There Were Empires That Were Based On Slavery, But They Were Not European Colonial Powers

“To say that the West only got as powerful as it did because of slavery, is also wrong, because other empires were engaged in slavery, many to a much higher level and yet the West outstripped them.”

It is common to hear people say that the advancement and wealth of European Colonial powers were based on slavery. For example, this article from the Guardian, “The west’s wealth is based on slavery. Reparations should be paid.”[2] It is wrong to say that West’s wealth is because of slavery and therefore this concept needs to be challenged.

Yes, the western colonial powers engaged in the abominable act of slavery, taking advantage of the African slave trade, purchasing slaves from African and Islamic slave traders, and transporting them to many of their colonies. This cannot and should not be denied.

But the European economic powers were not based on slavery, and it is not the reason they developed beyond other nations. This is an important distinction, it is one thing to say a society engaged in slavery, it is another to say a society’s institutions are based on slavery.

Figure 1.1 From Origins of the Political Order, Francis Fukuyama, Ottoman Empire in the 1500s[1]

Especially when you consider that the British taxpayer only just finished paying off the borrowed money which freed the slaves of Britain’s empire in 2015.[3] Britain and other European nations have spent a lot of money and expended a lot of manpower to show how sorry they were for their participation in slavery.

The advancement of European Colonial powers was based on industry, innovation and exploration, often carried out by private individuals with state commissions, but also by government-initiated economic endeavours. Generally private and state European institutions worked together in the vast colonies across the world. The East India Company is an example of one of the powerful companies that drove English Colonial power across the globe.  

To the West’s shame slavery played a part in these colonial expansions. But it is not credible to say that the West’s participation in slavery caused it to surpass non-western expansionist powers. For one, all-powerful states in this era engaged in slavery. Secondly, and importantly, it is more likely that slavery contributed to slowing the advancement of western powers in certain ways, rather than it being the primary factor allowing it to dominate those other powers.

Just compare the north and south of the United States prior to the civil war. In the south, which increasingly relied on slave labour compared to the north where it began to wane sooner, we see a large divide in economic development. This is at least partially because of slavery. “Although slavery was highly profitable, it had a negative impact on the southern economy. It impeded the development of industry and cities and contributed to high debts, soil exhaustion, and a lack of technological innovation.”[4] In fact, it is now generally agreed amongst economists that slavery is not only wrong but an inherently inefficient economic system.[5]

There is no need to convince people today that slavery is evil. Though slavery is practised far and wide, mostly commonly outside the modern West[6], it is roundly condemned. And while it may be to a degree distasteful to talk about such a degrading institution in economic terms, it is important to establish that it is not a superior system for long term wealth building, but rather an inferior system. This is important to show because if the European powers had have relied on slavery to drive their economic progress and overtake everyone else as they are accused of having done, then the West likely never would have expanded as successfully as it did:

“Slavery is one of humanity’s great evils. Despite its ubiquity throughout human history, some forms were particularly abhorrent and vile. While all slavery was and is wrong on moral grounds, it also has economic problems. Taken together, these reasons suggest that slavery should end on its own, even if it never does in practice.

Slavery is economically inefficient. If slaveholders made decisions purely on economics and not corrupt emotion, the practice would likely cease to exist in many of its forms.

While modern defenders of slavery are hard to find, many nonetheless believe it is economically efficient. After all, slaveholders have no labor costs. Many people wrongly believe this simply means the twisted enterprise is an economic powerhouse, but limiting slavery to wages misses other costs that diminish the economic value of slavery to the slaveholder…

…A slaveholder has to pay for the room and board, food, clothing, and medical treatment of his slaves. Of course, this can be incredibly minimal—even dehumanizing—but costs nonetheless he would not incur if he did not treat them as living property. A wage reflects value-added and is not meant to compensate workers for the food and board they need to survive. With slavery, instead of paying a low wage commensurate with the value created, the slaveholder pays for these living expenses directly.”[7]  

In other words, you are better off paying free people to do the work and allowing them to manage their living expenses, rather than enslaving people and having to provide them with everything necessary to be good workers. Therefore, the reason slavery cannot be used to explain the dominance of the West is because it is not sufficient to explain how it could have advanced beyond other contemporary world powers. Slavery is neither good nor does it have the best long term effect on a societies prosperity. We can condemn it both on moral and practical grounds, it is bad and dumb. Though moral grounds are certainly enough.

But, more importantly, it was not Colonial European expansive powers that were based on slavery. There are, however, empires we can look to as examples of this kind of structure. The Mamluk and Ottoman Turkish Empires serve as famous and genuine examples of powers that were intrinsically based on slavery. They did not just engage in it, the institution of slavery was utilized by these societies in order to develop beyond tribal kin-based societies and was key to making their states strong over the long term and their expansion possible.

Indeed – and this is important for everyone to know – it is likely that far more European Christians were made slaves in the pre-colonial and early colonial period than European took or bought slaves from outside of Europe. If you look at the map above, figure 1.1, comparing the Ottoman Empire to the contemporary Western powers, you can see why. The Ottoman Empire drew its slaves from conquered Christian European lands, and from raiding unconquered lands. These were states, empires, that did rely on slavery, and ultimately declined probably in part because they relied on slavery.

The reason their institutionalisation of slavery ultimately helped to contribute to their decline is that to continue to replenish the ranks of slaves the empire needed to continue to expand. But expansion always comes to an end. Rome faced a similar problem as its expansion slowed. Their reliance on the slavery of foreign peoples also created a class of people inside the empire who were ‘other’ to it and having classes of such people within your empire, especially exploited people, can lead to them eventually overtaking the empire, which is exactly what happened to these empires. The very institutions of slavery that made the Mamluk and Ottoman empires stronger than their predecessors, created the conditions for those empires to fall.

Francis Fukuyama[8] explains how this institutional slavery worked in his book The Origins of the Political Order:   

“The dirlik system rested on the system of military slavery, without which it could not be properly managed. The Ottomans built on the military slave systems created by the Abbasids and Mamluks, as well as those used by other Turkish rulers, but eliminated many of the features that made the Mamluk system so dysfunctional.

 First and most important was that there now was a clear distinction between civilian and military authority, and a strict subordination of the latter to the former. The military slaves emerged initially as an outgrowth of the sultan’s household, as in the case of the Ayyubid Mamluks. Unlike the latter, however, the Ottoman ruling house remained in control of the slave hierarchy until much later in the empire. The dynastic principle applied only within the Ottoman ruling family; no slave, no matter how high ranking or talented, could aspire to become sultan himself or hope to found his own mini-dynasty within the military institution. As a result, the civilian authorities could establish clear rules for recruitment, training, and promotion that focused on building an effective military and administrative institution, without having to worry constantly about that institution trying to seize power in its own name.

The effort to prevent dynasties from forming within the military led to strict rules regarding children and inheritance. The sons of Janissaries were not allowed to become Janissaries, and indeed, in the early days of the empire, Janissaries were not allowed to marry and have families. The sons of the elite sipahis of the Porte were allowed to enter the corps of sipahi-oghlans as pages, but their grandsons were rigidly excluded. The Ottomans from the beginning seemed to understand the logic of military slavery as designed to prevent the emergence of an entrenched hereditary elite. Recruitment and promotion in the slave system were based on merit and service, for which the slaves were rewarded with tax exemptions and estates. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, ambassador of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, noted that the lack of a blood nobility allowed the sultan to pick his slaves and advance them according to their abilities. “The shepherd who rose to become an illustrious grand vezir was a figure that never ceased to fascinate European observers.”

The Ottomans improved on the Mamluk system by maintaining a strict distinction between the people recruited into the ruling institution as non-Muslim slaves—the askeri—and the rest of the empire’s Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, the reaya. A member of the reaya could have a family, own property, and bequeath his property and rights to land to his children and all later descendants. The reaya could also organize themselves into semiautonomous, self-governing communities based on sectarian affiliation known as millets. But none among the reaya could aspire to become a member of the ruling elite, to bear arms, or to serve as a soldier or bureaucrat in the Ottoman administration. The cadres of the askeri had to be constantly renewed from year to year by new Christian recruits who had broken all of their ties to their families and were loyal to the Ottoman state. There were no guilds, factions, or self-governing associations among the askeri; they were supposed to have loyalties to the ruling dynasty alone.”

