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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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