and Muslim slaves to Christians. They became connoisseurs of their clients’ widely varying tastes in beauty. And they developed a fine appreciation of the value of exoticism. Among the most highly-priced slaves on sale in the Crimean markets were blacks from sub-Saharan Africa, who found a ready market in all-white Muscovy, and Circassians from the Caucasus – famed even then for their beauty. The most prized of all varieties of slave, however, appear to have been children brought all the way to the Crimea from the far north – boys and girls who were perhaps between six and 13 years old, who had been seized in organised raids on the Finnish district of Karelia, and then trafficked south via Novgorod, Moscow, and the Dnieper.

A raider makes off with a female captive in another heavily romanticised portrayal of there slave trade. Tatars did indeed travel with spare horses, as depicted here, but they secured captives by the hundred and most of the men, women and children they took were required to walk. It was for this reason that the slavers killed most of the youngest and the oldest of their prisoners.

A Tatar makes off with a female captive in another heavily romanticised portrayal of the slave trade. Crimean raiders did indeed travel with spare horses, as depicted here, but they secured captives by the hundred and most of the men, women and children they took were required to walk. It was for this reason that the slavers killed most of the youngest and the oldest of their prisoners.

So valuable were children of this sort – and so likely, therefore, to be bought and sold along the way – that only a handful of Finnish exotics ever found their way to the Crimea; Jukka Korpela estimates that their numbers may have been as low as half a dozen a year. The prices they commanded, however, were simply colossal; one source notes that girls who could be purchased for as little as 5 altyn in Karelia could be resold for 6,666 altyn even before they reached the Khanate – a mark up in excess of 133,000 percent. The higher price, equivalent to 200 roubles or (in about 1600) 250 sheep, was also about five times the usual price for a Crimean slave. It is no surprise, in these circumstances, that slaves from the far north were highly sought-after for their colouring – nor that their special characteristics were scrupulously noted in the slave registers so carefully kept in the ports that lay at the heart of this commerce in human misery: “white skin, white hair.”

To get some idea of how this slave trade worked, how it developed and how it was made profitable, it is necessary first to make the point that slave raiding and slave trading were the economic mainstays of the Crimea throughout the medieval period. The trade actually rose and fell twice, once before and once after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, demand for pagan or Muslim slaves for Byzantium being supplanted by the market for Christian slaves in the Ottoman Empire. There seem to have been few years in this period, however, in which at least 2,000 prisoners were not shipped out of Caffa, a port which Mikhalon Litvin – a Lithuanian writing in about 1550 – described as “not a town, but an abyss into which our blood is pouring.” That figure, moreover, substantially understates the true extent of slavery in the Crimea. It has been estimated that at least a third of the prisoners brought into the peninsula remained there, working as slaves for Tatar masters. Another substantial group found their way to rival ports in the peninsula, or were sold on to buyers from other Mongol successor-states such as the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan.

The Crimean Khanate and its immediate neighbours in 1600.

The Crimean Khanate and its immediate neighbours in 1600.

Understanding this mechanics of this fearsomely efficient business means understanding its parameters. The first and most significant of these was geography. The steppe, which ran uninterrupted from Mongolia all the way to Hungary and Poland, provided the forage required by mounted raiding parties while offering no significant barriers to either the rapid movement of large groups of horsemen or their swift retreat. Neither the great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which was until the 1660s the major power in eastern Europe) nor its weaker neighbour, Muscovy, had a defined southern border; rather, both states had frontiers, which were almost impossible to seal. Fortifications were introduced at several spots from the late sixteenth century, but it was not until the 1640s that the Muscovites began the long process of building the Belgorod Line, a chain of forts, earth ramparts and long lines of felled trees that eventually ran for 800 kilometres. These defences limited the Tatars’ freedom of movement, and eventually (though not until the 1760s) rendered large-scale raids impossible. Before that date, however, raiding parties ranged more or less at will across the endless steppe, burning villages, seizing captives, and dragging them off to the south along familiar routes labelled on seventeenth century maps as the “black roads” of the slave trade.

Politics was also vitally important in ensuring the survival of the eastern slave trade. Throughout the great years of the Crimean Khanate, the lands to the north were divided between two powers that were always opposed and frequently at war. Successive khans exploited the bitter enmity of Catholic Poland and Orthodox Muscovy, allying with one power while raiding the other and switching allegiance as they pleased. At no point in the Khanate’s history did it face the combined forces of both enemies.

Caffa, the port at the heart of the Eurasian slave trade.

Caffa, the port at the heart of the Eurasian slave trade.

This mattered because, although it was, for almost the whole of its life, a protectorate of the powerful Ottoman Empire, the Khanate was in almost every other respect a weak and a divided state. Its ruler might have been a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, but he was also was also merely the overlord of four powerful, squabbling tribes, each of which organised two or three thousand of its own men to launch twice-yearly slaving expeditions. The clans ranged indiscriminately and cared little whether they were attacking the enemies or the nominal allies of their state. No khan who wished to remain in power could afford to stop them, and for the most part Crimean rulers contented themselves with taxing the trade at the rate of one in five of all the captives and all the livestock taken on the steppe.

