By the beginning of the Cretan War in 1650, Ulcinj had become a significant trading post for Christian slaves. These slaves were brought to Ulcinj after being captured by local pirates on the shores of Italy and Dalmatia, but also from other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Ulcinj had gradually displaced Herzeg Novi, which had served as the main point for the purchase of slaves during the 16th century, as the principle destination for slaves on the Adriatic coast.
Slavery was a profitable business at that time and legally sanctioned. Humans became the most valuable and expensive commodities in the Mediterranean until the early 19th century. In order to staff the competing fleets battling it out in the Mediterranean, leading powers would also resort to slaves, prisoners of war and condemned individuals who were chained to the galleys as oarsmen.
Ulcinj’s population generally kept slaves as prisoners, instead of using them as a labour force, hoping instead to collect ransoms from the family, friends and compatriots of those seized. To do this, they needed to allow those enslaved to report back to their hometowns and families that they were being held captive in Ulcinj and that they could be repurchased at the infamous Slave Market in the Old City. Often the final transaction would occur in neutral territory, usually in Dubrovnik.
In the mid-18th century, the demand for specifically Black African slaves increased. In 1770, Ulcinj’s Ali Basha brought two female slaves from Egypt, while another group that returned from Northern Africa in 1775 brought with it thirteen African male and female slaves. Later, Ulcinj’s residents began purchasing slaves in Tripoli (where slaves from Sudan and Chad were mainly brought). They would then be resold in other ports across the Mediterranean or would be brought back to Ulcinj, where after a certain period of time they would become free citizens working in agriculture or seafaring.
When they gained freedom, they became like any other citizen, speaking Albanian and dressing ‘alla turca’ (including the fez and the loose pants worn by other residents of Ulcinj at the time). These Afro-Albanians would often be given the last names of the captains and merchants that had brought them there or of those who employed them. Others were simply called ‘Arab,’ which in Albanian (and Turkish) means ‘black.’
Increasingly they were integrated into the community, sharing in the town’s happy and carefree life. Even when called upon to serve other sovereigns they did not want to leave an increasingly peaceful life in Ulcinj. As noted by Czech researcher Jozef Van Svatek, who lived in Ulcinj during the early 20th century, Prince Nikola I of Montenegro had offered an Afro-Albanian resident of Ulcinj to serve in his court in Cetinje (due to a reputation for height and strength). He refused the offer knowing that he would be an object of ridicule at the hands of Montenegrins.
This was because Afro-Albanians started gradually living like all other citizens in Ulcinj, in the middle of the city. Ulcinj’s residents, mostly sailors and merchants, had a religious inclination against racial discrimination, given that as Muslims Islam barred such discrimination, and given that Muhammad was an ‘Arab.’ Eventually, some of the Africans living in Ulcinj began intermarrying with the local population, including Zahra (originally from Sudan) who married Haj Khalil Fici, a Major in the Ottoman Army.
Experience had already taught Ulcinj’s residents that one could only survive in this space if unity, equality and solidarity of all citizens was preserved (regardless of who they may be, which race and religion they belong to, or wherever they came from). The main parameter was their contribution to the community.
In this context, it is easy to understand why Afro-Albanians like Ali Arapi and Daut Kalija eventually became naval captains with their own boats. Kalija was the owner of one of Ulcinj’s largest boats as well as a beautiful house with carved ceilings, which was an artistic rarity.
Following Montenegro’s takeover of Ulcinj in 1880, some of Ulcinj’s African population moved to Albania. For instance, the ship-owner Bet Djuli brought with him eight individuals, while Hajji Mehmet Beci brought five. As a result, only around sixty Afro-Albanian residents remained in Ulcinj.
The 20th century in Ulcinj was marked by Ulcinj’s most famous Afro-Albanian, Rizo Šurla, although the community’s numbers overall continued to fall. Today, only one member of the community – Rizo’s sister – remains the only direct descendant of Ulcinj’s African community. Their children have mostly intermarried with others and no longer live in Ulcinj. All that remains in this city is their history and memories, not to mention a large emptiness that has been left behind them.
POSTSCRIPT: The Legendary Rizo Šurla
The legendary Rizo Šurla died in 2003. During the eight decades of his rich life he influenced the life of Ulcinj as a photographer, fisherman and bohemian. He was a boxer and waiter in Zagreb, as well as a partisan fighter on the Srem Front. “He was striking, unusually beautiful, kind of like the famous Muhammad Ali, radiating charm and positive energy,” explains Ulcinj chronicler Ismet Karamanaga. Another Ulcinj resident, Daudet Abazovic adds: “Rizo was truly a symbol of Ulcinj and Ulcinj’s Black community. They were pleasant, friendly and solidaristic. They had a completely different understanding of community and society than what have become used to today (i.e. the narrow and the selfish). You could see this for instance when fishing on the Bojana, where you could always catch Rizo if he wasn’t in his photo-studio down at the Small Beach.” His memory is also preserved in Split’s Hajduk football club, since he served as the team’s representative in Ulcinj. As a result, Hajduk gained more fans and sympathizers in Ulcinj than the very popular Belgrade teams like Red Star and Partizan.