In the early 1860s, after Russian conquest of their region of the Caucasus, nearly half a million Circassians migrated to Turkey. Many Circassian women, prized for their beauty, were sold into slavery. This article, which originally appeared in a London newspaper, describes this slave economy in detail, including the speculation that the unwanted children of African slaves and Turkish masters were disposed of by infanticide. This report from another slaveholding society would likely have interested Americans, then embroiled in their own deepening rifts over race and the enslavement of African Americans. Barnum capitalized on this interest and began exhibiting a “Circassian Beauty” at the American Museum in 1865. By the 1870s and 1880s, Circassian women were popular attractions at dime museums and traveling medicine shows.
From the Correspondence of the London Post
There has been lately an unusually large number of Circassians going about the streets of Constantinople. Many of them no doubt belonged to the deputation which came to petition the Porte that their country might be taken under the suzerainty of the Sultan. A considerable portion, however, of the Circassians now in the capital have quite another mission than a political one to fulfill. They are here as slave dealers, charged with the disposal of the numerous parcels of Circassian girls that have been for some time pouring into this market. Perceiving that when the Russians shall have reoccupied the coast of the Caucasus this traffic in white slaves will be over, the Circassian dealers have redoubled their efforts ever since the commencement of the peace conferences to introduce into Turkey the greatest possible number of women while the opportunity of doing so lasted. They have been so successful, notwithstanding the prohibition of the trade by the Porte, and the presence of so many of Her Majesty’s ships in the Black Sea, that never, perhaps, at any former period, was white human flesh so cheap as it is at this moment. There is an absolute glut in the market, and dealers are obliged to throw away their goods, owing to the extent of the supply, which in many instances has been brought by steam under the British flag. In former times a “good middling” Circassian girl was thought very cheap at 100 pounds, but at the present moment the same description of goods may be had for 5 pounds! In fact, the creatures are eating their heads off, and must be disposed of at any sacrifice, however alarming. Independently of all political, humane and Christian objections to this abominable state of things, there are several practical ones which have even forced themselves on the attention of the Turks. With low prices a low class of purchasers come into the market. Formerly a Circassian slave girl was pretty sure of being bought into a good family, where not only good treatment, but often rank and fortune awaited her; but at present low rates she may be taken by any huxter who never thought of keeping a slave before. Another evil is that the temptation to possess a Circassian girl at such low prices is so great in the minds of the Turks that many who cannot afford to keep several slaves have been sending their blacks to market, in order to make room for a newly-purchased white girl. The consequence is that numbers of black women, after being as many as eight or ten years in the same hands, have lately been consigned to the broker for disposal. Not a few of t hose wretched creatures are in a state quite unfit for being sold. I have it on the authority of a respectable slave-broker that at the present moment there have been thrown on the market unusually large numbers of negresses in the family way, some of them even slaves of pashas and men of rank. He finds them so unsalable that he has been obliged to decline receiving any more. A single observation will explain the reason of this, which might appear strange when compared with the value that is attached even to an unborn black baby in some slave countries. In Constantinople it is evident that there is a very large number of negresses living and having habitual intercourse with their Turkish masters—yet it is a rare thing to see a mulatto. What becomes of the progeny of such intercourse? I have no hesitation in saying that it is got rid of by infanticide, and that there is hardly a family in Stanboul where infanticide is not practiced in such cases as a mere matter of course, and without the least remorse or dread.
Source: New York Daily Times, August 6, 1856, p. 6.