Category Archives: Central Eurasian Studies

Author-Interview: Slavery and Empire in Central Asia, by Jeff Eden (St. Mary’s College of Maryland)

In this third installment of our series highlighting the books short-listed for this year’s book prize, we welcome Sergey Salushchev (University of California, Santa Barbara) who interviews Jeff Eden (St. Mary’s College of Maryland) about his book Slavery and Empire in Central Asia.   

From the Cambridge University Press website: “The Central Asian slave trade swept hundreds of thousands of Iranians, Russians, and others into slavery during the eighteenth–nineteenth centuries. Drawing on eyewitness accounts, autobiographies, and newly-uncovered interviews with slaves, this book offers an unprecedented window into slaves’ lives and a penetrating examination of human trafficking. Slavery strained Central Asia’s relations with Russia, England, and Iran, and would serve as a major justification for the Russian conquest of this region in the 1860s–70s. Challenging the consensus that the Russian Empire abolished slavery with these conquests, Eden uses these documents to reveal that it was the slaves themselves who brought about their own emancipation by fomenting the largest slave uprising in the region’s history.”

The introduction of your book introduces slavery in Central Asia as a long-forgotten phenomenon. Why, in your opinion, has the historiography of the region ignored this important issue?

I would love to offer a “savior” tale here about how I was a whistleblower amid a conspiracy-of-silence on slavery, or saved manuscripts from a shipwreck, or was simply “in the right place at the right time” to make a huge discovery (possibly on camelback amid nomads). The reality involves far less in the way of personal glory, but—in its own way—it’s even more exciting.

First, to clarify: there has been no mass conspiracy—let alone a watery grave—hiding the primary sources on Central Asian slavery. Information on slavery is “hidden in plain sight” in practically every travelogue and memoir from nineteenth-century Central Asia, whatever the language. There is also some excellent work on Central Asian slavery by Turgun Faiziev, Yuan Gao, Scott C. Levi, G.I. Semeniuk, Elena Smolarz, and others (please see references below).

That said—and as some of these colleagues have likewise noted in their work—there has been a remarkably small amount of research on Central Asian slavery overall. Compared to many other regions in which slavery was historically prevalent, Central Asia’s slave trade seems forgotten: unknown to most who study slavery in other contexts, and little-known even to many Eurasianists.

Since there is no shortage of accessible information, nor any conspiracy against revealing it, I suspect that the relative shortage of research here may best be explained by a relative shortage of Eurasianists working on pre-Soviet Central Asia. To be sure, there has been rapid development on that front in the last decade or so. But here too is the exciting part: there are still many huge, epoch-spanning, relatively unexplored topics in Central Eurasian history simply waiting for motivated writers to pick up the threads.

Trying to research and understand the lived experiences of enslaved individuals and communities is a notoriously difficult and epistemologically daunting task. What motivated you to research the history of slavery and the slave trade in Central Asia?

Researching slaves’ lives can be challenging, especially given the scarcity of sources on slaves’ experiences in many parts of the world. Central Asia—like the American South—is one of those rare regions where reconstructing slaves’ lives seems thrillingly possible, thanks to an abundance of sources from many different perspectives. We have so much: memoirs by former slaves, interviews with slaves and former slaves, manumission documents, legal manuals, ambassadors’ letters, eyewitness travel reports, and more. These sources span several languages, including Persian, Turkic, Russian, English, and French. Diverse sources means diverse questions about source-specific biases, genres, and motivations, and addressing these questions is a constant epistemological challenge. Sometimes the challenge is a pleasure, and sometimes it feels like a burden. In any case, this is a topic for which the “burden” of too much evidence is undoubtedly a blessing. It was the visceral impact of the sources—some are heartbreaking, some are breathtaking—that initially motivated me to work on the subject.

View from the city walls, Khiva (wikimedia commons opensource image)

The title of your book suggests an intricate, if not integral, link between slavery in the Central Asia and the Russian imperial project in the region in the nineteenth century. In what ways does the Russian presence in the region illuminate the history of slavery in Central Asia? In what ways might it obscure it?

These are great questions. Some of the most detailed eyewitness information on slavery is provided by Russian travelers, soldiers, and officials. These sources are crucial. However, there are at least two ways in which major aspects of the slave trade are obscured or distorted in some Russian reportage.

First, Russian official sources say relatively little about the enslavement of Iranians in the region, an oversight that creates a warped picture of slavery’s demographics. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire repeatedly used the presence of enslaved Russians in Central Asia as one pretext to dispatch envoys and armies. By mid-century, there were very few Russian slaves to liberate. There were, however, tens of thousands of Iranian slaves, and they were the focus of much less Russian diplomatic engagement. In short, there is a risk of obscuring the main victims of the slave trade—Iranians—while exaggerating the prevalence of enslaved Russians. Taking advantage of diverse sources helps to balance the picture here.

