Jews and the Early White Slave Trade

Jews and the Early White Slave Trade

The White Slave Trade is a little-known aspect of the slave trade in general subordinated as it is to the common notion that only Africans were sold as slaves and only by Europeans. This - of course - is historical nonsense as first the Africans were enslaved by other Africans before they were sold to European traders and secondly the enslavement of Africans by Africans would have happened irrespective of the European slave traders (precisely because there had long been an internal African slave market).

The international White Slave Trade however is potentially older than its African equivalent and we can see references to it as early as the ancient Greeks with Homer's mention of Phoenician slavers operating around the Aegean in the eternal search for more Europeans to be sold at the ever hungry slave markets of the Middle East.

We know quite a lot about the international slave trade at this early juncture thanks largely to the fact that it was a highly profitable business, but also involved a large amount of capital outlay to acquire the slaves and as such - in modern economic parlance - had high barriers to market entry unless one could find a way of circumventing them. Thus, this international trade in slaves left a long documentary trail some of which has survived to bear witness to this dark chapter in history.

The main target for slavers historically has always been places where there are large numbers of people, but little centralised government. This is so because the business of slavery is an emotional and delicate one in so far as if you enslave the wrong person it is quite plausible to suggest that you will end up getting your throat cut at some point and in addition to that you need to be able to negotiate with smaller governmental units - such as the heads of tribes and clans - who tend to fight each other and take prisoners (i.e. have a ready supply of potential slaves).

Those prisoners then can be bought as slaves if you can persuade the local authorities: something that is a lot easier and less costly if you also happen to have something that the locals want to trade in exchange. Hence why Roman slavers operating in Gaul before Caesar's invasion brought large amounts of wine, which they then sold at very high prices to the Gaulish chieftains and nobility who paid the merchants in kind with large amounts of slaves that were then transported back to the Roman Empire and sold at another large mark-up.

This slave trade was carried on after the fall of Rome in the West by jews and it has long been established in medievalist circles that this was indeed the case. We have two Arab sources from the 9th and 10th respectively who directly tell us that the jews both ruled the slave trade as well as telling us what slaves they were bring to the lands of Islam.

Ibn-Kordadhbeh states:

'What comes from the Western sea is the khadam Saqalib and Rumi and Frankish and Lombard boy-slaves, and Rumi and Andalusian slave-girls.'             (1)

While Ibh Yakub confirms:

'The Rus and the Slavs come from the city of Krakow to Prague with merchandise, which originates in the lands of the Mohammedan Turks, and has been sold to them by Jews and Turks for coins and commodities of slaves, tin and various different furs.' (2)

This is then clarified by another 10th century Arab source Ibn Hauqal who states:

'All Saqaliba [Slavic eunuchs] found on the surface of the earth come from Spain. They are subjected to castration in that country: that operation is performed by Jewish merchants.' (3)

Now having mentioned these Arab statements about the slave trade: we should clarify that Ibn-Kordadhbeh is talking about the dominance of 'Radhanite merchants' whom have definitely been identified as having been jewish tribe. (4)

If we understand this then we can see that what is happening here is quite simple: jews are going to southern Russia - specifically the lands the Ukraine and the Crimea - and purchasing/kidnapping local people - who may or may not have already been enslaved - for money and goods from the Islamic world. It is clear this is important to the jews and that there is a considerable trade, because of the mention of two staple products (furs and tin) with the slaves which suggests to us that the acquisition and transportation of these Slavic slaves to the Islamic world was an important and highly profitable economic activity.

However this is not full extent of this jewish trade of enslaved Europeans to the Arab world as we can see from the references to the acquisition of Germanic male slaves from France, Germany ['Frankish'] and Italy ['Lombards'] (who would either serve as Mamluk warriors, male prostitutes or house slaves) and female slaves from Spain ['Andalusians'] (who would either serve as courtesans or house slaves).

In addition to this Ibn Hauqal's testimony clearly tells us that jews were not only involved in purchasing and transporting large numbers of enslaved Europeans to the lands of Islam, but that the jews also provided the additional service of castrating male slaves (i.e. making them eunuchs) from Spain. Ibn Hauqal's testimony is corroborated by Liudprand of Cremona who also implies that the jews have made and are making a fortune out of castrating and shipping enslaved Spaniards to the lands of Islam. (5)

We further have reference to a jewish slave trader between AD 822 and 827 who was operating on the border of Switzerland (6) and we have another reference to a jewish slave traders dealing in enslaved Slavs (and using them as 'beasts of burden') in 12th century Austria. (7)

What is startling about this is not the fact that the jews were heavily involved in such a trade, but rather the singular general lack of references we have from the 9th to 12th centuries to significant amounts of non-jews being involved. This is particularly interesting as in AD 845 the Council of Meaux explicitly prohibited jews from purchasing, owning and/or selling Christian slaves: however, we know of cases as late as AD 1009 of jews knowingly purchasing illegally enslaved Christian Europeans (Germans and/or Slavs in this case) to be transported to and sold in the lands of Islam. (8)

That the Council of Meaux felt the need to specifically outlaw this and demand that those engaging in such trade be dealt with severely: tells that the jews must have been a significant presence in the international white slave trade at this and indeed are very likely to have dominated given the confirmation of our other sources. We should also note that the Meaux decree comes before - not after - our sources begin to mention this dominance clearly; in addition to previous decrees of a similar nature that preceded Meaux, indicating that in spite of the Meaux decree: the jews still dominated the trade in enslaved Europeans to the Orient well into the 12th century.

The loophole in this ruling by the Council of Meaux was the specific religious angle of the decree in that it only applied to Christians and jews could still buy, transport and sell non-Christians to whomever they pleased (but had to release them immediately if they converted to Christianity [hence the preference for the Islamic slave market]) which explains the Slavonic focus in that the Slavs were; at this time, a largely pagan people and as such would been one of the major legal avenues of enslavement the jewish slave traders could utilize.

This meant of course that as the slave trading route from Western Europe to the lands of Islam began to dry up: the jewish slave traders began to refocus their attention primarily on the edges of Christendom such in the Ukraine and the Crimea: where the censure of Church and State would not work against them. This did not stop jews from engaging in the now illegal practice of buying, transporting and selling enslaved European Christians as proxies for the Islamic world: it did however force the practice underground. The fact that we tend to see the mentions of it from Arab sources and in legal documents: tells us that what we are dealing with here is a trade forced underground and that was difficult to prosecute effectively although not for want of trying by the secular and religious authorities.

So in summary then we can see that the jews did indeed dominate the early white slave trade and that not only is this not seriously disputed: it is generally accepted among medievalists with the only quibble being as to whether the jews doing the slave trading were jews resident in Europe or jews resident in the lands of Islam.


(1) David Ayalon, 1979, 'On the Eunuchs in Islam', Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, Vol. I, pp. 104-105; also see David Ayalon, 1999, 'Eunuchs, Caliphs and Sultans: A Study of Power Relationships', 1st Edition, Magnes Press: Jerusalem for a detailed account of the relationship between these slaves (who often became Mamluks and courtesans), the jews who transported them and the Ottoman Sultans.
(2) Georg Jacob, 1927, 'Arabische Berichte von Gesandten an Germanische Fürstenhöfe aus dem 9 und 10 Jahrhundert', 1st Edition, Walter de Gruyter: Berlin, p. 12; I have translated Jacob's German translation of the Arabic for the sake of simplicity.
(3) Ibn Hauqal, 2001, 'La Configuration de la Terre: Kitab Surat al-Ard', Vol. 1, 2nd Edition, Maisonneuve Larose: Paris, pp. 109-110; I have translated Weit's and Kramer's French translation of the Arabic for the sake of simplicity.
(4) Moshe Gil, 1974, 'The Radhanite Merchants and the Land of Radhan', Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 17, pp. 299-328
(5) Michael Toch, 1994, 'Jews and Commerce: Medieval Fantasies and Modern Realities', p. 47 in Michael Toch, 2003, 'Peasants and Jews in Medieval Germany', 1st Edition, Ashgate: Burlington; Toch takes issue with this reading of the evidence but I take issue with his disagreement based on the similarity of the testimony from the same time. It is possible that Liudprand is referring to non-jews as well, but because he does not mention the jews exclusively does not mean that we cannot reasonably combine his and ibn Hauqal's testimony to evidence jewish slave merchants operating in this way.
(6) Ibid, p. 49
(7) Ibid, pp. 49-50
(8) Ibid, p. 51