Trans Eurasia travel

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The slave trade

Alas! He who once enters Chive abandons all hope as surely as he who enters hell. His prison house is girdled with trackless deserts, whose sole inhabitants are the sellers of human flesh.

Capt. James Abbott, Narrative of a Journey from Heraut to Khiva (1843)

In nineteenth century Central Asia only religion was a bigger business than slavery. Every man of substance owned a personal slave to work his fields. The practice was time-honoured. Tamerlane had forcibly repatriated thousands of foreign artisans to labour on his grandiose architectural schemes. Genghis Khan regularly drafted slaves into his armies as human shields. By the Great Game era, hungry gangs of man-stealing Turkmen roamed the pilgrim and trade routes of the east, striking in the half-light of dawn as unwary victims prayed or slept.

Chained by the neck, and half starved to prevent escape, silent processions of men, women and children snaked across the desert to the great slave markets of Bukhara or Khiva. Here the unfortunates would be herded into stalls, examined for leprosy and haggled over. The relative price of human life fluctuated with its supply; demand would plummet after battle or the arrival of a huge slave caravan. An artisan fetched twice the price of a labourer. Persian women were generally more desirable than Russian, while Russian males, retailing at about four thoroughbred camels, made the most precious cargo. Those with missing ears or noses were best avoided, branded as runaway slaves and a bad investment.

Abhorrence at the slave trade was one of the rare issues uniting both Russian and British players of the Great Game. Their sense of powerless pity at leaving countrymen languishing in bondage is often palpable and heart rending. Russia habitually cited her estimated 5,000 abducted nationals as moral justification for expansionary moves in the area. British officers frantically scrambled to neutralise this excuse. In 1840, Lt Richmond Shakespeare secured the release of 416 Russian slaves from the Khan of Khiva, even prising a favourite beauty, earmarked for the Khan's harem, from a recalcitrant vizier. He was rewarded with an official Russian receipt and the opportunity to lecture an astonished band of slavers on the evil of their ways. His Khivan attendants, appalled by the heathen Russian court of unveiled women, pig-eaters and idol worshippers, whispered a sympathetic prayer for the freed slaves before heading back home across the desert wastes.

In 1863 slavery was finally outlawed in the Khanate of Bukhara and Russia's civilising mission was vindicated for all to see. Yet barely four years later, when a visiting American diplomat purchased a slave boy from an incorrigible Bukharan entrepreneur, later presenting him to the Tsar, it was clear that old traditions died hard in the slave capitals of Central Asia.