Egypt – Slavery

ON few topics connected with the East is Western opinion more at fault than on the subject of this chapter. Thanks mainly to the well meant but totally misleading exaggerations of professional philanthropists, the popular notion of Turkish and Egyptian servitude has been formed from illustrations of the cruel and brutalising bondage established in our own colonies till within little more than forty years ago, which survived for thirty years later in the Southern United States, and which still exists in Cuba and Brazil.* But barring the owner’s right of property in the slave, the two systems have hardly a feature in common; and even this the patriarchal manners and, on not a few points, the humaner legislation of the East have beset by limitations which distinguish it widely from the absolute title of the Cuban or American Legree. Many, too, regard slavery in the East as a purely Mohammedan institution, forgetting that it is older than Abraham, and ignorant that till within quite recent years it has been practised by Moslem and Christian alike. Under the less liberal laws and social customs of Turkey the right is no longer accorded to rayahs ; but in Egypt the law makes no difference between Arab and Copt, and slaves are therefore still commonly owned by both. But in both Turkey and Egypt the condition of the slaves differs toto caelo from that of the old Roman servus and the modern West Indian and American negro. In the latter cases he was and is a mere chattel, subjected to every degrading hardship, and liable to be cruelly abused at will. In the Levant he is simply an unwaged in-door servant, whom both law and religion protect from ill-treatment, and who, as a rule, is not only as kindly used as ordinary domestics in Europe, but enjoys over them not a few advantages. Slavery is of course bad and in-defensible under any conditions, but it is right that the vast difference between its Eastern and Western types should be understood.

In the absence of any official statistics on the point, no even approximate estimate of the number of the slave population in Egypt can be given. It must, however, be large, as nearly all the in-door work in every family above the poorest is done by servants of this class. From the house of the pettiest dealer or even better class mechanic, up to the palace of the Khedive, slave labour for this kind of work is the rule. And here one of the many important distinctions between Eastern and Western servitude is at once met with. In Egypt and Turkey domestic work only is done by slaves, the cases being rare in which they are employed even in stables or light gardening; while in the West their chief value has always been as field hands. So inwrought, indeed, is the institution into the domestic and social life of the country, that the possession of one or more slaves is as essential to “respectability” amongst one’s neighbours as is that of a servant for menial work in a European family; and this social consideration has, probably, more to do with the maintenance of the institution than any question as to the relative cost of slave and free labour. The Koranic law on the subject being, of course, the same in Turkey as in Egypt, the condition of slaves in the two countries is in the main identical, but practically it is in many respects better in the latter. In Turkey slaves are, as a rule, kindly treated, and in instances not a few have risen to high office; but they are none the less made to feel that, so long as they remain slaves, their status is much below that of free men. In Egypt, on the contrary, the fact that for centuries a race of slaves—the Mamlouks–ruled the country, has long ago relieved bondage from the stigma of social degradation that attaches to it in the West, and has raised the relation between master and slave to one under which the latter, indeed, owes personal service to the former, but without, either in him-self or others, any sense of ignominy involved in paying it. He is, in a word, rather the dependant than the slave of his owner, who treats him-far more than free servants —as a member of the family, and in cases innumerable gives him his liberty after a few years, and starts him on his way to any fortune, save the highest in the country —for between black and white, freedmen and free men, neither the law nor society makes any practical distinction.

