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The Sick Man of Europe - 1821-1909

The implications of the decline of Ottoman power, the vulnerability and attractiveness of the empire's vast holdings, the stirrings of nationalism among its subject peoples, and the periodic crises resulting from these and other factors became collectively known to European diplomats in the nineteenth century as "the Eastern Question." In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I of Russia described the Ottoman Empire as "the sick man of Europe." The problem from the viewpoint of European diplomacy was how to dispose of the empire in such a manner that no one power would gain an advantage at the expense of the others and upset the political balance of Europe.

By the end of the 18th Century the situation of the Ottoman Empire was deplorable. Nearly all the pachas of Asia were no longer bound to the Sultan except by some tributes and formulse of respect; the Persians and the Kurds menaced the eastern frontiers; the Mamelukes tyrannised over Egypt; Syria was in open revolt; the pachas and peoples of Turkey in Europe appeared to be no better subjected than those of Asia; the anarchy was such, that bands of robbers were formed in the Balkans, Rhodope, and Pindus, which ransomed and ravaged whole provinces : one of those bands having just imposed a heavy contribution upon the second city of the empire, Adrianople. Selim busied himself actively with the repression of all these disorders, and especially with the internal administration of his states, remaining neutral in the gigantic struggle undertaken by the enemies of the French Revolution.

At that epoch, the war of the allied monarchs against the French Revolution had commenced, and the coalition sought to strengthen itself with Turkey. The foreign ministers, and chiefly the representative of England, incited the Divan to break with France, by promising their good offices in inducing Russia to abandon its last conquests. The mission of Descorches, ex-Marquis of Sainte Croix, was therefore to combat the representations and solicitations of the coalesced powers. Owing to his persuasion, the Porte, which had, moreover, no interest to enter into the league of the absolute sovereigns, persisted in its neutrality, and continued to extend its protection to the merchants and establishments of France.

During the reign of Sultan Selim III (1789-1807) the Ottoman Empire began to break its isolation, study European practices and introduce fundamental reforms. Selim created a new European-style army called the Nizam-i Cedid (New Order) and a new treasury called the Irad-i Cedid (New Revenue). Factories and technical schools were opened with the assistance of European advisors. Nevertheless, Selim could not complete his reform schedule since the Empire was preoccupied not only with rising nationalistic movements among its subjects that erupted in the form of the Serbian Revolt in 1804 and a war with Russia in 1806-1812, but also with Napoléon Bonaparte's Egyptian Expedition in 1798-1799.

But the almost continual defeats sustained by Turkey, the ever increasing disorders of her administration, the ideas of independence which agitated Albania, Servia, Greece, and Syria, the continual revolts of the pachas, led Europe to believe that that empire was approaching its end. That was also the opinion of the French Directory, and of its successful general, Bonaparte : it thought that it was necessary not only to prepare itself to take part in the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, but further to take that part in advance, singly, without the concurrence of Russia, and in spite of all Europe.

Western powers became interested and appointed themselves protectors and guardians of the Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire as from the beginning of the 19th Century. Their pressure as well as the desire of the Ottoman Sultan the principle of equality among all citizens of the Empire was introduced. Nevertheless, the French continued to be the protectors of Catholics, the Russians of the Orthodox and Britain and the United States of the Protestants living in the Ottoman Empire. It was however very difficult for the Ottoman reformists to adopt European state norms although significant progress was made in higher education and modernization of the army. The Ottoman State joined the "droite public Europeen" (in other words European Concert) in the middle of the 19th century (1856 Paris Conference).

The first nineteenth-century crisis to bring about European intervention was the Greek War of Independence (1821-32). The Janissaries were destroyed in the midst of a civil war - the Greek Insurrection. In 1827 an Anglo-French fleet destroyed the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets at the Battle of Navarino, while the Russian army advanced as far as Edirne before a cease-fire was called in 1829.

The Porte believed herself at war with England and France as well as Russia, when the latter seized the moment to pour in her armies. Yet already is a force (few and raw indeed) ready to take the field. They were nearly annihilated. A peace is signed imposing a war contribution equal to a year's revenue; her Danubian provinces were occupied, and thus in 1830 she had to recommence the military organisation. Next year there were insurrection in Albania, followed by that of Kurdistan, and immediately afterwards by that of Egypt. The Nizam was again annihilated at Kutayah. Egypt and Syria were wrested from the Porte. The Russians entered the Bosphorus. The Treaty of Hunkiar Skellessy was imposed. The European powers forced the Porte to recognize Greek independence under the London Convention of 1832.