So, the Ottoman’s developed an elaborate system of government that was based on a slave military that was trained and brainwashed, really, to be loyal to the state, i.e. the Sultan and his reign, above all else. These slave soldiers, called Janissaries could advance to high ranks, lived reasonably elite lives, but could be demoted, or removed at a moment’s notice, and could not pass the advantages of their positions onto their descendants. Do not confuse the positions that these slaves could advance to with privilege, this was an abhorrent practice as Fukuyama[9] explains,

“In the early sixteenth century, at the height of the greatness of the Ottoman Empire, a highly unusual procedure unfolded roughly every four years. The Byzantine capital of Constantinople had fallen to the Turks in 1453; Ottoman armies had conquered Hungary in the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and were turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1529. Throughout the Balkan provinces of the empire, a group of officials would spread out, looking for young boys between the ages of twelve and twenty.

This was the devshirme, or levy of Christian youths. Like football scouts, these officials were expert at judging the physical and mental potential of young males, and each had a quota to fulfill that was set back in Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. When an official visited a village, the Christian priest was required to produce a list of all male children baptized there, and those of the appropriate age would be brought before the officials for inspection.

The most promising boys were forcibly taken from their parents and led off in groups of 100 to 150. Their names were carefully inscribed in a register both when they were taken from their villages and when they arrived in Istanbul, and the registers compared, since parents occasionally tried to buy their children out of the levy. Some parents with particularly strong and healthy sons might have all of them taken from them; the official would return to Istanbul with his captives and the families would never see their children again. It is estimated that about three thousand boys a year were taken in this fashion in this period of the empire.”

This is clearly an abhorrent practice, indeed the Bible condemns such stealing of human lives, Exodus 21:16 – “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” Imagine the emotions going through the minds of Christian fathers and mothers as they helplessly watched their sons being taken away.

It is important to note that this practice was not periphery to these Mamluk and Ottoman empires. Their power structures were not possible without this slavery, an Islamic scholar from the fourteenth century notes,

“When the [Abbasid] state was drowned in decadence and luxury and donned the garments of calamity and impotence and was overthrown by the heathen Tatars, who abolished the seat of the Caliphate and obliterated the splendor of the lands and made unbelief prevail in place of belief, because the people of the faith, sunk in self-indulgence, preoccupied with pleasure and abandoned to luxury, had become deficient in energy and reluctant to rally in defense, and had stripped off the skin of courage and the emblem of manhood—then, it was God’s benevolence that He rescued the faith by reviving its dying breath and restoring the unity of the Muslims in the Egyptian realms, preserving the order and defending the walls of Islam. He did this by sending to the Muslims, from this Turkish nation and from among its great and numerous tribes, rulers to defend them and utterly loyal helpers, who were brought from the House of War to the House of Islam under the rule of slavery, which hides in itself a divine blessing. By means of slavery they learn glory and blessing and are exposed to divine providence; cured by slavery, they enter the Muslim religion with the firm resolve of true believers and yet with nomadic virtues unsullied by debased nature, unadulterated with the filth of pleasure, undefiled by the ways of civilized living, and with their ardor unbroken by the profusion of luxury.”[10]

I am not making the case that Christendom was innocent of slavery and the Islamic world guilty, not at all. It is well known that Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery in the American south, and at other points in history. The Bible’s teaching on slavery is complicated, though as seen above it categorically condemns stealing people, and this is true in both Testaments. If this command, to not steal people, is followed it virtually renders many forms of slavery impossible.

I only share this quote to show that slavery was not periphery to these Middle Eastern empires, it was not something they just did. It was a central aspect of how they were structured. The Mamluk and Ottoman empires required the institution of slavery to function. Mamluk slave armies were instrumental in defeating both Mongol invasions and European crusading armies, and ensuring the safety of these expansive kingdoms. These empires show us what a society based on slavery looks like, though there are many other examples throughout history. 

Eventually these Ottoman slave soldiers took over the empire, and this precipitated its decline:

“The institutions of the Ottoman state were a curious mixture of modern and patrimonial, and it decayed when the patrimonial elements entrenched themselves at the expense of the modern ones. The Ottomans perfected the military slave system of the Mamluks, but they too eventually succumbed to the natural human desire of their elites to pass on status and resources to their children.”[11]

In other words, tribal based family loyalty eventually overcame the very institutions that were put in place to direct loyalty to the state, instead of to family based tribal loyalties. The result was that the servants eventually became the masters, and the system which enabled these slave run empires to expand fell apart. The Sultan’s eventually became puppets of their slaves.