Slaves in Egypt may be broadly divided into white and black, although the shades of color between these two extremes are very numerous. To the one class belong the fair-skinned Circassian and the dusky but often beautiful Abyssinian; and to the other the darker but still straight-haired Galla and the negro from Nubia, Kordofan, or Darfour. The extinction of the Mamlouks, and the in-discriminate admission of Arabs and Copts alike to the public service, have practically put an end to the importation of white male slaves, who are now rarely or never met with as adults. Some few boys are occasionally purchased as playfellows for the sons of the wealthier Beys or Pashas, but in almost every instance as soon as they reach full age they are liberated, married off—frequently to their masters’ daughters—and in some way established in life. In fact, the relation of this very limited class to their owners just falls short of adoption, which was formerly very common, but is less so now. The relatively great mortality among the children of white mothers who have themselves not been born in the country, contributes to maintain the demand for Circassian girls, the vast majority of whom, however, find not merely purchasers but husbands among the sons of the wealthier classes. It is now, indeed, rare that a full-grown white girl is kept in mere concubinage, as both her cost and her personal at-tractions give her a value that speedily—very often at once-raises her to the higher domestic rank. But the importation of these Caucasian luxuries has greatly fallen off since the cessation of the regular traffic between Constantinople and the coast of Abasia reduced the supply, and correspondingly raised the price of the smuggled article. Most of the few who now reach Egypt singly or in couples, where thirty years ago they came in scores, belong to the Circassian colonies in Roumelia or Asia Minor, and the difficulties of even their import, under the eyes of jealous foreign Consuls, are such that the trade has virtually ceased. At any rate, it is only in the Very wealthiest harems that these exotic beauties are now to be found. They are mostly bought at from ten to twelve years of age, and, after being well nurtured for three or four years, and taught the usual Eastern accomplishments, are, as a rule, either married by the master of the house or given as wives to his sons. In strict law marriage does not confer freedom, but the girl is nearly al-ways first liberated, and the offspring are, in any case, born free. One especial reason why these white girls are, thus almost always married is that they wear much longer than either native Egyptian ladies or Abyssinians; retaining their fine physique to thirty-five or even forty years of age, while the latter are generally withered and passées before five-and-twenty. This is an important consideration in view of the now prevailing fashion among the upper classes of having only one wife ; but the much higher cost of these white beauties places them beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, and except for these the harem market is now chiefly supplied with Abyssinians, who, at a fifth, or even eighth or tenth of the price, are in all but colour and wear physically equal to the best of their white rivals. Some of these copper skinned houris are indeed very models of southern beauty —combining with a profusion of long wavy hair, lustrous eyes, regular and delicately cut features, perfectly curved busts, and admirably moulded limbs generally, a grace and even dignity of carriage that no artificial training could heighten. Many of the wives of the middle, and nearly all the concubines of the upper classes are taken from this source of supply, as free Arab girls never enter harems in this latter capacity. There are also many Abyssinian male slaves, whose employment and treatment are similar to those of their white fellows, and who, once liberated, may, like the latter, rise to any attainable rank in the public service.

The other class of wholly black slaves is much more numerous, and is generally employed in lower kinds of domestic work than those just noticed.* They comprise specimens of every black race known to northern and central Africa, from the mixed Arabs and Abyssinians of Nubia, Berber, and Sennaar, to the pure negro of Darfour, and the yet other cross—neither negro nor Abyssinian—which forms the Galla tribes. These it is whose kidnap-ping and other means of obtainment in the remote interior, form the chief ground of complaint against slavery in Egypt. But once in the country, and absorbed into its service, their condition, it may be affirmed, becomes not merely an immense improvement on their past, but in all respects one of the lightest forms of. servitude to which the name of slavery can be given. From every material point of view they are infinitely better off than the free-born fellahs, on whom, indeed, they look down with proud contempt as an inferior class—since, as before re-marked, both law and religion combine to protect them, as neither protects the peasant. A bad master can, of course, ill-treat his slave as well as his free servant to the verge of cruelty, without coming within the clutches of the Cadi; but such cases are rare, as the social sentiment on the subject is essentially humane, and quite as operative as public opinion among ourselves. This is, of course, occasionally disregarded ; and where that happens the law now supplies a ready and effective means of redress. Already the sheriat, or old religious law, entitled an ill-used slave to insist on being sold to another master ; but soon after his accession the Khedive ex-tended this provision by ordering his full emancipation in every case of proved abuse. This humane decree was, however, evaded in practice by the masters meeting every complaint with a countercharge of theft or other criminal offence, which availed with the too conservative and not always incorruptible Cadi to secure a sentence of imprisonment, or other severe punishment, unless the slave consented to return to his owner. To remedy this failure of justice the Khedive then ordered that the foreign Consuls should have jurisdiction in such cases, and that on their demand the native authorities should issue the necessary certificates of manumission. This very liberal provision worked fairly well for a time, till the abolitionist zeal of some of our own agents abused it in the other direction, by liberating every slave who presented himself at the consulate with even the flimsiest grievance. Many hundreds were thus set free before the abuse culminated at Manson-rah, where, in 1873, our consular agent (in rank not even a Vice-Consul) emancipated no fewer than 1,700 in a single month, and would soon have liberated the whole slave population of the province if the Cairo authorities, deferring to a general outcry among the heads of families, had not interfered.. In the result, the Khedive indemnified the owners of the slaves thus incontinently released, and narrowed the liberating powers of the Consuls for the future to cases in which, after full inquiry, in concert with the native authorities, positive mal-treatment should be proved. The subjoined extract from a despatch ad-dressed at the time by Nubar Pasha, himself a Christian, and then Egyptian Minister of Foreign. Affairs, to her Majesty’s Agent and Consul-General embodies the views then, and there is reason to believe still, held by his Highness as to the extent to which this philanthropic interference between master and slave can, as yet, be fairly carried :

