Abstract: African slaves were brought to Iran in large numbers in the nineteenth century as part of the Eastern slave trade. While there are no definite historical statistics on the number of slaves exported from Africa to Iran, estimates among scholars for the Indian Ocean trade during the nineteenth century vary from between one and two million. Possibly two-thirds of these slaves were women and girls. In Iran, these Africans were almost always destined for residence in Iranian households as servants, eunuchs, and concubines.
Little scholarship has been undertaken on the history of Africans in Iran. There are enormous gaps in our knowledge of slavery in Iran and of the influence of African people and culture on Iranian history. More than a decade ago, Edward Alpers called forcefully for the study of the history of Africans in the northwestern Indian Ocean. However, his pioneering call for more research, for the most part, has not been taken up by other scholars. This paper is a first attempt to discover the individual biographies of slaves in nineteenth-century Iran and to reconstruct at least a part of their lives.
Scholars of Middle Eastern slavery have warned about the limited value of Western legal distinctions between slavery and freedom when applied to the Muslim world. Such binary, legal concepts of slave vs. free presuppose a secular state that is able to protect the lives and property of individuals based on their claim to citizenship. They are unhelpful when discussing societies which are not built around the power of the state, but rather on concepts or kinship, belonging, religious authority, and hierarchies of dependence.
This paper will examine four cases of slave experience in Iran in an effort to demonstrate the widely varying conditions of enslaved persons during the nineteenth century. First, Bahrazian Khanum and Nur Sabbah Khanum, two sisters who found their freedom in 1892, but who in the absence of protectors were quickly re-enslaved. Second, Haji Mubarak and Fezzeh Khanum, servants of the middle-class merchant and Babi (later, Baha’i) Prophet, Mirza ‘Ali-Muhammad Shirazi, the Bab (1819-1850). The former an educated eunuch entrusted with his master’s business affairs; the latter a lifelong companion to the Prophet’s wife who became a holy figure in her own right. Third, Khyzran Khanum and a young boy named Walladee, two slaves who fled to the British consulate in Lingeh in 1856 seeking freedom, but found no protection. And, fourth, Gulchihreh Khanum, captured and enslaved as a child in the late 1800s. She became a servant in a wealthy Iranian home and the beloved nanny of the family’s children, but continued to protest her enslavement to the end of her life.