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Between Empires: Women’s Resistance and Domestic Slavery in the Libyan Territories in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

D’un empire à l’autre : esclavage domestique et résistance des femmes dans les territoires libyens aux xixe et xxe siècles
De un imperio al otro: esclavitud doméstica y resistencia de las mujeres en los territorios libios durante los siglos XIX y XX
De um império a outro: escravidão doméstica e resistência das mulheres nos territórios líbios nos séculos XIX e XX
Katrina Yeaw

Résumés

En 1854, Fekiriyeh et Renghi Sefa, deux filles réduites en esclavage au Soudan, fuirent leur esclavagiste, le pacha Ahmed, et cherchèrent refuge dans la maison du consul britannique à Salonique. Leur calvaire avait commencé des semaines plus tôt, lorsqu’elles furent embarquées en mer et transportées de la ville ottomane de Tripoli à la cité portuaire grecque. Pour contourner l’interdiction du trafic d’esclaves dans l’Empire ottoman, le pacha leur fournit des lettres de manumission. À leur arrivée à Salonique, ce dernier leur confisqua les documents et les détruisit. Après que le pacha eut révoqué leur liberté, les deux jeunes filles s’échappèrent et se présentèrent à la porte du consul britannique.
Cet article examine les cas historiques de femmes et de filles qui, à l’instar de Fekiriyeh et Renghi Sefa, fuirent leurs esclavagistes et cherchèrent refuge ou secours auprès de différentes autorités politiques en Libye, ottomane puis italienne, ou dans les territoires qui lui sont rattachés. La traite, l’asservissement, les abus, la vente, puis enfin la quête d’émancipation jalonnaient souvent l’existence de ces personnes. En analysant les relations entre les individus réduits en esclavage, les autorités européennes et ottomanes, et les foyers musulmans, cette étude met en évidence la nature genrée de l’esclavage en Afrique du Nord.
À l’inverse d’une approche verticale conventionnelle, cette recherche met l’accent sur l’importance des actions individuelles des femmes réduites en esclavage dans la quête d’autorités alternatives, telles que les consulats étrangers, pour juger leurs demandes. En dépit de leur opposition à la traite transsaharienne et à la traite au sein de l’Empire ottoman, avant sa désintégration après la Première Guerre mondiale, les représentants britanniques évitaient de prendre position face à des situations d’esclavage domestique en Libye. Les autorités italiennes poursuivirent une politique similaire après l’annexion du territoire en 1911. Malgré cette réticence, les filles et les femmes réduites en esclavage apprirent comment trouver des juridictions compatissantes en s’appuyant sur différents réseaux. En analysant les stratégies politiques des consuls britanniques, des abolitionnistes italiens et du gouvernement colonial italien, cet article défend l’idée que les actions des femmes réduites en esclavage furent bien plus essentielles au changement de statut des personnes réduites en esclavage que les décisions de législateurs masculins et contribuèrent à terme à l’abolition.
En mettant au cœur de notre analyse les trajectoires historiques de filles telles que Fekiriyeh et Renghi Sefa, nous illustrons l’importance de rendre compte des vies et des expériences des femmes et des filles réduites en esclavage. Le sort ultime de ces femmes et de ces filles, après leur manumission, nous est inconnu, mais leurs courageux efforts de résistance à leur asservissement contribuent à une meilleure compréhension des vicissitudes de l’abolition en Libye et, plus largement, dans le monde ottoman aux xixe et xxe siècles.

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  • 1 This article began as conference paper entitled “Migrants and Slaves: Human Trafficking in the Lib (...)
  • 2 The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), FO 84 1090. Slave Trade no. 1. Transmitting of (...)
  • 3 A neglected aspect of slavery in the Middle East is the role of wives and consorts in managing the (...)

1In 1854, Fekiriyeh and Renghi Sefa fled their enslaver, Ahmed Pasha, an admiral in the Ottoman navy, and sought refuge in the house of the British Consul in the Greek port city of Salonica.1 Their ordeal had begun weeks earlier across the Mediterranean when the girls were loaded onto a ship with twenty-one other enslaved men and women and transported from Ottoman Tripoli to Salonica. To evade the Ottoman prohibition on slave trafficking, the Pasha furnished them with manumission papers, which were delivered in the presence of the British Consul General. On arrival in Salonica, the Pasha confiscated the documents and destroyed them. After Ahmed Pasha revoked their freedom, the two girls took advantage of an opportunity created by running an errand for their mistress to escape, taking refuge in the home of the British Consul. After learning that the girls had fled his household, the Pasha claimed that the girls had absconded with a valuable jewel-encrusted flower and petitioned the Consul for the girls to be sent back or for the flower to be recovered and returned to him.2 After the Pasha failed to negotiate their return, his daughter-in-law, the wife of ʿAbdi Pasha, went to the Consulate to try to convince the Consul to release the girls to her.3

  • 4 TNA, FO 84 857. Slave Trade no. 6.
  • 5 Ahmed Pasha originally sent Selim and Osman to Ismaʿil Pasha, the mushir, or advisor, of Rumelia ( (...)
  • 6 TNA, FO 84 1090. Slave Trade no. 1. Transmitting of copies documents to [unclear] related to slave (...)

2Despite the attempts at recovery by the Pasha and his family members, the girls managed to convince the Consul of their previous manumission and the mistreatment they received at the hands of the khanum, the mistress of the house,4 the details of which two formerly enslaved boys named Salim and Osman confirmed.5 The Consul also doubted the allegation of theft, claiming that the Pasha waited a month before making the accusation. The British authorities ultimately responded that they would not return the children. A Mr. Blunt, acting Consul at Monastir (modern-day Bitola, North Macedonia), took them into domestic service at his home.6

3This case contains many of the common details of the lives of enslaved girls and women in the nineteenth century: the brutality of being trafficked across great distances, domestic servitude, abuse at the hands of enslavers, the dangers of attempting to escape, and even the continuation of domestic service after manumission. However, more importantly, the case also highlights an instance in which girls or women pushed European authorities to intervene on their behalf. Without their decision to flee after the Pasha destroyed their manumission papers, the girls would have continued to live as enslaved members of his household.

