Between 1522 and 1536, the second most powerful man in the Ottoman empire was Ibrahim Pasha.The most surprising thing about Ibrahim Pasha is not his diplomatic successes or his untimely demise. What is most surprising about Ibrahim Pasha, the second most powerful man in the Ottoman Empire between 1522-36, is that he was a devsirme slave.

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Transcript for Devşirme: The Tribute of Children, Slavery and the Ottoman Empire

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Marissa Rhodes

Averill: Between 1522 and 1536, the second most powerful man in the Ottoman empire was Ibrahim Pasha. In addition to bearing the honorific “Pasha,” which is an honorific kind of like European knighthood or peerage, he served for 13 years as the Grand Vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent. The two men had grown close as children, and shortly after he took the throne, Suleiman appointed Ibrahim his vizier. The Grand Vizier was granted power of attorney for all state affairs, and could only be dismissed by the sultan himself. In his tenure as Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha reformed the Egyptian civil and military structure to affirm Egypt’s place and loyalty in the Ottoman Empire, and convinced Charles V to make Hungary a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. He ultimately fell out of favor with the sultan, and was executed at Topkapi Palace. Some historians theorize that he’d made enemies of too many of the Ottoman elite, including the sultan’s favorite wife, Roxelana. Others posit that he “feathered the nests” of his relatives too liberally. Whatever the case, the most surprising thing about Ibrahim Pasha is not his diplomatic successes or his untimely demise. What is most surprising about Ibrahim Pasha, the second most powerful man in the Ottoman Empire between 1522-36, is that he was a slave.

I’m Averill Earls
And I’m Marissa Rhodes
And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig

[Musical interlude]

Averill: This episode is the first of our “Slavery” series. For those of you unfamiliar with our process, I did the research and writing on this particular episode —Marissa is joining me today— and I picked this topic to serve as a contrast to the other three we have coming up. Most of our episodes are about the kind of slavery you’re probably most familiar with. If you’re American and you haven’t taken many World History classes in college, you probably think of slavery as specifically that horrifying American brand of chattel slavery, in which people were treated like livestock, bred and bought and sold, beaten and tortured and torn apart. We probably unconsciously dedicated 3 of 4 episodes to those stories because these are issues that we need to study, to understand he impact that it had on the enslaved, and that it continues to have on the descendants of the enslaved, on the very fabric of our nations, in our country and throughout the Americas.

Marissa: But of course, like most things, slavery can be and was many different things. The idea that one person can have ownership of another has taken countless forms. So when we say that Ibrahim Pasha was a slave, we are not referring to a chattel slavery system. The Ottomans had many different words for conditions of enslavement. ‘Abd, for example, meant “purchased slave.” Kul, on the other hand, the kind of slave Ibrahim Pasha was, meant that he was someone who had been taken, through war or from a conquered people as tribute. Per older Turkish tradition, ⅕ of all the spoils of war went to the Sultan to do with as he pleased. Frequently those “spoils” included human captives — as was true of almost all war-making and imperial nations. Most scholars agree that, starting in the 1300s, the Ottomans had a particular process of collecting new kul called devshirme, a sort of human tax paid by Christians to their Ottoman overlords to fill the ranks of the enslaved army, the Janissary corp. While slaves taken as war captives and the devshirme slaves would ultimately be treated very differently, in their training, advancement opportunities, and even religious choice, both were defined as kul rather than ‘abd. If nothing else, these nuances reveal the really varied ways that enslavement could be defined and experienced. Devshirme, the focus of today’s show, and the institution from which Ibrahim Pasha emerged, was the taking of Christian children as slaves for the sultan. Ibrahim was not the first or last enslaved man elevated to the status of Grand Vizier. Those like Ibrahim rose through the ranks of servitude to the sultan to effectively run the government, from the civil service to the military, collecting taxes, expanding the empire, and managing the day-to-day operations. The devshirme system provided the Ottoman empire with just about everything they needed to maintain a massive land empire.

painting depicting the recruitment of Christian boys to the janissaries

A painting depicting the “blood tax” of Christian boys, Suleymannane | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: For about 200 years, between the 14th and 16th centuries, devshirme was the primary way the Janissaries were repopulated. Every three or four years, the Chief of the Janissaries would issue a decree outlining how many boys were needed and where the Janissary corps responsible for collecting the boys should go to get them. The Janissary officers appointed to the ‘recruitment’ position then went to the Christian villages that the Chief had selected, and demanded a list of baptized Christian boys from the local priest. If the priest or the parents of children refused to comply with the Janissary requests, they were punished. These children and their families, particularly in the early years of the devshirme system, saw this for what it was: the enslavement of their children. But there were many others who came to see what it could be: an opportunity to have a son in a high-ranking government position; a way to stop paying the poll tax levied on all non-Muslims in the empire; a different, maybe better, kind of life for one of their many children in a hard year on the farm.