Several sources enable calculations to be made of the losses inflicted in Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy at the high point of this trade in slaves. It seems safest to assume that the huge numbers referred to by contemporary chroniclers – who recorded losses of up to 800,000 captives in a single raid – mean little more than “very many,” but administrative records provide more trustworthy perspectives. Iuromenta, declarations made by Polish nobles who were permitted to claim tax exemptions for peasants who had been captured by Tatar raiders, survive for Lviv in the period 1603-33 and have been used to extrapolate average losses of 7,000 people a year from the whole of the Commonwealth; reports sent to Moscow by regional governors between 1600 and 1650 add a further 4,000 Muscovites each year to that total. Neither of the latter sources is likely to be wholly reliable (the Polish nobles had an incentive to exaggerate losses, while Muscovite governors minimised theirs for fear of appearing incompetent), but it is undeniably the case that the number of captives coming onto the Crimean market was sufficient to support a 2,000-strong slavers’ guild in Istanbul during the fifteenth century. It is not impossible, therefore, that Litvin was right in estimating that there were around 30,000 slaves in Caffa at any one time – outnumbering the city’s Muslim population by around two to one.

Aleksandra Lisowska, also known as Roxelana, was a Polish girl taken as a slave during the 1520s who became the favourite wife of Suleiman, the greatest of all Ottoman sultans, and mother of Sultan Selim II. From a contemporary painting.

Aleksandra Lisowska, also known as Roxelana, was a Polish subject taken as a slave during the 1520s who became the favourite wife of Suleiman, the greatest of all Ottoman sultans, and mother of Sultan Selim II. From a contemporary painting.

What was it like to be one of those prisoners? There is no one answer to that question. The truth seems to be that, in certain circumstances, being a slave was not intolerable. Male captives sent to work, chained, in the galleys – a common enough fate in those days –endured lives that were about as hard as it is possible to imagine. For others, though, slavery meant being clothed and housed and fed, and often it meant household work rather than the backbreaking physical toil expected of a steppe peasant. Captivity of this variety was not too far removed from the sort of life endured by an indentured servant who signed a long term contract promising to serve a single master for a paltry wage, plus board and lodging. In one telling anecdote dating to the last days of the Black Sea trade, a party of miserably impoverished Circassians held on board a ship headed for Istanbul was freed by the crew of a Russian naval vessel. Given the choice of a return home, marriage to Russian or Cossack men, or remaining with their Turkish slave-master, “unanimously and without a moment’s consideration, they exclaimed, ‘To Constantinople – to be sold!'”

In the better-regulated Muslim lands, moreover, slavery was not necessarily for life. Some slaves secured their freedom after a quarter of a century – one English traveller in central Asia stumbled across a party of 25 freed Russian slaves heading home from Samarkand – and captives who married rarely passed on their slave status to their children, as was certainly the case in the Atlantic trade. Those who had good looks, luck and talent might make something of themselves in circumstances such as these. Perhaps the most celebrated example of a slave who rose far above her humble origins was that of Aleksandra Lisowska, the able daughter of a Ruthenian priest who was seized by the Crimean Tatars in Galicia during the 1520s. Taken to Caffa and then sold on to Istanbul, she became the favourite wife of the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and a significant power in her own right in the Ottoman Empire.

Muscovite troops construct anti-Tatar fortifications along the steppe frontier

Muscovite troops construct anti-Tatar fortifications along the steppe frontier

It would be a terrible mistake, however, to see the Crimean slave trade as in any sense benign. Capture by a Tatar raiding party could and often did mean death. The very young and very old – those unable to walk – would be released or simply killed at this point. An account by Sigmund Freiherr von Herberstein, an envoy from the Holy Roman Empire who visited Russia in the sixteenth century, alleged that “old and infirm men, who will not fetch much at a sale, are given up to the Tartar youths much as hares are given to whelps by way of their first lesson in hunting.” The respective fates of the young and attractive and of those too old to work are confirmed by a snatch of Ukrainian folk song: “Old mother is sabred/And my dear is taken into captivity.”

Those who were fit and beautiful enough to survive this cull would have their hands pinioned behind their backs and be yoked in lines to Tatar ponies. Secured in this fashion, and whipped to ensure that they maintained a steady pace behind their captors, they would trudge for several hundred miles across the steppe. Male prisoners were sometimes castrated and frequently branded, and those who survived both this harsh treatment and the march south were confined in Crimean dungeons, classified according to their age, sex, status and skills, and finally inspected for physical appearance. Here the experience of slaves seems to have been humiliatingly similar throughout the long years of the eastern trade. Writing in the 1420s, the Spanish traveller Pero Tafur recorded that the Genoese forced new slaves to “strip to the skin, males as well as females, and they put on them a cloak of felt, and the price is named. Afterwards they throw off their coverings and make them walk up and down to show whether they have any bodily defect.” 250 years later, so many Tatar slavers used cosmetics to improve the appearance of their female captives that the Khanate issued an edict forbidding the practice.

The Crimean Khan Devlet Giray, who reigned over the slave state at the height of its power between 155 and 1577.

The Crimean Khan Devlet I Giray, who reigned over the slave state at the height of its power between 1551 and 1577, receives a group of western ambassadors.

The value of these captives varied significantly over the years according to both the numbers coming onto the market and the personal qualities of the slaves themselves. General factors, especially the advent of war and peace, famine and epidemics, made huge differences to cost, and this seems to have remained true irrespective of which power was in control of the Black Sea slave routes. We know that, in the last days of the Byzantine Empire, when the Crimean trade was in the hands of the Genoese and the Venetians, prices rose sharply as a result of a severe outbreak of plague in Romania in 1393, and also that in the closing years of the thirteenth century the price of a Turkish slave fell briefly below that of a sheep thanks to the glut of prisoners produced by a successful Byzantine campaign. Similarly, during a famine in Astrakhan in the 1550s, peasants would sell their daughters into slavery for six pence worth of corn. Four decades later, in a time of plenty, girl slaves in the same town cost 405 florints.