The Porte recommenced on a large scale, planned the incorporation of the provinces in the Nizam, instituted the reserves, and sent young men to Europe preparatory to the formation of officers. The Russian indemnity was paid off, the provinces freed from Russian occupation, the fleet restored, and a body of 100,000 men disciplined. Then again broke out an Egyptian revolt-the Turkish armies are again annihilated, the fleet carried off, and at the same moment the Sultan, whose energy had offered the only hope of restoration, dies - a young and weakly prince ascends the tottering throne. Again Europe gave Turkey up.

Turkish Sultans ruled in Europe only because the various parties that covet their lands have not yet decided who is to have them. But no external aid succeeded in doing more than propping a decaying Power. Not all the wits of all the diplomatists availed to remedy matters. Slowly and steadily the fabric crumbled. It reached a point when no repair was possible, for there was not one inch that was sound in the whole rotten mediaeval structure. On paper Turkish laws seemed fair enough, but not one of them was honestly administered. As for the treaties, conventions, and promises to reform that had been drawn up and ratified, they had only been made to be broken. No lesson taught the Turk. He continued working on the old lines, and has never retrieved a single one of his losses.

The policy of England demanded the preservation of the Ottoman empire: it required that a power should exist in Turkey, strong enough to repel northern aggression, but too weak to interfere with the maritime powers of the Mediterranean. This was the object Canning had in view, snd the end he sought for in his negociations. He saw that Russia waited but the opportunity to undertake her lawless enterprize. He knew that Turkey possessed resources, but those resources wanted developement. Mahmoud was willing to reorganize the power of his people, but tranquillity was necessary for so vast a design. Peace and time could alone restore the exhausted strength of the Ottoman empire : without these, it were in vain to expect any successful resistance from her: with them, she might again become an effectual check to Russian aggression.

Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman officer who had been designated pasha of Egypt by the sultan in 1805, had given substantial aid to the Ottoman cause in the Greek war. When he was not rewarded as promised for his assistance, he invaded Syria in 1831 and pursued the retreating Ottoman army deep into Anatolia. In desperation, the Porte appealed to Russia for support. Britain then intervened, constraining Muhammad Ali to withdraw from Anatolia to Syria. The price the sultan paid Russia for its assistance was the Treaty of Hünkar Iskelesi of 1833. Under this treaty, the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits were to be closed on Russian demand to naval vessels of other powers.

War with Muhammad Ali resumed in 1839, and Ottoman forces were again defeated. Russia waived its rights under the 1833 treaty and aligned itself with British efforts to support the Ottoman Empire militarily and diplomatically. Under the London Convention of 1840, Muhammad Ali was forced to abandon his claim to Syria, but he was recognized as hereditary ruler of Egypt under nominal Ottoman suzerainty. Under an additional protocol, in 1841 the Porte undertook to close the straits to warships of all powers.

Although the reforms proposed by the Tanzimat had long been the earnest desire of Sultan Mahmud, they were not carried into effect until the accession of his son Abd-ul-Medjid, on the 1st of July, 1839. The hatti-she'rif of Gulhane', drawn up by Reshid Pacha as minister of the sultan, was promulgated on the 3d of November 1839, regarded as a part of the Tanzimat, or Reform Bill, or Bill of Rights, or Magna Charta of the Turks ; or rather, the tanzimat was the reform, while the hatti-she'rif was the imperial manifesto which gave sanction and validity to it. Useful reforms were pointed out, praised, and sanctioned; but that no definite rules were laid down for attaining the end desired. It was the expression of a desire, rather than the enforcement of a determination. The hatti required careful wording, to avoid arousing fanatical opposition on the part of the old Mussulman party; and this gave a slight air of contradiction to some of the clauses. The main improvements announced related to the security of life and property to all subjects of the Ottoman Empire, without reference to their religion; a regular mode of taxation ; and an equality in conscription. Most of the clauses relate to one or other of these three objects.

Turkey enjoyed twelve years of repose; but this repose was a result of her success. The rapid concentration and good countenance of the Nizam alone prevented a rupture with Russia in 1844 and with Russia and Austria in 1847, and again with both those Empires in 1849. It has also served to introduce order in the provinces. Thus was Albania reincorporated in 1831, Kurdistan and Serbia a few years later, Syria in 1840. Tripoli acknowledged once more the supremacy of the Sultan. Egypt has again lapsed to the Sultan. In 1851 the Danubian provinces were freed from Russian troops, and Bosnia, the sole remaining province unsubdued, became an integral portion of the Nizam system.

