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David Starkey made some controversial remarks in an interview a couple of years ago, in which he compared the Atlantic Slave Trade to its Ottoman counterpart. This question is not an appropriate forum in which to assess the rightness or wrongness of Dr Starkey's views more generally, but he made an assertion of fact which I hope this community might be able to test.

To begin with, Dr Starkey makes a number of claims which I think are pretty well-established:

  1. Around 12 million Africans were transported to the Americas during the Atlantic Slave Trade.
  2. A comparable number of sub-Saharan Africans - Dr Starkey quotes 20 million, but it's unclear whether this refers to the entire Islamic Slave Trade, or the Ottoman Slave Trade specifically - were transported into the Ottoman Empire over a similar time frame.
  3. There are a large number of people of African descent in the Americas today, perhaps as many as 100 million.
  4. There are far fewer people of sub-Saharan African descent in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. Turkey, the empire's legal successor, only has a few thousand citizens of African descent. Saudi Arabia and Iraq have perhaps 2 million and 1 million citizens of African descent respectively.

(I will leave to one side the former Ottoman provinces in North Africa, which have seen older and deeper influxes of sub-Saharans than Early Modern chattel slavery, e.g. the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, Sultan Ismail's Black Guard.)

If we accept the above points, we are then forced to ask: Why did the victims of the Ottoman Slave Trade leave so few descendants? Dr Starkey's explanation is that the slave-masters systematically prevented them from multiplying, via the most horrific means, namely:

  1. They castrated the men.
  2. Whenever they impregnated any of the women, they would murder the resulting babies.

That Ottoman slave-masters systematically castrated their male slaves is, sadly, beyond any reasonable doubt. Whether castration was practised systematically enough to account for the comparative lack of people of sub-Saharan African descent today is not so clear, but clearly that most cruel form of mutilation was inflicted quite frequently. I have yet to see any evidence, however, for the mass-infanticide that Dr Starkey claims.

History, for more or less any region of the earth, is pretty blood-soaked. However, it seems unbelievable to me that men would murder their own children - not just one unhinged individual, but thousands of men, systematically, for hundreds of years. Is there any evidence that this in fact did happen in the Ottoman Empire?


The question of what the actual explanation for the lack of people of sub-Saharan African descent in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire today has been asked in this its own question.

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on History Meta, or in History Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – MCW
    Commented May 28 at 17:17
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    The last sentence here is a secondary followon question. That question is utterly disjoint from the first question. Any answer to it would use completely different information. I'd suggest either dropping it or moving it to its own question. We can always use more good questions! Dropping the first question I suppose is an option too, but it would completely obsolete a highly-voted answer.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 29 at 13:18
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    So much of the discussion of the answer relies on the unsupported assertions about the number of children of enslaved persons under each system of slavery. I fear that unless these assertions are supported by evidence, that we'll continue to argue pointlessly back and forth without any real engagement. in the absence of shared truth, each site will continue to argue on the basis of unshared assumptions.
    – MCW
    Commented May 29 at 14:10
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    Roger Botte puts the estimate for at 12-15 million african slaves by Arabs... The ottoman slave trade was primarily focused in eastern Europe. I read somewhere that the ottoman empire imported 10-12 thousand African slaves during the year 1838. with an estimated ratio of 1 - 2 male to females. Most of the African males were purchased from Coptic monasteries in North Africa, which castrated them before selling them north. I believe they were valued as eunuchs to guard harems. Assuming the 10-12 number was constant and is accurate that puts the total to around 700 thousand in the Ottoman empire.
    – Questor
    Commented May 29 at 21:16
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    Most slaves in the ottoman empire from outside the empire came from Eastern Europe. Though I believe that a lot of the poor in the ottoman empire sold their children as slaves.
    – Questor
    Commented May 29 at 21:18

1 Answer 1

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No. I was unable to find anything in the scholarly research backing up most of the assertions this gentleman made.

It is true that Ottomans castrated some (not all) male slaves. However, the children of female slaves were considered free, and it appears this happening was commonplace.

I also tried looking up infanticide in the Ottoman empire. What I could find is that it was considered to be the same as murdering an adult. Islam is quite specific about forbidding infanticide. Sharia has specific punishments for it, and the Koran and Hadiths even shame other societies for allowing it.

As for under what circumstances it happened anyway, the trigger largely appeared to have been matters of interpersonal social circumstances (eg: infidelity, sexual assault, etc.). The author found no evidence that children of the poor (or enslaved) were victims of it any more than the wealthy, once one accounts for the wealthy's better access to abortion services.


So at this point, one might wonder why a "historian" might be making unsupportable historical claims. Surely doing so would be bad for his career, right?

It appears he ceased being a professional historian in the early 1990's, and has spent the 4 decades since as a professional political commentor. He's also got a history of upsetting people with racist statements, and these incidents appear to be escalating in offensiveness as time goes by. His most recent was a speech to a conservative conference which promoted the White Supremacist Great Replacement Theory.

So what it looks like we have here is a professional White Supremacist political commentator making unfounded historical claims, not an historian making well-supported historical points with racial implications.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on History Meta, or in History Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – MCW
    Commented May 30 at 12:59
  • As far as I am aware, possessing castrated slaves was something that was limited to the Sultan and probably a very limited select elite. Commented May 31 at 9:08

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