Specifics mattered a great deal, too, however. Noble captives taken during military campaigns would be ransomed rather than sold on the open market. When János Kemény, the Prince of Transylvania, was captured in 1658 with a number of his nobles, he was eventually ransomed for 100,000 thalers (a quarter of what had originally been demanded) and a subordinate, Ferenc Kornis, for 40,000. A surviving register of prisoners lists 275 other named captives, and of these a further 66 are known to have been ransomed for an additional 64,530 thalers – a total figure equivalent to eight years’ of tribute payments by the Transylvanians.

A Crimean Tatar warrior, wielding the celebrated recurved bow that was for centuries the main weapon of the Mongol and Tatar peoples. Raiding parties of such warriors, up to 30,000 strong, scoured the western steppes for prisoners almost annually throughout the medieval and early modern periods.

A Crimean Tatar warrior, wielding the celebrated recurved bow that was for centuries the main weapon of the Mongol and Tatar peoples. Raiding parties of such warriors, up to 30,000 strong, scoured the western steppes for prisoners almost annually throughout the medieval and early modern periods.

By the seventeenth century, moreover, ransoms were increasingly being paid for far less exalted captives. Redeeming prisoners from the clutches of the infidel had come to be regarded in both Muscovy and Poland-Lithuania as a moral and religious duty – no Christian could view with anything less than horror the fate of slaves who died in Muslim lands without administration of the last rites – and it was because of this that Muscovy collected a special ransom tax to redeem thousands of ordinary prisoners between 1551 and 1679. There is also good evidence that all Crimean captives were the subject of elaborate pricing mechanisms; the usual prices charged for slaves were, for example, discounted to take account of physical imperfections and injuries. A case tried in Genoa in 1423 concerned a Bulgar slave girl who had been struck over the head when she was captured and now suffered from “falling sickness” – perhaps epilepsy. The slave-owner was able to press a case to get the sale declared invalid on the grounds that the girl had been ill at the time he purchased her.

Finally, it is important to see the eastern slave trade in its proper context. To think of the Muscovites and Poles as nothing more than victims of the Tatars is to radically distort the truth. Muscovy, in particular, was frequently complicit, and the institution of slavery flourished for many years within its borders. This was a matter of special significance when it comes to explaining how it was possible for Finns to find their way to the Crimean market, for the truth is that they were mostly seized and sent there by Russians. The northern town of Novgorod – known during the middle ages as Novgorod the Great in deference to its wealth and power – was a key centre of the slave trade in this region, and the men of Novgorod are known to have mounted numerous raids into Karelia with the explicit purpose of capturing exotic Finnish children. Prisoners taken in this region were so valuable, indeed, that after the incorporation of the Khanate of Astrakhan into the growing Muscovite empire, the son of its former khan was permitted to lead two expeditions through Muscovy to launch raids in Karelia (1555 and 1577), while Shah Abbas of Persia sent delegations that managed to acquire three Finnish girls in Moscow and 30 more in Kazan.

Life for forest Finns. This 1893 oil painting by Eero Jarnefelt is a late representation of an age-old way of life that had probably changed little since the days that Tatars from Astrakhan travelled half way across west Asia to raid the country for blonde children.

Life for forest Finns. This 1893 oil painting by Eero Jarnefelt is a late representation of an age-old way of life that had probably changed little since the days that Tatars from Astrakhan travelled half way across west Asia to raid the country for blonde children.

The advantages of slave raiding in the far north were considerable. There was no powerful Finnish state capable of protecting its subjects, and although most southern parts of Finland were Christianised during the Middle Ages, large swathes of the population remained pagan – an attractive proposition, since captives from this source enjoyed no protection from the church and could be sold indiscriminately to both Christian and Muslim buyers. The proximity of Novgorod meant that there was a major slaving base nearby, and removed much of the cost and risk involved in transporting prisoners across large distances.

According to Jukka Korpela, the chronicles of the medieval period record major raids into Karelia on average once every 10 years between the mid-14th and early 16th centuries, “which is a very high frequency in view of the fact that this area lay outside the interests of the late medieval realms.” Some were mounted by private enterprise – notably “marauding boatmen” from Novgorod. Others were sponsored by local rulers who hoped to profit handsomely from them.

This petroglyph, showing Karelian skiers, is one of the earliest surviving representations of the Finnic people.

This petroglyph, showing Karelian skiers, is one of the earliest surviving representations of the Finnish people.

The earliest records that we have of Muscovite raids in this region date to 1477, the year before Novgorod fell to Tsar Ivan the Great. An account dating to 1490 gives more detail about the specifics of the trade: the Russians plundered the parish of Kemi, in northern Finland, kidnapped its women and children, and offered them for ransom. Some families paid to recover their relatives; most could not, and lost them to slavery. When Tatar troops from Astrakhan mounted their similar raid in 1577, they left children too young to walk out on the ice to die.

This trade in Scandinavian captives – known to the Muscovites as nemtsy – flourished throughout the 16th century, and was large enough for other rulers to send specially to Moscow for these coveted slaves. Izmail-bek, the khan of the Nogai horde (whose lands were situated north of the Crimea) sent a diplomat north to purchase two Scandinavian children in 1561; the khan of far-off Bukhara dispatched a delegation which toured the slave quarters of five towns for nemtsy girls. The prices they paid were about ten times the average for an ordinary slave, and Korpela suggests that the word nemtsy itself became practically a trademark, “which referred to an already established extra quality.” While the numbers of Finnish captives who actually reached the Crimea was undoubtedly low, therefore, the fact that there was plainly an active trade in them, involving special terminology, a long-distance trading network, and – last but by no means least – clear profits, suggests a sophistication and an ability to disseminate intelligence and even place “orders” for slaves with particularly valued characteristics that seem remarkable at such an early date.

