38 Years a Slave: The Narrative of Joseph & Transnational Slavery in the Caucasus
Towering over the crossroads between Europe and Asia, the snow-capped tops of the Caucasus mountains stand as silent witnesses to the centuries of raiding, captivity, and enslavement that punctuated the history of the region. This history reached its peak in the nineteenth century. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 1783, an infamous hub of the transnational slave trade, was accompanied by a series of gradual anti-slavery measures, which led to the abolition of the slave trade on the peninsula. The Russian imperial government had neither the proprietary stake nor any interest in participating in the slave trade in the Black Sea basin and regarded human trafficking as antithetical to its “civilizing mission.” The Russian anti-slavery policies in the Crimea had shifted the slave-trading routes to the eastern shores of the Black Sea, which remained under the nominal Ottoman control until 1829. Hence, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Caucasus became the vital source of enslaved men, women, and children for the slave markets in the Ottoman Empire and Iran.
A Qajar-era miniature painting depicting capture of Tiflis by Agha Muhammad Shah, circa 1816.
The institution of indigenous slavery and the slave trade remained ubiquitous, particularly in the North Caucasus, well into the late 1860s when the Russian imperial government spearheaded a series of abolitionist campaigns after decades of reluctant toleration of this practice. The precise number of people who were sold into slavery from the Caucasus is hard to ascertain, though historians agree unanimously that this number was substantial. Scholars of slavery in the Middle East estimate that between the period of “1800 and 1909, the Ottomans imported some 200,000 slaves from the Caucasus, with another 100,000 arriving with Circassian masters in the 1850s and 1860s.” In short, when it comes to the history of enslavement and the slave trade on the Eurasian continent, the Caucasus was anything but peripheral.
A nineteenth-century lithograph showing an artist's impression of raiding party leading captives in the Caucasus.
Despite the significant scale of slavery in the Caucasus, historians often struggle to trace the individual plights of enslaved people. Consequently, the women, men, and children who became victims of human trafficking in the region generally appear in history books as a nameless conglomeration of disparate people whose origin and personhood seem nearly impossible to discern. The writing of microhistories of enslavement in the Caucasus is circumscribed by the paucity of primary sources and otherwise ephemeral appearances of the enslaved individuals in the extant archival documents. Several factors can account for these archival silences. First, the long history of warfare and archive destruction, which stretched from the conquests of Timur to the First and Second Chechen Wars, erased much of slavery’s textual evidence in the region. Second, illiteracy was the norm in the Caucasus until the late nineteenth century. Therefore, the vast majority of people who experienced the trauma of enslavement could not record their stories. Finally, the legal status of enslavement was abolished in the Russian Empire in 1723 making serfdom (krepostnoe pravo), a somewhat milder form of unfree labour, the chief institution of coercive labor in the empire. In the absence of slavery at home and with no colonial possessions overseas that used the slave labour on a large scale, abolitionism did not emerge as a politically galvanizing issue in the imperial civil society. Indeed, in contrast to the proactive political activism of abolitionist organizations, such as the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in Britain, Société des Amis des Noirs in France, or the American Anti-Slavery Society in the United States, there were no such organizations in the Russian Empire. This meant that the literary genre of the slave narrative did not emerge as a tool of anti-slavery education and political lobbying in the Russian Empire.
The difficulty of finding primary sources does not mean they are non existent. The thrust of Russian imperial expansion into the Caucasus in the early nineteenth century produced a rich colonial archive. However, the challenge is to identify the right documents in the overwhelming sea of archival folios. The state-produced accounts of enslavement in the region are often “buried” in the archives by thematic categories and bureaucratic descriptions that, at first glance, appear completely unrelated to the issues of enslavement and the slave trade. In addition, the production, compartmentalization, and storage of knowledge in colonial archives is never a politically neutral process; the epistemological stakes of using colonial archives for understanding slavery are profound. Therefore, such sources must always be interpreted with caution.