  • 7 I borrow the term “forum shopping” from Keebet von Benda-Beckmann’s analysis of legal pluralism in (...)

4Taking women’s agency seriously, this article highlights the role of enslaved girls and women from the Sudan in pushing for their own emancipation rather than focusing primarily on the conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and other European powers in Libya. In the face of the European authorities’ reluctance to get involved in the institution of domestic slavery, it was women’s and girls’ own actions, often by fleeing their owners to a foreign consulate or seeking assistance from a representative of an anti-slavery organization, that forced the issue. This was a kind of “forum shopping” in which women sought alternative political authorities to adjudicate their claims.7 By evaluating the role of the British Consuls on the one side and the Italian abolitionist policy on the other, we see that enslaved women’s actions, and not just the decisions of male policymakers, were central to changing the status of enslaved individuals and eventually bringing about abolition.

5Evaluating the actions of individual girls and women allows us to better understand the gendered nature of slavery in North Africa. It raises several important questions about the lived experiences of enslaved women and how gender operated in the overlapping spheres of slave communities, Ottoman-Muslim households, and European abolitionist circles. How did women from the Sudan experience slavery in Ottoman and post-Ottoman Libya? What steps did they take to achieve their emancipation? How did they interact with European authorities? What gendered assumptions underpinned these interactions?

6Historians once wrote about slavery in the Middle East from a top-down perspective. It was assumed that enslaved women were illiterate and left few written documents. In challenging this assumption, Eve Powell has brought memoirs, memory, and formerly enslaved voices to the forefront of her research (Powell 2012). While this research attempts to capture the motivations of women who absconded, they likely represent only a tiny minority of enslaved women in Libya, given the difficulty of fleeing and finding a sympathetic forum. However, these women’s stories provide glimpses into girls’ and women’s motivations for absconding, albeit mediated through elite male policymakers, who each had their own agendas. The choice of European sources is the product of the ongoing conflict in Libya and my linguistic limitations.

7Although the history of slavery in the Libyan territories has received considerable attention, the scholarship has focused primarily on the caravan slave trade during the Ottoman period (Ba’iyu 1953; Rossi 1968; al-Fituri 1982; Wright 2007; Ahmida 2009; Marwan 2009; Altaleb 2015). This emphasis on the caravan trade has resulted in neglect of the lives of enslaved women and the role of domestic slavery in Libya, the exception being the work of Amal Altaleb. Altaleb’s yet unpublished dissertation provides the most complete history to date of domestic slavery in the Libyan territories based on Islamic court registries (2015). Nora Lafi has also utilized the Central Archives of the Ottoman Empire to identify sources for studying women and slavery during the late Ottoman period (2018).

Slavery in Ottoman Libya

Figure 1. Nineteenth-Century Trade Routes of Northern Africa

Figure 1. Nineteenth-Century Trade Routes of Northern Africa

© Infography : Virginie Teillet based on Wright 2007, frontispiece.

8The case of Fekiriyeh and Renghi Sefa plunges us into the late Ottoman world. The region today known as Libya became a part of the Ottoman Empire in 1551. From 1711, the Karamanli dynasty ruled Tripoli as a semi-autonomous kingdom under Ottoman auspices, taking the title of Bashas of Tripoli. After the French invasion of Algeria in 1830, the Ottomans ousted this local dynasty and returned Libya to direct control. From the 1850s to the beginning of the twentieth century, the Ottomans enacted an ambitious modernization program in the region. The Italians eventually colonized Libya in 1911.

9While the nineteenth century had once been hailed as the century of liberation, historians now understand that more individuals were enslaved than freed during this century. Ralph Austen estimated that between 16,000 and 18,000 men and women were trafficked into the Ottoman Empire annually during the nineteenth century (1988: 21–44). During this period, approximately 350,000 people arrived in North Africa (Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria) through the caravan slave trade. Determining how many of these individuals were transported through Ottoman Libya is challenging because we can only rely on conflicting estimates from contemporary observers. However, regardless of the numbers, we know that Libya was an important point on the slave routes, both as a destination and a gate to Malta, Crete, Rhodes, and the Aegean islands. From these islands, the trade continued to port cities in the eastern Mediterranean, including Istanbul, Izmir, and Salonica.

  • 8 Archivio Storico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri (ASMAE); Archivio Storico del Ministero dell’Af (...)

10While many of these captives were bound for ports further east, a significant number remained in the Libyan territories and were to have a lasting impact on the country’s demographics. In many parts of the post-Ottoman Mediterranean, only a few individuals appear to be descendants of enslaved Africans. This is partially because enslaved people only comprised about five percent of the total population, and many came from other regions, including Georgia and Circassia. This was not the case for post-Ottoman Libya. The Government of Tripolitania estimated that twenty percent of the population could trace their lineage to western or central Sudan, most of whom would have entered the territory through the caravan slave trade.8 Formerly enslaved people formed distinct communities outside Benghazi and Tripoli, known as Sudanese villages, that existed into at least the 1930s (Casserley 1925; Puccioni 1931). In some areas, the enslaved population rose to four-fifths of the total population (De Agostini 1917).

Figure 2. The Sudanese Village in Tripoli, 1874

Figure 2. The Sudanese Village in Tripoli, 1874

Charles Bierstadt, “Negro Village, Tripoli, Africa,” 1874, photograph, 7.8 × 15 cm, National Gallery of Canada, accessed February 27, 2023: https://www.gallery.ca/​collection/​artwork/​negro-village-tripoli-africa

© National Gallery of Canada

  • 9 In Fezzan, formerly enslaved individuals who worked as sharecroppers were called Shwāshana (Ahmid (...)