The Karelian taiga, location of several centuries of slave raid that distributed highly-value Finnish children throughout much of Asia.

The Karelian taiga, location of several centuries of slave raid that distributed highly-valued Finnish children throughout much of Asia.

It can be argued, indeed, that the significance of the Crimean slave trade as a whole has been severely under-estimated. It was not simply a precursor of the Atlantic trade; it provided a model and, in a number of cases, the expertise for it. Some of the Genoese slavers who were thrown out of Caffa by the Ottomans a few years after the fall of Byzantium reappeared as founders of the Atlantic trade towards the end of the fifteenth century. Moreover, Ottoman Istanbul, the largest city in all of Europe and western Asia by 1550, grew rapidly in part because one in five of its booming population was a Crimean slave. And the Cossacks of the Ukraine first organised themselves into large bands to protect against Tatar slave raids.

Finally, the diversion of Muscovite resources and Russian gold to Caffa plainly had some impact on the development of Russia. The cost of ransom slavery alone was as much as 6 million roubles each year after 1600, and the great Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky – writing late in the nineteenth century, at a time when Russia’s inability to keep pace with the developing west was a matter of prime political importance – observed that “if you consider how much time and spiritual and material strength was wasted in the monotonous, brutal, toilsome and painful pursuit of [the Tatar] steppe predators, one need not ask what people in Eastern Europe were doing while those of Western Europe advanced in industry and commerce, in civil life and in the arts and sciences.”

That so many lives, and so many millions in gold, in short, were not available to be invested in Russia, nor to be directed against Poland-Lithuania or Sweden for so long, may have been merely an inadvertent consequence of the Crimean khan’s inability to control his chiefs and followers. It was a consequence, nonetheless.

Additional material: Ffion Dash

Sources:

Eric Christiansen. The Northern Crusades. London: Macmillan, 1980; Virgil Ciocîltan. The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Leiden: Brill, 2012; Leslie J.D. Collins. The Fall of Shaikh Ahmed Khan and the Fate of the People of the Great Horde, 1500-1504. Unpublished University of London PhD thesis, 1970; Jodocus Crull. The Antient and Present State of Muscovy. London: A. Roper, 1698; David Brion Davis. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; David Eltis. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000;  David Eltis and David Richardson. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010; Maria Ivanics. ‘Enslavement, slave labour and the treatment of captives in the Crimean Khanate.’ In Géza Dávid and Pál Fodor (eds). Ransom Slavery along the Ottoman Borders. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2007; Kate Fleet. European and Islamic Trade in the Early Ottoman State: the Merchants of Genoa and Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004; Charles J. Halperin. The Tatar Yoke: The Image of the Mongols in Medieval Russia. Bloomington [IN]: Slavica Publishers, 2009; Richard Hellie. Slavery in Russia 1450-1725. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982; V. L. Ianin. ‘Medieval Novgorod.’ in The Cambridge History of Russia: From Early Rus’ to 1689. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008; Halil Inalcik. ‘The Khan and the tribal aristocracy: the Crimean Khanate under Sahib Giray I.’ Harvard Ukrainian Studies 3-4 (1979-80); Michael Khoradovsky. Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800. Bloomington: Indianapolis University Press, 2002; Mikhail Kililov. ‘Slave trade in the early modern Crimea from the perspective of Christian, Muslim and Jewish sources.’ Journal of Early Modern History 11 (2007); Charles King. The Black Sea: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; Denise Klein (ed). The Crimean Khanate Between East and West (15th-18th Century). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2012; D. Kolodziejczyk. ‘Slave hunting and slave redemption as a business enterprise: the northern Black Sea region in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries.’ Oriente Moderno 86 (2006); Jukka Korpela. ‘The Baltic Finnic People in the Medieval and Pre-Modern Eastern European Slave Trade.’ Russian History 41 (2014); Eizo Matsuki, “The Crimean Tatars and their Russian-Captive Slaves: an Aspect of Muscovite-Crimean Relations in the 16th and 17th Centuries“, Mediterranean Studies Group at Hitotsubashi University, nd; Alexandre Skirda. La Traite des Slaves: L’Escalvage des Blancs du VIII au XVIII Siècle. Paris: Les Editions de Paris Max Chaleil, 2010; Alessandro Stanziani. Bondage: Labor and Rights in Eurasia from the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries. New York: Berghahn Books, 2014;  William Urban, ‘Victims of the Baltic Crusade.’ Journal of Baltic Studies 29 (1998); Charles Verlinden. ‘Medieval “Slavers”.’ In David Herlihy, Robert S. Lopez and Vsevolod Slessarev (eds.), Economy, Society and Government in Medieval Italy, Kent [OH]: Kent State University Press, 1969; Brian Glyn Williams. The Crimean Tatars: The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

93 thoughts on “Blonde cargoes: Finnish children in the slave markets of medieval Crimea

  1. Fascinating! I’ve known about the Crimean Khanate and I’d heard of the slave raids and such as they filtered down through Russian culture, but I hadn’t realized it was such a large-scale endeavor.

  2. So interesting, not just because of the mentioned Karelians but the whole study of the East European slave trade by the history professor Korpela !

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  6. Is there a confusion about Nordic and Scandinavian in this article? I see that ” nemtsy ” is being mentioned as Scandinavian captives, but it continues to talk about Finnish slaves.
    Or was there raids done towards Norway, Denmark and Sweden as well? And if so, why would there be, as it is mentioned some of the masters where vikings….

