Freedom and Reenslavement: Saluma's Story

One day, a woman in the Palestinian village of Tiras, in the Ottoman province of Nablus, walked to her door to answer a knock. A bedraggled Sudanese woman stood at the entrance to the house and asked to be let inside. The owner of the house assented, and the woman, who introduced herself as Saluma, sat down to to tell her story.

She had been a freed slave in Cairo, where she had worked. One day, slave traders kidnapped her and several other women, making the long crossing from Cario to Nablus with the hopes of selling these women as slaves in a place where they could not be recognized as manumitted. Saluma had been sent to buy bread when she escaped.

Slaves in the Ottoman Empire could be freed through a number of means. Some were manumitted when their owner died, set free in the testament of the owner. Women who had become pregnant by their male owners were granted automatic freedom upon the death of their master.

Manumission from slavery did not necessarily mean a better life. Liat Kozma, who brings us the story of Saluma and others on this months podcast explains that "enslavement [is] a form of legalized violence, and at the same time, a form of attachment." The attachment between slaves and the families that owned them had real consequences: Slaves would often continue to serve in the same household after their manumission. A form of adoption meant that the family could entail the payment of blood money to the owner's family for the murder of a freed slave, and slaves of both genders could be named by their owners' families as the recipients of religious endowments, or waqf.

Not all slaves enjoyed such benefits. Freedom in a foreign country without the protection of kinfolk or the guarantee of employment could leave slaves destitute. Some, as in Soluma's case, were kidnapped and re-sold into slavery. The majority of slaves in the Ottoman Empire were female domestic workers from Africa. Upon their manumission, they faced social prejudices about their skin color and their gender - it was vastly more difficult for women to find paying work. Perhaps a freed domestic slave was also assumed to not be worth retaining after her manumission.

For a slave like Saluma, knocking on a stranger's door somewhere, thousands of miles from her homeland was the only opportunity she would have to escape bondage.

Toyotas of War

Diwaniyya Contributor