Marissa: There were rules about who could be taken. The Janissaries avoided taking a boy from a family that had no other boys, to prevent disruption of the family’s ability to work their land and, by extension, to pay their taxes. The officers would select boys from the best families, seeking the best possible future soldiers. They wanted the smartest, most physically fit, and best-looking boys. They also had restrictions on the ethnic and religious backgrounds of boys they would take. They preferred Balkan farm boys, but also targeted Anatolian Christians. They generally didn’t take Jewish, Roma, or Armenian boys, but occasionally broke those rules depending on the needs of the empire. They’d typically take boys between the ages of 6 and 8, but also took boys as young as 4 and as old as 18. The villages selected would rotate, so that a region would not suffer an undue amount of human taxation in a given cycle. The Ottomans kept meticulous records, so the Chief of the Janissaries had precise knowledge of how many children had been taken, where they’d been taken from, and how many Christian families lived in every village under the Empire’s dominion who might be eligible for devshirme at the next conscription issuance.

Averill: Sometimes parents circumcised their boys to pass them off as Muslim. In theory Muslims were not allowed to enslave other Muslims, which is why devshirme targeted Christian communities, taking Christian boys, who were later forced to convert to Islam. Because these Christian communities were had been conquered by the Ottomans, however, this is a sort of conundrum for scholars of the Ottoman empire. Per Islamic law, people living in conquered lands, including Jews and Christians, were protected once their lands were conquered by an Islamic empire. They were required to pay the poll tax levied on all non-Muslims – which was a pretty significant tax, but was not usually a flesh tax. So devshirme might be interpreted as an infringement on that protected status. But some scholars argue that devşirme boys were conscripted from among those who had never been granted genuine protected status, which means that devshirme was not contradicting Islamic law.1A bit of mental gymnastics, but really not any more surprising than the crazy things people convince themselves of every day.

Marissa: To your original point, one of the ways Balkan parents attempted to resist having their children taken was by circumcising the boys, to pass them off as Muslim, because Muslims were technically safe from devshirme in its early iterations. They also tried marrying boys off to keep them from being taken. Sometimes the ruse worked, but usually it didn’t.

Averill: Right, yes! And of course I’m sure that some parents fell to their knees and begged that their boys not be taken, or tried to fight for them, or tried to bribe the Janissaries.

Marissa: The bribery probably worked now and then. Even the magnificent Janissaries weren’t immune to a good-looking goat bribe.

Averill: Who would be immune to a goat bribe!?

some turkish goats

Some Turkish goats | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Inappropriate jokes aside, this could be as traumatizing and sad an experience for the boys and their families as any enslavement process. For all intents and purposes, in the early years of devshirme, the boys taken were the slaves of the sultan. They lived only at his pleasure, and every lira to their name was only at the sultan’s discretion.

Averill: We’ll get to some of the other ways that devshirme resembles the slave systems that we are more familiar with in a little bit. But yes, there would have been many who resisted and resented the devshirme enslavement process because that’s what it was — the enslavement of children.

Marissa: There is an anonymous song from Epirus (Greece) that expresses that resentment and resistance. We don’t know the tune, so I will just make one up so you can get the full effect.

Be damned, Emperor, thrice be damned
For the evil you have done and the evil you do.
You catch and shackle the old and the archpriests,
In order to take the children as janissaries.
Their parents weep, their sisters and brothers, too
And I cry until it pains me; As long as I live I shall cry,
For last year it was my son and this year my brother.2

Marissa: Clearly a sense of anger and devastation here.

Averill: What I think is interesting about this song is how it absolves the church leaders of their compliance with the recruitment officers. “You catch and shackle…the archpriest.” And because he’s the guy with the parish records, who can tell the janissary officers all the names and ages of the boys in town, he is the most valuable resource for tribute collection. The idea that he would cooperate willingly, and facilitate this pain and horror, was unthinkable. It really captures the heartbreak many felt about devshirme.

Marissa: But what is also pretty interesting to consider is that many, many people did not resist or even resent devshirme. That’s kind of hard to conceptualize, coming from a place where chattel slavery is the standard of slave systems. But in most ways, this system was very different from the chattel slavery of the Atlantic. And that’s true of most slave systems in World History. Devshirme is not even the only slavery system in which enslaved people could achieve high-ranking positions. There are plenty of examples in history of slaves who became kings! And imperial Islamic empires, like the Mughals, Abbasids, etcetera, almost all had a class of enslaved soldiers. The Mamluks, for example, first used by the Abbasids in the earliest Islamic caliphate, were often purchased slaves, unlike the devshirme. A dynasty of kings descended from Mamluks soldiers ruled Egypt for over 300 years, starting in the 13th century. So while there were those who did not want to give up their children to a life of servitude to the sultan, resentment or resistance were not always the standard reactions. There were many who embraced it, who even requested it for their sons and themselves.

