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Human Trafficking 1000 years ago

One of the major issues in the world today is human trafficking. In recent years we know of tens of thousands of people are being smuggled across the Mediterranean Sea, with people coming from the Middle East and Africa to Europe. If we look back a thousand years earlier, a similar situation was occurring, but this time it was Europeans that were being moved southwards to Africa and the Middle East.

A recent article by Romney David Smith, entitled “The business of human trafficking: slaves and money between Western Italy and the House of Islam before the crusades (c.900–c.1100),” explores the trade in human beings and why it may have been an incredibly lucrative enterprise for merchants working from ports such as Amalfi, Genoa and Pisa. These Italian cities would have greatly prospered in the tenth and eleventh centuries, similar to how Venice gained fortunes from shipping slaves to Byzantium and the Islamic world.

Smith makes the point of explaining that a lot of trade was coming to Europe from Egypt during this period. When the Fatimid Dynasty conquered Egypt in the tenth century and established Cairo, this city would quickly become a hub for international trade and perhaps the richest place in the medieval world. European merchants were among those trading with Egypt, bringing home luxury items such as silk, incense and musk. What did these merchants bring to northern Africa in return?

Historians have previously suggested that European were sending raw materials and food across the Mediterranean – grain, timber, and even hazelnuts. But Smith shows that there would have been little demand for these goods in Egypt, as they could be acquired from places much closer. There would also be logistical obstacles that made such trading difficult. Smith writes:

As a practical example, in the 1020s the abbot of Montecassino purchased a cloth in Amalfi, presumably a spectacular piece of fabric, as a gift for the emperor. We might imagine it cost its Amalfitan dealer 50 dinars in Egypt. But to cover such a purchase, our Amalfitan would have had to move and sell 7143 litres of grain – approximately 45 modern American oil barrels (at approximately 159 litres each), which take up some 41 square metres of deck space. This is perhaps two-thirds of the deck space of the Serçi Limanı vessel, our only well documented cargo ship of the era. The infrastructure difficulties are obvious. The Amalfitans had ships capable of moving grain – they used them to move it from their estates in Campania back to the city. But this is a very different matter from sailing to Egypt.

Smith argues that the only thing these Italian merchants could trade which could fetch high prices in Egypt was human beings. A thousand years ago, slavery was a common feature in much of the medieval world, with Christian, Jewish and Muslim societies accepting the role of slavery (although prohibiting the enslavement of their own co-religionists). With the massive wealth available in Egypt at this time, there would be a strong demand for slaves, either amongst the elite – one Fatimid princess was said to have owned 8,000 slave girls – or the everyday people – Smith tells of one girl named Musk who was owned by three separate individuals in the Jewish community: a perfumer, a wax-maker and a housewife.

What was the economics of slaves around the eleventh century? Smith explains:

Humans were worth a lot of money. A customary price of 30–33.3 dinars prevailed throughout our period as the ransom price of a healthy adult male. This amount was not always achieved in commercial transactions, but humans were always valuable. For women, who then as now made up the majority of slaves, a price of around 20 dinars was typical. The cheapest humans I am aware of in the House of Islam in this era went for 12.5 dinars for a male child in the early eleventh century, and 7.5 for a male slave in 922/3.

By comparison, the price of slaves in Italy was much lower. In the year 1006, for example, men and women were being traded in Pisa for the equivalent of about seven dinars, and Smith finds examples of people being sold for less than half of that price. It was a situation where these Italian merchants had much incentive to get into the business of human smuggling and selling slaves across the Mediterranean.

The source of these slaves could come from the wars in Italy, or elsewhere in Europe. It would not be surprising if men and women captured by Viking raids in the British Isles might find themselves going to Italian ports before being shipped overseas. Others would have been coerced or driven by poverty into servitude, such as a girl who was indentured for life by her mother for the equivalent of 3 dinars.

Smith explains that by trading in these luxury goods, which would have been much easier for them to transport than grain or chestnuts, the merchants would have been able to make fortunes. He gives this example:

If Amalfi could bring 2000 slaves to market in Egypt in a year (an improbable number, but perhaps not impossible), the city would be generating wealth in the same class as the German emperor.

Although there were laws in place that were meant to ban the trading of fellow Christians, there would be little that authorities could do to stop such commerce, even if they wanted to prevent it. Therefore it would seem that for much of the eleventh century the business of human smuggling carried on without much difficulty, at least until the arrival of the Normans in Italy and the events leading up the First Crusade.

“The business of human trafficking: slaves and money between Western Italy and the House of Islam before the crusades (c.900–c.1100),” by Romney David Smith, is published in the Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 45:5 (2019). The article can be accessed through Taylor and Francis Online. Romney David Smith received his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto in 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @Romney_D_Smith

Top Image: The Eastern Mediterranean region shown in the twelfth century world map of Muhammad al-Idrisi.

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