It was impossible for his Highness to issue orders, as seems to have been understood, that it was only necessary for a slave to pre-sent himself before the local authorities in order that these latter should be obliged to give him his papers of liberation. Such an order would have been simply arbitrary on his Highness’s part, and would have led to a result exactly contrary to that which he pro-poses, by stimulating the public sentiment against measures calculated to arbitrarily injure private rights which have been legally acquired. This sentiment is all the more founded, since in the East, and especially in Egypt, religion and usage combine to correct, as far as possible, whatever is hard or cruel in the condition of the slave. The European Governments who have abolished slavery in their colonies, have, in the interests of justice, taken into full account the rights acquired by the owners, and it was only by the payment of large indemnities that they put an end to an institution which even their religion condemned. In the orders he had issued, therefore, his Highness could not ignore his duty to protect institutions which are in Egypt consecrated by both religion and custom. For this reason the orders he has always given were intended not to authorise the Government functionaries to set free all slaves asking for liberty, but only those who may have suffered cruel treatment from their masters—whether they complained of this in person or through some other channel. In such cases the local authorities are obliged to inquire into the truth of the complaint, and once the ill-treatment is proved freedom is given.

Foreign interference is now, therefore, exercised within these limits, which equitably meet all the fair wants of the situation ; since—besides the other ready means of obtaining his liberty which are afforded by volunteering into the army with this right of appeal to her Majesty’s Consul at Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, or Suez, every really ill-treated slave in Egypt holds — in his own hand The power to cancel his captivity.

Nor is it merely absence of cruelty and general humanity of treatment which both law and usage thus enforce. It happens so often as to have almost become the rule that, after a few years’ faithful service, the slave is voluntarily liberated, and, if a man, established in some sort of business ; or, if a woman, married to an honest freeman, with whom a suitable dowry secures her ready acceptance and good treatment as a wife. Even where this is not done, slaves bought young (as most of them are) are seldom or never sold again, and in nine cases out of ten they are set free at their owner’s death. A concubine, too, who bears a child to her master, not only cannot after-wards be sold, but is generally liberated, and often married by him after the birth, while the child is born free, and the mother acquires the absolute right of freedom at his death.

The wide distinction which all this constitutes between Eastern and Western slavery results directly from the legislation on which the former is based. This is simply the old Mosaic law which Mohammed found in the Jewish Scripture, and adapted, with few or no material changes, to the new family life of Islam. At first, with Moslems as with Jews, slavery was maintained by the legitimate spoils of war, and in both cases it was only when these ceased that the institution was fed by the purchase of imported captives, found, the buyers were not curious to inquire how or where. In all times Africa has been the chief field of supply, and there is no reason to suppose that the cruelties practised in obtaining the victims and bringing them to market—which form the chief, if not almost the only argument against the mild form of slavery at present existing in the Levant—are greater now than they were two, three, or four thousand years ago, when the traffic had the -sanction first of patriarchal practice, and then of direct Levitical law. Looked at from the stand-point of our higher modem civilisation, it is now of course none the better for this ; but as the scene of the institution is still the ” unchanging East,” much of whose social life has been stereotyped for a hundred generations, these historical factors in the problem should not be forgotten.

