BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY Afro-Turks
Most of the Ottoman Empire slaves were white from the Balkans and the Caucasus. Black slaves until the 19th century were only “traded” in small numbers. This changed in the second half of the 19th century when the Ottomans banned slavery from the Balkans and the Caucasus following pressure from European powers. Between 1860 and 1890 roughly 10,000 African slaves came into the Ottoman Empire each year – in total about 250,000 people. And there was a constant demand for new slaves, because “once a slave always a slave” was not the rule in the Ottoman Empire: many slaves, or at least their children, were set free at some point.
“Along the Aegean coast, I have met at least 2,000 persons with black skin colour in recent years“, explains Mustafa Olpak during a visit to an Afro-Turkish family in the village of Yeniciftlik (New Farm). At the end of 2006, Olpak founded the first association of “Afro-Turks” in the North Aegean city of Ayvalik. Olpak was born in Ayvalik, but the way his ancestors arrived there, was rather untypical compared with other Afro-Turks. As he writes in his autobiography “Slave Coast”, his great-grandparents were deported from Kenya and sent as slaves to the then still Ottoman island of Crete in the 1890s. In Crete the family became Muslim and worked in the household of a rich Ottoman family. After the Turkish War of Independence, in 1924, Turkey and Greece negotiated a population exchange of Orthodox Christians and Muslims, and Olpak’s family had to leave Crete and was deported to Ayvalik. Olpak grew up there, finished school and married a white Turkish woman, with whom he was together for 25 years until her family said “There should not be any inheritance left to the Arab.” Blacks are often called Arab in Turkish. After this, Olpak filed for divorce. However it was not the only racist comment or discrimination he experienced in his life. Many Afro-Turks have much lighter skin, becauseblack women especially look for white partners to reduce the discrimination for their children that they experienced themselves.
However, the Afro-Turks also insist that they belong to Anatolia as much as other peoples. They speak the local dialect, wear traditional Turkish clothes and are usually well-integrated into the local Turkish cultural life: “We have been living in this region for at least 150 years and we don’t have any other homeland,” says Olpak.
The association does also provide practical help, such as support with coal and wood in the winter or school uniforms and shoes for the children. Many Afro-Turks live in poverty, be it in the villages or in the cities they have moved to. There are very few Afro-Turks who have been to university or who hold prestigious positions in politics, sports, culture or private industry. That is why there are few role models for the young generation of Afro-Turks apart from a few notable exceptions like the former Mayor of Dalaman, the singer Esmeray and the football functionary Hadi Türkmen.