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Slavery on the frontier: captives, raiders, and traders on the border between Europe and the Ottoman Empire


Admission requirements

Beide tweedejaars BA-werkcolleges behaald.


This seminar explores a peculiar phenomenon in early modern history: “white” slavery in the Mediterranean basin, the Black Sea, and East Central Europe. Whereas slavery in the Americas has been studied extensively, its Ottoman/European counterpart has received comparatively less attention—an oversight usually justified by quantitative differences between the two. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the economic, political, social and cultural impact of slavery in the European borderlands is comparable to, albeit different from, that of African-American slavery and slave trade. Entire economies were dependent on it and it was liberally practiced on both sides of the European-Ottoman divide, well into the eighteenth and, in some areas, the nineteenth century. Algerian and Tunisian galleys were manned by Christian slaves, while Muslim captives rowed on Spanish, French, Italian, and the pope’s own galleys. Tatar raiders regularly snatched large numbers of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and Moldavians, whom they either held for ransom or sold at the slave markets in Caffa and Constantinople, while the knights of Malta frequently captured North African ships by using the same methods as their rivals, the Barbary corsairs.

Central Europe and the Balkans were the stage of repetitive slave capturing as well, and not only by the Ottomans—as our readings will reveal. In the Black Sea, the Venetians and the Genoese had been the most successful slave traders up until the fifteenth century, only to be replaced by Greeks, Armenians, and Jews after the Ottoman expansion in the area. European governments—all the way to the British Isles—had veritable ransom budgets that they dedicated to the rescuing of their captured subjects or citizens. All the while, Catholic and Protestant missionaries traveled to the main pockets of Christian slavery in North Africa and the Middle East to provide religious succor to the captives, sometimes falling prey to enslavement themselves.

Our discussions will include the cases enumerated above, an introduction to ancient and classical precedents, and some less widely known aspects of “white” slavery in the European borderlands, such as: the legal status of Christian slaves and the possible advantages of conversion to Islam in the Ottoman Empire; the mediating role of Christian missionaries between European and Ottoman institutions; Muslim slavery on Christian territories; and Roma (Gypsy) slavery in Eastern European societies.

We will also explore the main historiographical debates and controversies surrounding the topic, such as causality and functionality (e.g., was European/Ottoman slavery a form of economic, political, or religious warfare?), the reciprocity factor (who were the bad guys, really?), and revisionist claims (was slavery always as terrible and violent as most sources say it was?)

Course objectives

  • to gain an understanding of European/Ottoman slavery in the early modern period, together with some of the main historiographical debates related to it;

  • to develop your historical thinking and your research skills by selecting and researching primary sources and secondary literature related to a subtopic of your choice;

  • to polish your writing skills by putting together a well-argued research paper on your chosen subtopic;

  • to practice your oral skills by participating in weekly class discussions and giving an oral presentation of your independent subtopic.


See here

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

  • exam review of the required reading (10%)

  • participation in class discussions (10%)

  • participation in the discussion forum on Blackboard (based on the required readings) (10%)

  • choice of research topic, formulation of research question and related bibliography submitted in advance (after consultation with me) (10%)

  • oral presentation of research paper topic (10%)

  • research paper (50%)



Reading list

Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. ISBN-13: 978-1403945518.

Selections from primary sources & other works will also be available on Blackboard.