The Russian administration in the Caucasus frequently documented its encounters with individual cases of enslavement through oral testimonies of runaway or manumitted slaves who sought Russian intercession. Such testimonies varied in length and generally reflected the narrow imperatives of knowledge that was deemed essential for the efficient functioning of the local imperial bureaucracy. In other words, these documents rarely displayed a commitment to capture the unabridged narrative of a person’s experience of enslavement. Nevertheless, despite their brevity, such testimonies can reveal a great deal about the history of slavery in the region, especially when they are contextualized in the relevant secondary sources. One such archival folio documented the story of captivity, enslavement, and eventual return to homeland of a Georgian man named Joseph.
Joseph came into sight of the Russian officials on 30 November 1833 when he approached the office of the Civil Governor of Georgia in Tiflis. The Russian government in the Caucasus lent limited assistance to enslaved Christians as a matter of policy. It is likely that Joseph learned this fact through the culture of informal rumour. At the time of his appearance in Tiflis, Joseph was forty-eight years old. As for his family name, he could not recall it; the decades of enslavement had taken a toll on his memory. Having recently arrived in Tiflis from Iran, Joseph had neither the familial network nor social connections that could help him secure a livelihood. He asked the Russian government’s help to arrange his living. Joseph spoke Georgian and, presumably, he was fluent in Farsi. However, he could not read and write. Therefore, the account of Joseph’s enslavement was translated and then transcribed in the Russian language with the assistance of an interlocutor affiliated with the state. The mediated nature of Joseph’s recorded testimony adds an additional layer of limitations for historical analysis of the document. Despite these limitations, the transcripts of Joseph’s interview provide a poignant glimpse into the lives of formerly enslaved people from the Caucasus and serve as a compelling case study for examining urban slavery in the nineteenth-century Iran.
One of the files stored at the National Archives of Georgia that preserve the record of Joseph's captivity and enslavement
The narrative of Joseph’s enslavement begins in 1795. In that year, Agha Mohammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, invaded the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti. The invasion meant to restore Iran’s historic suzerainty over Georgia and punish King Erekle II for accepting Russian protectorate in 1783. In the wake of the Battle of Krtsanisi, the Georgian army was overwhelmed and the kingdom’s capital, Tbilisi, was laid to waste. After several days of looting and violent mayhem, the Qajar army withdrew taking with it close to 16,000 captives. Reportedly, most of those captives were young girls and boys.
Joseph was eleven years old when he was taken captive in his native village of Gurjaani (გურჯაანი) during the Qajar invasion. Consequently, Joseph was sold into slavery in Tabriz, a city in the northwestern Iran, which the ruling Qajar dynasty regarded as “a gateway to the Caucasus and beyond.” In the nineteenth century, Tabriz became the center of a booming international commerce and important diplomatic engagements. Urban household slavery was a common sight in the city. Indeed, by the nineteenth century domestic slavery was the social norm in Iran, “at least in the royal court and the courts of provincial governors, for wealthy families, and even within the households of middle-class merchants.” Christian slaves from the Caucasus were numerous in Iran. However, the enslaved people of Georgian descent, or as the sixteenth-century Safavid historian Hasan Beg Rumlu described them, “the fair-faced Georgians, those fairly-like creatures, each a rarity like a beauty-spot on the face of the time,” were particularly desirable on Iran’s slave markets.
Documents stored at the National Archives of Georgia that preserve the record of Joseph's captivity and enslavement.
Joseph’s first owners promptly converted him to Islam and gave him a new Muslim name – Bagram. While Joseph’s degree of acceptance or rejection of the imposed faith is impossible to know, according to the official records, he continued to use his Muslim name even after his return to Georgia. In the years that followed his enslavement, Bagram was sold to multiple owners; the precise number of these transactions faded from his memory. This was not out of the ordinary as the frequent resale of the enslaved people was a common feature of slavery in the Middle East and the Caucasus. Further, Bagram’s testimony informs us that he spent his years performing domestic slave labour in the households of well-to-do families, tending to the needs of his owners and completing a great variety of menial household chores. In all his years of enslavement, Bagram did not have an opportunity “to learn a trade.” As for Bagram’s treatment at the hands of his owners or the conditions of his enslavement, he made no mention of this in his testimony nor did the government official charged with interviewing Bagram cared to ask him these questions. All in all, Bagram was enslaved in Tabriz for thirty-eight years.