    • The word does mean “Scandinavian”, but the Russians did not raid Sweden, Norway or Denmark. The captives taken on the eastern shores of the Baltic may well have included some Swedes who lived in the region, but they were harder targets as they were part of better-established states which had defensive forces; most of the slaving that happened there would have taken place in times of war. Korpela’s article implies a higher proportion were Finns (or Karelians; see Svieri’s comment below), certainly at the time that the trade peaked in the 16th century.

      Scandinavians were heavily involved in the West Asian slave trade during the life of the principality of Kievan Rus’ (882-1240), which was ruled by the Rurikids, a dynasty of Varangians – that is, Swedish Vikings. There is evidence, in the form of hoards of silver coins found in the Baltic region but originating in Byzantium and various Islamic states, that this was both an extensive and a profitable business. By the seventeenth century, the boot was on the other foot, and there was growing concern in Sweden at the number of citizens of the Swedish state living in slavery in the Ottoman Empire, largely as a result of the capture of the crews of merchant ships trading in the Mediterranean.

  7. As a Karelian, I’m a little upset that you automatically label us as Finns. Our identity is very much seperate from Finland, even more so when talking about historical things.

    • As a Karelian I would state that the majority of the the population doesn´t share the views of Svieri. We share warm feelings towards Finland, nation that seem to help us even though the history has been pulling us towards many directions. We share values and are in many ways Finns.

    • “Fin” means Tavastians, Savonians and Karelians who live on the Finnish side of the border (and some other tribes). So, if someone thinks Finns are all the same.

    • Finnish is just a blanket term used here for variour Finnic Tribes. Ofcourse back then Finland as a nation didn’t exist. (And also national borders only began to matter during the last few centuries).

      However I don’t really see Karelians as markedly different culture from the rest of Finnic tribes in the area. I’m 1/4th Karelian (from Karelian Isthmus, now part of Russia) , 2/4th Savonian (Eastern Finland) and 1/4th Osthrobothnian (Western Finland). In my own experience the Savonian and Karelian culture (and dialects) are much closer than Savonian and Osthrobothnian.

    • I respect each individual’s right to define their own identity, and I’ve met Carelians who have a strong opinion about this, that they are Carelian, not Finns. I can understand that as there is a certain West-East divide in this. It doesn’t exist as much within the borders of Finland, but can be visible when talking to Carelians who live in the Russian federation or Carelians who’s ancestors have moved abroad (somewhere else than Finland) directly from the old Carelian areas. That said, Carelians do belong to the Fenno-Ugric language family and are a Finnic people. It is not a Slavic language, as many seem to think.

      • Linguistic closeness is not defined by having the same / similar items of vocabulary only. E.g. Finnish and English are not related at all though there are hundreds of English words in the Finnish vocabulary. More important is the structural / grammatical / syntactical closeness which between Finnish and Hungarian is obvious, though in Hungarian there are more cases than Finnish. Also, there’s the pronunciation and the letters ö and ä. And finally, at least according to one theory, there’s the long period of joint migration from somewhere near the Ural Mountains where the peoples who spoke the root language of Finno-Ugric languages used to live.

  8. You mention traffic coming from Ukraine and southern Russia. I hope you aware that Ukraine didn’t excist before 1991. Ukraine means Border of something. In this case Border of Russia.

    • Certainly. But it’s easier for readers who are not familiar with the history of Eastern Europe to mentally position themselves in relation to modern states, especially when the essay covers such a long period of time, in which many states – including Kievan Rus’ and the Golden Horde – rose and fell. As I hope the essay makes clear, the area in question was divided between Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy at the height of the trade in slaves. What we now think of as Ukrainian also existed as a distinct language by the late seventeenth century, and it’s in this sense that I use the term when discussing the appearance of slavery in folk songs.

      • Kirill, there was not Russia untill czar Petr I time, only Muscovy. For example Kievan Rus wasn`t Russian state, but more Ukrainian state.

      • Do some reading please. Russia was there long before Russian Empire. Kievan Rus was a time period more then a political state. Ukraine only became a politically sustained ethnos in the last 20 years.

      • I think it is incorrect to present the story to the reader in this regard. You have to correct the article. Say southern russia and today’s Ukraine terretory. There are many areas that are presented incorrectly. The topic is excellent but information forms an incorrect retrospective.

      • Ukraine is derived from the Ruthenian word for “the land”. In modern Ukrainian, this usually comes out as “Ukraiina” depending on the dialect. The modern country known as Ukraine has been referred to as such for centuries.

        I don’t recall the author’s name, but there was a Frenchman who visited the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in the 1640’s. He wrote down his account, in French, describing the Ruthenians (a better term for most Ukrainians). He clearly states the locally used word for “Ukraine” in the book’s title. Since the 16th century at least it has been known as Ukraina.

        The idea that Ukraine means borderland is a bastardization of the word to mean something else by foreigners. Particularly Russians.

        How do I know this? Ukrainian blood, Ukrainian culture, and Ukrainian history have been mine since day one.

    • I think historians agree that the Kievan Rus was state. It became one when Oleg of Novgorod conquered Kiev in the late 9th century and moved the capital from Novgorod to Kiev. The Novgorod Republic became later a more independent unit (12th century), still a part of the Kievan Rus ensemble.

      When the Mongol invasion undid the power of the Kievan Rus, Novgorod became even more independent (though under Mongol supremacy) and at the same time The Grand Duchy of Moscow (part of Vladimir-Suzdal at first) started growing in power. This is the start of the Russian state of today. Moscow annexed Novgorod in 1478.

      I’d say both Ukraine and the Russian Federation have their roots in these events. One doesn’t exclude the other. Russia can’t claim to be the only heir.

  9. Great article, fascinating! Just for the record the name of the transylvanian prince mentioned was János Kemény. (or Kemény János – the orignal Hungarian way)

    • Thank you – I’ve added the missing accent.

