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Thread: Ottoman Eunuchs

  1. #1
    Beau Geste
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    Ottoman Eunuchs

    I think I read somewhere that, in the Ottoman Empire, there was a distinction between "white eunuchs" who were, of course, caucasian, and who came from somewhere on the border between Europe and Asia, and "black eunuchs" who came from Africa. There were apparently different jobs and a different social status for the two. Was this simple racial discrimination, or why was the distinction made?

    I read this a long time ago, and don't really remember much about the article or book section. It could simply have been a case of the author using the distinction for some reason.

  2. #2
    agent provocateur Jesus's Avatar
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    Re: Ottoman Eunuchs

    It’s going to take me a while to go back through my library to make certain that my answer is accurate but, in the meantime, here’s a quick and dirty summary of some of the Ottoman eunuch story….

    First of all, the castration of any living being, human or animal, is specifically prohibited in the Koran. However, the employment of one who is already castrated is nowhere prohibited. (This doesn’t mean that Moslems haven’t castrated men and boys at various times and places, it simply means that they do so in defiance of religious proscriptions. Christians don’t seem to follow their faith any better.)

    From the earliest days of Islam, existing eunuchs were brought into the system and new ones recruited from outside the Moslem area.

    By the time of the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs were a frequent part of wealthy households and were imported from many different sources. The most common were those imported, already castrated, from East Africa. Most were castrated as small boys in what is now Upper Egypt (around Aswan), in the Sudan, Ethiopia, or other points south along the African coast. This A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED! trade was large. Estimates are that more slaves were sent from East Africa to the Arab lands than were sent across the Atlantic to the Americas. Slaves were cheap and the standard castration of little boys (mostly before the age of 10) was of the entire genitals – penis as well as testicles. If a few died from the surgery, it was not seen as any problem because of the enhanced value of those who lived. (The frequent statements that 90% died are certainly wrong as the castrated boys were only worth twice as much as those who were not castrated. No merchant would suffer that kind of loss. The death rate in China for full castration – penis and testicles – has been documented at 3 to 5%.)

    Slaves, including eunuchs, were also imported from Europe and Asia as well. The European slaves were mostly Slavic pagans (the word ‘A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!’ is derived from ‘A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!’) who were imported through France, Italy, or the Caucasus in the early years of Islamic expansion. Verdun and Venice were major castration centers for these Slavic slaves, as was Tabriz (in modern Iran) where Georgian and Circassian boys were also castrated. By the time of the Ottomans, few Slavic slaves were coming through Venice and Verdun was no longer a source at all. Tabriz, however, was still a source for a smaller number of Slavic, Georgian and Circassian eunuchs, but Tabriz was Moslem. I have not yet done the research on who did the actual castrations there. (In East Africa, it was primarily Christians who performed the actual castrations.)

    Small (Christian) boys from the Balkans were also castrated and sent to the capital as part of the regular taxation of subject peoples during the Ottoman Empire. There were Greek, Bulgarian, Serb, etc. eunuchs in the Ottoman court, though seldom in private households, no matter how wealthy. Occasionally European boys from other areas ended up as eunuchs in the Ottoman court. One of the most powerful Ottoman eunuchs during the sixteen century, Hasan Aga, was the former Samson Rowlie from Great Yarmouth. He had been kidnapped from the beach, castrated, and sold into slavery as a small boy.

    Central and East Asians were imported through what is now Afghanistan and Urgench was a major castration center. Later, Golconda in southeastern India became a major source of eunuchs, with one source stating that over 20,000 boys were castrated there in a single year for sale elsewhere. (I doubt the large number myself, though it was given by a French resident of the city at the time.)

    The European boys were rarer and, thus, more expensive. They generally had only their testicles removed – a much less dangerous operation.

    Both racism and the nature of their castration came to bear on the occupations that the white and black eunuchs held. The black eunuchs, without a penis, were considered much safer around the women of the harem. They were also much cheaper because they were much more common. The white eunuchs, partly because they were racially more similar to the Ottoman Turks, were trained for higher positions – away from the women who might be tempted by their remaining penises.
    Last edited by Jesus; 12-31-2006 at 04:12 AM.

