BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY From slaves to football stars
Links go back as far as 1575, when the Turkish sultan Murad III signed a defence pact with the Kanem Bornu empire (extending from northern Nigeria to Chad), to which he even sent arms and military advisors. Only in 1900 did the British, under Frederick Lugard, set foot in the city-states of Nigeria, which had come under Hausa control shortly after the jihad of Usman dan Fodio.
Over the last few years, media close to the ruling Justice and Development Party have rediscovered a small Afro-Turkish community (1) in the vicinity of Izmir. These are the descendants of Africans abducted by the Ottoman empire in the southernmost part of Sudan and the East African hinterland (Kenya and Uganda). The practice, which began in the 16th century according to the British historian Murray Gordon (2), brought tens of thousands of black slaves to Cyrenaica, Egypt and Istanbul via the trans-Saharan caravan routes and Ottoman trading posts on the Red Sea.
Gordon explains that, although Britain’s anti-slavery campaign was at first subordinated to its stated aim of defending the integrity of the Ottoman empire, the attacks of the British Anti-Slavery Society, backed by the reports of men such as the explorer James Richardson, pushed Turkey to close down its slave markets in the mid-19th century. Gordon points out that it was only after demand fell, when the Turkish government abolished slavery in 1899, that the trade itself ceased. Through the intermediary of its black population, Turkey is beginning to revisit this sombre chapter in its history, for many years overlooked, like its competition with the Portuguese and British empires around the Indian Ocean.
Turkey’s image of Africa is also evolving thanks to the growing number of African players in Turkish football teams, which until recently had been mainly interested in Brazilians and Argentines. Following Uche Ikechukwu and “Jay-Jay” Okocha (Nigeria) and Stephen Appiah (Ghana), the major Turkish club Fenerbahce has signed up Mamadou Niang and Issar Dia (Senegal) and Joseph Yobo (Nigeria) for the current season. In Istanbul, there is also renewed interest in the late Esmeray, the best-known Afro-Turkish singer.