Averill: Before we get into the many reasons folks might have been clamoring to submit their sons to the devshirme or to get themselves into the Janissaries, let’s talk about the devshirme process more specifically. I think that way we’ll be able to really highlight the ways the devshirme was a process of enslavement, but also the kind of slavery that would encourage people to submit to enslavement. Devshirme is derived from a word that means “to collect” or “to gather” in Turkish. Though the origins of the practice are based more in speculation than hard evidence, all scholars agree that it was a formal institution by the time of Mehmed II (aka Mehmed the Conqueror, who took Constantinople in 1453!) One of the sources I always assign to my World History students is a description of the devshirme system in 1493, so just after the time of Mehmed the Conqueror. This source was written by a European observer, so of course it has many problems and must be viewed with a critical eye, but it is useful for getting a sense of the devshirme process.

Marissa: The opening paragraph describes the legal and political goals of devshirme. Sometime in the 1350s, the Grand Vizier suggested to the reigning sultan that he deserved ⅕ of the human spoils of war, not just the material wealth. “Let officers be stationed at Gallipoli,” he said, “and as the Christians pass by, let them choose the fairest and strongest of the Christian boys to become your soldiers.” Agreeing, the sultan issued an edict. “The advice of the vizier was followed; the edict was proclaimed; many thousands of the European captives were educated in the Mohammedan religion and arms, and the new militia was consecrated and named by a celebrated dervish. Standing in the front of their ranks, he stretched the sleeve of his gown over the head of the foremost soldier, and his blessing was delivered in the following words “Let them be called Janizaries [yingi-cheri–or “new soldiers”]; may their countenances be ever bright; their hand victorious; their swords keen; may their spear always hang over the heads of their enemies; and, wheresoever they go, may they return with a white face.” … Such was the origin of these haughty troops, the terror of the nations.” So one of the goals in the devshirme system was, according to this source, to convert Christians to Islam. You can imagine why the European author would highlight this in his description. When the first of these convert/slaves were then made the first Janissary Corps, they were named by a celebrated dervish. Dervishes were Sufi ascetic, almost saint-like, who would have had a decent enough following to be noticed by the Sultan. “Janissary” means “new soldier” in Turkish.

Averill: As a military force, the author of the source is quite right to point out that they were “the terror of nations.” The Janissaries were trained to use the earliest firearms, and became a pretty formidable force in battle. The source continues to describe the process of tribute collection. “They are kept up by continual additions from the sultan’s share of the captives, and by recruits, raised every five years, from the children of the Christian subjects. Small parties of soldiers, each under a leader, and each provided with a particular firman, go from place to place. Wherever they come, the protogeros assembled the inhabitants with their sons. The leader of the soldiers have the right to take away all the youth who are distinguished by beauty or strength, activity or talent, above the age of seven. He carries them to the court of the grand seignior, a tithe, as it is, of the subjects. The captives taken in war by the pashas, and presented by them to the sultan, include Poles, Bohemians, Russians, Italians, and Germans.”

Marissa: So again, the ideal age was seven, when a boy was, presumably, more malleable into a loyal servant to the sultan. He was collected by a small contingent of soldiers; the first must have just been ordinary soldiers, but after the Janissary Corps was established, it was the Janissaries who did the collection. They carried with them a written decree, the “firman,” and where ever they showed up, the villagers had to come out and present their sons. As we know from other sources, this usually involved going first to the local priest, getting a list of all the boys and their ages, and then calling those families specifically into the center of town to do the selection. Simultaneously the Ottomans were enslaving war captives from Poland, Russia, Italy, Germany, etcetera. Most devshirme children were collected from the Balkans. The children taken as spoils of war from European nations had very different experiences than those collected as devshirme tribute from the already conquered lands in Ottoman control. Very few of the general captives of war made their way into the Janissary corp. But all would have been presented to the local pasha, a feudal sort of lord loyal to the sultan, and he in turn brought them to the sultan as a “tithe”.

Two Mussulman Muslims praying

Mussulman Muslims praying | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: The journey of the tributes is worth noting. The boys were grouped into crowds of 100-200 for the march from the village to the palace. While they were fed and watered as one would expect of a group that would be turned into soldiers They would have been dressed in red jackets and hats so that they would be easily visible, to discourage kidnapping or escapes. Again, this was generally an involuntary process. There would have certainly been a range of responses to the capture and enslavement of these children, regardless of the opportunities afforded. They were marched to the pasha’s palace, and then divided. According to our European source, “These recruits are divided into two classes. Those who compose the one, are sent to Anatolia, where they are trained to agricultural labor, and instructed in the Mussulman faith; or they are retained about the seraglio, where they carry wood and water, and are employed in the gardens, in the boats, or upon the public buildings, always under the direction of an overseer, who with a stick compels them to work.” Here he seems to begin conflating the devshirme boys and war captives, or at least not differentiating between those kinds of enslaved boys. While some of the devshirme captives would have been funneled into menial labor, most went the path of the Janissaries, with exceptional boys being put in school for training in administrative work. The boys who stayed and worked effectively as domestic labor would have been mostly those war captives.

