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New Texts Out Now: Mostafa Minawi, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz

Mostafa Minawi, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa, Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz (Stanford University Press, 2016).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mostafa Minawi (MM): I did not set out to write this book. I was not particularly interested in questions of diplomacy, international Law, or even empire. I was interested in the lived experiences and life worlds of Ottomans during a time of transition from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. I started following one man who lived through this turbulent world, a Damascene Ottoman living in Istanbul by the name of Sadik al-Mouayad Azmzade. As I followed this man on his trips to central Africa and the Hijaz, I came across a very important development in late-nineteenth-century history: Ottoman attempts at what Istanbul identified as a new form of “colonial” expansion into central Africa. It was too important to ignore, so I put off my research about the lives of people, and switched my focus to the world of diplomacy, international law, and competitive colonialism.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MM: This is the first book to tell the story of the Ottoman Empire’s expansionist efforts during the age of High Imperialism. By following archival leads across Europe, Africa, and Arabia at the close of the nineteenth century, it takes the reader from Istanbul to Berlin; from Benghazi to Lake Chad Basin to the Hijaz, and then back to Istanbul in the process turning the spotlight on the Ottoman Empire’s expansionist strategies in Africa and their intercontinental implications on the empire’s increasingly vulnerable African and Arabian frontiers.

It argues that the Ottoman participation in the Conference of Berlin (1884-85) and subsequent involvement in an aggressive inter-imperial competition for colonial possessions in Africa were part of a self-reimagining of this once powerful global empire. In so doing, it redefines the parameters of agency in late nineteenth century colonialism to include the Ottoman Empire, and turns the typical framework of a European colonizer and a non-European colonized on its head. Most importantly, it offers a radical revision of nineteenth century Middle East history by providing a counter narrative to the "Sick Man of Europe" trope, challenging the idea that the Ottomans were passive observers of the Great European Powers negotiations over solutions to the so-called Eastern Question.

Methodologically, this book relies on documents from Turkey, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Syria, and London and uses a unique research method, that of following an Ottoman official on his missions in Africa and Arabia, to piece together Ottoman trans-imperial strategy.   This meant hundreds of pieces of paper, that might not seem related at first, but with the use of a simple computer program and triangulation methods, I was able to uncover a whole project of Ottoman expansionism and resistance to European colonial hegemony that has never been written about before, as such.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MM: I have tried to reconstruct an inter-continental world of global imperialism, instead of one that takes national boundaries and area-studies silos as the main guide to the study.  The result is a new kind of book, which will be of use to contingents that rarely overlap, essentially Africanists, Europeanists, Imperialists, and Middle East historians (Ottomanists in particular).  This part is part of a growing body of research that considers intercontinental approaches to empire and brings previously isolated study of the Middle East into larger discussions of world/global historiography.

First, this book talks to fellow Ottomanists. It asks them to take a large step away from the narrow orbit of questions we have dared to ask about the Hamidian period so far and debates we have been having (such as center-periphery debates, colonial or not-colonialism debates, decline or transformation, reform or Westernization debates, etc…) and to start to shed some of the baggage we have inherited. When I read scholarship rich with novel theoretical constructs and creativity methodologies in South Asian history and Latin American history and think to myself, why can’t we as historians of the Ottoman Empire also break free from the self-conscious debates and defensive navel gazing that have limited us for so long and dare to jump into our vast state archival records without the weight of older Ottoman historiography limiting our creativity. The field is reaching a level of maturity that allows us to step well beyond the traditional questions and to let the records lead us to new discoveries about the recent past. What we will find might surprise us–in this case Ottoman expansionism in the late 19th century– and will also make us more vulnerable to criticisms from some who are not ready for radical or novel arguments. However, I strongly believe that we cannot afford to limit ourselves to intra-field debates anymore. Stepping beyond field-specific discussion, we have to engage in discipline-wide debates on the theoretical, methodological, and historiographical levels.  Our relevance as historians depends on it.

Second, this book asks fellow historians of the empire-state to take the empire on its own term; it administers and/or rules a vast area which covers several continents that have a multitude of nodes of power across the spectrum of state and non-state actors from the local to the imperial, while ALSO having a strong administrative and diplomatic center in the metropole–Istanbul. It is not one or the other. It is complicated, very messy, utterly flawed, brilliant, and highly non-uniform. One or two models of Empire will simply not do, and we need to stop trying to squeeze the entirety of the breathtakingly large forms of empire making into this or that imperial model.

Third, I want to reach scholars of imperial history, from French to Japanese imperialism, not to advocated for the inclusion of the Ottoman Empire in studies of comparative imperialism, but to include it as part of a history of simultaneous imperialisms, overlapping and diverging in methods and repertoires of power–taking the advice of Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper seriously and echoing the suggestions of Ottoman history’s own Christine Philliou and Alan Mikhail amongst others.

Fourth, I want to reach scholars and students who study the history imperialism in Africa, to consider Ottoman involvement seriously and figure out how this would change what we know about colonialism.

