Black Sea Slave Trade

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. . . .

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 white, being 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. . . .

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.

Also, this bit about Muskovite participation:

“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.”