Marissa: Focusing on the use of the stick and overseer for the general laborers was probably quite familiar for a European observer. Discussing the cruel punishment of enslaved children in the same breath as forced conversion to “Mussulman” faith — Islam — was surely intended to shock readers at the barbarism of the Ottomans.

Averill: Before they were sent off to training in war or bureaucracy, the devshirme children were allowed to rest for a few days. Then they were stripped naked, and inspected for bodily defects. Those who did not pass inspection were the ones directed into menial labor. After passing inspection, the boys were baptised as new Muslims.

Marissa: That meant professing the faith with the declaration that “There is no god but God and Mohammed is his prophet,” being given a new Muslim name, and, of course, getting circumcised. While the first bits were literally painless, obviously the final requirement was not. Undoubtedly we could categorize devshirme conversion, at least in the early decades of the process, very much “forced,” as no one really enjoys having their foreskin removed. There’s no telling if the boys even knew what was coming, or if they were suddenly just being held down, naked, and then experiencing the suddenly searing pain of a knife across the tip of their penis.

Averill: Obviously horrifying and traumatizing, to say the least. After baptism, sometimes they’d be sent to foster families to acclimate to their new city for a few months. In their foster families they would have learned the new language, helped out around the house, perhaps formed some bonds with other children or even the parents, and would have been instructed in the practices of Islam, including praying five times a day.

Marissa: When there wasn’t a fostering program, captives were sent straight to the palace for service and learning. In the palace they learned Turkish and Arabic languages and literature, the Qu’ran, Muslim jurisprudence, theology, or law, and were given military training. According to the European’s source, “[those in] whom traces of a higher character are discernible, are placed in one of the four seraglios of Adrianople or Galata, or the old or new one at Constantinople. Here they are lightly clad in linen or in cloth of Saloniki, with caps of Prusa cloth. Teachers come every morning, who remain with them until evening, and teach them to read and write.” Depending on what age they were taken, the captives could be in the palace service for at least three years; if they were chosen to stay longer, it was because they exhibited great promise. They were selected to continue their education in the Enderun, the Palace School, and the rest were sent to become soldiers. They might become personal attendants to the sultan, provincial administrators, or even rise to be vezir-i a*-zam, the grand vezir. As historian Charles Hamilton Argo points out, however, “Regardless of position, however, these men remained in theory slaves; both their lives and their property existed only at the discretion of the sultan.”3

Averill: The truth of their position in society could not have been lost on them. Like any new recruits readying for a life of military service, they were subjected to clearly defined rules of behavior. The were to be humble and polite, reverent in the presence of their superiors. Noncompliance meant punishment. Every day was tightly scheduled. They had to get up at the same time, pray at the same time, walk slowly and quietly, eat slowly, bathe weekly, even, according to Gulay Yilmaz, “shave regularly, wear well-pressed clothes, and perform the five daily prayers.”4

Marissa: Our European commentator echoes Yilmaz’s findings, writing “Both classes are kept under a strict discipline. The former especially are accustomed to privation of food, drink, and comfortable clothing and to hard labor. They are exercised in shooting with the bow and arquebuse (basically an early firearm) by day, and spend the night in a long, lighted hall, with an overseer, who walks up and down, and permits no one to stir. When they are received into the corps of the Janizaries, they are placed in cloister-like barracks, in which the different odas or ortas live so entirely in common that the military dignitaries are called from their soups and kitchens. Here not only the younger continue to obey the elders in silence and submission, but all are governed with such strictness that no one is permitted to spend the night abroad, and whoever is punished is compelled to kiss the hand of him who inflicts the punishment.”5

Averill: So we’re not talking about a glamorous life here. Very regimented, very controlled, and very much unfree. Again, the devshirme is producing slaves for the sultan. In some ways it might resemble a military draft, or boot camp, for our former military listeners; but the terms of service are life, and if you tried to dodge it, you and probably your family would be punished severely — and not with a few years in a prison, either.

Marissa: Yet, as we already mentioned, having a son in the Janissary corp could be quite advantageous. In theory the process of the devshirme was to sever a child’s ties with his family. He was taken from his home, his family left hundreds of miles behind. He was stripped of his clothes, his name, and his faith. He was beaten and conditioned into submission and loyalty to the sultan. If he was stationed as a policeman or tax collector, he was sent far from his blood relations. He was not allowed to marry or have children or own property without express consent from the sultan. He was not supposed to have allegiances to anyone except the sultan.

Black and white sketch of Mehmed II

Medmed II | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: One of the important things to remember about the devshirme system was that it, and the Janissary corp it fed into, were constantly changing institutions. Though the enslaved effectively managed the Ottoman empire from 1450 (under Mehmed II) to the early 17th century, the devsirme system itself started to decline after 1600. Some scholars contend that it ended formally in 1639, though others push that closer to 1700. Any similar tribute system thereafter was localized and responding to immediate need for manpower. None of the traditional elements of the devshirme continued. The Janissary Corps itself, however, changed dramatically, and existed until 1826, when it was violently abolished by the Ottoman sultan.

