Commentary: Slavery and Labor
Contributed by Hannah Barker. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
This question emphasizes the idea that slaves played many different roles and performed many different kinds of labor, some of which may be surprising from a modern perspective. The goal is to help students move beyond the assumption that all slaves were always used for agricultural work. Of course, slaves were sometimes used for agricultural work during the premodern period. They also served as business agents, sexual partners, state administrators, teachers, cooks, dancers, doormen, grooms for horses, gondoliers, and many other roles that are not addressed in this question. You may want to discuss some of these other forms of labor in class. Likewise, the labor of slaves in the modern era was also used for many purposes beyond agriculture. Introducing a broader perspective on slave labor early in the course may therefore facilitate a more sophisticated discussion of slave labor in later contexts.
Document 1 describes the sale of a woman trained as a singer in ʿAbbasid Baghdad. Enslaved singers (qiyan) and poets played an important role in the cultural life of medieval Islamic courts, and they are frequently mentioned in literary and historical texts. The high value placed on educated slave women and the praise accorded to their music and poetry by free men may surprise students, especially when these statements appear alongside degrading scenes in which these women are haggled over in the market or physically abused. This paradox of great skill and low social status is worth exploring in discussion. Lisa Nielson has composed a bibliographic guide to the scholarly literature on enslaved singers. Her chapter in the edited collection Courtesans and Concubines is also helpful. If you prefer to focus on the Islamic courts of al-Andalus, read the chapter by Dwight Reynolds in the same volume.
Document 2 deals with enslaved women as wet nurses. Rebecca Winer’s article provides context on the importance of wet nursing in this era and the strict conditions with which wet nurses were expected to comply in order to ensure the quality of their milk. The use of slaves as wet nurses has two further implications which students might consider. First, enslaved women were often used as nannies, so their service to the children that they nursed might well continue after the children were weaned. Second, in order to be able to nurse, the enslaved woman must have given birth recently. Wet nursing was therefore connected to the sexual exploitation of enslaved women, and it raises questions about what happened to the enslaved women’s own children.
Document 3 depicts artisanal labor by “chosen women” in the Inca Empire. The image shows a group of “chosen women” spinning thread, but they were also employed as weavers and brewers in addition to various ceremonial roles. It is debatable whether the “chosen women” should be identified as slaves, so students might choose to challenge their inclusion in this question. If so, they should explain how they define slavery and in what respect the “chosen women” do not fit their definition. Peter Gose’s article is helpful for understanding the implications of this status beyond its associations with artisanal labor.
Document 4 describes the labor of slaves in the salt mines of Taghāzā in the western Sahara. This form of labor may be closest to students’ preconceptions: it was low-status, physically grueling, performed in a very uncomfortable environment without adequate food or water, and generated great wealth for others. In other words, it is labor that seems to have been assigned to slaves because free people would not tolerate the working conditions. As explained by Paul Lane in his introduction to slavery in West Africa, this was only one of many functions performed by slaves in West African societies. In a world history class, it could easily be connected with a broader discussion of the north-south trade in salt and gold between the Sahara, the Sahel, and the rainforest belt in West Africa.
Document 5 can be compared with Document 1 as another paradoxical example of elite slavery. In this case, the rulers of the the Deccan states used slaves purchased from East Africa as soldiers, some of whom rose to positions of great power. This obituary for the former slave and regent of Ahmednagar Malik ʿAmbar is particularly interesting because it is written from the perspective of his enemies, the Mughals. On the one hand, it is clear that his enemies feared and respected Malik ʿAmbar’s abilities as a military commander. On the other hand, they insulted him by introducing him as a slave even though he had been freed years before his death. Did they see him as a worthy opponent? This description of him sends mixed signals.
Document 6 illustrates the use of slaves for domestic service, especially in royal courts where the presence of large numbers of dependents (free or enslaved) was a sign of prestige. Shaun Marmon discusses this along with other aspects of domestic service in the elite households of Mamluk Egypt. Like Document 5, Document 6 is written from a critical perspective. The author thought that cupbearers were an unnecessary luxury, an invention of rulers more concerned with wealth and prestige than piety and simplicity. In other words, the role of cupbearers was more than just to bring drinks; it was also to reflect the majesty of the rulers who owned them as slaves. It was this second function that annoyed the author.
