Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/February 1894/The Circassian Slave in Turkish Harems


ONE of the curious anomalies of history is found in the existence of a race whose men are characterized by a passionate love of freedom, equaling that of a William Tell, but whose women habitually accept slavery as the most desirable of earthly conditions. No more thrilling story of spirited resistance to an invader can be found than that of the long struggle of Circassia against the persistently encroaching Slav. After forty years of continual warfare, overwhelmed by Russia's superior wealth and numbers, thousands of Circassians voluntarily chose expatriation rather than abide in their native land under the yoke of the conqueror, and deserted en masse the best part of the country, to take refuge in Turkey. Yet; from the time Circassia was first known to Europe, it has been the regular custom of these independence-loving, self-governing mountaineers to sell the sisters and daughters whose beauty has given chief fame to the name of Circassian; and, difficult as it may be for an American generation reared to abhor slavery to credit the statement, the testimony that these beautiful Circassians gladly accept, and even hasten to meet, their sale is too universal for doubt upon this point. The mystery, however, is largely solved when we learn that to the women of Circassia slavery and marriage are purely synonymous terms. To them slavery has meant an exchange from a laborious life of poverty in the mountains to that of ease and luxury as a wife—either chief or secondary—in a city harem. To the Turk, Circassian slavery has meant purchasing a wife to whom he need not give the name wife unless he choose (the sultans never thus distinguish any woman), and thus obtaining one or more companions who will, almost without doubt, be more obedient and contented in that capacity than any one he might secure from among the women of his own blood and rank in society. A Turkish woman of to-day writes: "Formerly a Turk rarely married his countrywoman; on the principle, I suppose, that 'exchange is no robbery,' he would marry a Circassian slave, and give his sister to a Circassian man slave, or to some penniless Circassian subaltern in the Turkish army. This was caused by the innate love of power existing in both sexes. A Turkish girl wedded to her equal would, by the laws of religion, feel herself obliged to treat her husband with nearly servile respect, while, when wedded to one so decidedly her inferior, she would be mistress in her own house, and, reigning supreme over her husband and slaves, would never fear a rival."

Far from dreading their sale, the girls of Circassia look ward to it as the great opportunity of their lives. They go to seek it as a conscious jewel might start in search of a costly setting. They show no more reluctance than Esther manifested when Mordecai delivered her over as one of the fair young virgins gathered from far and near to adorn the palace of Ahasuerus. Indeed, the history of Esther reveals the motives which probably animate each of the many maidens of Circassia who to this day re-enact that old biblical story. Each believes that it is she who may find grace and favor in the royal crown, and thus control at will the rise or fall of the royal scepter. But even if not chosen by royalty, those who purchase the beautiful damsels of Circassia are the wealthy and titled; and not the slightest social degradation is attached to their position, even when taken to harems wherein a Turkish wife may be installed as head of the household. The common dependence of all the inmates of a harem upon the favor of a lord who may at any time elevate the Circassian slave to the position of a lady fosters a spirit of equality—of pure, practical democracy, that would be inconceivable under any other circumstances, and in our Southern slave relation to nominal mistress was totally undreamed of. As a Turkish lady explained to an astonished English visitor, "A slave may become a lady any day, and in treating her as one beforehand we take off very much of the awkwardness which would else ensue." When we consider that all the children of slaves are acknowledged as the legitimate children of their father, we must confess, in justice to the Turk, that theirs is a condition in which the evils of slavery to the slave are reduced to a minimum.

The first step after purchasing a Circassian girl is to give her (as unto Esther) a special retinue of personal slaves, brought from Africa, who relieve her henceforward of the slightest necessity of unpleasant exertion. Though she may not, like Esther, be put through "six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odors," every accessory of the toilet which may enhance her original attractiveness is bestowed upon her, accompanied by careful lessons in the graces of deportment. Thus to the mountain girl who looks forward to life in Turkey reports of that life go back freighted with all that could allure and blind the unthinking. Dread of an evil fate is reduced to a mere vague and flitting surmise, while the lottery matrimonial is represented to her as one filled with magnificent prizes. As the Circassians, though possessed of much native intelligence, have no written literature, none of these girls can read or write. They are trained for the marriage market as a fine horse is trained for a race course, and the higher price they bring the greater their satisfaction. "Ask a higher price for me, dear brother," says a Russian nobleman, "is their not uncommon admonition to the brother who is managing the bargain" This affords a double gratification, that of being rarely valued for themselves, and of being most highly profitable to the family left behind in the mountains. Great was the astonishment of the first Russian crew which "rescued" a vessel-load of Circassians on their way to Turkey, to have the rescued ones entreat not to be returned to their homes, but to be forwarded to their destination. In spite of the combined efforts of Russian and English, their attempts at prohibition of slavery among the Turks have merely driven the trade into an appearance of secrecy here and there, without at all diminishing either demand or supply.

