Circassian Female Slavery

by Amjad Jaimoukha


(Please go to Circassian Bibliography for references)

 Circassian female slavery can be traced back to at least the time of Saphira, the fair Circassian slave in Solomon’s court. Since then countless women were sold into slavery—a trade staple that filled the coffers of princes and nobles, and afforded poorer families decent living. The Circassian upper classes never compromised their progeny, but relied on their subjects for the endless supply of white slaves.


Four factors worked to propagate the institution of slavery. The beauty of Circassian women had been legendary since time immemorial. Before Russian encroachment, Circassia had always had an overabundance of people. Selling a few lasses and lads here and there eased the congestion a bit. The wretched situation of some members of the lower classes caused them to exchange their fair ware for handsome pecuniary rewards. Finally, the detachment of feeling between parents and children, a martial trait vigorously inculcated, eased the pain of separation.


According to some accounts, it would seem that maids were seldom forced into bondage, instead they themselves opted to enter into this state out of goodwill. They were lured by tales of opulence and luxury in the harems, in which their legendary beauty was at a premium. This contrasted sharply with their Spartan and toilsome existence in Circassia . It was not uncommon for ‘slaves’ to come back home having made a small fortune and thus be able to live comfortably in the old country, sparing female members of their families further drudgery. In a stark show of male dominance, a brother had the right to sell his maiden sisters once their parents were gone. In addition, a man could thus punish his adulterous wife, as long as her family posed no obstacle to such a transaction. However, the bulk of slaves were the children of prisoners who were begotten specifically for the purpose. There are anecdotal accounts of ‘eugenic farms’ that were set up to produce beautiful specimens for the slave market.


On the lighter side of things, beautiful maids exerted some influence on the course of history in the North Caucasus. Many an invading khan sought tribute from the Circassians in form of fair lasses. In 1812, the Russians were entreated by the (Ottoman) Porte to cede back Anapa, the main slave port on the coast of Circassia , so that the depleted harems could be replenished.


Although female slavery in the Caucasus was abolished in 1864, it survived in the diaspora for many years after. According to T. R. Djordjević (1928a),¹ one day during his sojourn in Pristina in Kosovo Polje in 1869-70, he witnessed the selling of three Circassian women of extraordinary beauty for 6,000 ghūrūsh (= piaster = 1/100 of a Turkish pound), apparently a tidy sum at the time. Certainly, there were many incidents of this kind all over the Ottoman Empire.²


The Circassian lower classes

Thanes held land of noblemen by military service. Bond peasants, or serfs, were free to cultivate their plots in return for services rendered to the nobility. They had to work the lord’s fields and, according to old custom, were obliged to pay their master fixed amounts of rent in kind. For example, at the beginning of the 19th century the rate in Kabarda was 14 sacks of millet for each pair of bulls used. Every bondsman possessed a small herd of domestic animals over which the lord of the manor had no rights.

Serfs were obliged to defend the manor against outside attack and accompany the lord on his campaigns, serving as military attendants. They were at liberty to leave the estate and re-establish themselves elsewhere upon paying redemption price. A prince had the right to sell his serfs as a form of punishment for a gross misdemeanour, but only after securing a judgement from a special council.

At the base of the pyramid were the menials, slaves, the(o)ws (‘slaves’ in Old English) and villeins, knaves, drudges, scullions and so on. These were mainly taken from war captives, as were the thralls in Anglo-Saxon England. In addition, a stranger venturing into the country without a bona fide konak (êúóåíàêú; host, protector) could soon find himself in bondage. Slaves could be either kept in the manor or sold. The prince secured suitable matches for his slaves to augment their number, and hence his wealth. Runaway serfs were called ‘qwlhkeshx’en’ (‘êúóëúêýøõúýí’).


The rigidity of the class structure and the lack of mobility between the lower and upper castes had produced some differentiation in the ‘ethnic composition’ of the classes, and hence in physiognomy. The aristocrats, especially the princes, preserved ‘white bone’ (qwpschhe xwzch, êúóïùõüý õóæü; the Circassian equivalent of ‘blue blood’), whereas there was a certain degree of racial blending among freedmen and serfs. Foreign war captives started their new lives as slaves, marrying within their caste. Many of them remained within the bounds of the slavish class, but some more ambitious ones were able to buy back their freedom. To this day, some families are still aware of their foreign origin. 




¹ Information from N. Županić, 1933, p97. Original work: T. R. Djordjević, 1928a, p151.

² There are many works that deal with Circassian slavery. See for example those of Ehud R. Toledano. Also of interest is P. J. Rollins'  ‘Imperial Russia’s African Colony’, in Slavic Review, 27 January 1968, pp 432-51, which portrays the role of Circassian émigrés in convincing the Cossacks to colonize Ethiopia. The account is comic, especially the fact that it was the British who subsidized the adventure. See also Essad-Bey, 1931 (1981), pp 78-89, and A. W. Fisher, 1978.