Marissa: So the strictness surrounding family ties eroded pretty quickly. Like our friend Ibrahim Pasha, who was known for improving his blood relations’ lives considerably once he attained the position of Grand Vizier, many devshirme children grew up to be extremely powerful allies for their families. Sokullu Mehmed Pasha, who lived from 1505 to 1579, and served as grand vizier for three successive sultans, used his office regularly to improve the lot of his family. He appointed other devshirme recruits who were related to him to really cushy palace jobs. He had fancy buildings built in his native land. He intervened in the affairs of his family’s Orthodox Christian church hierarchy to ensure they got to keep church positions. His two sons conveniently achieved high office. He even broke Ottoman law by building an Orthodox church for his brother, a priest, in the Bosnian town of Ravanci.6

Averill: There’s a lot to unpack there. I particularly love his devil-may-care attitude with just building churches when it was illegal to do that. Unlike Ibrahim, even his law breaking wasn’t enough to get him executed. He was ultimately assassinated, probably because he’d made enemies of several of the important palace women.

Marissa: They never learn.

Averill: No they don’t. But anyway, the other thing about Mehmed Pasha that I want to point out is HIS TWO SONS!! Because remember like 5 minutes ago we said that Janissaries were not allowed to get married or have children. Clearly by 1500, that rule had been renegotiated.

Marissa: The 1606 Rules of the Janissaries is basically the core of our understanding of the form and function of the Janissary corps. It’s effectively a manual for how a Janissary should expect to live, but it also provides some interesting commentary on the changing nature of the Janissary corp. It notes, for example, that the devshirme system was the primary mode of acquiring new Janissaries, and that for the most part this was an involuntary procedure, but that in the mid-15th century, for example, Bosnian Muslims, though recently converted, requested that their children be eligible for the devshirme. As early as 1515, 1000 boys of Bosnian Muslim parentage were drawn into the Janissary corps. The text also, perhaps snidely, comments that “it used to be that Janissaries could not marry,” a rule set out in the original tenets of the corps. As the Janissaries grew however, and gained considerable leverage in the empire, they began to renegotiate the terms of their enslavement pretty significantly.

Averill: Already by the end of the 15th century, we have evidence of Janissaries joining guilds. They owned businesses, offered ‘protection’ services to get a cut of other business owners’ profits, and were shopkeepers in the towns where they were “stationed.” Sometime between the 1570s and 80s they were granted permission by the Sultan to marry and enlist their descendents in the corps. Many put their children on the payroll ridiculously early, well before they could even conceivably be helpful or do any actual work. We’re talking like 3 year olds getting a paycheck. And this was just when they got permission to start doing this; as evidenced by Mehmed Pasha, there were plenty of devshirme ‘recruits’ who were taking some kind of wife or lover on the side, having children with her, and then putting those children into the ranks of the Janissaries without permission of the sultan.

Marissa: So from pretty early on in the devshirme history, there were really mixed responses to the ‘enslavement’ system. We have evidence of Christian parents trying to bribe the heads of the units collecting children to smuggle their sons into the ranks of the Janissaries, even though they didn’t meet the recruitment criteria, as well as of parents trying to buy their sons off. Some resisted, some embraced the devshirme system. And as the Janissary corps itself changed, so too did the devshirme system.

Averill: For about 200 years, the devshirme system, with its ‘taxation’ every three or four years, was necessary to fill out the ranks of the Ottoman bureaucracy and military. That’s in part because the empire was still growing until the 17th century. But the changing nature of the Janissary corps ultimately made the devshirme system moot. By the 17th century, more Janissaries wanted their sons and nephews and such to get the cushy lifetime jobs that the corps offered; because service in the corps didn’t mean those boys couldn’t also be involved in lucrative land acquisition ventures and businesses, there was no sense in trying to keep their kids out of the service. The nepotism was rampant. Plus, the membership benefits of being part of the Janissaries were so enticing by the 17th century, that thousands were converting to Islam and putting in their bid to try and get an appointment. In the Balkans, Janissaries were heavily responsible for conversion of the peoples of the Balkans; at first the number of Muslims increased as a side effect of the devshirme system, but by the 17th century, it was a way for rural people to stop paying the poll tax and start getting the economic and social benefits of membership in the Janissary class!

Marissa: Thousands saw the benefits of joining the Janissaries. Two men, hoping to join the corps, wrote directly to the sultan: “Your Majesty, our illustrious and generous Sultan, may you be healthy! We, Your slaves, wish to be granted the honour to adopt Islam. Our request of the Sultan is that we two wish to be enlisted in the Janissary Corps and in accordance with the law, be issued with Janissary uniforms. The rest is left to the decree of His Majesty the Sultan.
Your two slaves—new Muslims.”7 Clearly these two men understood the relationship of Janissary to Sultan, that of slave to master. While the corps barely functioned that way at the time they were writing, it was still, in theory, the standard.