Finally, Document 7 describes a slave woman whose reproductive labor resulted in a son and heir for her former master. Like Document 2, this document implies the sexual exploitation of the enslaved woman as well as her reproductive service. Like Documents 1 and 5, it might challenge students’ preconceived notions about the status of the child of an enslaved woman and a free man. Although Venetians inherited the Roman legal principle that the child of two parents of different statuses should take the status of the mother, Sally McKee explains why Venetian men living in the Mediterranean colonies preferred to treat their children by enslaved women as free heirs. She identifies several factors, including demographic pressures after the Black Death of 1347-1353, that caused Venetian men to place new value on the reproductive work of enslaved women.
- H-Slavery Topical Guide: Lisa Nielson, Singing Slave Women in the Medieval Islamic Court
- Lisa Nielson, “Visibility and Performance: Courtesans in the Early Islamicate Courts (661-950 CE),” in Concubines and Courtesans: Women and Slavery in Islamic History, ed. Matthew Gordon and Kathryn Hain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 75-99.
- Rebecca Lynn Winer, “Conscripting the Breast: Lactation, Slavery and Salvation in the Realms of Aragon and Kingdom of Majorca, c. 1250–1300,” Journal of Medieval History 34: 2 (2008): 164-184.
- Peter Gose, “The State as a Chosen Woman: Brideservice and the Feeding of Tributaries in the Inka Empire,” American Anthropologist 102, no. 1 (2000): 84-97.
- Omar Ali, Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
- Richard Eaton, “The Rise and Fall of Military Slavery in the Deccan, 1450-1650,” in Slavery and South Asian History, ed. Indrani Chatterjee and Richard Eaton (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 115-135.
- Shaun Marmon, “Domestic Slavery in the Mamluk Empire: A Preliminary Sketch,” in Slavery in the Islamic Middle East, ed. Shaun Marmon (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1999), 1-23.
- Sally McKee, “Inherited Status and Slavery in Renaissance Italy and Venetian Crete,” Past & Present 182 (2004): 31-53.
Citations for DBQ Sources
- The Stories of Shāriya. Translated from the Arabic by Matthew Gordon. ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Iṣbahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī, edited by `Abd al-Amīr ʿAlī Mahannā and Samīr Jābir (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiya, 1992), 16:6-7.
- Childcare and Slavery in Barcelona. Translated from the Latin by Rebecca Lynn Winer. Manumission contract from the Arxiu Històric de Protocols de Barcelona, Spain, Arnau Piquer, Manual (2 January-24 December 1399): 50/6, folios 98r-98v.
- Laborers, Servants, and “Chosen Women” in the Inca Empire. Illustration from Felipe Guáman Poma de Ayala, El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615).
- Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, Travels. Text translated from the Arabic and published in Nehemia Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins, eds., Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 282. Copyright © University of Ghana, International Academic Union, Cambridge University Press 1981. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.
- Muhammad Sarif Muʿtamad Khan, Iqbal-nama-yi Jahangiri, in History of India as Told by its Own Historians, vol. 6, ed. and trans. Henry Elliot and John Dowson (London: Trübner and Co., 1875), 428-429.
- The Guide Book for Obtaining Divine Favors and Avoiding Divine Punishment. Chapter 27, The Cupbearers. Translated from the Arabic by Shaun Marmon. Tāj al-Dīn Abū al-Naṣr ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Subkī, Kitāb Mu‘īd an-Ni‘am wa-Mubīd an-Niqam, The Restorer of Favours and the Restrainer of Chastisements, edited by David W. Myhrman (London: Luzac, 1908), 53-54.
- Slave Women and Their Children in Venetian Crete. Translated from the Latin by Rena Lauer. Venice, Archivio di Stato di Venezia (ASVe) Duca di Candia, b. 26, r. 2/5, fol. 377v (17 December 1381).