Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.11: Samuel H. Bass, Notes on Encountering Slavery Skepticism in Mongolia

“What was slavery in Mongolia?” “What were slaves called in Qing Mongolia?” These questions are neither meant to be tricky nor asked in bad faith; however, they are as complex as asking “What was ethnicity in China?” or “What were gay people called in nineteenth century Vietnam?” Like any pervasive social relationship, slavery is impossible to define without including exceptions and the definition will still be culturally or regionally specific. Slavery in Mongolia followed familiar patterns: enslavement resulted from captivity during war, being sold or traded to someone (excluding dowry and bride wealth exchanges), as punishment or as a proxy for someone facing punishment, and most commonly, being born into slavery.

Yet, slavery often ended with manumission; my own research builds on the work of Shagdaryn Natsagdorj and Hiroshi Futaki, who used Mongolian testamentary records to show how people used wills to release people from slavery while others would erase their slave status through adoption or monastic offerings. Enslaved people in Mongolia shared at least one common trait: they were forbidden from performing mandatory corvée duties and were thus alienated from membership in society.

Punishments also were heavier for enslaved people. Terminology varied: in testaments of adoption, enslaved people were called “house-boy” (ger-ün köbüd);[1] enslaved people charged with crimes were referred to as “slave” (boġol);[2] and in literature kitad (Chinese) sometimes was used to mean “slave” as well. The terms and ways of describing slavery—in archival sources it is often left unsaid—proliferate.

When asked about my dissertation project, which examines slavery and family in Qing Mongolia, people usually respond with encouragement and interest. But other times I am met with skepticism about the category of slavery in an Inner Asian or a Mongolian pastoral-nomadic context. To paraphrase two representative comments: “what you think is slavery in Mongolian history is actually a different kind of family relationship,” and “slavery in Mongolia was not like slavery in the U.S., you might want to avoid that word.” These comments and presuppositions exemplify a version of the slavery-skeptic view of history.

“Slavery skepticism” is a phrase coined by archaeologist Timothy Taylor. It is a methodology that demands empirical evidence for each claim of slavery while maintaining a belief in the abstract notion that slavery is universal. Rather than presuming that evidence of coercive bondage and labor or acts of manumission are markers of slavery, the slavery skeptic maintains that all other explanations must be exhausted before concluding that a set of sources is describing enslavement. The result of the slavery skeptic view is that one may abstractly say that Mongolian, Seminole, or British Roman society had slavery, but one may be unable to find specific examples and therefore cannot draw conclusions about the prevalence or meaning of slavery in each context, or indeed if slavery is the right word at all. Slavery becomes an ahistorical and unknowable entity. 

The terminology of slavery in Mongolia is cited by slavery skeptics as evidence that slavery in Mongolia was in fact another form of dependence, like kinship or knighthood. It is true that slavery in Mongolia was not like slavery in America. But when a scholar, citing this truism, discouraged me from using the term “slavery” for my project, it led me to ask if slavery in the U.S. was straightforward and not ambiguous and coded like in Mongolia. The answer is that in the U.S. slavery differed from time to time and place to place in a multitude of imperial, linguistic, and cultural systems; terminology varied considerably even in one location, and often used kinship terms like “boy” or “son.” South Carolina coastal plantation slavery in 1850 was different from Chesapeake Bay slavery in the early 1700s and both of those were different from slavery in the French-Fox wars of the 1710s. Similarly, slavery in Mongolia during the Zünghar-Qing wars in western Mongolia in 1750s was different from slavery in Khüree (Ulaanbaatar) in 1840.

There are good reasons to approach slavery in Mongolian history with skepticism: slavery/slaver/slave was a pejorative used to slander Inner Asian pastoral-nomadic people for millennia; nearly all of Inner Asia was subsumed by empires which used (and in the case of China in Tibet, continue to use) vaguely defined notions of slavery and feudalism to excuse colonialism; dogmatic Marxist scholarship produced in Russia, China, and Mongolia in the mid-twentieth century forced categorical  “slave society” stages into national histories. Scholars who left the Soviet Union were eager to show that those historical models wrongly portrayed pastoral-nomadic societies as primitive; they corrected the scholarship to show that from ancient Scythia to modern Kalmykia there existed a range of dependent relationships, alien to modern Euro-American scholars’ understanding of slavery. “Pax Mongolica” scholarship—although a necessary corrective in the field of Eurasian history—tends to downplay the role of slavery in the massive transfers of people, labor, and commodities that shaped early modern Eurasia.

These slavery skeptic correctives have thrown out baby out with the bathwater. Major works of scholarship in Eurasian and Mongolian history were produced in the 1970s and 1980s, around the same time the groundwork for newer scholarship on slavery was being published. Nuanced readings of processes of enslavement, slavery, and manumission in post-1970s histories of Africa, the Indian Ocean World, colonial North America, and the classical world challenged reductive periodizations and definitions. However, the agenda-setting scholars of Eurasian and Mongolian history of that time regarded slavery—usually considered in terms of economic impact or harshness of bondage—as unimportant in the history of the region.

Slavery changed considerably in most parts of the world in the nineteenth century, directly from abolitionism or indirectly through other processes. This is a global history in which Mongolia can be included, even if not directly connected. Mongolia was largely isolated from the abolitionism of Euro-American colonialism, but in a strange parallel of history, slavery diminished or changed into something else in Mongolia in the mid- to late nineteenth century in the same period as it did in most of the world. It is an irony of slavery skepticism that it sympathizes with historical subjects by revising tired stereotypes of barbarism associated with Eurasian nomadic conquest, but at the expense of missing a connection between Eurasian pastoral-nomadic or Mongolian history and global early modernity, and thus withdrawing from world history.

Sam H. Bass is a fifth year PhD candidate in History and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. His dissertation is tentatively titled, “The Bound Steppe: Slavery and Family in Qing Mongolia, 1770-1870.”

[1] The word boy/köbegüd is contracted to köbüd when referring to enslaved people.

[2] The word boġol is derived from the Chinese word for servant or slave, pu 僕.