  3. #3
    Martinmkleh
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    Re: Ottoman Eunuchs

    There were also large centers in West Africa where castrated males were supplied to the Ottoman Empire. Two of the main ones were:

    1. Kumasi, now a city in Ghana. The Ashanti people have a long history of castration of any of their enemies, especially those captured during a war. There were special trained 'doctors' who removed the testicles as a living castrated male meant money for the tribe. After the boys healed they were sent in large caravans across the desert to the Ottoman Empire.

    These were not small boys but boys between the ages of 13 and 33. And the penis was not removed.

    An interesting side of history of this story: The Ashanti people traditionally are a short people, not tall at all, and thus had difficulty being big warriors to fight in the local wars. About 300 year ago the Ashanti started raiding a certain tribe now in Ivory Coast. The people in this tribe are all very tall and long legged. The Ashanti would capture the younger males of this tribe, bring them back to Kumasi and set them to work breeding many Ashanti women. The goal was to increase the height of the Ashanti. That is why today you see some very tall Ashanti and some very short Ashanti. After the boys had impregnated many of the females they were castrated and then sold North.

    2. By far the largest center was at Kano in northern Nigeria, a very Moslem area then and now. Here the Hausa had a large army which constantly carried out raids on any non-Moslem tribe. All younger males captured were brought back to Kano for castration and transportation North. There are Arab traders who left accounts of seeing long lines of naked African males waiting to be castrated in Kano, and of the special ditches that were dug just to drain off the blood. Reportedly thousands each year were cut but also reportedly there was a high death rate. Rather than properly treating a castrated male the army just went out and captured more. It was a high volumn trade! Again, the penis was not removed as the only requirement was that a black African would not be able to impregnate an Arab female.

    This is why the Hausa tribe is still hated today in all of West Africa and especially in Nigeria. When young boys misbehave their parents say to them, "You better be good or we will sell you to the Hausa and they will cut your balls".

  4. #4
    agent provocateur Jesus's Avatar
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    Re: Ottoman Eunuchs

    Martinmkleh,

    Thank you for reminding me of the West African production of eunuchs. I have no excuse for not including them. I began my study of Arabic in the 1960s with the intention of working among the Hausa. (Arabic and Hausa are both members of the Afro-Asiatic language family, along with Hebrew, Amharic, and several others) and learning any one of them should help with learning others in the family. (The story of why I ended up learning Japanese, Korean, and Chinese and working in East Asia instead belongs elsewhere than on this thread.)

    I am well aware that the Hausa performed castrations and that eunuchs were used domestically by the Hausa. Early British administrators in the region wrote frequently about them Ė both their current existence and the historical export across the Sahara. The British claimed (though I have my doubts) that the production of new eunuchs ceased as soon as the British arrived. I have one source that claims that boys were still being castrated by the Hausa as late as the 1940s.

    While I knew that the Ashanti people did some castrations of captured slaves, I donít recall ever reading that they were active in the A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED!A BANNED LINK WAS POSTED! trade across the Sahara. They were primary sources of slaves for the Atlantic trade from its very early years, though there was no established market for eunuchs in the New World. There are some early European writings about the domestic use of eunuchs by the Ashanti.

    The Mossi, a bit father north than the Ashanti, were actively involved in the trans-Saharan trade and were still castrating new slaves for the trade long after the area was incorporated into the French colonial possessions. I do remember reading one French bureaucratís account from 1914 where he was horrified to discover, not only that there were eunuch bureaucrats serving the French colonial government, but also that fresh eunuchs were still being produced for export.

    The most famous source of eunuchs from West Africa, however, was probably Bagirmi (in what is now Chad). The Kanuri, just to the west of them (spanning the Chad/Nigeria border region) were also quite well known for the practice. Both peoples used a great many eunuchs domestically, but both were also active in the trans-Saharan trade to the Ottoman Empire (and to the Arab world in general before the Ottoman conquest of North Africa). I have read an account (which is not well authenticated) of eunuchs still being sent into the Middle East from Bagirmi as late as the mid 1950s.

    Iím sure the readers of the Archive would be interested in any further information that you could share about eunuchs in West Africa.

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