References & bibliography:


Baldwin, G., Memorial Relating to the Slave Trade in Egypt, London, 1802.

Ballou, Maturin Murray (1820-1895), The Turkish Spies Ali Abubeker Kaled and Zenobia Marrita Mustapha, or, The Mohammedan Prophet of 1854: A true story of the Russo-Turkish War, in the series Wright American fiction, v. 2 (1851-1875), reel B-6, no. 208, Baltimore: A.R. Orton, 1855. [Contents: The Prophet - The Circassian slave - The life and confessions of Dan Hernandez Romez de Arago - The twin brothers - The two sisters - The robbers - The adventures of a medical student - Madame LeHocq; 267 pages]

The Circassian Slave, or, The Sultan’s Favorite: A Story of Constantinople and the Caucasus, in the series Wright American fiction, vol. 2 (1851-1875), reel B-5, no. 202, Boston: F. Gleason, 1851; reprinted: 1970; BiblioBazaar, 2006.

Beachy, R. W., The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa, New York, 1976.

Clarence-Smith, W. G., Islam and the Abolition of Slavery, London: C. Hurst & Co (Publishers) LTD, 2006.

Djordjević, T. R., ‘Čerkezi u našoj zemlji [The Circassians in Our Country]’, in Glasnik Skopskog Nauknog Drustva, Skoplje, vol. 3, 1928a, pp 143-51. [Enlarged edition republished in Naš narodni život, 8, 1933, pp 69-92]

— ‘Čerkezi u Suvom Dolu [The Circassians of Suvi Do]’, in Glasnik Skopskog Nauknog Drustva, Skoplje, vol. 3, 1928b, p152. [French summary ‘Les Tcherkesses dans les Balkans’ on p153]

Essad-Bey (Assad-Bey), Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, New York: The Viking Press, 1931; reprinted: 1981; reprinted: Bridges Publishing, 2008. [German original: Zwölf Geheimnisse im Kaukasus, Berlin and Zurich, 1930]

Fisher, A. W., ‘The Sale of Slaves in the Ottoman Empire: Markets and State Taxes on Slave Sales’, in Boğazici Üniversitesi Dergisi, vol. 6, 1978, pp 149-74.

Frost, L., ‘The Circassian Beauty and the Circassian Slave: Gender, Imperialism, and American Popular Entertainment’, in R. G. Thomson (ed.), Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, New York: New York University Press, c1996 pp 248-64.

Millingen, F., ‘The Circassian Slaves and the Sultan’s Harem’, in Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, vol. 8, 1870-1871, pp cix-cxx. [Published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland]

Pipes, D., Slave Soldiers and Islam: The Genesis of a Military System, New Haven–London: Yale University Press, 1981. [This is more on Circassian male slavery]

Ricks, T., ‘Slaves and Slave Trading in Shi’i Iran, AD 1500-1900’, in African and Asian Studies, Brill Academic Publishers, vol. 36, no. 4, November 2001, pp 407-18. ['Armenians, Georgians, and Circassians (slaves in Iran) were converted to Shi'i Islam.' In 1501, the Safavids proclaimed themselves the new rulers of the Iranian plateau establishing Shi'ism as a "state" religion and a "new" economic and political order. The Safavid "new order," however, was an impossibility without the slaves, forced urban and rural labour, and periodic population transfers. This paper examines the changes in slave labor practices and slave trading in Iran from 1500 to 1900. The establishment of an Islamic empire did little to diminish the numbers and uses of slaves in Iranian society and economies. Indeed, slaves and the peddling trade in slaving greatly expanded during and after the Safavid rulers assumed power. By the nineteenth century, shortages of Iranian peasant labor, the expansion of land holdings in Central and Southern Iran, and the boom in Iran's trade through the Persian Gulf altered the older slave trade in several significant ways in particular the numbers, ages and usages of African slaves. Between 1840 and 1880, Iran's participation in the Indian Ocean trade surpassed all previous slave-trading practices including the pre-Safavid era]

Županić, N., ‘Les Tcherkesses du Kosovo polje en Yougoslavie’, in International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology, Paris, 15th, Part 2, 1931; Actes Paris, 1933, pp 95-100.




Related articles:


Circassian Social Structure

The Kabardian Class System: Social Hierarchy in Eastern Circassia

Ancient Circassian Religion and Mythology

Back to Amjad Jaimoukha's Circassian Culture & Folklore page


This Page hosted by Yahoo Geocities

Get your own Free Home Page