The Naxos Affair: Illegal Enslavement in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Friday, January 4, 2013: 2:50 PM
Cornet Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Joshua Michael White, University of Virginia
In the spring of 1574, a detachment of Ottoman naval irregulars, levend, descended on the Aegean island of Naxos. Disembarking a raiding party on the shore, the levend snatched as many women and children as they could before heading back out to sea and setting course for the Anatolian coast, not much more than one hundred miles to the east. Once in Anatolia, the levend offloaded their catch and sold them as slaves to waiting buyers. Amphibious slave-raiding was nothing new in the early modern Mediterranean, and it helped feed the demand for slaves in Ottoman markets. But Naxos was not an enemy territory; Naxos was an Ottoman island in 1574, and its inhabitants were tax-paying Ottoman subjects.

The 1574 raid on Naxos was representative of a troubling phenomenon—the illegal enslavement of Ottoman subjects by Ottoman pirates and naval irregulars. Both in terms of Islamic and Ottoman law, the enslavement of non-Muslim Ottoman subjects was patently illegal, but in the fog of war surrounding the 1570-1573 conflict with Venice and in its aftermath, incidents like that at Naxos became tragically common. This paper looks at the experience of Ottoman subjects illegally enslaved in the Aegean at this pivotal moment. I examine the response of the Ottoman central administration to such incidents, describing in detail the Naxos affair and the massive, drawn-out search it spurred—followed closely from Istanbul—initially for the Naxiote captives and ultimately for all manner of Ottoman Greeks held illegally in Anatolia. Cases like that at Naxos tell us a great deal about the relationship between the Ottoman center and its seaborne empire and the legal tension between subjecthood and religious identity in the early modern Mediterranean.