      I recall that I was first introduced to the “Hungarian way” with names studying early 17th century history at school. We covered Bethlen Gábor – “Gabriel Bethlen” – who was the Prince of Transylvania at the time of the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. Of course the teacher didn’t point out how to understand the name and it took me quite a long time to work it out! Bethlen was a fascinating character whom I’d like to study in more detail at some point.

  10. Here’s the old Ukrainian “Lament of the Captive”, a traditional song about the slave trade in the region. From Magocsi’s History of Ukraine (2nd edition)

    Lament of the Captives

  11. Great aricle, thanks. Couple notes: >It was not until around 1700 that the Muscovites began the long process of building the Belgorod Line< Not quite right – defensive line aganist tatars was started in 1570-80s, Belgorod line was created in the middle of 17th century.By the way, in 1550s was made first successeful russian raid deep into Crimea to free russian slaves.

    • You’re right, and indeed I see that Brian Davies’s book mentions a key focus on construction of fortifications in the years 1646-53. At that point, he says, there were 4,000 cavalry on the line, 5,000 dragoons stationed behind it, and 17,000 garrison troops split among the 22 districts that the line ran through.

      I have made the appropriate change to the essay.

    • The historical consensus is that she came from Rohatyn, in Ruthenia. This town was part of the Polish-Lithuanian state at the time; today it is in western Ukraine.

      It’s important to stress that the evidence for all of this is pretty late. Litvin, who lived in the middle of the sixteenth century, had heard the story in its essentials, writing: “The most beloved wife of the present Turkish emperor – mother of his primogenital [eldest son] who will govern after him, was kidnapped from our land.” But it was the Polish poet Samuel Twardowski who put most of the flesh on the bones of the story as it’s told today. Twardowski served as secretary of a Polish embassy to the Ottoman Empire in 1622-23. He picked up his information from conversations at the Turkish court. See Galina Yermolenko [ed.], Roxelana in European Literature, History and Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 1988) p.2&n. According to Yermolenko,

      “Roxelana is believed to have been born in the western part of Ukraine around 1505. Sometime between 1515 and 1520, when she was around 15 years of age, she was abducted by the Crimean Tatars on one of their slave raids… She most probably followed the route that thousands of her compatriots followed in the sixteenth century – walking in long caravans of captives to the biggest slave market in the Black Sera region, Caffa… She then appeared in the Avret Pazari (“Women’s Bazaar”], a slave market in Istanbul, and, according to legend, was purchased for the imperial harem by Ibrahim Pasha, a close friend of the young Crown Prince Suleiman. Ibrahim presented her to Suleiman, probably before the latter became Sultan in 1520. Her playful temperament and greast singing ability soon won her the name of Hurrem [the “joyful” or “the Laughing One”], and that was probably what attracted Suleiman’s eye. She quickly became Suleiman’s favourite concubine, ousting from that position the beautiful Circassian concubine Mahidevran, the mother of Suleiman’s first-born son Mustafa.”

      Mustafa was killed on his father’s orders in 1553 after word spread that the son was planning to assassinate the Sultan, leaving Roxelana’s son Selim to inherit the Ottoman throne. Yermolenko cites a Polish work published in 1861, Poezye Samuela z Skrzypny Twardowskiego, as her source for all this.

    • As noted, she was a subject of the Polish-Lithuanian state as it existed in c.1520. Today she would be called Ukrainian.

      I have changed the picture caption to better reflect this in the hope of clearing up any confusion.

  12. A long and meticulously researched article about a once flourishing slave trade that we know little about today. It gives a whole new meaning to the journalistic headline, ‘White Slavers.’ Very interesting indeed.

    • Nobody knows because it is “forbidden history”. Sweden would not look good and it would ruin their “history and culture”, so it’s a hush-hush subject even in Finland.

      The painting for example, where the text claims that this was how Finns have always lived that way, could not be more wrong!

      We had a rich culture and we were extremely wealthy before Sweden’s colonization. After that the life of Finns became an everyday struggle. Everything was taken, even food. Finns were not allowed to hunt or eat meat. It was a cruel and intentional famine of ethnic Finns. Almost a third of ethnic Finns starved to death while the Swedish landlords and churches were rich without a worry in the world.

      In the painting you can see how the girl’s stomach is swollen. That is because Finns ate bark from trees, baked bark-bread, bark was a substitute for wheat.

      Here is a describing picture of what it was like:

      It’s telling about Finns that only one woman resorted to cannibalism, she was hunted down and executed. The rest just starved to death.

  13. Pingback: Fruktdyrking i Gloppen og slavehandel i Nord Afrika | Fjordhistorikaren

    • According to Wiki, about the author:
      Mike Dash is a Welsh writer, historian and researcher. He is best known for books and articles dealing with dramatic yet little-known episodes in history.
      As a historian, Dash is noted for the high quality of his research, which the academic journal The Age of Sail described as being “to a level rarely seen in books intended for a general audience.”

    • So what you’re saying is “This is so crazy, I don’t believe it – therefore it must be a lie!” Lemme guess, you vote Conservative.

    • To be fair to the author, he mentions in the picture captions that the images are “Orientalist fantasies” and “heavily romanticised”.

    • well given that Muslim states typically do not prefer representational imagery, those are likely the only available pictures the author could use. he does point out that they are romanticised, so it’s not like he’s using them blindly.

  14. Appears to be a touchy subject for some based on your traffic.
    But it’s somethng I never knew about and an interesting read on a difficult subject.

  15. I wish there was a movie about someone who travels from Karelia to Crimea and south to Constantinople to rescue their kidnapped friend or family member. History is an underused setting.