Still, although the conditions of servitude in Egypt are thus comparatively easy, the death-rate among the black slaves especially is, and always has been, higher than in any other class of the population. In the old days of plague they were its first and most numerous victims, and they still suffer from pulmonary diseases to an extent unknown among natives and resident Europeans. Few black slaves, indeed, reach middle age, ten or a dozen years generally sufficing to sweep away a generation, at the end of which the whole have to be replaced. Black slave children, too, as well as white, born in the country, mostly die early, and consequently contribute little or nothing to maintain the class. In this double fact lies the vitality of the trade that recruits the service, in spite of its legal abolition some years ago. The most the Government has been able—or has perhaps desired—to do has been to abate the cruelties of the traffic within Egyptian territory, to prohibit—i.e., minimise—the import of slaves by the Nile, and to close the public slave-markets in Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, and other towns of the interior where, till within a few years ago, the trade was openly carried on.

To effect the first of these results the old gazzuas, or slave hunts, which even in Abbas Pasha’s time were regularly organised by Government officers in Upper Nubia and the Soudan, have been put an end to, and kidnapping is now believed to be practised nowhere within the limits of established Egyptian authority, except in the southern districts of Sennaar and Kordofan, where the Khedive’s fireman is powerless to completely stamp out a traffic which has formed a staple industry in all these regions since history began. The chief sources of supply are now, there-fore, the great oasis of Darfour, the Shilook country, and the districts south of it watered by the Bahr-el-Gazel, the Sobat, and the Upper White Nile, over most of which the authority of the Cairo Government is as yet only nominal, and powerless, consequently, to prevent the razzias which feed this cruelest of human traffics. After a long desert journey the caravans from Darfour strike the Nile either at Shendy or Dongola, according as they are intended for Souakim and the Hedjaz, or for Egypt proper. Those from the south-east embark at various points above Khartoum, and after voyaging down as far as Halfé or Shendy, cross the so-called desert of Bahiuda to Old Dongola, where they again take to the river. In the case of the whole the sufferings and consequent mortality of the victims before they reach the Nile are very great, and form, indeed the main argument against an institution which, however mild in its subsequent working, is condemned in advance by these antecedent horrors. But once within the jurisdiction of what may be called the Nile police, the condition of the captives becomes fairly tolerable. Even in these remote provinces the trade is nominally illegal, but the law is a dead letter, and the authorities directly control and profit by the traffic. Care is accordingly taken that the slaves are not unduly packed in the large noggurs, or cargo-boats, which transport them down the river, and that they have a sufficiency of food and water. Below the First Cataract, however, the law becomes operative, and thence down to Cairo the importation is strictly contraband ; but by this time the numbers have been greatly thinned by sales en route, and the small “parcels” that remain are easily enough smuggled into Boulak, or landed a few miles higher up. Very few, it may be here remarked, reach Cairo by way of the Red Sea, as nearly all who are sent to the east coast are shipped across to a ready market in the Hedjaz.

Once in the capital the dealers (djellabs) distribute their stock among their agents in various quarters of the city, and there, although the police are supposed to be on the watch to prevent it, buying and selling go on under the thinnest veil of concealment. An intending purchaser goes to one of the private but perfectly well-known entrepôts in which the dealers and their slaves are lodged, and after examining the latter, selects what suits him, haggles for a time about the price, and finally closes the bargain then and there, or subsequently through a broker, who receives a small commission for the job. The djellabs object to show their ware to Europeans, unless they be introduced by a native who is not merely a dragoman ; but with that voucher and the thin disguise of a fez and a Stamboulee coat, a sight of whatever is on hand may be easily enough had.. Franks are, of course, now forbidden by their own laws to buy or hold slaves, but the prohibition is not always regarded by residents in the native quarters of the city, where, indeed, a single man cannot hire a house nor obtain lodgings unless he have a female slave. Prices range from 101. or 121. for a black boy or girl of as many years old, to 70l. or 100l. for an Abyssinian girl of from twelve to seventeen or eighteen, and from 500l. to 800l. or even 1,0001. for a high-class Circassian. Adult women slaves who have already been in service are cheaper, unless their skill in cookery, needle-work, or some other useful art, balance the vice of temper or other defect, but for which they are rarely resold. The price of males above the age of childhood varies from 20l. or 30l. to 90l. or 100l., Abyssinian youths and men ranging considerably above negroes. The neutral class of eunuchs has a still higher value, but these are now found in only the very wealthiest Moslem families, the rigorous prohibition which the law enforces against their production within Egyptian territory having greatly reduced the supply, and correspondingly heightened their price. Till within a few years ago boy slaves were bought on their way down the Upper Nile, and mutilated at Assiout and some other stations—Coptic priests being amongst the most expert operators—but this practice has now been sup-pressed, and the whole of the small yearly importation comes ready-made from Kordofan and Darfour. Most of the few who reach Cairo are bought up for Constantinople, where no Turkish ” gentleman’s ” establishment is ” complete” without one or more of these neutral police. It may be added that the whole of the slaves imported into Egypt readily adopt the established faith, and soon become the most bigoted and fanatical section of the Moslem population.

