Blood tax or Devshirme was a system of slavery through which Ottoman Empire recruited its Janissary Corps. Janissary in fact comes from “Jeni Ceri”, or “new troops”. Slave soldiers have a long tradition in Islamic societies (e.g. Mamluks), and they invariably gained significant influence in said societies. Janissaries were no exception. System of blood tax also produced all of Grand Veziers from 1400 to 1600, the second most powerful position in Ottoman Empire, as well as most of provincial governors and military commanders. As such, Janissaries were some of the most powerful slave soldiers in history.
Devshirme itself developed out of kul system of slavery in the Ottoman Empire. Kuls were prisoners of war, hostages or slaves purchased by the state (as contrasted by abd – chattel slaves, but commonly used in meaning “male black slaves”, as opposed to al-mamluk, who were white slaves). In order to counteract the nobles, Murad I developed kapikulu as his personal army. These were divided into cavalry and infantry. At first they were selected from slaves, but kul system was soon replaced by devshirme system. Every three to four years, the Chief of the Janissaries would outline how many new recruits were needed and where “recruiters” were to go and get them. Christian boys from Balkans were taken – typically by force – from their families and sent to Istanbul, where they were circumcised and forcibly converted to Islam. Boys were trained in warfare, administration and science, Turkish and Arabic languages and literature, Qur’an and Muslim judasprudence, theology and law. Most of them stayed in the palace for three years before being sent to Jannissary Corps, while most promising were selected to continue training in the palace.
Devshirme system, including violent islamization and harsh training was referenced as early as 1395., but was abandoned during 17th century as members of Ottoman elite wanted to gain these important positions for themselves. In 15th and 16th century it was the primary way by which Jannissary corps were replenished. Origin of both kul and devshirme systems can be found in Qur’an: “Know that one-fifth of the spoils that you obtain belongs to Allah, to the Messenger, to the near of kin, to the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer. This you must observe if you truly believe In Allah and in what We sent down on Our servant on the day when the true was distinguished from the false, the day on which the two armies met in battle. Allah has power over all things.”. This passage, which Muhammad used to gain extreme personal wealth, was used to justify taking of slaves who would eventually become Janissaries and bureocrats of the Empire.
There were many restrictions on who could be taken. Only Christian children could be enslaved, but Janissaries avoided taking boy from a family which had no other boys to prevent disruption of farm work (and thus taxes). Ideal age of new recruit was between 6 and 8 years of age, though recruits could be as young as 4 and as old as 20. Boys selected were smartest, most physically fit and best-looking. The village selected would rotate, so as to avoid damaging the tax base too much. Small parties of soldiers would go from place to place, taking away the youth who were distinguished by beauty or strength, above the age of seven. Captives were then taken away to Constantinople where they would be shaped into perfect servants of the Sultan.
Boys were not recruited only from already conquered populace. Some recruits were also captured during Ottoman raids into Christian lands, when several thousand people could be enslaved on each raid. But practice was especially focused on Christian-majority areas within the Empire, where it served dual purpose of replenishment of Corps and gradual islamization of provinces. The recruits were divided into two classes. One group would be sent to Anatolia to perform agricultural and other manual labour under strict control of overseers with sticks. This was mostly the fate of war captives. Boys collected through devshirme would be ones sent for Janissary training, but only boys with no physical defects were allowed. Those who had physical defects would be sent to menial labour.
The system was widely resented, and many measures were adopted by populace: conversion to Islam, mutilation or early marriage. In Bosnia, parents tatooed children with cross to perhaps save them from slavery and forcible islamization (girls were tatooed as well). Some parents did try to get their boys into the system as prospects of advancement were good, but these were in minority.
Following are a few descriptions of the system:
What would a man not suffer were he to see a child, whom he had begotten and raised…carried off by the hands of foreigners, suddenly and by force, and forced to change over to alien customs, and to become a vessel of barbaric garb, speech, and piety and other contaminations, all in a moment? … Shall he lament his son because a free child becomes a slave, because being nobly born he is forced to adopt barbaric customs? Because he who is rendered so mild by motherly and fatherly hands is about to be filled with barbaric cruelty? Because he who attended matins in the churches and frequented the sacred teachers is now, alas, taught to pass the night in murdering his own people, and in other such things?
- Isodore Glabas, bishop of Thessalonika, 1395 AD sermon
Apart from the other tax burdens which the Christians had to bear under Turkish rule, from time to time their handsomest offspring were seized from them. Separating the children from their parents, the Turks would instruct them in the martial arts. These children, abducted by force, never returned to their parents. Alienated from the Christian religion, little by little they forgot faith, parents, brothers and sisters, and all their blood relatives, so that when they later encountered their parents they no longer even recognized them.
I can find no right words to picture the pain and sorrow, the weeping and wailing of these parents when their children are torn from their bosoms and out of their grasp by those fiends. To parents who had just barely begun to instruct their children in Christian teaching, the hardest thought was that the evildoers would soon succeed in seducing them away from the religion of their forebears and in turning them into dreadful enemies of the Christian religion and Christian people.
- Bartholomew Georgiewitz
Devshirme was a system of enslavement and gradual genocide. However, some Western scholars (and English Wikipedia) attemt to portray it as a benevolent system of inclusion within the Ottoman Empire simply because some (very few) of the boys achieved high position within the Ottoman Empire. But Ottoman system was not unique in such treatment: Emperor Diocletian may have been a slave himself and was certainly a son of a slave. Emperor Basil I definitely was a slave. In fact, so many emperors of Byzantine Empire were low-born that epithet “born in the purple” was made up by those who were not. And this is not including various palace and military officials who were themselves of low birth. If anything, Byzantine government was more conductive to social advancement than Ottoman one.
In early years of devshirme system, boys taken were slaves of the sultan. They lived only at sultan’s pleasure, and every lira they were given was only at sultan’s discretion. Their lives were strictly regulated. They had to get up at the same time, pray at the same time, walk slowly and quietly, eat slowly, bathe weekly, shave regularly (they were only allowed to have a moustache), wear well-pressed clothes, and perform the five daily prayers. In the barracks, younger had to obey elders without question, and whoever is punished is compelled to kiss the hand of him who inflicts the punishment. They were supposed to have no allegiance except to the sultan, and could not marry or have property without his express permission. But as early as early 16th century, some officials coming out of devshirme system – such as Mehmed Pasha Sokolović – used their position to help their native land. He also helped his two sons gain important positions – by 16th century the rule that Janissaries could not marry had been renegotiated thanks to extreme influence of the Corps. Even before that however many would have mistresses on the side, and often have their children (illegally) enlisted into Jannissary Corps.
Practice of devshirme made Janissaries loyal not primarily to the Sultan, but to the Corps. As early as 16th century, they were murdering sultans who crossed them. Because of this, in 1826., Sultan Mahmud II trained new artillery corps and used it to destroy Janissaries by bombarding their barracks.
A song from Epirus in Greece shows resentment of the system among the populace:
Be damned, Emperor, thrice be damned
For the evil you have done and the evil you do.
You catch and shackle the old and the archpriests,
In order to take the children as janissaries.
Their parents weep, their sisters and brothers, too
And I cry until it pains me; As long as I live I shall cry,
For last year it was my son and this year my brother.
As noted, Ottoman slaves could achieve very high positions. Nor were Janissaries unique – all islamic empires (Mughals, Abbasids, etc.) relied heavily on slave soldiers; Mamluks used by Abbasids were purchased slaves.