November 8, 2013

Fact-Checking A Bumper Sticker

By: Joseph Hammond

Political activists love slogans that can fit on a bumper sticker. Case in point, the gun rights slogan declaring that “free men own guns, slaves don’t.” While this would seem to be a universal truism, the historical record is far more complex.


The Mamelukes or the Ottoman Empire rarely receive a mention in American pop culture, yet, they are names those interested in firearms history should recall. It was Egyptian Mamelukes who first used personal firearms. During the 1260 battle of Ain Jalute not far from the shores of Galilee in modern day Israel that Egyptian Mameluke “hand cannoneers” beat back a Mongol horde (and their Armenian and Georgian allies), the first time a Mongol invasion was definitively defeated in open battle. The Mamelukes earned their place in American history for another reason as well: influencing the design of the ceremonial sword still used by the U.S Marine Corps.

The Mamelukes were slave soldiers who eventually carved out their own dynasty in Egypt.

By the time of the battle of Ain Jalute, we can say the first troops to ever carry firearms into battle were Mameluke slave soldiers. The system of slave soldiers was further refined by Ottoman Empire under the janissary system where again large units of slave soldiers forbidden to marry or grow a beard but, armed with guns were the backbone of the Ottoman state. While the Janissary Corp was technically abolished in 1825, a modified form of the practice continued late into the century in some regions of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, according to T.E Lawrence (better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”), the leading figures of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans kept small numbers of armed slaves as their personal bodyguard. Some armed with swords and others firearms. These were the “allies” in World War I.

Even in the context of American slavery, slaves did own firearms from colonial times onward. In the early colonial era, slave-owners armed their slaves against possible attacks from Native Americans; archaeological digs at later slave settlements have discovered a surprising amount of bullets. Slaves often kept guns for hunting. Thus, the scene in the movie Django where he is confronted by armed slaves is, in a bizarre way, historically accurate. During the Civil War, a few slaves — the number is greatly debated — served on the Confederate side. They usually operated in supporting roles, though some carried weapons, as this New York Times article demonstrates. Fredrick Douglass mentioned armed Confederate slaves soldiers in one of his articles as well. The Confederacy stopped short however of forming large slave units to fight the North. If they had done so they would merely of practice history of two early gunpowder empires the Mamelukes and the Ottomans.

Slaves armed with guns is an unsettling prospect for both those with liberal views and those with statist ones. The idea that slaves would not use their weapons to organize revolts is unsettling insofar as it suggests a strong human capacity to resign themselves to one’s condition. Additionally, the idea that an armed populace is crucial to preserving liberty is weakened by the example of armed slaves.

Yet, freedom is an idea more powerful than armies. During the Cold War, it was ideas rather than arms that brought about victory. Thus, a more accurate statement would suggest that free men can choose to buy guns of their own volition, while slaves are sometimes issued them as property — but, that would never fit on a bumper sticker.

Joseph Hammond is an American writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Revolver image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.