Averill: Another wrote “Your Majesty, my prosperous and generous Sultan, may you be healthy! I, Your humble servant, abandoned the lost [Christian] faith and was granted the honour of adopting the right one, Islam. I beg of my merciful Sultan to fill me with joy by enlisting me in the Janissary Corps. Benevolence and order belong to His Majesty the Sultan.
Your humble servant, etc.”8

Marissa: And yet another wrote, “Your Majesty, blessed and happy, my Sultan! I, Your humble servant, praise be to God, was granted the honour of adopting Islam and even circumcised myself with my own hand… Your servant, the new Muslim, Mustaga from Karlovo.”9

Averill: Talk about going the extra mile. Ouch. The men who wrote these letters were effectively rural peasants. Evgeni Radushev has found that there were considerable pockets of towns on the outskirts of the Ottoman empire where “Janissaries” lived; men who collected Janissary wages and were afforded the economic and social capital of the station, but who were not trained or serving in the traditional Janissary capacities.

Marissa: One of the reasons folks were clamoring to become Janissaries in the 17th century was that the Janissaries effectively had a total monopoly of power. When Osman II (1618-1622) acted against the corps, they killed him and replaced him with a more amenable sultan. With the nepotism and thousands of citizens volunteering to join the corp, it was unimaginably bloated. In the course of the 15th century, their number did not exceed 10,000. By the second half of the sixteenth century, it was just 12,789 (in 1568) and 13,599 (in 1574). By the beginning of the 17th century, they corp nearly tripled to 37,627 in 1609 and then doubled to 55,000 in 1653.10 As it grew, it became less efficient. What the corps had been known for — keen and superior battle prowess and firearm use — was a thing of the past. Members of the corps were more interested in their economic ventures than in keeping ahead of the military curve.

Averill: It wasn’t just the Bosnians trying to get membership either. Though previously excluded from the (enslavement) of the devshirme system, as early as the 16th century, Janissary commander-in-chiefs were appointing boys of Muslim-Turkish origin to the corps as apprentices. A Janissary chronicler, who found this practice pretty distasteful noted: “Registers were filled with appointed apprentices and this opened the way for Turks to penetrate the Janissary ranks. The recruitment of youths became unnecessary and this was what threw Devsirme into confusion . . . It was useless to expect any exhibit of valour from the corps once Turks penetrated it. If apprentices were driven away and the practice of recruiting youths through Devsirme was re-established, then military victories would be guaranteed.”11

Marissa: Rather than experiencing ‘social death’ of the slavery we see in the Americas, Janissaries were more like intermediaries between the ruling elite and the people, because of their unique roles as police, soldiers, tax collectors, etc, but also business owners and guild members. Still, they were slaves, and reminded of it frequently enough. Undoubtedly the enslavement of these men through the devshirme system had far from the desired effect. Janissaries very in-group loyal, rather than to the Sultan. And many maintained those ties with their non-Muslim families back home, which made their loyalties all the more fractured. By the 16th century, they were already a formidable and volatile force. A sultan who thought to cross them paid the ultimate price. By the 18th century, they were hardly a slave force any longer, and maintained their loyalties to their ruler only insofar as he served them. In the end, that was their doom.

A painting of Mahmud II

Mahmud II | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: In 1826, Sultan Mahmud II secretly trained a new artillery corp without the Janissary hierarchy’s knowledge. In June he issued an order he knew the Janissaries would defy. He declared their defiance treason, and ordered his new army to execute each and every janissary in the Ottoman empire. Thousands died in flaming agony when the Istanbul barracks were blitzed with cannon fire. In other cities, some regiments managed to flee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some found refuge with the peoples who had been their own in the Balkans. In the 1830s the observant French geographer and voyager A. Viquesnel reported the following: “The Rhodope Mountains, in their better part, were populated by a fanatic Muslim population. The Pomaks were well-disposed to the Janissaries’ cause and provided a sanctuary for this formidable army (during the destruction of the corps in 1826). Armed resistance was organised, which had to be subdued by force. The civil war, confiscations and destruction that followed, ruined the rich owners; a significant number of animals, the major wealth of the province, were

Marissa: Ibrahim Pasha was born to Orthodox Christian parents in Epirus, a region that was then part of the Republic of Venice and is now shared between Greece and Albania. Around the age of 6 or 7 he was collected by the Ottoman governor of Bosnia as part of the devsirme. At some point while working in Istanbul he befriended the future sultan, who later named him grand vizier. In 1536 his sultan and master had him executed summarily at Topkapi palace. He, like so many who came after him, and ultimately the Janissary corps itself, learned the limits of a slaves’ power. In the end he lived only at the discretion of his sultan.


Virginia Aksan, Ottoman Wars 1700-1870: An Empire Besieged (New York: Pearson Longman, 2007).