11Like in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, most of the enslaved population was female by the nineteenth century (Erdem 2010; Kozma 2010; Zilfi 2010; Akgündüz 2015; Lafi 2018). While enslavers expected enslaved men and women to perform various forms of labor, girls and women were trafficked more frequently and commanded higher prices due to their ability to perform heterosexual sexual services and bear children (Wright 2007: 78). In Ottoman Libya, enslaved individuals were generically known as ʿabīd (sing. ʿabd). While this term could apply equally to enslaved individuals from Sudan, the Caucasus, or Europe, the word ʿabīd was intensely racialized and associated with blackness in Libya. Beyond this generic term, local terminology provided additional social categories. Shwāshana (sing. shwshān) were those born into slavery in Tripolitania but whose enslaver had manumitted them (Altaleb 2015: 14–15). I focus almost exclusively on enslaved girls and women who traced their origins to the Sudan, serving in Turkish, Arab, and Berber households in cities along the Mediterranean. Arab and Berber families also enslaved a significant number of girls and women as agricultural workers and domestic servants in the hinterland of Libya. Still, their experiences are largely outside the focus of this article.9

12Slavery and British Policy in Ottoman Libya

13Attempts to suppress the slave trade in Ottoman Libya had their roots in the imperial policies of European governments during the nineteenth century. From the 1840s onward, the British government began putting direct and indirect pressure on the Ottoman government to suppress the slave trade in their territories. The Ottomans did not take comprehensive action until the 1850s as part of the broader reform effort of the Tanzimat (1839–1876). A firman (imperial decree) was issued in 1847 prohibiting the trade in sub-Saharan Africans within the empire outside of the Hijaz, the western coastal region of the Arabian Peninsula, including the cities of Mecca and Medina (Toledano 1982: 99). In 1855, a new edict was issued abolishing the trade of Georgians and Circassians. Finally, the Imperial Edict of 1857 strictly prohibited the trafficking of sub-Saharan Africans in the empire. However, in practice, the slave trade continued in the Ottoman territories into the twentieth century. By looking at individual case studies, Ehud Toledano and others demonstrated that efforts at prohibition increased the immediate suffering of trafficked captives by pushing the trade to longer and more challenging routes to avoid Ottoman officials and European abolitionists (1982: 11).

  • 10 TNA, FO 160 65 Slave Trade no. 9. To Viscount Palmerston. Slaves arrive at Benghazi from Waday. Ma (...)
  • 11 Ibid.

14Throughout the nineteenth century, intervening in the slave trade was a guise for expanding British influence in Ottoman Libya and further south into West and Central Sudan. Under the pretext of finding legitimate alternatives to the caravan slave trade, the British attempted to develop trade contacts across the Sahara in the 1840s and 1850s to deny similar opportunities to the French in Algeria (Wright 1989: 67). Within Ottoman Libya, they focused on documenting the number of people who entered the territory bound for slave markets, which helped contribute to the debate about the trans-Saharan slave trade back in England (Wright 2007: 62). British officials lamented the condition of those who reached Benghazi, describing them as “poor creatures” after traveling on foot for five months.10 Those who could not keep up with the caravans were abandoned on the road and left to die of exposure.11

  • 12 TNA, FO 84 1000. Slave Trade no. 4. The exportation of slaves from the Regency has been abolished. (...)

15In 1856, Uthman Muzhir, the Ottoman ruler in Tripoli, reaffirmed the ban on exporting sub-Saharan Africans from all ports in Ottoman Libya (Marwan 2009: 332–334). Much like the 1847 firman, the 1856 decree did not abolish domestic slavery as an institution; those considered lawful property would remain so until their owner manumitted them (Erdem 1996: 109). Instead, it prohibited exporting enslaved people from Ottoman Libya who were from western and central Sudan. The British authorities were skeptical that this new ban would prevent the contraband trade of enslaved people. The then Consul-General Herman argued that domestic slavery was “so closely interwoven into all the habits and traditions of Turkish life” that it would be impossible to prevent a contraband trade in enslaved people from Libya.12 This attitude, that slavery was an intrinsic part of Ottoman society, continued to justify European governments’ inaction for another eight decades.

  • 13 TNA, FO 84 1062 Slave Trade no. 2 Letter from Consul Herman, Tripoli, 22 February 1858, 289 (334); (...)

16The British were right that ending the slave trade proved challenging, but it was not for lack of trying. The Ottoman authorities made the exportation of enslaved people from Tripoli so arduous that the British Consul reported that slave traders had abandoned over 6,000 formerly enslaved individuals in the city after the 1856 decree was issued because they could not legally export them to other parts of the Empire.13 Despite this, slave traders often used creative means to circumvent the law. Many traders simply turned to obscure and more dangerous routes or sailed stealthily out of ports under cover of darkness. A well-placed bribe might convince an official to look the other way (Toledano 1982: 70–72). When these were not options, owners might grant manumission papers to traffic individuals out of ports in Ottoman Libya, as we saw in the case of Fekiriyeh and her friend—in a sense, freeing and then re-enslaving individuals upon arrival in another location. We know from other contexts that slave traders might claim that women in their possession were their lawful wives to avoid anti-trafficking laws, as Eve Powell found in a famous slave trading trial in Egypt in 1894 (2003: 1–3). There were numerous ways to avoid detection and apprehension.

17Despite opposition to trafficking, the British Consuls differentiated between those trafficked into the Ottoman Empire or between territories and those already enslaved within the Ottoman Empire. British Consul J.A. Longworth declared that “there was one broad distinction to be drawn — it is between the mass of slaves domesticated in the Empire, and those who, in violation of the Sultan’s firmans, continue to be imported from Africa” (Great Britain Parliament 1860: 399). He declared that the prevention of this traffic was the duty of every Consul (Great Britain Parliament 1860: 398). As to the slaves already in the country, he believed that “the less” officials undertook to do for them, the better it would be for all involved (Great Britain Parliament 1860: 399). Undermining the caravan slave trade allowed the British to deny economic and military opportunities to the French; opposing domestic slavery provided no such benefits.

18The lack of benefit to British imperial aims points to why British Consuls were ambiguous about their reasons for ignoring the institution of domestic slavery in North Africa, besides vague notions about its centrality to Turkish or Muslim culture. Supporters of this narrative often contrasted slavery in Islamic lands with slavery in the Atlantic World, arguing that emotional ties bound enslaved women to their enslavers (Toledano 2007: 12–14). In contrast, the British in the Atlantic World focused their advocacy for abolition on how slavery destroyed maternal bonds by separating enslaved mothers from their children and on the racist fear of miscegenation, arguments which influenced abolitionist movements in parts of Latin America (Cowling 2013: 98).