Second, Russian official sources tend to overlook the persistence of the slave trade after the Russian conquest of the region. The Russian government lost interest in the region’s slave trade after the conquests, despite convincing evidence that the trade was ongoing. (To make this very point, an American traveler named Eugene Schuyler personally purchased a child slave in Bukhara!) The most likely explanation for Russia’s indifference to slavery in the post-conquest period is that the empire’s pre-conquest “abolitionism” had largely been a pretext for war. After the conquests were accomplished, there was little incentive to acknowledge that slavery still existed in Central Asia, let alone to help combat it.

Can you describe what have been the biggest challenges of conducting the research and writing the manuscript of your book? Did you encounter any major issues in gaining access to the archival sources in the region?

Most of the archival sources used in my book are held in Almaty, in the Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan. I ventured here thanks to the advice of my kind colleague Alexander Morrison, who suggested that I might find manuscripts on slavery in these collections. Kafkaesque anecdotes about former-Soviet archives constitute a venerable literary genre in our field, but I have no tragicomic tales to pass on from this archive. It is simply a wonderful place to work. The archive director and archivists were efficient, welcoming, and knowledgeable; the reading room was comfortable even in late summer; the neighborhood is leafy and pleasant; Almaty is lovely; and every folio I requested was freely available.

One of the chapters in your book attempts to dispel the myth of Russian abolitionism in the region. Your assertion has important implications for understanding Russian imperial expansion in Central Asia in relationship to slavery, as it challenges a well-entrenched perception of Russian benevolent abolitionism in places like the Caucasus and Central Asia. What archival discoveries allowed you to reassess the role of Russian imperial authorities in ending practices of slavery and the slave trade in the region? 

One of the most striking discoveries, for me, was the Khivan Slave Uprising of 1873, which is described both in a manuscript source and in published eyewitness accounts. These events—among others—seriously call into question the Russian “abolitionist” enterprise in Central Asia. This is the gist of the events:

On the eve of the Russian conquest of the town of Khiva in 1873, a massive slave rebellion erupted in the region. Evidently, these courageous slaves either expected the Russians to liberate them, or calculated that the chaos of the invasion would be an opportune moment to rise up. If the Russian “abolitionist” program had been sincere, one might expect the Russian military to support the uprising. Instead, the Russian general in charge of the invasion ordered rebelling slaves to be hung from the gallows in a public square, their bodies left to rot in plain view as a warning to others. It seems that he preferred to conquer a town filled with quiet, frightened slaves rather than deal with the “mess” of immediate emancipation.

“At the Fortress Wall: Let Them Enter” painting by Vasilii Vereshagin, 1871. 

The most interesting source describing these events is a local history from Khiva, written in Arabic-script Turkic. This manuscript is held in Tashkent, a city I have never visited; I received a copy of it from Paolo Sartori, another kind and generous colleague. I am planning to translate and publish this remarkable source later this year.

Exciting new revelations about Central Asian slave rebellions have continued to emerge from the archives. Just last month, my colleague Ulfat Abdurasulov shared with me a major discovery: another local history of slavery in the region, likewise in Arabic-script Turkic, which describes a series of slave rebellions that erupted before the Khivan Slave Uprising of 1873. (Abdurasulov and Nuryoghdi Toshov have translated and transcribed this manuscript, and their work was published just a few weeks ago.) This local history, based in part on interviews with former slaves (!), reveals an ongoing pattern of resistance among the slaves of Central Asia. With many Russian and Central Asian archives more accessible now than ever before, I look forward to further revelations on Central Eurasian slavery in the months and years to come.

References:

Artykbaev, Zh.O. ed., Raby i tiulenguty v kazakhskoi stepi. Astana: Altyn kitap, 2006.

Faiziev, T. Buxoro feodal jamiyatida qullardan foydalanishga doir hujjatlar (XIX asr). Tashkent: Fan, 1990.

Gao, Yuan. “Captivity and Empire: Russian Captivity Narratives in Fact and Fiction.” M.A. thesis, Nazarbayev University, 2016.

Levi, Scott C. “Hindus Beyond the Hindu Kush: Indians in the Central Asian Slave Trade.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12/3 (2002), 277-288.

Smolarz, Elena. “Speaking about Freedom and Dependency: Representations and Experiences of Russian Enslaved Captives in Central Asia in the First Half of the 19th Century.” Journal of Global Slavery 2 (2017), 44-71.