But a more effectual mode of changing human conditions is at work, silently and subtly undermining the whole system of slavery, polygamy, and concubinage in Turkey. Two remarkable letters, written by a Turkish inmate of a harem, appeared in the Nineteenth Century (of August and December, 1890), which give an interesting view of the transformation slowly fermenting in that last stronghold of extreme conservatism on the woman question—the seraglio. The writer, who signs herself "Adalet" (and who therein makes her first essay at writing), explains that the foreign education of Turkish boys inevitably paved the way for that of Turkish girls; that now sons and brothers are being educated at Oxford or in Paris, and have thus learned that "when her intellect is not crushed by continual fear and impotent ignorance, woman can become the helpmate and support of man"; that "the view also of the cheerful homes existent in Europe has taught them that one wife is better than twenty slaves; and as the Turkish girls are better adapted by nature to second their views than the Circassians, it is to them that they turned for help. It needed but little time to teach the Turkish mothers what was needed at their hands; and where before a little French was the maximum of learning acquired by a Turkish girl, she was now taught to read and write in several languages, to play the piano, to draw, to paint—in a word, to have as complete an education as any young lady destined to appear in society. This system, of course, included novel-reading; and in them the young girl, who before believed that the highest happiness for her was to be tyrannized over by a man she did not know, in common with five or six rivals, suddenly saw opened before her a long vista of unknown bliss, which, to her dazzled eyes, seemed more beautiful than anything promised in paradise. She heard of balls, fêtes, parties, where women spoke openly with men who were not doctors or cousins; she heard, for the first time, that a woman is considered as highly as a man, and may even claim from him the homage which, till now, she thought had been exclusively his prerogative; she saw in them the description of happy homes, where one wife alone possessed the love and confidence of her husband, and little by little the poison imbibed circulated through her veins."

The writer continues, that as it is impossible for a reaction to occur in a country without its rushing to the opposite evil, in Turkey the leap from ignorance to knowledge had the first effect of so dazzling the Turkish woman that, in casting off the ancient trammels, she also in many cases abandoned the code of honor existent among women in every country. "Of our old customs, as well as of our old faith, very little remains, and it is only in the lower orders, or the most secluded harems, that some vestige of them can be found. At Constantinople women hardly hide their faces, and think it no shame to appear before the public in habiliments which would be hardly considered decent with the lowest dregs of European society."

But, as Adalet sagely observes, "All this is a secondary question." She rightly appreciates that freedom is a gift which can be wisely used only by practice in the use of freedom, and does not forsake her faith in freedom because its first possession has intoxicated those unaccustomed to it. Perceiving that slavery is the corner stone of polygamy, she urges that the women of Turkey should strive with all their force for the abolition of polygamy by themselves enfranchising their own slaves. But she also declares that, however good, as far as negroes are concerned, may be the result of the action of the English Government in Egyp't for the enforced abolition of slavery, the*effect upon the Circassians has been only evil, and that continually, and for these reasons: "No Circassian would ever condescend to go to the slave-home, or work as a servant. What has, then, been the result? Hundreds of white slaves have gone to the police court for their freedom, and from there have gone to the bad. In fact, they only took their papers with that intention, as no Circassian ever thought that slavery was a shame, or that it was irksome in any way. Freedom to them means nothing unless the freedom is accompanied by a husband and a home, and they know very well they can not expect these from the police court, as no marriage can be valid with the paper taken from there. . . . They have given a bad repute to the police court, and now no slave who respects herself will go there." Thus Adalet concludes: "I frankly own that I think, in the case of the Circassians, no efforts made for the abolishment of slavery will be successful, when coming from the outside. It is we, we alone, who can, by enfranchising and marrying out, little by little, those we possess, and buying no more, end a custom as bad to ourselves as to them. Every scheme in which we do not participate will end by doing the slaves more harm than they will ever suffer in a harem."

The extreme of injury done to the body politic by a mode of life which entirely divorces the public interests of women and men is strikingly illustrated in the vicissitudes of Mohammedanism. In the Koran itself there originally existed conditions which, taken as a whole, were far more favorable to women than the common law of England. Originally, women of the Mohammedan faith were as highly educated and moved abroad as freely as men, mingling unveiled in their company, and actively participating in public affairs. Those were the centuries when the liberal and enlightened rule of Mohammedans made the name of Spain glorious, and when all Europe sought education in Mohammedan universities. It was during those centuries that the Turk passed from victory to victory, proceeding from western Asia into Europe, until his conquering army stood on the eve of a conquest of Austria.

But, as had so often happened before in warlike nations grown rich with enormous booty, women of the higher class surrendered themselves more and more to an indoor life of extravagant luxury and idleness, only too truthfully mirrored in the tales of "A Thousand and One Nights." The veil was doubtless at first worn as a sort of portable tent, into which one could withdraw to escape the bold stare of unwelcome admirers; partly as a result of a growing refinement, which led them to shun the gaze of a rude soldiery; partly to enhance their own attractiveness by affected concealment of their beauty. Thus in England also, during the warlike period of the Crusades, English women of rank habitually wore, even within doors, a veil which could be used for such purposes. And the somewhat like circumstances resulting from like causes conspired to make the English woman, likewise, at one period of her history, a creature whose dense ignorance and silliness equaled that found in the Turkish harem. The Asiatic woman, however, having once become an objet de luxe, plunged deeper into the gulf of helplessness, and has much more slowly begun to grow out of that condition. She is as one fallen into a pit, who can only escape by her own co-operation, but whose enervated arms are so weakened that every movement has become a burden. As woman is the lifestream of each race—the source which must be lifted high as the fountain is to rise—the enslavement of womanhood in Turkish harems has inevitably wrought its own revenge of terrible evil upon the nominal enslavers. Most miserable to-day is the lot of that people born of a race of slave mothers; most significantly is that debilitated empire known as "the Sick Man of Europe." Nothing but a patient upbuilding from the very foundation can restore that invalid whose disease is so deep-seated and longabiding. This upbuilding has already begun. The elixir of modern ideas has not stopped with placing novels and teaching showy accomplishments to girls in the harem. Already the invalid has begun to help himself by free schools and public libraries, which must inevitably, in time, revolutionize public thought. Even if the germ of the desire for freedom has, as Adalet confesses, entered woman's views in its least desirable form, it is something to have the love of freedom reawakened at the source whence youth draws its first impressions; and, after the desire for freedom for what it can give to the woman herself, must surely follow a desire for that which will enable her to give most worthily to others.