19Neither racial mixing nor the destruction of familial bonds was a concern for the British in North Africa. Enslaved women who bore their enslaver a child could no longer be sold under Islamic law and would be freed at their enslaver’s death; many enslavers married enslaved women. Women could thus claim freedom through the law, creating eventual reproductive legal emancipation. With a long history of unions between enslavers and enslaved women, mixing Arabs or Berbers with sub-Saharan Africans did not create the same fear of moral corruption as it did in the Atlantic World. While slavery was not ideal, from the British perspective, it mirrored existing patriarchal domestic arrangements within the Muslim family. It likely made little difference if women provided domestic and sexual services as servants, legal wives, consorts, or enslaved household members. Despite this attitude, women and girls still sought out sympathetic British officials.

Runaways: Enslaved Girls and Women Push for Emancipation

  • 14 TNA, FO 84 1090. Slave Trade no. 2. Copy of dispatch to Her Majesty’s Ambassador relative to slave (...)

20One of the most common informal methods enslaved girls and women used to obtain emancipation from their enslaver was absconding and showing up at foreign consulates or consul residences, claiming mistreatment. Responding to Fekiriyeh and her friend’s attempt to flee the Ahmed Pasha’s household, J.A. Longworth implied that the abuse claim was largely irrelevant. A few might find better employers, but once they arrived in the Ottoman territories, it made “little difference” whether they were “emancipated or not.”14 Therefore, intervening on behalf of these girls was unimportant, if not a nuisance. This did not stop girls and women from trying.

21Eight years after Fekiriyeh and Renghi Sefa’s successful escape, a new British Vice-Consul named M. Tulin was assigned to the port of Benghazi. Upon his arrival at the Vice-Consul’s residence in early 1862, he found that enslaved or formerly enslaved individuals had taken refuge in the outer hall of the house. Some of these individuals were waiting for manumission papers from the Qaimaqam, the district governor. Still, they feared being abducted by their former enslaver or slave traffickers, which prevented them from seeking employment. The number swiftly grew, surpassing fifty. This small community presented a challenge for Tulin and other British officials in Ottoman Libya. What was to be done with them?

  • 15 TNA, FO 84 1179; Slave Trade no. 3. Letter from V.C. M. Tulin to Herman, British Vice Consulate, B (...)

22By April 1862, the situation had grown even tenser at the residence after a woman orchestrated her escape with the aid of Tulin. This unnamed woman had gotten word to Tulin, possibly through another enslaved woman, that a certain Ben Zeblah was holding her prisoner. She argued that she had been enslaved only two years prior, her enslaver intended to sell her in the interior, and he had treated her poorly. When Tulin arrived at the outer door of the yard of Ben Zeblah’s home, she begged to join those taking refuge in the Consul’s residence and left with nothing more than the clothes on her back.15

  • 16 Ibid.

23Tulin was proud of the role he played in aiding those fleeing mistreatment. Despite this, he was firm with his superiors that his goal was not to liberate every enslaved person who took refuge in the Vice-Consul’s residence. Instead, he wanted any enslaved individual who had absconded to be questioned before the Qaimaqam, and those who were enslaved after the 1856 decree, who had been mistreated, or who feared being sold into the interior, should be helped. Any individual enslaved before 1856 was bound to be returned to their enslaver.16 The conditions under which women might be manumitted were consistent with the British policy of maintaining Muslim households. Those who had yet to be integrated fully or whose enslavers were not treating them as proper members of the family due to abuse or sale were entitled to seek their freedom. Others were not.

24Enslaved women seemed to have become keenly aware of these conditions, probably through other enslaved women and girls. In making their cases, these girls and women utilized familiar Orientalist tropes about the barbarism of Muslim enslavers, whether they were Turks, Arabs, or Berbers, and presented themselves as helpless female victims of abuse. Fekiriyeh and her friend claimed the khanum punished them brutally for perceived infractions by forcing them to hold hot objects. The women held by Ben Zeblah invoked all three conditions for manumission: recent enslavement, abuse, and risk of sale.

25While Tulin was uncertain about intervening further on behalf of enslaved domestic servants, these women had found an alternative forum to hear their grievances, and their own actions forced the issue. They turned to the British Vice-Consul when they failed to get manumission papers from the Qaimaqam. The enslaved individuals pushed him to intervene on their behalf by physically occupying his home, justifying their decision to flee with evidence of their enslavers’ mistreatment of them. To rectify the situation and get his house back, he brought their case to the Qaimaqam, and they eventually all won their freedom, even though Ottoman law was not entirely on their side. Steve Hahn found a similar phenomenon in the rural American South, where enslaved African Americans forced white abolitionists to take more radical actions (2005). 

26While common, approaching a foreign official was not the only way an enslaved woman might seek assistance; women also brought their cases directly before the Ottoman authorities or sought help from the Islamic courts. Nora Lafi found that enslaved women demonstrated in central Tripoli in the early 1870s and wrote a petition against the sheikh al-bilâd, who had illegally sold their children for export, in the hope of getting the Ottoman authorities to intervene on their behalf against this local official (2018: 781). Women also went before Islamic courts in cases of manumission to force an enslaver to acknowledge their child or to seek relief from abuse in the household. Many of these cases involved women asserting their rights as a mother or umm walad, the title given to an enslaved woman who had borne her enslaver a child (Altaleb 2015: 28, 169). Since trafficking forcibly separated women from kin to draw on for support and refuge, enslaved women were forced to advocate for themselves and to take advantage of all the avenues open to them, formal and informal.

  • 17 TNA, FO 84 1179, no. 10. Copy of letter from G. F. Herman. Tripoli, 9 April 1862, 69.

