Africans in the Palace: The Testimony of Taj al-Saltana Qajar from the Royal Harem in Iran
Historians of African history estimate that between one and two million enslaved Africans were exported from the East Coast of Africa into the Indian Ocean slave trade during the nineteenth century to Arabia, Iran, India, and further east. But, the history of Africans in the Indian Ocean Diaspora is almost unknown. This chapter attempts to begin an historical exploration of a particular population of African women, those enslaved in the court of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (1831–1896) in Iran.
Relying on the memoirs of one of the shah’s daughters, Taj al-Saltana, and on an analysis of early photographs of the royal court, probably taken by the king himself, we can learn a surprising amount about the forms of slavery in a Muslim harem, the power and agency of African concubines and eunuchs, their strategies of survival, and even their individual lives. These insights can challenge Orientalists myths about the Islamic harem and bring the history of slavery in Iran into better focus.