Slaves in 18th century Spain: Changing the dichotomy between slaves and free people

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During the “Islamic Institutions and Slaves’ Collective Action in 18th Century Spain” event on Wednesday, Daniel Harshenzon detailed the ways in which Muslim slaves were seen as a corporation in 18th century Spain. Photo provided by author

During 18th century Spain, Muslim slaves were seen as a corporation, according to Daniel Harshenzon, associate professor at the Department of Literature, Cultures and Languages in a presentation titled, “Islamic Institutions and Slaves’ Collective Action in 18th Century Spain,” through Zoom from 12:15 – 1:15 p.m. 

“In a long inquisitorial report submitted to the Spanish king in September 1769, left no room for doubt, the hospital of the Muslim arsenal slaves in Catargena functioned as a mosque,” Harshenzon said. “They recited the Adhan, the call to worship, from a room on the second floor and believers come in twice a day, they leave their shoes downstairs walk up the stairs barefoot, kiss the steps and loudly prayed in the large hall adorned with a lamp and covered with prayer mats.”  

According to Harshenzon, slaves in 18th century Spain were merchants that earned wages. The story of the mosque in a Christian-dominated Spain began with Faxxia. She was a free Muslim woman who bought a house with the money saved up from slaves to serve as a charity hospital and space for the poor. At first, the hospital mosque was met with objection from the local population but was later accepted, according to Harshenzon.  

“To understand the formation and maintenance of Islamic communal institutions and European ports, we need to refocus the story and narrative upon royal slaves, their interactions with the marine jurisdiction which they bound, different groups of Maghrebs (North Africans), local and political actors,” Harshenzon said. “The recent documentary of 18th century Cartagena provides an ideal side for this investigation.” 

According to Harshenzon, municipality authorities, the Algerian government and the arsenal council played large roles for slave rights. Slaves were viewed and treated as a social body and were protected by the Algerian government. They not only had religious spaces and legal rights but also economic rights. Slaves were allowed a savings account to buy property. Specifically, galley and royal slaves played a major part in helping the slave community manage things like taxes, Harshenzon stated in the presentation.  

Daniel Harshenzon, associate professor at the Department of Literature, Cultures, and Languages, discusses the timeline, history, and the changing the dichotomy between slaves and free people in Spain during the 18th century.

In comparison, freed slaves in Cartagena, also known as Berberiscos, were free to marry Christians, exercise economic and commercial rights. However, Harshenzon said that bonded slaves had a benefit of rights in the collective group setting. When Berberiscos tried to establish a Quranic school for their children they were suppressed by the bishop at the time, according to Harshenzon.  

“While the Berberiscos (also known as Maghrebs) were free citizens and a few of them might have afforded certain protections in their capacity as members of the local guilds, they were not incorporated as a group and lacked the privileges by members of a corporation,” Harshenzon said. “In contrast, the bonded mean they didn’t enjoy the benefits of residency but they were protected by their statist as slaves and thus could behave and be perceived as members of a social body.” 

Christians in Spain and other municipalities viewed the slaves as a corporate body. Muslim slaves adapted to the Christian Spain culture, according to Harshenzon. He added that there were a few moments that really defined Muslim slave legitimacy in Spain. The first moment was when Muslim slaves were granted the hospital mosque. Another was the negotiation between the municipalities and slaves over demolishing the mosque because the space was needed for infrastructure. Lastly, slaves were also offered compensation for the demolishment of the mosque.  

“The case of Cartagena sheds an exceptional light on how bonded Muslims used Islamic and Maghrebi concepts and institutions to make sense of their communal existence under Christian rule,” Harshenzon said. “Enacting an Islamic institutional hybrid organized by locals as a Latin institution hybrid. The slaves carved out a Maghrebi-Islamic jurisdictional space in one of Spain’s important port cities.” 

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