27Just as British Consul J.A. Longworth was dismissive of Fekiriyeh and her friend’s reasons for fleeing their enslaver, Consul-General Herman expressed his displeasure that manumission papers were granted to the enslaved women hiding in Tulin’s residence. Beyond his unwillingness to intervene in what he perceived as domestic concerns, he and other British representatives chose to side with the local elites at the expense of fleeing enslaved women, claiming that aiding these women would “engender a spirit of dissatisfaction amongst the slave population” and considered their desire to escape bondage to be little more than “caprice.”17 Consul-General Herman’s letters reveal the emptiness of narratives about heroic white abolitionists. While white male administrators tried to present themselves publicly as pivotal to the process of abolition, a look at their private correspondence reveals that they were reluctant at best. They saw girls and women fleeing their enslavers as a severe inconvenience; they believed they had absconded without apparent forethought or planning.

28Enslavers, magistrates, and foreign representatives might have been astonished that enslaved girls and women, vulnerable due to their gender and status, learned to find sympathetic forums for their grievances. However, it is likely that even enslaved women who had been in captivity for a relatively short period of time gathered information from other former enslaved individuals about how to navigate formal and informal legal jurisdictions in the late Ottoman Empire. When asked why they fled to the British Consul in Salonica, Fekiriyeh and her friend said they had heard that the British Consul in Tripoli had often saved enslaved people (Great Britain Parliament 1860: 202). Even knowing that the Consul might aid them, finding the Consul’s residence would not have been easy for two children who had just arrived in a foreign city and were unfamiliar with the local language.

29These examples confirm what historians have revealed about female slave solidarity. Enslaved and formerly enslaved women formed new connections outside their immediate households and drew upon these connections for protection. This was especially important for enslaved domestic servants who were vulnerable to isolation and exploitation, sexual and otherwise, by their enslavers. The networks they formed provided news, information, support and could be mobilized for organized collective action when it was needed to defend members of the community (Fett 2002; Camp 2006; Edwards 2007: 365–393; Powell 2012: 65).

  • 18 TNA, FO 84 1179, no. 10. Copy of letter from G. F. Herman. Tripoli, 9 April 1862, 69; TNA, FO 84 1 (...)
  • 19 TNA, FO 84 1179, Enclosure no. 3. Telegram, Colonel Herman to Vice-Consul Tulin, 31 March 1862.

30While these girls and women probably did not view their actions as political, they had political ramifications. The threat of violence from the local population was a legitimate concern. The British feared that harboring enslaved individuals would create antagonism between the local authorities, the Arab and Berber communities, and European agents in Benghazi, which could result in an “anti-Christian uprising” and the threat to storm the Consul’s residence.18 While the Qaimaqam was responsible for keeping the peace, there were also concerns that he was deflecting responsibility for the slave occupation by stirring up resentment toward the Vice-Consul. If the Ottoman authorities could not prevent an outbreak of violence, the only other assistance would have to come from the British territory of Malta.19 Despite the power that European representatives tried to exert inside the Ottoman Empire, they feared pushing the local population toward another European rival or outright violence. Up until the eve of Italian colonialism, the issue of how to deal with fleeing women and girls represented a genuine concern for British consuls.

Slavery and Women’s Agency on the Eve of Italian Colonial Rule

31By the early twentieth century, the British were not the only imperial power utilizing slavery to intervene in Ottoman Libya. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Italy began seeking a sphere of influence in the territory, especially after Tunisia became a French colony in 1881. This culminated in Italy’s formal annexation of Ottoman Libya in 1911. Before this annexation, intervening to protect or aid runaway enslaved women allowed the Italians to exert their political influence and control at the expense of the Ottoman authorities and, at times, their French or British rivals. However, despite these efforts during the pre-colonial period, the Italian authorities were much less likely to intervene after annexing the Libyan territories, for fear of alienating the elites they needed to govern the region successfully.

  • 20 Gabriele Montalbano (2022) also discusses Zeid el Mal and her friends.

32Enslaved women continued to seek assistance from European powers, abolitionist organizations and the Islamic courts during the early twentieth century. In 1904, the Anti-Slavery Reporter, an anti-slavery publication founded in London in 1825, publicized the case of Zeid el Mal, a woman enslaved in a home in Zliten, near Tripoli.20 Two enslaved women, Fatima and Khadija, absconded from that household to the neighboring town of al-Khums and successfully applied to the Ottoman administration for their freedom. Their companion stayed behind in their enslaver’s house. The exact reason remains unclear. She may have failed in her attempt to escape or may have been too afraid of the consequences. She may also have calculated that a life in captivity, while subjecting her to her owner’s whims and possible abuse, nonetheless secured a roof over her head when there were few other economic opportunities.

  • 21 Letter from F. H. Villiers in the Foreign Office published in British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Soc (...)
  • 22 By the time of their second conference in 1907, the Italian Anti-Slavery Society boasted that they (...)
  • 23 3 June 1904. Letter from F. H. Villiers in the Foreign Office published in The Anti-Slavery Report (...)

33Fatima and Khadija brought her case to the Italian Anti-Slavery Society, a Catholic association founded by French Cardinal Charles Lavigeriein in 1888 to eradicate the caravan slave trade, to help free Zeid el Mal from her enslaver, Senusi bin Hadji Mohamed. Just as Fekiriyeh and her friend had done decades before, Fatima and Khadija made a case that Zeid el Mal was being mistreated and kept chained.21 The Society asked the Italian Consul-General to urge the Ottoman authorities to investigate.22 The Society brought these facts before the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs. He urged the Society to approach the British Foreign Office so that the various representatives of the different European powers might act together to release the enslaved woman. The British Consul-General brought Zeid el Mal’s case to Tripoli’s governor, and he ordered that she be released. After being freed, she joined her friends in al-Khums.23

34This episode illuminates the pre-colonial period’s complex political and social dynamics of liberation. It illustrates the presence of competing powers in Tripoli on the eve of Italian occupation in which a woman fleeing slavery could seek redress from multiple authorities. In the past, a woman might have sought assistance from local courts, the Ottoman administration, or British authorities, but now there was a whole range of conflicting and cooperating powers. A woman seeking manumission might attempt to “forum-shop” by taking refuge in the British, French, or Italian consulates. Whether a foreign government would intervene, especially in the case of an enslaved domestic servant, involved a complex set of political calculations. A woman might also seek the assistance of an abolitionist organization to bring her case before the proper authorities. At the time, the Italian Anti-Slavery Society had five representatives working in towns in Tripolitania (“Slave” 1969: 509–510). The initiative of enslaved individuals to bring these cases to light helped win their eventual emancipation, however precarious it might be.

