Afro-Turks: The African Diaspora in Turkey
Within Turkey, there is a minority group known as the Afro-Turks, a term coined by Turkish writer and activist Mustafa Olpak — himself an Afro-Turk and author of Kenya-Crete-Istanbul: Human Biographies from the Slave Coast, which has been compared to Alex Haley’s The Roots. The population of Afro-Turks are estimated to be totalling anywhere between 5,000 to 20,000. However, some estimates have claimed up to 100,000 and are mostly situated on the West and South West Coast of Turkey.
Slavery was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire’s society and economy. The practice of slavery was not limited to the enslavement of a particular group, rather it was carried out in various regions and amongst an array of ethnicities and races. The locations where slaves were predominantly bought or won in conquests were from North & East Africa, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. Focusing on Africa, a total of some 10,000 Africans annually were brought into the empire, and this was to continue for most of the 19th century. Despite measures being taking to end slavery, it carried on into the late 19th and early 20th century.
Most Afro-Turks can trace their ancestry from East Africa, from areas such as Kenya (where Mustafa Olpak located his) Sudan, Somalia and Zanzibar. Many were employed in various roles, from domestic work to slavery, the system operated by the Ottomans was different from that in the Americas. As is seen by children of slaves being born free citizens, the freedom of intermarriage, which was legal, and the governing Islamic Law encouraged owners of slaves to release them after seven to ten years of service.
There were also many high-ranking Black Ottoman officials in the upper echelons of Ottoman society, serving as eunuchs, military officers, and some even referred to as heroes of the empire, like Black Musa. Musa was a brilliant military officer who gave the British a run for their money in Yemen during WW1, renowned for his fight against the Italian Invasion of Libya in 1915. His military finesse was recognised by British General Harrington who sought to recruit him after Istanbul was occupied in 1918, Musa famously rejected, pledging his allegiance to the Ottoman Empire.
Examples of Afro-Turks with a notable history throughout the Ottoman period and into the modern Republic of Turkey include figures such as Ahmet Ali Çelikten. He was an Ottoman aviator and one of the first black pilots in aviation history, receiving his ‘wings’ in 1914.
Afro-Turks continue to be ever-present within popular culture and political society within the Republic of Turkey, as is seen by singer Esmeray and politician Zenci Musa of the Iyi Party. The African diaspora within Turkey is alive and well. This brief article only seeks to inform you of the existence of Afro-Turks, not to provide a contextual analysis of the group’s history within the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey.