Devshirme (Ottoman Turkish: devşirme; usually translated as “child levy” or “blood tax”) was the Ottoman practice of forcibly recruiting soldiers and bureaucrats from among the children of their Balkan Christian subjects.
It is first mentioned in written records in 1438, but probably started earlier. It created a faction of soldiers and officials loyal to the Sultan. It counterbalanced the Turkish nobility, who sometimes opposed the Sultan. The system produced a number of grand viziers from the 1400s to the 1600s. Initially, the grand viziers were exclusively of Turk origin, but after there was conflict between Sultan Mehmed II and the Turkish grand vizier Çandarlı Halil Pasha the Younger, who was the first grand vizier to be executed, there was a rise of slave administrators (devshirme). They were much easier for the sultans to control, compared to free administrators of Turkish aristocratic extraction. The devshirme also produced many Ottoman Empire’s provincial governors, military commanders, and divans during the 1400s-1600s period. Sometimes, the devshirme recruits were castrated and became eunuchs. Although often destined to the harem, many eunuchs of devshirme origin went on to hold important positions in the military and the government, such as grand viziers Hadım Ali Pasha, Sinan Borovinić, and Hadım Hasan Pasha.
Ottoman soldiers would take European Christian males, aged 8 to 20, from Eastern, Southern and Southeastern Europe, and relocate them to Istanbul, where they would be trained. The devshirme was often resented by locals though some Christian families volunteered their sons, as service seemed to offer good career options. Recruits were sometimes able to use their positions to help their families. The boys were forced to convert to Islam. Many scholars consider the practice of devishirme as violating Islamic law.
The boys were given a formal education, and trained in science, warfare and bureaucratic administration, and became advisers to the sultan, elite infantry, generals in the army, admirals in the navy, and bureaucrats working on finance in the Ottoman Empire. They were separated according to ability and could rise in rank based on merit. The most talented (the ichoglani) were trained for the highest positions in the empire. Others joined the military, including the famed janissaries.
The devşirme arose out of the kul system of slavery that developed in the early centuries of the Ottoman Empire, and which reached this final development during the reign of Sultan Bayazit I. The kul were mostly prisoners captured in war, hostages, or slaves who were purchased by the state. The Ottoman Empire, beginning with Murad I, felt a need to “counteract the power of (Turkic) nobles by developing Christian vassal soldiers and converted kapıkulu as his personal troops, independent of the regular army.”.
At first, the soldiers serving in these corps were selected from the prisoners who had been captured during war and enslaved. However, a new system, devşirme, was soon adopted. In this system, children of the rural Christian populations of the Balkans were conscripted before adolescence and were brought up as Muslims. Upon reaching adolescence, these children were enrolled in one of the four imperial institutions: the palace, the scribes, the Muslim clergy, and the military. Those enrolled in the military would become either part of the Janissary corps, or part of another corps. The most promising were sent to the palace school (Enderûn Mektebi), where they were destined for a career within the palace itself. They were much easier to control for the sultans, as compared to free administrators of Turkish noble origin. They were also less subject to influence from court factions. From the very beginning, the Turcoman were a danger that undermined the Sultan’s creation of a strong state. Thus, the establishment of devşirme counterbalanced the Turkish nobility.
An early Greek source mentioning devşirme (paidomazoma) is a speech by Archbishop Isidore of Thessalonica, made on 28 February 1395, titled: “On the abduction of children according to sultan’s order and on the Future Judgment”. The speech includes references to the violent Islamization of children and their hard training.
The preferred age of a recruit was between 8 and 10 years of age; the taking of boys younger than 8 was forbidden. The devşirme system naturally spawned resistance. There were Christian rebellions initiated specifically against the devşirme in Albania and Epirus in 1565. Many sources mention attempts of Christian parents to avoid the devşirme: trying to bribe the officers, marry the boys at the age of 12, mutilate the boy, or have both the father and son convert to Islam.
The children were taken from their families and transported to Istanbul. Upon their arrival, they were forced to convert to Islam, examined, and trained to serve the empire.
Christian families were frequently heartbroken to have their children taken from them; in Epirus, a traditional folk song expressed this resentment, cursing the Sultan and admonishing against the kidnapping of boys:
Be damned, O Emperor, be thrice damned
Basilike Papoulia wrote that “...the devishirme was the 'forcible removal’, in the form of a tribute, of children of the Christian subjects from their ethnic, religious and cultural environment and their transportation into the Turkish-Islamic environment with the aim of employing them in the service of the Palace, the army, and the state, whereby they were on the one hand to serve the Sultan as slaves and freedmen and on the other to form the ruling class of the State.”
Çandarlı Kara Halil Hayreddin Pasha, the founder of the janissaries, justified the practice in these terms: “The conquered are slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women, and their children belong as lawful possession”.
According to scholars, the practice of devishirme was a clear violation of sharia or Islamic law. David Nicolle writes that since the boys were “effectively enslaved” under the devşirme system, this was a violation of the dhimmi protections guaranteed under Islamic law to People of the Book. The practice of devşirme also involved forced conversions to Islam. Ottoman jurists of the time argued that although Islamic tradition forbade the enslavement of Christians, Balkan Christians were different because they had converted to Christianity after the advent of Islam.
The practice began to die out as Ottoman soldiers preferred recruiting their own sons into the army, rather than sons from Christian families. In 1594, Muslims were officially allowed to take the positions held by the devishirme and the system of recruiting Christians effectively stopped by 1648. Finally, in the early days of Ahmet III’s reign, the practice of devshirme was abolished.
Adapted from Wikipedia.
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