  • 24 TNA, FO 84 1090, Copy of Dispatch to the Majesty’s Ambassador relation to slave girls of Ahmed Pas (...)

35Zeid el Mal joined her former companions in al-Khums, either because they had a solid personal bond or because an informal network provided shelter, employment, and protection to formerly enslaved people. This protection was necessary because individuals who escaped slavery often spent the rest of their lives fearing kidnapping by slave hunters or their former enslavers. While the British Foreign Office concluded that Zeid el Mal was now “safe,” the reality of liberation was fraught with danger. Along with Fekiriyeh and Renghi Sefa, another girl from Ahmed Pasha’s household named Hosh Kadin had initially taken refuge in the British Consulate. Two Turkish women seized her, placed her on the back of a Jewish porter, and he carried her away screaming.24 It is unclear what happened to her after her abduction. Although cases like Zeid el Mal’s allowed both European governments and anti-slavery organizations to herald abolitionist victories, fear of enslavement was a constant feature of the lives of subjects from the Sudan in Ottoman Libya. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many spent their lives hiding among their communities, in missions, or in consulates, regardless of whether their liberation took place within the framework of the law, whether they absconded, or even whether they were born free (Kozma 2010: 205–206). Manumission remained tentative and precarious well into the twentieth century in Ottoman Libya.

Slavery, Women, and Italian Colonial Rule

36In 1911, there was a significant shift in Libya’s political and social reality. Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire in September 1911 and annexed the Libyan territories in 1912, bringing over 350 years of Ottoman rule to an end. Following the region’s occupation, the Italian authorities officially outlawed all slavery, including domestic slavery, in Italian Libya, for the first time. The French took a similar action in Algiers in 1848 (Brower 2011: 170). The Italians claimed that the slave trade ceased in the areas under the control of the Italian government. Despite this, it continued in the hinterland, and enslaved people were available for sale in Kufra until at least the early 1930s (Wright 2007: 160). It is likely that some trade continued even longer.

37By the 1930s, the government of Tripolitania broadly asserted that slavery had ended in the Libyan territories. While the racialized categories such as ʿabīd and shawāshana still appeared in colonial correspondences of this period, the Italians maintained that the ʿabīd were no longer enslaved. The public continuation of slavery was likely an embarrassment for those trying to create a well-ordered colony, so the Italian authorities abolished agricultural slavery, converting enslaved people to impoverished wage laborers and sharecroppers.

38Despite attempts to eradicate more public forms of slavery, the Italian authorities ignored the continuation of less visible forms, especially domestic slavery. In that, they followed the precedent that the British and the French had established in their respective colonies. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, imperial powers had to yield to popular pressure at home or diplomatic pressure from other European nations and more systematically implement the anti-slavery laws they had promulgated over half a century earlier. Still, they tended to pay no heed to the perpetuation of servitude in the homes of their colonial subjects because they did not want to antagonize them further (Jennings 2000: 24–25). The Italians in Libya ignored the captivity of hundreds, if not thousands, of women and children who continued to live in confinement behind closed doors, at the mercy of their owners and without the protection the state had promised them.

  • 25 “Adunanza del 20 giugno 1918,” Bollettino della Società antischiavista italiana, no. 4, Rome, 31 A (...)

39Colonial archives generally remained silent about the lives of enslaved subjects, and the Italian colonial archives were no exception. With the rise of Italian colonialism, women had lost many forums from which they could seek help. Rather than approaching foreign consulates or the Ottoman authorities, they could now only appeal to the Italian authorities or the Islamic courts. The Italian authorities proved reluctant to intervene on behalf of enslaved domestic servants. Occasionally, a scandal might force government officials to manage the case of an enslaved person reclaiming her freedom, or push European abolitionists to make the state abide by its laws. A few women and men did seek the assistance of the Italian Anti-Slavery Society during Italian colonial rule. In 1918, Father Apolloni related that a member of his congregation, Abdul Bengasi, reported that a girl, Giuseppina, had been kidnapped and enslaved. They sought the assistance of the Ministry of the Colonies, and she was recovered.25 However, these cases became increasingly rare. Despite this, it is through the actions of individuals determined to demand their or other people’s freedom that we know slavery continued to exist decades after its abolition.

40Into the 1930s, the Italians argued that it was impossible to end slavery despite the fact they had outlawed it two decades previously. While they knew that elite Arab and Berber families often owned one or more families from the Sudan, the Italians did not even provide a path to obtaining freedom. While self-serving, this policy was consistent with the Italian colonial policy of non-interference in local cultural practices (Graziani 1932: 74), which was necessary for maintaining their alliance with Arab and Berber elites in Libya. The Italians continually feared angering the local population, some of whom were in open rebellion until the early 1930s.

  • 26 ASMAE; ASMAI, Africa II, Poss. 180/37, Fasc. 17, Le Schiavitù, 4 October 1934.

41By extension, this policy included ignoring the institution of domestic slavery by setting it up as an integral part of the family and of indigenous custom, as the British had done before the Italians. The Italian administration claimed that those who served Arab or Berber families were generally well-treated and enjoyed adequate compensation.26 Further, domestic slavery would slowly disappear without the slave trade to supply newly enslaved people since any child born of a sexual union between an enslaved woman and her enslaver followed the father’s status and was considered free and legitimate. French and British colonial administrators made a similar claim about the nature of domestic and even, to an extent, agricultural servitude in Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt (Powell 2003: 136; Brower 2011: 180–184; Montana 2013: 61).

  • 27 ASMAE; ASMAI, Africa II, Poss. 180/37, Fasc. 17, La Schiavitù in Cirenaica. July 1934, p. 4.
  • 28 ASMAE; ASMAI, Africa II, Poss. 180/37, Fasc. 17, Le Schiavitù. 4 October 1934.