The Ottoman Empire fought two more wars with Russia in the nineteenth century. The Crimean War (1854-56) pitted France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Under the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, Russia abandoned its claim to protect Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire and renounced the right to intervene in the Balkans. War resumed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1877. Russia opened hostilities in response to Ottoman suppression of uprisings in Bulgaria and to the threat posed to Serbia by Ottoman forces. The Russian army had driven through Bulgaria and reached as far as Edirne when the Porte acceded to the terms imposed by a new agreement, the Treaty of San Stefano. The treaty reduced Ottoman holdings in Europe to eastern Thrace and created a large, independent Bulgarian state under Russian protection.

The project of destroying the Ottoman Empire that began with the formation of the Kingdom of Greece in 1828 remained intact for the major European countries namely France and Russia. Refusing to accept the dominant position of Russia in the Balkans, the other European powers called the Congress of Berlin in 1878. In the Berlin Conference of 1878 the Western powers appointed themselves officially the guardians of Christians in the Ottoman empire and advanced the privileges granted to Christians and foreigners. At this conclave, the Europeans agreed to a much smaller autonomous Bulgarian state under nominal Ottoman suzerainty. Serbia and Romania were recognized as fully independent states, and the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina were placed under Austrian administration. Cyprus, although remaining technically part of the Ottoman Empire, became a British protectorate. For all its wartime exertions, Russia received only minor territorial concessions in Bessarabia and the Caucasus.

Britain which had hitherto considered the existence of the Ottoman Empire for the protection of their interests in Asia had changed its policy in favor of creating smaller states one of which would be an independent Armenia. This naturally lead them to encourage secessionist activities among the Arabs and the Armenians. Greece was already coveting the Ottoman lands as they considered themselves as the inheritors of the Ottoman Empire. In the course of the nineteenth century, France seized Algeria and Tunisia, while Britain began its occupation of Egypt in 1882. In all these cases, the occupied territories formerly had belonged to the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire had a dual economy in the nineteenth century consisting of a large subsistence sector and a small colonial-style commercial sector linked to European markets and controlled by foreign interests. The empire's first railroads, for example, were built by foreign investors to bring the cash crops of Anatolia's coastal valleys--tobacco, grapes, and other fruit--to Smyrna (Izmir) for processing and export. The cost of maintaining a modern army without a thorough reform of economic institutions caused expenditures to be made in excess of tax revenues. Heavy borrowing from foreign banks in the 1870s to reinforce the treasury and the undertaking of new loans to pay the interest on older ones created a financial crisis that in 1881 obliged the Porte to surrender administration of the Ottoman debt to a commission representing foreign investors. The debt commission collected public revenues and transferred the receipts directly to creditors in Europe.

The 1860s and early 1870s saw the emergence of the Young Ottoman movement among Western-oriented intellectuals who wanted to see the empire accepted as an equal by the European powers. They sought to adopt Western political institutions, including an efficient centralized government, an elected parliament, and a written constitution. The "Ottomanism" they advocated also called for an integrated dynastic state that would subordinate Islam to secular interests and allow non-Muslim subjects to participate in representative parliamentary institutions. In 1876 the hapless sultan was deposed by a fetva (legal opinion) obtained by Midhat Pasha, a reformist minister sympathetic to the aims of the Young Ottomans.

A very sick man, if he be rich, and his expectant heirs are not quite ready for his death, may sometimes be kept alive for a long time by skillful physicians; and even when in a desperate condition, may be so bolstered and propped up as to inuke himself and others suppose that he is not so very sick, after all. But when body and limbs have become rotten, death cannot be far off. The question as to this sick man is whether he is rotten to tho vitals, or whether his ulcers may be healed by emollients or extirpated with the knife without destroying life, and the system built up by tonics and exercise. This patient evidently takes a very hopeful view of his own case, and has even prepared a prescription for himself, which seems to us a very good one, if his physicians will allow him to take it; provided always that he has strength to bear such a heroic dose. This prescription was nothing less than a Constitution for the Ottoman Empire, proclaimed on 23 December 1876.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:03:51 ZULU