    • There is a book by Joe Abercrombie set within his first law series called “Red Country” that is pretty much that plot. All fiction of course.

  16. Politically Incorrect Travel Dictionary:

    examples of the local dialect that he hoped other travellers to the region might find useful. Among the phrases that Çelebi selected were “Bring a girl” and “I found no girl, but I found a boy.”

  17. It makes me wonder how this continued impoverishment of the Russian states not only affected its development (as stated in the final paragraphs), but how that affected their eventual outcome: Communism.

  18. Pingback: A Blast From The Past – Mike Dash | Kyun Dost?

  19. Mr Dash
    You have again completed a piece which I find utterly fascinating – your ‘blog’ is the only one I follow, and as an ardent student of bizarre history, the content of your short articles I find to be inspired.
    Living as remotely (a small island in the Indo Pacific) as I live, I do not have a great deal of access to research materials.
    But there are so many other interesting elements of history that I would so much like to read about from someone as objective and meticulous as yourself.
    What really happened on Clipperton Island back in 1917 – were the circumstances surrounding the massacre as extraordinary as they are rumoured to be? The events recounted in Joseph Cummins version almost defy belief.
    How many other Japanese castaways or hermits lived for years after the second world war, hiding in muddy jungle grottoes, or posted vigilantly on tiny tropical islands through-out the pacific, in a state of disbelief that the emperor had surrendered? What precisely was the role of Kazuko Higa on the island of Anatahan, until she finally fled the shores for a waiting American warship in 1951?
    Was Ching Shi, prostitute turned ferocious, roving pirate queen, truly as wild and valiant as modern memory portrays her?
    I find it difficult to find the time to read fiction in light of such a wealth of characters and historical happenings.
    Thank you again for your work, and I very much look forward to your next post.
    Best Regards
    L H Sindel.

    • Thank you very much for taking the trouble to write such kind words. It really is tremendously rewarding to know that my essays are appreciated by so many people.

      I am fascinated by the coincidence of our interests. This spring I will be publishing a piece of Japan’s “last straggler” from World War II – someone who outlasted Hiroo Onoda by a couple of years. And I have been interested for almost 20 years by what happened on Clipperton Island. I do agree with you that the story of the last day on the island, as told by the American sailors, is frankly incredible – the murder of the lighthouse keeper followed so immediately by the arrival of the ship strains credulity.

      I think the only hope of finding more is to properly search the Mexican archives. I do have hopes of being able to make some progress here in the course of the current year, and I am sure that I will, eventually, write the story of Clipperton.

      In the meantime, I am already looking forward to reading up on the other incidents you mention, with which I am not so familiar.

  20. The amount of research you did here is extensive and much appreciated. I was aware of slavery throughout ancient times and that primarily of the Irish and African slaves, but this is the first I’ve ever heard about this and I’m rather well read compared to most people I know on matters of history.

    Was there also extensive slave trades in the Orient and India? I’m aware of some slavery in pre-colonial americas, but I don’t the know extent besides that of the Aztecs.

  21. “[A]fter the incorporation of the Khanate of Astrakhan into the growing Muscovite empire, the son of its former khan was permitted to lead two expeditions through Muscovy to launch raids in Karelia (1555 and 1577)”

    Do you happen to have the source for this?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Yes, it comes from p.105 of Korpela’s paper. His sources are the Chronica der Provintz Lifflandt, 98b, 99b; Patriarshaya ili Nikonovskaya letopis 7064 (1556); and Dopolneniya k atom istoricheskim sobrannyya i izdanyya arkheograficheskoya kommissieyu (St Petersburg, 1848). I should have made it clearer that, according to these sources, Mirza Aibulat’s men were part of a larger Muscovite army rather than an entirely independent raiding party.

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  24. Pingback: Le Notizie Archeologiche Più Interessanti del 2014 (aprile-maggio) - ZWEILAWYER

  25. Pingback: Black Sea Slave Trade | Roman in Ukraine

  26. Reading this actually got me pondering where the heck were their conscience when they ill-treated their slaves… and in the first place, slavery is a sin. Even if you don’t believe in Religion, it doesn’t seem to be the right thing to do. There is no humanity in this. Thanks for posting this though! It is really mind blogging especially when you read it at the middle of the night…

    • Slave is very bad , everyone knows it, but people will continue doing it because there is money involved, and money you get corruption.

  27. Whoa!
    What is it about the human race that makes us treat each other in such despicable ways?
    This is an amazing article

  28. Krimin tataarien khanaatti oli itse asiassa enemmän poikkeus kuin sääntö. He olivat jopa julmempia kuin Ottomaanit, ja ainoa syy miksi he pysyivät pystyssä oli se että Venäjällä oli resurssit sidottu muualla heidän olemassaolonsa aikana ja koska Ottomanit tukivat heitä aktiivisesti. Pelkästään Puolan-Liettuan yhteinen valtio menetti 1500-1700 luvulla keskimäärin 20.000 ihmistä vuodessa Krimin Tataarien orjuuttajille, Venäjä suunnilleen saman verran. Tämä siis jatkui vuosisatojen ajan.