42Beyond the argument of good treatment, the Italian authorities were unwilling to institute policies to integrate formerly enslaved individuals into the colony or provide employment. Instead, as British Consuls had done two generations previously, they argued that those who were removed from the state of slavery would be reduced to the most “squalid misery, without the possibility of earning a living.”27 While such arguments served to justify the Italians’ inaction, freed individuals continued to have limited economic opportunities during the Italian colonial period. Few would risk the dangerous and expensive journey back across the Sahara; many had been born in the Libyan territories. As Benjamin Brower has shown in Algeria, formerly enslaved people in the Libyan territories struggled to escape the social hierarchies of the Muslim family, into which they had been integrated (Brower 2011: 184). Even those women who escaped this acculturation (and we have seen many who wished to) struggled to obtain gainful employment to support their families or provide economic independence. Many probably turned to prostitution and selling of drinks (Sikainga 2022: 14), while others remained tied to their former owners due to necessity. With few employment opportunities, formerly enslaved domestic servants continued to provide the same domestic services they had done while enslaved.28 In many cases, women received no real wages for their work. Instead, the family would compensate them with food (Altaleb 2015: 186).

Figure 3. African Women and a Child Drink Tea

Figure 3. African Women and a Child Drink Tea

E.G.G.,“Il The.” Italy, date unknown, postcard in author’s private collection.

  • 29 ASMAE, ASMAI, Africa III, b. 36, fasc. 1 Scuole Libia I, Missioni Religiose in Libia.
  • 30 Archivio Storico De Propaganda Fide, N.S. 1296, Rubrica no. 39/1935–36–37, Sottorubrica no. 13, Ci (...)

43Beyond continuing to work for their former enslavers or in the informal economy, there were a few educational opportunities, mainly through missionary-run schools in colonial Libya. The Saint Joseph Congregation of Turin ran an agricultural colony for children freed from slavery near Benghazi known as the Italian Agricultural Institute or the Fwayhāt Mission, founded under the Ottomans in 1904 (Montalbano 2022: 403; Italy 1908: 406). In the 1920s, the Sisters of Charity operated a free school for girls of African descent.29 It is unclear what the curriculum of these schools included, but it was probably limited to training for domestic work, as was the case in the Homes for Freed Slaves that the British opened in Egypt (Powell 2012: 155). Missionary projects for formerly enslaved women tended to perpetuate their servile status by training them for domestic tasks. These women also provided an ideal pool of potential converts to Catholicism since their religious affiliation did not risk the ire of local elites. In 1935, it was estimated that there were 125 indigenous Christians in Cyrenaica, mainly formerly enslaved individuals or their descendants.30

Conclusion

44Despite individuals’ bravery in fleeing enslavement, it is difficult to identify the conclusive end to slavery in the Libyan territories. This is a result of the sheer lack of economic opportunities post-manumission. While abolition is often treated as a nineteenth-century phenomenon, slavery continued in the Libyan territories under Italian colonial rule (1911–1943) and the British and French administrations (1943–1950), even after Libya obtained independence in 1951. In interviews conducted by Amal Altaleb in Libya, she unearthed cases involving enslaved people well into the 1950s in cities like Ghadames (2016: 200). In this, Libya is not necessarily unique. While researching the racialization of slavery in Morocco, Chouki El Hamel also found evidence of slavery in Southern Morocco as late as the 1950s (2014: 256).

45For those who have studied abolition in other parts of Africa, the story of British and Italian policies in Libya will seem familiar. Narratives about kindly Muslim slave owners allowed foreign representatives and colonial authorities to justify the perpetual delay in the systematic implementation of anti-slavery laws and, in several documented instances, to reject the legal actions that enslaved people took to demand their freedom. Libya is an informative case study that furthers our understanding of the European role in abolition. The British and Italians opposed the continued trafficking of enslaved girls and women into the Libyan territories. However, while paying lip service to the goal of abolition in the region, these European powers gave tacit and sometimes explicit support for slavery to continue if the enslaved people were primarily used for domestic service, which reduced their visibility. Only through women’s agency do we see the true emptiness of the rhetoric of white European abolitionists.

46As I have shown, it was girls and women from the Sudan who were central to the abolition of slavery. They risked their lives to find a sympathetic forum and resist enslavement. In doing so, they made claims about their legal rights but, more importantly, documented the abuse they experienced at the hands of traffickers and enslavers. Without their efforts, little would be known about the lives of enslaved girls and women in Ottoman and post-Ottoman Libya.

47Despite their valiant struggles, questions remain unanswered about girls like Fekiriyeh and her friend based on the available sources. What happened to them? We will never know. Once the crisis that brought them to the door of a foreign consulate had passed, they simply disappeared from the historical record. This does not mean that these accounts are not important. On the contrary, they provide glimpses into the gendered interactions between slave communities, Muslim society, and European elites. In the end, we can hope that Fekiriyeh and Renghi Sefa found, if not happier lives in Monastir, at the very least an escape from the violence and abuse that pushed them to risk so much to flee in the first place.

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Notes

1 This article began as conference paper entitled “Migrants and Slaves: Human Trafficking in the Libyan Territories from the Nineteenth Century to the Present,” co-authored with Soha Sarkis.

2 The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), FO 84 1090. Slave Trade no. 1. Transmitting of copies documents to [unclear] related to slaves of Achmet Pasha accused of Theft. January 25, 1854, p. 62 verso.

3 A neglected aspect of slavery in the Middle East is the role of wives and consorts in managing the system. Nora Lafi notes that some enslaved women were the property of women (2018: 178). From Fekiriyeh’s case, we see that elite women were both responsible for the abuse faced by enslaved girls and women and instrumental in recovering those who had absconded. As Glymph has argued in the American context, households were a space of “struggle between women” (2012: 19). Women also participated directly in the slave trade in the Libyan territories, including a woman who controlled much of the caravan slave trade in the interior in 1857. TNA, FO 84 857, Consul-General Crowe to Viscount Palmerston. Tripoli, 7 November 1857.