But note who was doing the enslaving and who were the slaves in this situation. Remember the word slave comes from Slav,[12] a European people group who experienced oppression often from both East and West, but especially the East. White privilege – which is really an anti-Christian, anti-western concept – is as about as useful a lens to look at history, as a pair of glasses is to study the sun. The history of slavery, colonialism and expansion is incredibly complex, and all societies have been on both ends of these forces.  

It is important to note, that while the bulk of the European victims of the Islamic slave trade came from Eastern and Southern Europe, the slave raids of groups like the Barbary pirates were common enough, and oppressive enough to leave a mark on the minds of Europeans in the far West, even as far as the British and Irish Isles. A particularly good example of this, is a poem written by Thomas Osbourne Davis’[13] titled The Sack of Baltimore (1814-15). I want to share it in full, because it is powerful and shows how even the so-called privileged Brits were prone to slavery raids in this era. It recounts a raid on the town of Baltimore in West Cork, in Ireland, by Ottoman raiders, led by a European slave captain named Jan Janszoon, also known as Murad Reis the Younger.[14] Read the poem carefully, it recounts a quiet village being awoken by a fire and clashes of steel, and even shares with us the possible fates of those captured and taken as slaves.  

“THE SUMMER sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles,
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles;
Old Innisherkin’s crumbled fane looks like a moulting bird,
And in a calm and sleepy swell the ocean tide is heard:
The hookers lie upon the beach; the children cease their play;
The gossips leave the little inn; the households kneel to pray;
And full of love, and peace, and rest, its daily labor o’er,
Upon that cosy creek there lay the town of Baltimore.

A deeper rest, a starry trance, has come with midnight there;
No sound, except that throbbing wave, in earth, or sea, or air!
The massive capes and ruin’d towers seem conscious of the calm;
The fibrous sod and stunted trees are breathing heavy balm.
So still the night, these two long barques round Dunashad that glide
Must trust their oars, methinks not few, against the ebbing tide.
Oh, some sweet mission of true love must urge them to the shore!
They bring some lover to his bride who sighs in Baltimore.

All, all asleep within each roof along that rocky street,
And these must be the lover’s friends, with gently gliding feet—
A stifled gasp, a dreamy noise! “The roof is in a flame!”
From out their beds and to their doors rush maid and sire and dame,
And meet upon the threshold stone the gleaming sabre’s fall,
And o’er each black and bearded face the white or crimson shawl.
The yell of “Allah!” breaks above the prayer, and shriek, and roar:
O blessed God! the Algerine is lord of Baltimore!

Then flung the youth his naked hand against the shearing sword;
Then sprung the mother on the brand with which her son was gor’d;
Then sunk the grandsire on the floor, his grand-babes clutching wild;
Then fled the maiden moaning faint, and nestled with the child:
But see! yon pirate strangled lies, and crush’d with splashing heel,
While o’er him in an Irish hand there sweeps his Syrian steel:
Though virtue sink, and courage fail, and misers yield their store,
There ’s one hearth well avenged in the sack of Baltimore.

Midsummer morn in woodland nigh the birds begin to sing,
They see not now the milking maids,—deserted is the spring;
Midsummer day this gallant rides from distant Bandon’s town,
These hookers cross’d from stormy Skull, that skiff from Affadown;
They only found the smoking walls with neighbors’ blood besprent,
And on the strewed and trampled beach awhile they wildly went,
Then dash’d to sea, and pass’d Cape Clear, and saw, five leagues before,
The pirate-galley vanishing that ravaged Baltimore.

Oh, some must tug the galley’s oar, and some must tend the steed;
This boy will bear a Scheik’s chibouk, and that a Bey’s jerreed.
Oh, some are for the arsenals by beauteous Dardanelles;
And some are in the caravan to Mecca’s sandy dells.
The maid that Bandon gallant sought is chosen for the Dey:
She ’s safe—she’s dead—she stabb’d him in the midst of his Serai!
And when to die a death of fire that noble maid they bore,
She only smiled, O’Driscoll’s child; she thought of Baltimore.