The exact circumstances of Bagram’s return to Georgia are not clear. The records of his testimony made no mention of an escape. Therefore, it is very likely that the combination of Bagram’s advanced age, which would have made it difficult for his owners to sell him, and the decades of slave labour, compelled Bagram’s owners to manumit him. The motivation behind Bagram’s decision to return to Georgia also remains obscure. It is possible that despite living in Tabriz for nearly four decades, the city remained a foreign place for him or that manumission had likely entailed a life of constant precarity and abject poverty. There is, however, a reason to believe that Bagram’s return to Georgia was inspired by a yearning to spend the remaining years of his life in his native homeland. This conjecture is derived from the fact that on his arrival to Tiflis, Bagram expressed a keen desire to renounce Islam and undergo the ritual of the Christian Orthodox baptism. The statement of his intention to return to Christianity marked the end of the brief official record that documented Bagram’s experience of enslavement in Iran and signalled a new, albeit uncertain, stage in Joseph’s life as a free man in Georgia.
In the nineteenth century the Caucasus was simultaneously on the peripheral edges of multiple empires and at the centre of a thriving transnational slave trade. Joseph’s story of captivity, enslavement, and manumission brings into human scale otherwise amorphous institution of slavery. It demonstrates the importance of understanding captivity and enslavement in the Caucasus as an undeniably transnational phenomenon.
Sergey Salushchev is a historian of the Caucasus region. His scholarship conceptualizes the Caucasus as a permanent borderland, a site of cultural exchanges, transnational commercial networks, contested memory, and imperial rivalries. Sergey’s dissertation investigates the history of slavery, the slave trade, and abolition in the nineteenth century the Caucasus under Russian imperial rule.
For the generous financial support for the research and writing of this essay, the author would like to thank the American Councils for International Education Title VIII Research Fellowship, the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He would also like to thank the organizers and participants of the Works-in-Progress lectures in Tbilisi, Georgia where he presented this research as part of a larger project on slavery and abolition in the Caucasus.
 Eurasian Slavery, Ransom, and Abolition in World History, 1200-1860, ed. Christoph Witzenrath (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2015), 9. See also, Hakan Erden, Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and Its Demise, 1800-1909 (London: Macmillan, 1996), 118; Ehud Toledano, “Ottoman Conception of Slavery in the Period of Reform, 1830s-1880s,” in Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia, ed. Martin A. Klein (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 44.  Various scholars of slavery have addressed the challenges of finding and interpreting archival sources that captured tantalizing concise accounts of individual experiences of enslavement. See Mary Elizabeth Perry, “Finding Fatima, a Slave Woman of Early Modern Spain,” Journal of Women’s History 20, no. 1 (2008): 151-167. Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).  Hannah Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 121.  Professor Eileen Kane, among other historians of the Russian Empire, pointed out the same problem when she conducted archival research for her book Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2015), 15.  For an insightful discussion about epistemological pitfalls of using colonial archives when writing history see Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance: On the Content and Form,” in Refiguring the Archive, eds. Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Michèle Pickover, Graeme Reid, Razia Saleh, Jane Taylor (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 83-100.  Sakartvelos Erovnuli Arkivi (საქართველოს ეროვნული არქივი; hereafter SEA), f. 16, op. 1, d. 4708, ll. 1-18.  Abbas Amanat, Iran: A Modern History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), 167.  Donald Rayfield, Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia (London: Reaktion Book, 2012), 256.  Robert Mignan, Winter Journey through Russia, the Caucasian Alps, and Georgia, vol. 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1839), 71.  Amanat, Iran: A Modern History, 189.  Ibid.  Behnaz A. Mirzai, A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), 127.  Anthony A. Lee, “Enslaved African Women in Nineteenth-Century Iran: The Life of Fezzeh Khanom of Shiraz,” Iranian Studies 45, no. 3 (2012): 420.  William G. Clarence-Smith and David Eltis “White Servitude,” in The Cambridge World History of Slavery, eds. David Eltis and Stanley L. Engeraman, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 150.  Amanat, Iran: A Modern History, 68.  Ehud R. Toledano, As if Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007), 90-95.  SEA, f. 16, op. 1, d. 4708, l. 2.  Ibid., l. 3.