History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Slavery, revolt, and the Zanj


Today we are going to talk about the slave rebellion that Daenerys has set off in Essos.

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During her short time as a ruler Daenerys has proven to be a strong and capable leader.  Whether or not you think she is a good ruler is up for debate (see her refusal to work with the former slave masters of Mereen and the current mess with the Sons of the Harpy) but it is quite clear that every action she takes she takes for the benefit of the common people and the now liberated slave population.


Her blend of populist rhetoric and brutal crackdowns on any proven threat to her rule have ensured that while she may be disliked by an increasingly growing number of people she will remain a powerful force in Essos for quite some time and it is all thanks to the abilities and attitude of the former slave population that has allowed her to rise to power so quickly and with comparatively little bloodshed.

The popular slave uprising Daenerys helped inspire has its historical roots in several ancient slave rebellions throughout history and one of the most famous and bloodiest revolts was the Zanj Rebellion in 863 A.D


As we’ve mentioned before the practice of slavery was nothing new to the Middle East and by 800 A.D black Africans had become one of the largest ethnic groups for slaves.  The Middle East had been undergoing a transition to a plantation based economy during this time and large numbers of slaves were needed for backbreaking field work.  As a result thousands of Bantu speaking black Africans, called “Zanj” in Arabic, were sent to the Middle East to work.


However, as Game of Thrones and most of human history has shown, the combination of large numbers of enslaved people combined with a dwindling ruling class is not a very peaceful mix and in 863 A.D they revolted.


Due to a combination of large numbers, discontent among a large number of Arab peasants, and the surprising leadership of a man named Ali Razi the rebellion was a success and the Zanj were able to carve out an independent slave run state capable of defending itself from encroaching Islamic armies.


Through a combination of populist sentiment and brilliant guerrilla warfare tactics the Zanj state lasted for fifteen years until it was eventually crushed by a larger and better organized Muslim army.

Whether the ultimate failure of the Zanj rebellion makes you nervous for Daenerys’ chances as a ruler in Essos or the idea that a populist slave rebellion can help lift someone to power gives her a shot, it is clear that the slave rebellion in Game of Thrones has worked for now and its ultimate success rests on how capable Daenerys proves herself and how willing the rest of Essos is to listen to her.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Unsullied


Today we are talking about another incredibly capable and deadly organization in the Game of Thrones universe, one that has had a definite impact on the events in the world and commands the fear and respect of men and women across the world: the Unsullied.

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The Unsullied are warrior slaves from the now ruined city of Astapoor and are trained in the traditions of the Ghiscari Empire.  At the age of five, and sometimes younger, a slave boy is chosen to become an Unsullied warrior and is castrated (according to sources everything goes, it’s not a pleasant picture).  At that point they are constantly trained from dusk to dawn to use three types of spear, a shield, and a short sword until they have mastered all of them.  The training is incredibly brutal and only about a quarter of all recruits survive and it culminates in a final test where they must kill their own mothers in order to become full Unsullied warriors.

While the training regimen is brutal it is incredibly effective.  The combination of no testicles and harsh training means that each soldier will not act on the violent and often uncontrollable impulses that many commanders have to worry about when dealing with their soldiers.  An Unsullied soldier will not rape, plunder, break formation, or lose himself to a battle frenzy and will always follow the orders of his commander, a habit that everyone’s favorite Khaleesi has taken advantage of.


We’ve briefly touch upon how the Unsullied were also used to halt the advance of the Dothraki hundreds of years before the books started and the stories of their exploits have only furthered their reputation as one of the deadliest and most competent fighting forces in the entire Game of Thrones universe.


The idea of taking young boy slaves and turning them into a disciplined fighting force is an old one and an idea that came into its own during the 9th century during the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate which controlled most of what we know of today as the Middle East.