Charles Hamilton Argo, “Ottoman Political Spectacle: Reconsidering the Devsirme in the Ottoman Balkans, 1400-1700,” University of Arkansas Dissertations (2005)

Lela Ivanokovic, “Controversy about the Devshirme: Vehicle for Social Advancement or an Inhumane Act,” Georgetown University Dissertations (2013)

Anton Minkov, “Conversion to Islam as Reflected in Kisve Bahasi Petitions: An Aspect of Ottoman Social Life in the Balkans, 1670-1730,” McGill University Dissertations (2000)

Evgeni Radushev, “‘Peasant Janissaries?’” Journal of Social History (Winter 2008)

Gulay Yilmaz, “Becoming a Devsirme: The Training of Conscripted Children in the Ottoman Empire,” in Children in Slavery through the Ages, edited by Gwyn Campbell, et al., Ohio University Press, 2009.
Between 1522 and 1536, the second most powerful man in the Ottoman empire was Ibrahim Pasha.The most surprising thing about Ibrahim Pasha is not his diplomatic successes or his untimely demise. What is most surprising about Ibrahim Pasha, the second most powerful man in the Ottoman Empire between 1522-36, is that he was a devsirme slave.

Further Reading

Virginia Aksan, Ottoman Wars 1700-1870: An Empire Besieged (New York: Pearson Longman, 2007).

Charles Hamilton Argo, “Ottoman Political Spectacle: Reconsidering the Devsirme in the Ottoman Balkans, 1400-1700,” University of Arkansas Dissertations (2005)

Lela Ivanokovic, “Controversy about the Devshirme: Vehicle for Social Advancement or an Inhumane Act,” Georgetown University Dissertations (2013)

Anton Minkov, “Conversion to Islam as Reflected in Kisve Bahasi Petitions: An Aspect of Ottoman Social Life in the Balkans, 1670-1730,” McGill University Dissertations (2000)

Evgeni Radushev, “‘Peasant Janissaries?’” Journal of Social History (Winter 2008)

Gulay Yilmaz, “Becoming a Devsirme: The Training of Conscripted Children in the Ottoman Empire,” in Children in Slavery through the Ages, edited by Gwyn Campbell, et al., Ohio University Press, 2009.

  1. Gulay Yilmaz, “Becoming a Devsirme: The Training of Conscripted Children in the Ottoman Empire,” in Children in Slavery through the Ages, edited by Gwyn Campbell, et al., Ohio University Press, 2009.
  2. Quoted Gulay Yilmaz, “Becoming a Devsirme: The Training of Conscripted Children in the Ottoman Empire,” in Children in Slavery through the Ages, edited by Gwyn Campbell, et al., Ohio University Press, 2009.
  3. Charles Hamilton Argo, 33-34.
  4. Gulay Yilmaz, “Becoming a Devsirme: The Training of Conscripted Children in the Ottoman Empire,” in Children in Slavery through the Ages, edited by Gwyn Campbell, et al., Ohio University Press, 2009.
  5. Eva March Tappan, ed., The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 491-494. Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg, Internet History Sourcebook. Accessed on 13 Aug 2018, available at
  6. Charles Hamilton Argo, 47-48.
  7. Radushev, “‘Peasant Janissaries?’” 452.
  8. Radushev, “‘Peasant Janissaries?’” 452.
  9. Radushev, “‘Peasant Janissaries?’” 453.
  10. Anton Minkov, “Conversion to Islam as Reflected in Kisve Bahasi Petitions: An Aspect of Ottoman Social Life in the Balkans, 1670-1730,” McGill University Dissertations (2000), 100.
  11. Qtd in Radushev, 458.
  12. A. Viquesnel, Voyage dans le Turquie d’Europe, (Paris, 1861), after B. Deribeev, “August Viquesnel v Rodopite” [August Viquesnel in the Rhodopes], Rodopski Sbornik, 5 (1993): 260–261; qtd. In Evgeni Radushev, “‘Peasant Janissaries?’” Journal of Social History (Winter 2008) 460.


Danica · June 12, 2019 at 9:23 am

I can’t believe that you in any way try to rationalize any sort of slavery as in any way not being evil.

All slavery is bad.

What are your thoughts in the practice in Cricassia where parents gave birth to babies specifically to be sold into slavery.

    Averill Earls · June 12, 2019 at 7:14 pm

    Thanks for listening, Danica. When writing this episode, I did not read any sources about specific battles that the Janissaries fought in, so if you’d send me those books and articles, I’d love to read them! This is a topic I have a continued interest in. My intention in writing this was not to glorify or rationalize slavery, but rather – as other historians have – to examine this particular manifestation of slavery. As an institution, particularly in its later years, the Janissary Corps had more power than almost any other bureaucratic institution in the Ottoman empire. We clearly say in the episode that for most parents whose sons were taken, this was horrifying. For some, it could change their lives (once the rules loosened, and boys were able to keep ties with their families in the Balkans, and sent money back) – but even if it changed their lives, that didn’t make it any easier. Sending a child to war is never easy, no matter the context. We are not sensationalizing or glorifying here, but examining a system of slavery that looks very different (to Americans in particular) from other forms of enslavement. In fact, the opening story – of the second most powerful man in the Ottoman Empire, who ultimately was still enslaved and thus lived only at the pleasure of his sultan – mitigates whatever ‘glory’ with the harsh reality.