    Kun kasakkaliike muodostui vastustamaan heitä ja Venäjä alkoi vahvistua Iivana Kauhean jälkeisenä aikana, sen päivät olivat luetut kun se ei enää kyennyt orjuuttamaan samassa mittakaavassa, ja kasakat tulivat nimeomaan tuhoamaan khanaattia siinä missä se oli heikoin – orjuutusretkillä. Loppuvaihessaan Krimin Tataarit eivät enää saaneet pidettyä hengissä kuin pienen murto-osan ihmissaaliistaan koska kasakat olivat niin hyviä järjestämään heille väijytyksiä että orjuuttajat ajoivat valtaosan orjistaan kuoliaaksi matkalla. Orjat nimittäin pakoitettiin kävelemään kun Krimin Tataarit menivät ratsain.
    Krimin Tataarien poikkeuksellisuuden kertoo hyvin se että kun he muuttivat Krimille sen jälkeen kun Mongolit ja Tataarit kärsivät tappion, niin noin vuosisadassa Krimin paikallisväestöstä noin 2/3 oli tuhottu. Tämä on poikkueksellisen kova tuhoamistahti, edes Hitler ei sellaiseen kyennyt (toki hän oli vallassa vähemmän aikaa).

    Jos joskus kuulet kuinka Ukrainassa, Puolassa tai Venäjällä Krimin Tataareihin “suhtadutaan hyvin”, tiedä että luet paskaa. Siihen kansaan ei tuolla alueella luoteta vielä vuosisatoihin kenenkään slaavilaisen kansan toimesta.

    • Ihonväri, sukupuoli- ja seksuaali-identiteetti ovat ainoat asiat jotka vaikuttavat tumblriittojen mielestä priviledgeen. Näin kerran kommentin missä Suomalaisia syytettiin hyötyvän suuresti imperialismista ja näin priviledgemme ja synnynnäinen rasismimme on hyvin suurin. Itseltä on kyllä vähän mennyt tuo Suomen imperiumi historian tunneilta ohitse.

  29. Thank you for this enlightening article! This puts the Swedish takeover of the Finnish lands in a different light. The Finns, Tavastians and later Carelians were to be in a different position as Christians and as part of the Swedish realm when thinking of these slaver raids.

  30. Pingback: The Turkish Jewish Khazar | 3D Democracy for People Participation in Alternative System

  31. Have you read about Muslim slavery in Africa and the Middle East? The estimates are conservative yet astounding considering their means of transport at the time. Upward of 100 million, and probably considerably higher.

  32. I was surprised by this tidbit:

    Moreover, Ottoman Istanbul, the largest city in all of Europe and western Asia by 1550, grew rapidly in part because one in five of its booming population was a Crimean slave.

    20% of Constantinople being of Crimean slave origin is much higher than I ever expected.

    A friend of mine from Damascus was surprised to learn his mtDNA was V1a1 (Finnish-Baltic).

  33. I doubt the numbers were as great as those quoted above. The African slave trade was large so as to serve the labour intensive plantation economy while the Crimean slave trade (at least from the Arabic sources that I have) was to fill the ranks of the slave armies in the Ayyubids and then the Bahri Mamelukes (Al-Dhahir Baibars, the Mameluke Sultan, is a Ukrainian slave sold by the Genoese in Latakia in the early 13th century), domestic service and prisoner exchange. Plantation economy did not exist in the middle east of the Mediterranean basin except in Iraq where the East Africa slave trade played an important role.

    • It’s certainly true that in absolute terms – numbers of slaves required per year – demand in the region served by the Crimean slave trade was less than that in the region served by the Atlantic trade. The numbers (produced by careful historians whose figures, while obviously approximate, I have no reason to doubt) are the product of the far greater duration of the Crimean trade (at least six or seven centuries, against about two to two and a half centuries in the case of the Atlantic).

  34. For an ethnic Finn it was heartbreaking to read the commentary section. “Wow” “Fascinating” “Interesting” etc., when you would expect at least some empathy for Finns. Show me an ethnic Finn who hasn’t a melancholic and sad soul and I show you a flying pig!

    Almost nobody is interested in the true history of Finns. Too many defend to the very last the “official” version of our history and immediately invalidate anything that doesn’t fit the narrative. They are satisfied with the version of Finns not even existing before Sweden’s colonization. That’s where our “official” history starts. Of course absolutely nothing negative is written about the Swedish rule, yet nobody asks why. They are happy to believe that it was only positive. They are happy to believe that Finns suffered immensly during the Russian rule. Once again, only negatives are written about the Russian rule and only positives are written about the Swedish rule. And nobody asks why?

    Our ancient history is thoroughly erased from history. Intelligent people willingly believe that Finns dropped down from the heaven when Sweden colonized “our non-existing nation”. Any information that doesn’t fit the “official Swedish version” is immediately judged as BS.

    Ethnic Finns suffered a lot. More than anyone of you ever want to know. And probably won’t either. Vatican’s and Sweden’s secret documents will stay secret. And Finns will continue to have a suffering soul, because outsiders tell them that they have never suffered and continue to determine our history.

    How many know that when 430.000 Karelians were forced to leave their homes in WW2, ethnic Finns bent backwards to give them a new home, even whole villages. Karelians were our people and soldiers from the frontier wrote home to tell their families to take them in, telling that Karelians have suffered a lot. The only ones refusing to take Karelians were the Swedish-speaking Finlanders, the former landlords from Swedish rule. Ethnic Finns felt the suffering of Karelians, the Swedish-speaking Finlanders didn’t.

    Today Finland has many different Finnish “tribes”, Laplanders, Karelians, Tavastians etc. They are all unique and original, yet we live in perfect harmony and peace. And most importantly; not one ethnic Finn walks around demanding gratitude from Karelians. We are grateful for having Karelians, they are part of the Finnish family, priceless.

    But gratitude is constantly expected from Finns by other countries, even when it’s obvious that in reality they should be grateful to Finns.

    Ethnic Finns carry the sorrow and memory in their souls of for example how Finns were taken as slaves. You may laugh at us for being so serious, but remember that we are serious for a good reason.

    Suomalainen henkeen ja vereen!!!

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