4 TNA, FO 84 857. Slave Trade no. 6.

5 Ahmed Pasha originally sent Selim and Osman to Ismaʿil Pasha, the mushir, or advisor, of Rumelia (modern-day Balkans) as a present. For an unknown reason, they were then returned to Ahmed Pasha’s household. When Salim and Osman learned they were to be sold to ʿAbdi Pasha, they took refuge in the British Consulate in Monastir. TNA, FO 84 1090, Copy of Dispatch to the Majesty’s Ambassador in relation to slave girls of Ahmed Pasha accused of theft, 15 March 1859, p.75.

6 TNA, FO 84 1090. Slave Trade no. 1. Transmitting of copies documents to [unclear] related to slaves of Achmet Pasha accused of Theft. January 25, 1854, p. 63.

7 I borrow the term “forum shopping” from Keebet von Benda-Beckmann’s analysis of legal pluralism in Indonesia (1981: 117–159).

8 Archivio Storico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri (ASMAE); Archivio Storico del Ministero dell’Africa Italiana (ASMAI), Africa II. Poss. 180/37. Fasc. 17. Le Schiavitù. 4 October 1934.

9 In Fezzan, formerly enslaved individuals who worked as sharecroppers were called Shwāshana (Ahmida 2005: 90). There were several categories of free people who traced their origins to the Sudan, including the ʿatāray and the ḥumrān in Ghadames, a Berber oasis city on the Libyan border. The ʿatāray were the free descendants of enslaved people, often born of unions between Muslim Arab or Berber men and enslaved women. There was also a distinct category of people of mixed heritage known as ḥumrān, who were the free descendants of unions between foreigners and local enslaved women (De Agostini 1917: xvi).

10 TNA, FO 160 65 Slave Trade no. 9. To Viscount Palmerston. Slaves arrive at Benghazi from Waday. Many left to die along the way. Tripoli. 27 September 1847.

11 Ibid.

12 TNA, FO 84 1000. Slave Trade no. 4. The exportation of slaves from the Regency has been abolished. Tripoli. 28 April 1856.

13 TNA, FO 84 1062 Slave Trade no. 2 Letter from Consul Herman, Tripoli, 22 February 1858, 289 (334); TNA, FO 84 1062. Transmitted copy of a letter from Admiral to the Blacks by the Ottoman Steamer Feizi Bakeri. Tripoli 22 February 1858; G. F. Herman. Slave Trade no. 3. Tripoli, 10 March 1885. Reporting member of Slave Trade dispatched written during the year 1858, p. 297 verso.

14 TNA, FO 84 1090. Slave Trade no. 2. Copy of dispatch to Her Majesty’s Ambassador relative to slave girls of Achmet Pasta accused of theft, p. 70 verso.

15 TNA, FO 84 1179; Slave Trade no. 3. Letter from V.C. M. Tulin to Herman, British Vice Consulate, Benghazi, 2 April 1862.

16 Ibid.

17 TNA, FO 84 1179, no. 10. Copy of letter from G. F. Herman. Tripoli, 9 April 1862, 69.

18 TNA, FO 84 1179, no. 10. Copy of letter from G. F. Herman. Tripoli, 9 April 1862, 69; TNA, FO 84 1179, Slave Trade no. 3. Letter from V.C. M. Tulin to Herman, British Vice Consulate, Benghazi, 2 April 1862.

19 TNA, FO 84 1179, Enclosure no. 3. Telegram, Colonel Herman to Vice-Consul Tulin, 31 March 1862.

20 Gabriele Montalbano (2022) also discusses Zeid el Mal and her friends.

21 Letter from F. H. Villiers in the Foreign Office published in British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The Anti-Slavery Reporter. Vol. 22–25 (Nendeln, Kraus Reprint, 1969), pp. 45, 101.

22 By the time of their second conference in 1907, the Italian Anti-Slavery Society boasted that they had rescued about 2,500 people from slavery, most of them in Ottoman Libya (Di Meo 2017: 59).

23 3 June 1904. Letter from F. H. Villiers in the Foreign Office published in The Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend, British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society (Great Britain), Nendeln, Kraus Reprint, 1969:100.

24 TNA, FO 84 1090, Copy of Dispatch to the Majesty’s Ambassador relation to slave girls of Ahmed Pasha accused of theft, 15 March 1859, p. 75.

25 “Adunanza del 20 giugno 1918,” Bollettino della Società antischiavista italiana, no. 4, Rome, 31 August 1918, pp. 3–4.

26 ASMAE; ASMAI, Africa II, Poss. 180/37, Fasc. 17, Le Schiavitù, 4 October 1934.

27 ASMAE; ASMAI, Africa II, Poss. 180/37, Fasc. 17, La Schiavitù in Cirenaica. July 1934, p. 4.

28 ASMAE; ASMAI, Africa II, Poss. 180/37, Fasc. 17, Le Schiavitù. 4 October 1934.

29 ASMAE, ASMAI, Africa III, b. 36, fasc. 1 Scuole Libia I, Missioni Religiose in Libia.

30 Archivio Storico De Propaganda Fide, N.S. 1296, Rubrica no. 39/1935–36–37, Sottorubrica no. 13, Cirenaica, Relazione annuale e Prospetti statistici, Bengasi, li 30 luglio 1935.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Nineteenth-Century Trade Routes of Northern Africa
Crédits © Infography : Virginie Teillet based on Wright 2007, frontispiece.
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/slaveries/docannexe/image/9655/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 350k
Titre Figure 2. The Sudanese Village in Tripoli, 1874
Légende Charles Bierstadt, “Negro Village, Tripoli, Africa,” 1874, photograph, 7.8 × 15 cm, National Gallery of Canada, accessed February 27, 2023: https://www.gallery.ca/​collection/​artwork/​negro-village-tripoli-africa
Crédits © National Gallery of Canada
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/slaveries/docannexe/image/9655/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 612k
Titre Figure 3. African Women and a Child Drink Tea
Crédits E.G.G.,“Il The.” Italy, date unknown, postcard in author’s private collection.
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/slaveries/docannexe/image/9655/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 540k
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Katrina Yeaw, « Between Empires: Women’s Resistance and Domestic Slavery in the Libyan Territories in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries »Esclavages & Post-esclavages [En ligne], 9 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2024, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/slaveries/9655 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/11o9r

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Katrina Yeaw

Assistant Professor, University of Arkansas (USA)

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