In order to help guard, patrol, and expand their empire the Abbasid rulers created entire armies of slaves that they would recruit from various regions, usually ethnic Turks from Central Asia, and move them around and sell them to regional governors in different parts of the empire.  These were the feared Mamluk soldiers and they were just as effective and as brutal as the Unsullied.


A Mamluk was taken from his home around the age of 13 and trained to be a soldier loyal only to his master.  As a rule they were kept separate from the general population, were not allowed to have children, and could not inherit or pass on any property or land they might come to possess.  The idea worked for a while, soldiers who are not fighting for plunder, glory, or homeland tend to be more loyal to their commanders and more loyal to each other, and the Mamluk slave armies played a vital role in fighting off the European Crusaders and Mongol invaders.  However, it turns out that depending on an entire class of slave soldiers who aren’t being paid is a bad idea and eventually the slaves realized they could call the shots.  The ensuing rebellions and dynasties that were established are a topic for another day but it is important to recognize that the need for a unified disciplined fighting force resulted in large numbers of slave boys to be captured and raised as soldiers in a similar manner to the famed and deadly Unsullied of Game of Thrones.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Sothoryos


This week we are going to bring up the slightly touchy subject of slavery in Game of Thrones and to do that we have to first talk about the continent to the south of Essos, Sothoryos.


Despite its small size on the world map Sothoryos is actually very large.  The Valyrians attempted to discover just how big their southern neighbor was but not even a dragon rider after several months of hard flying could reach the end.  The little part of Sothoryos that is known to the Game of Thrones Universe is hot, humid, covered in jungles, and not very accessible to the outside world and while there is evidence of once great civilizations they are nothing but forgotten ruins now.  As a result of the tropical temperature and climate the Sothoryosi (god I hope I’m writing that correctly) can be recognized by their dark skin color.  While many of the show’s darker skinned characters are from the Summer Isles (we’ll include them in this article)

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there is one very notable cast member who is from a city called Naath, a city just off the coast of Sothoryos.

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Missandi, Denaerys’ translator and one of her most trusted advisers.  This brings us to the subject of slavery.  Sadly, Sothoryos has been a favorite target of slavers and traders with no sense of morality since the days of the Ghiscari Empire leading to a large number of slaves with darker skin.  While Denaerys is waging a campaign to eradicate slavery from the known world the trade is still thriving and as long as that happens Sothoryos will continue to be a target.

Sothoryos is Africa.  It’s been alluded to plenty of times by George R.R Martin himself plus the idea of a “Dark Continent” to the south of Europe and Asia filled with jungles and largely unknown or unexplored fits with what many people thought of the continent for some time.


Africa is big, really big and the giant Sahara desert was extremely good at keeping most Europeans from venturing too far south.  However, Africa was not completely isolated from the Medieval world.  North Africa, parts of what we now know as Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt, played an important role in European history since the beginning from Egyptian civilization, which ties into the ancient ruins found in Sothorys, to supplying the Roman Empire with soldiers and grain.  West Africa was home to empires like the Mali empire.


The Mali empire was one of the largest and richest empires of the time.  They built a sub Saharan trade network where Middle Eastern and European salt would be traded for West African gold and one of their greatest rulers was a man named Mansa Musa who was so wealthy that when he traveled on pilgrimage he spent so much money he actually caused an economic collapse.


And finally there’s the East African trade network and early Medieval slavery.  While Europe had limited exposure to Africa on account of the Sahara desert the Middle East was different.  Since they controlled the trade routes to the Indian Ocean they were able to avoid the desert and establish trading ports and connections all across the east coast of Africa.


Unfortunately this meant access to a large market of African slaves, which many Middle Eastern traders were more than willing to exploit.  Granted, slavery had been around for thousands of years before the Middle Ages but the Muslim trade routes and slave trade helped cement the idea that Africa was the perfect place to find the best slaves.  Although certain events and people we will definitely be talking about later took steps to destroy this notion, rather violently I might add, the idea that slavery was “an African thing” was set and continued to grow into modern times.