    When we talk about “baptism” here, we’re using the broader definition meaning “a person’s initiation into a particular activity or role, typically one perceived as difficult.”

    Thanks again for your thoughtful feedback. I look forward to your reading recommendations!

      Mariana · November 23, 2021 at 9:14 pm

      Your analysis is quite balanced, especially for Western scholars. Most of those gorge on Islamic sources, dismiss contemporary European ones as biased and generally don’t use any Balkan ones that don’t support their thesis. Admittedy, not all of those are translated in languages Western scholars use freely.

      But you are glorifying. Danica is right. Why spare so much of the text describing how parents were eager for their children to become Jannisaries when it was after the practice of devshirme has ended, as you point out in the text? At the same time, you only spare a few words of sentiment about what was, in our Balkan states, considered one of the hardest things ever and this has been reflected in culture for centuries, well before the national uprisings in 19th century. Only a few words of sentiment against long, factual, supported by documents text about all the wonderful possibilities devshirme offered. Without doing the simple math: how many were the top places and how many were the sultan’s slaves? By omission, you make it sound balanced: about equal number of people who might have been better off without the traumatising practice and people who would have never achieved the heights they rose to if they had stayed in their villages. You know the Pashas you mentioned were the exception, right? Because if I hadn’t read sources, I would have thought they were the rule here.

      So many words about the people who wanted their children to become Jannisaries (again, after the devshirme practice was ended, so I can’t see what it has to do with anything) against literally zero mentioning of the corruption and punishments received by those implementing the blood tribute for… accepting bribes from people who didn’t want to give their children up. No Christian priests falsifying records to make boys too old or already married and thus ineligible in your text. No parents literally mutilating their children in despair not to let them go. They’re all in the Ottoman archives and Balkan researchers have written on them. Is none of them translated into languages you work with?

      And of course, the most striking omission is the utter lack of any contemporary European sources. Melchior von Seydlitz comes to mind but he isn’t included here, I see. During 16th century when humanism was all in art and not of Europe’s life, there wasn’t a single European coming from Italy, Germany, France, you name it – all places with bloodshed and brutality of their own – who failed to write with horror and shock that is equally great in all of them about devshirme. They write in detail or curtly but always with overwhelming sympathy for the Christian population. But as you say, European sources should be taken with a critical eye. It isn’t that I disagree, I just wonder, do you feel the same way about Ottoman sources?

      Finally, your sources. It’s been a while since I was actively interested in the topic so I can only speak of Radushev. He’s a prominent and relatively unbiased historian, although I could go without his initial sneering in the article you quote. I am the first who’d say I despair at the wrong and solidified notions of the Ottoman rule in Balkan history but he way he insists that the “historical notion” of “blood”, of “child levy” should be removed is baffling to me. Removed? It was true, he admitted it himself in the article. It should merely be clarified that it was true for some two centuries and not four or five. Be this as it may, I see no reason to include this work in your podcast. It has little to do with devshirme, it deals with a later period and I find it rather baffling as to why it should be included here, instead of something, you know, relevant for the period. It’s hard to avoid the idea that you are glorifying the system that let some people (without the important clarification that they were very few) eventually thrive.

      But you did spare us the notion of “Ottoman tolerance”. And you were generally balanced. If only you had removed the irrelevant parts and put some substance into the effects the devshirme had on Christian peoples, the way you do when talking about the great life some Janissaries achieved, it would have been perfection.

    James · October 17, 2022 at 9:41 pm

    And you can’t help but wonder why they didn’t go over how women were treated, or non-believers captured on the high seas. But they might have an episode for that I’m oblivious to, this is my first contact.

Danica · June 12, 2019 at 9:48 am

“Marissa: Yet, as we already mentioned, having a son in the Janissary corp could be quite advantageous”

You seem to glorify the slave system because a FEW slaves received “good jobs” but you forget that the vast majority lived in near poverty, with only a military life, and the vast majority died in the many wars the sultan waged. At the siege of Sziget in 1566 about 7,000 Jannissaries died – about 1/3 of the corps. Research how many died at Malta the previous year.

There is an estimate that about 500,000 boys were taken into military slavery. How many of those do you think we’re voluntary? Yes there were some from really poor areas but that vast majority were not. From Croatian records the slave taking time was a horrific event in the region but little could be done against it.

Do not try to sensationalize or glorify the evil practice by what a FEW people willingly did.

Also, can you clarify the usage of the word BAPTISM? I do not think you are using the right word for the religious conversion into the Muslim faith. Baptism is a Christian thing, not Muslim.

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