’T is two long years since sunk the town beneath that bloody band,
And all around its trampled hearths a larger concourse stand,
Where high upon a gallows-tree a yelling wretch is seen:
’T is Hackett of Dungarvan—he who steer’d the Algerine!
He fell amid a sullen shout with scarce a passing prayer,
For he had slain the kith and kin of many a hundred there.
Some mutter’d of MacMurchadh, who brought the Norman o’er;
Some curs’d him with Iscariot, that day in Baltimore.”[15]

Osborne here writes about something that much of Europe experienced for a long time: Common and vicious raids across western lands taking European boys and girls, men and women as slaves. The eventual rise of the Western Colonial powers to world-class status really put an end to more slavery than it created. Centuries of Christian sons stolen from their families and often made into the force of oppression for those empires, and daughters taken to be made the wives of slave soldiers, or put in the harem’s of Ottoman lords and kings, were not really stopped until European powers were incredibly strong. Europe has experienced its fair share of the pain of slavery. Again, let me note, the word slave comes from a European people, the Slavic people, who were often taken as slaves.

It was wrong, stupid and evil for Europeans to engage in slavery. But there is a bigger picture, here. This was a worldwide institution. Just look again at the picture above and the size of the Ottoman Empire compared to the equivalent European powers in the 1500s. No wonder the West felt compelled to advance, and it took a long time for it to advance enough to stop the raids upon their shores. It eventually took European and even American navies to stop these raids on European shores and European trade ships.

The American Marines remember their battle with the slave power, the Barbary Pirates, whom they fought at Tripoli and other places, in their famous official hymn,

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.[16]

What were the Marines fighting for against the Barbary pirates? To stop the pirates from raiding American merchant vessels and taking American citizens as slaves.

To accuse the West of being the primary agents of slavery is immoral, untrue, and downright wrong. To say that the West only got as powerful as it did because of slavery, is also wrong, because other empires were engaged in slavery, many to a much higher level and yet the West outstripped them. Therefore, slavery cannot be the reason the West got so rich and so powerful, there are clearly other reasons. One of which, and there are many, is that the West moved away from slavery before any other civilisation.

The Western Colonial powers will always have to own up to the charge of having engaged in slavery. But Colonial power was not based on it, and this is likely at least a part of the reason why it advanced beyond empires that did rely on it. Because the West was able to innovate and create labour forces with increasing capital to invest themselves. This created a spiral of success.  

Rather than trying to point fingers at the ancestors of particular people who took other people as slaves, all nations should be trying to forgive and forget and move on without a grudge, because no people has a clean ledger in this regard. Especially because there were empires intrinsically based on slavery, and they were not European colonial powers.

[1] Fukuyama, Francis 2011, The Origins of Political Order (pp. 217-218). Profile. Kindle Edition.

[2] Andrews, Kehinde 2017, “The west’s wealth is based on slavery. Reparations should be paid

Kehinde Andrews, The Guardian, accessed 23/06/2021

[3]Barrie, Joshua 2018, “How taxpayers were still paying for British slave trade nearly 200 years later”, Mirror UK, accessed 23/06/2021.

[4] Ben, 2021, “What was the economic impact of slavery in the South?”, accessed 23/06/2021

[5] Benjamin R. Dierker 2019, “Slavery Was Never Economically Efficient

While modern defenders of slavery are hard to find, many nonetheless believe it is economically efficient.” Foundation for Economic Education, accessed 23.06/2021.

[6]Slavery Today: Countries With The Highest Prevalence Of Modern Slaves”, WorldAtlas, accessed 23/06/2021

[7] Benjamin R. Dierker 2019, “Slavery Was Never Economically Efficient

While modern defenders of slavery are hard to find, many nonetheless believe it is economically efficient.” Foundation for Economic Education, accessed 23/06/2021

[8] Fukuyama, Francis 2011, The Origins of Political Order (pp. 218-220). Profile. Kindle Edition.

[9] Ibid (pp. 189-190).

[10] Ibid (p. 203).   

[11] Ibid (p. 215).

[12] Online Etymology Dictionary, slave (n.) accessed 23/06/2021

[13] Sack of Baltimore, accessed 23/06/2021

[14] Sack of Baltimore, accessed 23/06/2021

[15] Davis, Thomas Osborne 1814-1815, The Sack of Baltimore

[16] Marines Hymn, accessed 23/06/20201

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