Commentary: Slavery and the Mongol Expansion
Contributed by Hannah Barker. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
Documents 1-5 focus on Mongol captive-taking, slave trading, and slave ownership as an aspect of their conquest of Eurasia. Documents 6-7 show how Mongols themselves could become enslaved by others, in this case by Venetians. Note that Document 2 in the DBQ on Slavery and Labor deals with a Tartar or Mongol enslaved in Barcelona. Note also that Document 4 in the DBQ on Entering and Exiting Slavery describes penal slavery and debt slavery practiced by Mongols against other Mongols.
In Document 1, William of Rubruck shows how captives taken in different phases of the Mongol conquest, including people from present-day France and Russia, ended up together at the Mongol capital of Karakorum. William’s account is particularly interesting because it shows how these people tried to build new lives for themselves in captivity without giving up on their previous social identities. It also illustrates the value that the Mongols placed on skilled captives, in this case the goldsmith William Buchier. Thomas Allsen discusses the Mongol practice of moving around and redistributing skilled craftsmen and administrators (sometimes with their families), though his focus is on captives from China and Persia.
Document 2 illustrates the sheer geographical expanse from which Mongol rulers could draw slaves. The black slave depicted in this painting might have come from Southeast Asia or from East Africa via the Indian Ocean, as explained by Don Wyatt. Either way, Kubilai Khan probably acquired him by trade rather than by capture. The slave’s position among those privileged to hunt with Kubilai Khan also provides an occasion to discuss the phenomenon of elite slavery.
Document 3 is a captivity narrative written from the perspective of Kirakos, an Armenian monk taken during the Mongol conquest of Armenia. Kirakos explains in great detail how he was captured, how he escaped, his experiences in captivity, and his opinions about the whole situation. It is a fascinating account, and I encourage you to look at the full version posted here. Document 3 can be compared with Document 1 to talk about the value that the Mongols placed on skilled captives, in this case a monk who was literate, quick to learn new languages, and therefore a good candidate for administrative service. Document 3 can also be compared with Document 2 to discuss different forms of elite slavery.
Document 4 also discusses elite slaves. In this case, having a large retinue of slaves drawn from a wide variety of places conveyed Bayalūn’s prestige as a Mongol princess. Labor was beside the point; these slaves were meant to be seen and to reflect the power and wealth of the person who owned them. In addition, this document illustrates slave ownership by Mongol women as well as men, and it reveals the presence of eunuchs as slaves in the court. Note that in her childhood, Bayalūn was a princess in the Byzantine court, where she would also have been attended by a large retinue of slaves, including eunuchs.
Document 5 shows how the Mongols monetized their conquest by selling their captives to slave traders. In this case, a boy taken captive by the Mongols in one of their early conquests ended up as a military slave in the Ayyubid sultanate, where he ended up halting a later Mongol attempt to conquer the Middle East. This document illustrates how large-scale captive-taking by the Mongols had consequences far beyond the borders of the Mongol Empire. Much has been written about Baybars’s life and political career, but as starting points I recommend Thorau’s biography and Elbendary’s analysis of the legends that grew up around him.
In Document 6, a Tartar or Mongol girl from the Golden Horde is sold into slavery, likely for export to Venice as a domestic slave. This sale occurred during a period of civil war in the Golden Horde, when the markets of the Black Sea were flooded with Tartar slaves. However, this contract has some odd features. The names Apanas, Costa, and Nasca are not common Mongol or Tartar names. The ethnicity of the seller, Apanas, would normally be mentioned, but in this case it is not. The role of Fredericho and his relationship to the other parties in the transaction is unclear. Finally, there is the restriction on reselling Nasca. These oddities lead us to ask questions for which we may never have answers. Was Nasca really Apanas’s sister? If not, why misrepresent their relationship? Did Apanas plan to buy her back from Marco later on? If so, is this really a credit contract where Nasca is being used as collateral for a loan of 200 ducats? What would happen if Marco violated the condition and exported Nasca to Venice? I discuss Mongol involvement in the Black Sea slave market in greater detail in my book.
Finally, Document 7 gives an example of a Tartar or Mongol man enslaved in Venice for domestic service. In this case the slaveholder was none other than the famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo. It is unlikely that Polo brought this slave home from China, since Tartars and other slaves were readily available for purchase in Venice through its trade connections with the Black Sea. However, it is notable that Polo selected a Tartar as opposed to any of the other ethnicities represented among the enslaved population of Venice.
- Thomas Allsen, Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
- Don Wyatt, The Blacks of Premodern China (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
- Amina Elbendary, “The Sultan, the Tyrant, and the Hero: Changing Medieval Perceptions of al-Zahir Baybars,” Mamluk Studies Review 5 (2001): 141-158.
- Peter Thorau, The Lion of Egypt: Sultan Baybars I and the Near East in the Thirteenth Century (London: Longman, 1995).
- Hannah Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
- Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410 (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2005).
- Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
- Michal Biran, “Encounters Among Enemies: Preliminary Remarks on Captives in Mongol Eurasia,” Archivum Eurasia Medii Aevi 21 (2015): 27-42.
Citations for DBQ Sources
- William of Rubruck, “The Journey of William of Rubruck,” in Mission to Asia, ed. Christopher Dawson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), 157. © Sheed & Ward, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Used with permission.
- Khubilai Khan Hunting. Liu Guandao, Khubilai Khan Hunting (1280). National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. Contributed by Don Wyatt.
- The Capture of Vardapet Vanakan by the Mongols. Kirakos Gandzakets’i, History of the Armenians, trans. Robert Bedrosian (New York: Sources of the Armenian Tradition, 1986), section 23-24, p.206-211.
- Translated from the Arabic by Hannah Barker. Voyages d’Ibn Batoutah, ed. and trans. C. Defrémery and B.R. Sanguinetti, 4 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1853-1858), 2:393-394.
- The Early Life of Baybars. Translated from the Arabic by Hannah Barker. Jamāl al-Dīn Yusūf Ibn Taghrī Birdī, Al-Manhal al-ṣāfī wa-al-mustawfā baʿd al-wāfī, edited by Muḥammad Muḥammad Amīn and Saʿīd ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ ʿAshūr (Cairo: Al-Hayʾah al-miṣriyyah al-ʿāmmah lil-kitāb, 1986), 3:447-467, no.717.
- Acts of Child Sale in the Black Sea. Translated from the Latin by Hannah Barker. Venice, Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Cancelleria inferiore, Notai, b.19, N.7, reg. 2, fol. 23r, item 135.
- Translated from the Latin by Henry Yule, modernized by Hannah Barker. From Henry Yule, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, 3rd edition (London: J. Murray, 1903), 1:70-73 (English) and 2:513-515 (Latin).