Such, briefly noted, are the chief conditions of slavery in Egypt. How widely they differ from those of the institution whose horrors fired our English abolitionists in the beginning of the present century, and twenty years ago thrilled both Europe and America in the pages of ” Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” need not be repeated. The one is, in short, simply domestic servitude under practically efficient guarantees against ill-treatment, while the other was the cruelest form of tyranny that man ever exercised over his fellow. But the two systems have this in common-that the same initial cruelties are and were necessary to feed both. This is not so, of course, as regards the white slaves, who are freely sold by their parents, and are themselves consenting parties to the bargain. In their case only the ethical sentiment of Christian as opposed to Mohammedan civilisation is offended ; and an apologist of the institution might plausibly enough con tend that this incident of it is vastly less immoral than the promiscuous social evil ” which, while sternly repro-bated by Moslem law and public feeling, flourishes under police license and almost with social sanction in Europe. It is different, however, with the more numerous class of black slaves, the victims of organised kidnappings and petty tribal wars as cruel as any ever waged on the West Coast ; and the sufferings of these it is, during their capture, and till they reach the Nile, which condemn even the mild domestic servitude that must be supplied at this price as absolutely as the brutal exaggeration of it which fifty years ago cursed our own colonies and the United. States. If the class were self-recruiting the case would be very different ; but dependent as it is on barbarities to which every African traveller from Bruce to Schweinfurth has borne witness, civilisation pronounces against it the same fiat cf extinction that abolished slavery h the West. Egypt, it is true, is only in part answerable for these atrocities in the remote interior, the spoils of which find markets equally at Zanzibar, in the Hedjaz, in Trip-. oli, Tunis, Morocco, and Constantinople ; but her share in the responsibility is still heavy enough to furnish unfriendly critics with a plausible argument against Egyptian civilisation, and the credit of the Cairo Government is therefore directly staked on the complete suppression of this traffic. That the Khedive is fully sensible of this is shown by the efforts he has already made to reduce it to the narrowest limits ; and, having done this, his determination to put an end to it altogether may be inferred from the enlarged powers he has conferred on Colonel Gordon to crush it everywhere between the Second Cataract and the Equator. No ruler of Egypt could do more than to entrust such a commission to such a man.* But even with Gordon Pasha in the Soudan, and the Khedive in Cairo, the suppression of the trade and of the institution it keeps alive must needs be slow. Custom and religion have too long consecrated both, for any human power to at once stamp out either. With the gradual suppression, however, of slave-hunting and selling in Darfour and along the Upper Nile, black slave-holding in Egypt proper must perforce die out ; and with, the withering of that main trunk of the institution the rest will speedily disappear. In the meantime, while this social revolution is being effected, Egyptian legislation and public sentiment may be fairly credited with having minimised the evils which are inseparable from slavery even in its mildest form.

In a recently published Ietter on the subject of his new commission, Col. Gordon says ; I am astounded at the powers he (the Khedive) has placed in my hands. With the Governor-Generalship of the Soudan, it will be my fault if slavery does not cease, and if these vast countries are not open to the world. So there is an end of slavery if God wills, for the whole secret of the matter is in the government of the Soudan, and if the man who holds that government is against it, it must cease.