In August 1874, the customs officers at the Istanbul port seized a young black woman named Katerina as she was disembarking the ship that brought her from Alexandria. Her arrest resulted from the heightened measures against the illegal trade in African slaves, which still flourished at the time, despite the country-wide, internationally enforced ban that went into effect almost two decades prior. In that, the customs officers acted on the assumption that being a young, black woman on a ship destined for the biggest ‘human entrepôt’ in the region, she could not have been anything but a victim of slave traffickers. As they continued with her interrogation however, they gradually became aware that Katerina was not a “smuggled slave” as they thought she was, but a member and an employee of the Greek Church, who came to Istanbul with the purpose of taking up employment. Amply disoriented by her answers, the customs police shifted the focus of the interrogation from Katerina’s blackness to her Christian-ness, the core of the problem thus swiftly becoming apostasy than illegal trade in slaves. Taking Katerina’s detailed interrogation report (which also astonishingly establishes her origins as Yorubaland) as its point of departure, this project aims to explore the gradated nature of liberties in the late Ottoman Empire.

Ceyda Karamursel is a Lecturer in modern Middle Eastern history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, with research and teaching interests centering on the social, political, and legal history of the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic. She holds a B.A. in Economics from Bogazici University and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was also a postdoctoral fellow at the Middle East Center.

Respondent: Molly Greene, History