University of Cambridge > > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > From Ransom to Circumcision: the Changing Politics of Military Captivity in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Empire

From Ransom to Circumcision: the Changing Politics of Military Captivity in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Empire

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Ransom captivity has a long history in warfare, especially along the Ottoman Empire’s frontier with its Christian rivals. Officially, the payment of ransoms was abolished by the 1739 Treaty of Belgrade with Russia, but it was one thing for diplomats to make such a declaration, and quite another to implement it. My paper examines the political mechanisms which replaced ransom, and the social effects of these mechanisms. In particular, I emphasize the connection between the end of ransom and the construction of religious conversion as a political identity. By making release from captivity a matter of diplomacy and politics, rather than economics, the treaty of Belgrade forced the Ottoman state to reach into society to liberate slaves from their wealthy and politically-connected owners. This investment of state resources gave the Ottomans a strong incentive to ensure that only those prisoners who were eligible under the treaty were released. Because the treaty only applied to Russian subjects, and only to those who had not converted to Islam, the Ottoman and Russian states had to work out between them definitions of who was a Russian subject, and—most critically—who was a convert. The latter definition changed over time, but did not line up with traditional Islamic legal interpretations. Through the rest of the century, these definitions restructured the opportunities available to slaves in the Ottoman Empire, creating an environment in which political and religious identity was a very important, but manipulable, resource.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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