Finally, I have tried to address both Ottomanist and non-Ottomanists. I have spent a valuable portion of the word count allowed in today’s publishing world, in order to provide summary Ottoman imperial, as well as African local and Hijazi provincial historical backgrounds. The goal is to make this book accessible to non-specialists who might not know about the Ottoman context as well as specialists who don’t know enough about the histories of the Lake Chad Basin and the Hijaz.

J:  What other projects are you working on now?

MM: My current research project focuses on the life and work an Ottoman officer and diplomat who lived in Istanbul but travelled extensively in Africa and Europe. Currently, I am writing an annotated translation of one of his travelogues that he wrote on a journey to Addis Ababa, tentatively titled An Ottoman Officer and a Gentleman in East Africa. This is the first part in what I envision to be a three-part research project. The second part will be a contextualized biography, a sort of life and times of this Victorian Age Arab-Ottoman gentleman who lived in Istanbul, Damascus, Beirut, Sofia, Berlin and Hijaz and travelled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The third will be an in-depth exploration of Ottoman-Ethiopian relations as the two empires faced looming European colonialism during the age of High Imperialism. It is tentatively titled; The Road from Addis Ababa to Jerusalem Goes Through Istanbul.

I also believe that as educators who happen to work in a very troubled part of the world, it is part of our responsibility to get involved wherever/whichever way we can. So I have been working on several projects to help displaced scholars and students in the region. The latest project is in cooperation with the Jusoor Syria folks to raise money for students in the Zaatari camp to attend university in Jordan. For more info:

Excerpt from “Old Empire, New Empire”

Can an Old Empire Learn New Tricks?

New imperialism assumed that territorial expansion was the only way to guarantee global power in what increasingly resembled a zero-sum game played by Europeans on African lands in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. What brought on the shift to new imperialism? Historians have mostly focused on the British and French models for answers.

Some of the most common explanations for the acceleration of colonial competition are economic: the turn to new imperialism is thought to have come about because of the failure of so-called gentlemanly colonialism, the exploitation of local resources through a network of negotiated partnerships with local intermediaries. By the 1870s, failure to transfer resources and solidify local institutions as means of entrenching long-term colonial interests in Africa and Asia had proven detrimental to the colonial project. By 1880, having local intermediaries do the “dirty work” of the colonial masters had lost its purchase and a new, expensive, and dangerous method of protecting the metropole’s commercial interests had to be implemented. This meant direct or near direct occupation of the territories. The colonization project could no longer be justified economically; it needed a “moral” argument to bolster calls for increasingly dangerous and expensive endeavors. The new focus on a moral justification for colonialism becomes more explicit in the French case.

Some historians have investigated the motivations behind this late nineteenth-century brand of expansionist imperialism by probing the logic of French colonialists. Their main refrain was that the Maghreb—namely, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—formed the core of the North African French Empire while sub-Saharan Africa was assigned the role of the empire’s “hinterland.” Ideological and material motivations seemed to work hand in hand as the mission to “civilize” the colonial subject, the colonies’ economic viability, and the economic prosperity of the metropole became one and the same. The involvement of the Ottoman Empire is especially relevant for understanding French colonial ambitions in Africa. The French dream of connecting Senegal and western Sudan with French possessions in North Africa came up against the Ottoman expansionist dream, whose epicenter was the Lake Chad basin.

As late as 1880, about 80 percent of the African continent remained free of foreign rule. However, new imperialism resulted in accelerated colonial expansion in the 1890s to such an extent that by World War I only Liberia and Ethiopia remained free of direct colonial control. In 1883, with French expansion in the northwest and the British invasion of Alexandria in the northeast, the race to partition Africa among the European powers, commonly referred to as the “scramble for Africa,” shifted into high gear.24 Many historians believe that the terms of this scramble were set by British-French rivalry, which began in 1882, reached its apex with the Fashoda Crisis in 1899, and ended with the Entente Cordial of 1904.  But some judge this explanation too simplistic, pointing to the fact that French colonization of western Africa began in the late 1870s and that the British occupation of Egypt did not pose a threat to French interests, which were secured in West Africa, Algeria, and Tunisia. These historians point instead to Paris’s obsession with accessing the fabled economic wealth of sub-Saharan Sudan, which led them to push further east, triggering a massive French investment in the colonization of Africa in the early 1880s.

Despite the efforts of scholars to distill the shift to new imperialism down to a single explanation, this has proven impossible. However, historians and theoreticians of imperialism—from Lenin to Hobsbawm—do for the most part agree that this period of accelerated colonial expansion was indeed the apex of global imperial competition.  What is much more difficult to agree on though is the set of complex human motivations—collective and individual—that have fueled this race for territorial expansion. Perhaps only by acknowledging the near impossibility of understanding the “complexities of human motivation,” can we begin to build a more comprehensive picture of the storied motivations behind colonialism in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Ottoman Empire’s reasons for colonial expansion were no less complex than those of the British and the French. A number of factors, economic, political, and ideological, do not add up to a coherent explanation for its participation in the scramble for Africa in terms of clearly defined long-term goals of Sultan Abdülhamid II, his Yıldız Palace advisors, and the various stakeholders in the Mabeyn and the Sublime Porte. Whether it was imagined economic gains, geopolitical advantages, or the empire’s “moral duty” to lead fellow Muslims in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa who had yet to “benefit” from “modern progress” toward a better future, there was no shortage of opinions in newspapers and government correspondence.

