Eunuchs are men who have been castrated. I’m not going to delve into the various ways this is done because it is stomach-turning stuff. I will say that there are varying degrees of castration, from having the testicles rendered inoperable to having everything, including the penis, removed. If for any reason you would like more detail, just use your favorite search engine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Most of what I knew about eunuchs before this post, I learned from lurid 1970s novels about innocent women ending up in Turkish harems. In those novels, the sultans used eunuchs to guard and care for the harem women because they couldn’t have sex. With a little research I learned that there is a long history of castration in many cultures for various reasons. I was surprised by how common this was and the huge number of eunuchs throughout history.
One reason was the harem thing. Another was all about power. Slaves captured in raids were removed from their families and castrated so they could not create their own family. This was supposed to make them loyal only to their new owner. In China, eunuchs were the only men allowed in the Imperial Palace for dynastic reasons. If they couldn’t have their own family, they couldn’t use their access to the emperor to try to form their own dynasty.
For a relatively short span of history, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, boys were castrated in order to preserve their singing voices. Known as castrati, they were the rock stars of their day.
An important consideration is who made the decision about the castration. In the case of slaves, of course they had no say in the matter, and the high death rate from the procedure only served to show how unimportant the slaves were. The desperately poor often made the decision to be castrated in order to be allowed the opportunity to work more closely with country leadership and gain a better financial standard of living.
Because castrati needed to be castrated between the ages of eight and twelve, that decision was made by the family, not the boy being castrated. The potential for riches, fame and influence undoubtedly played a big part in that decision, but only a small percentage of the boys ever realized that potential.
From the variety of eunuchs in history, I’ve chosen to highlight three.
- Zheng He (1371-1433) – I’ve written about Zheng He before in a post about The Cure for Scurvy. Zheng He was from a Muslim family and was captured by the Chinese Army in 1381. He was ritually castrated and became an imperial eunuch. He became a trusted advisor to the Emperor and was appointed commander of a fleet of more than 300 huge treasure ships with crew of approximately 28,000. By comparison, Columbus had three ships and 90 crew. Zheng He commanded seven voyages and died at sea on a return trip to China.
- Judar Pasha (unknown-1606) – Judar Pasha was Spanish, but was taken as a baby by Muslim raiders looking for slaves. He was castrated by his owners. Judar Pasha became a Moroccan military leader and conquered the Songhai Empire, the largest empire in Africa. He crossed the Sahara Desert with 5,000 men and in 1591 faced 40,000 of the enemy. Although outnumbered, they defeated the enemy by using guns rather than those old-fashioned swords and spears. In 1606 he was executed during a power struggle between potential emperors.
- Farinelli (1705-1782) – Born Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi in Italy, Farinelli’s family was financially secure until his father died when he was twelve years old. Because he had a lovely singing voice, his family decided he should become a castrato. Although these castrations were illegal at that time, the family made the common excuse that that castration was necessary because of a horse riding accident. Farinelli became rock-star famous throughout Europe. He spent nine years with King Philip V of Spain, singing to the king every night in an attempt to alleviate the king’s depression. He then retired and eventually died of natural causes.
So next time you’re reading some history or watching Game of Thrones, now you know how common eunuchs were throughout history.