With the advantage of hindsight, I believe I can offer an interpretive reading of events to conclude that what was not explicit at the time was perhaps more illuminating of Ottoman motivations than what was explicit; for the truth of the matter is that the last two decades of the nineteenth century afforded the empire a unique incentive in its position as straddling the quickly ossifying divide between rulers and ruled in the world. It was a time when an empire had to participate in the new system of imperialism or risk becoming a “fair target” of European colonialism. The period immediately after the Conference of Berlin offered a short window of opportunity for the empire to liberate itself from the defensive position it had found itself in after the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878.

Domestic Reforms, Global Ambitions

Struggling with financial deficits as well as an influx of refugees from lost territories in the Balkans, North Africa, and the Caucasus and a restive Muslim population dissatisfied with the concessions the Ottoman state had made to the European powers, the Ottoman imperial government undertook a broad array of domestic reforms. In the mid-1970s, after decades of portrayals of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s rule as rolling back Tanzimat-era reforms, historians began to take seriously the extensive social, bureaucratic, agricultural, and urban reform programs instituted during this period, finally revealing a complex government apparatus whose flexible techniques of governing ensured the survival of the empire in the latter part of the long nineteenth century. Since then, many scholars of the Ottoman Empire have continued to fill in this more nuanced picture34 with evidence that the Hamidian regime worked hard to promote a common signifier of “Ottoman-ness” among the various officially recognized “nations” of the empire. Starting in the 1880s, the palace mobilized the rhetoric of a common Ottoman identity as a way to move the Ottoman population from a “passive” and unquestioning loyalty to the sultan to an “active” engagement in a new, carefully orchestrated domestic Ottomanism model. Toward the end of his life, the sultan spelled out the difficulty of his task: “If there were ever a region in the world that never resembled another, it was our poor country. How could I have united the Armenian with the Kurd, the Turk with the Greek, the Bulgarian with the Arab?”

Although the Hamidian-era domestic efforts in the 1880s and 1890s have been well studied, the Hamidian government’s foreign policies after 1878 and their impact on the strategies followed on the Ottoman Empire’s frontiers have received very little attention. Only a small amount of comprehensive scholarship in European languages has explored the Ottoman perspective, even on issues as necessarily entwined with the fate of the empire as the Eastern Question—what to do about the Ottoman Empire without upsetting the European empires’ delicate balance of power.

Some historians whose focus is on the global South have pointedly criticized the Eurocentrism in theories of empire in both early modern and modern periods. This book gives Ottoman imperial history a place in a new kind of global history, one that attempts to move beyond the limitations and assumptions of area studies to explore global trends in imperialism and “webs of inspiration and influence which shaped the historical experience of both colonizer and colonized” across empires. Despite recognition of the need to consider the colonization schemes of non-Western empires, the Ottoman Empire barely receives a passing mention. Scholarship outside of Ottoman studies continues to subscribe to the belief that the empire in the late nineteenth century was at best a defensive one, and indeed, the “Sick Man of Europe.” In diplomatic histories of the period between the Congress of Berlin and World War I, little is ever said of the role Istanbul played except to highlight the sultan’s impotent response to the blatant European disregard of the empire’s territorial integrity or to show that the empire was a tool of European imperial rivalry.43 The Ottoman Empire is mostly relegated to the position of silent observer, whose territories were merely bargaining chips in negotiations between the Great Powers.

The reality is that Ottoman diplomats were back in Berlin in 1884, not to discuss the division of Ottoman territory or to hand over the fate of part of its population to a European power. They were there to represent the empire as one of the imperial powers deciding on the rules governing the division of Africa. Only five years after the Conference of Berlin and the loss of much of the Balkan provinces, the empire was back in the game of inter-imperial diplomacy. Its ambassadors, foreign ministers, grand viziers, and even the sultan himself made its position clear on the international stage as they fought for what they believed was their “sphere of influence” in Africa.

Sources play a part here, for even though the Ottoman Archives have been used as a source for over seven decades, research on the history of the Ottoman frontiers in Africa has mostly relied on Italian, English, French, and Arabic records, with the notable exception of the work of Abdurrahman Çaycı and Ahmet Kavas. This book also helps to reverse this trend by relying mostly on Ottoman archival sources together with British archival sources and Arabic and Ottoman-Turkish contemporary newspapers, journals, travelogues, and other publications. The Ottoman Archives bring a new perspective to the logic of Ottoman imperial competitive policies along the empire’s southern frontiers.

[Excerpted with permission of the author. (c) Stanford University Press.]

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