During the nineteenth century, the place of the Ottoman Empire in the European state system became the subject of continual debate among the major players on the world political stage. Ottoman statesmen were acutely aware of the empire’s relatively weak position vis-à-vis its neighbors and sought to manage this situation while simultaneously expanding the role of state institutions in the provinces. We often see the Ottomans forced to accept unfavorable economic and political arrangements while playing other empires off each other in order to maintain autonomy. From this perspective, the Ottoman Empire sometimes appears as if partially colonized by its powerful allies.
Yet, during this same period, we also observe the growth of Ottoman administrative apparatuses, increased government involvement in peripheral areas such as Eastern Anatolia and the Arab provinces, and the development of new ministries to address issues of public works, education, health, forestry, and settlement. This even included military campaigns to expand Ottoman territory into regions such as modern-day Yemen. Beyond the Ottoman domains, we also witness an increased Ottoman presence both in Europe and also in many parts of Asia and the Indian Ocean that could be considered part of the greater Muslim world. Many even point to a form of “Ottoman colonialism” practiced on the frontiers of the empire.
In Episode #143 of Ottoman History Podcast, Mostafa Minawi discusses the Ottoman activities in one such border region where this expansion of state influence interfaced with the claims of European colonial powers and their encroachment on historically Ottoman regions. During the “Scramble for Africa” period beginning in the 1880s, the Ottomans vied for influence in the region stretching from the coast of modern-day Libya to Lake Chad. This area, which had never been subject to formal Ottoman governing institutions but shared economic and cultural links with the other provinces, became part of the Ottoman claim to a share in the European partition of Africa.
While contemporary observers noted the weak position of the Ottoman Empire at the 1884 Berlin Conference, Minawi argues that Ottoman statesmen took these agreements very seriously. In fact, he argues that they closely followed the legal terms of the conference in order to claim parts of Sub-Saharan Africa as the “hinterland” of their remaining North Africa provinces. Likewise, they tried to hold their European competitors in Africa, such as France and Britain, to these terms in order to stop the contraction of their empire. In this way, they used these new agreements to assert their sovereign position on the world stage.
However, as Minawi also notes, Ottoman activities in Africa went beyond formal claims. They sought to establish telegraph lines and other political and cultural connections with the local Sanusi order in order to lay claim to a tangible presence on the ground. Here, Minawi notes the potential dangers of labeling the Ottomans as another colonial power, because their strategies differed markedly from those of some of their European contemporaries. Rather than asserting themselves as the rightful and hegemonic rules of a borderlands region, they represented themselves to their local interlocutors as alternative allies to the otherwise impeding arrival of European colonial rule.
Ultimately, the Ottomans were not able to protect their claims to African territory. Yet, as Minawi points out, the brief Scramble for Africa episode influenced similar political strategies pursued in the Hijaz and elsewhere during the Hamidian period (1876-1908). This is the subject of a forthcoming monograph that builds on his dissertation research.
Mostafa Minawi is Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University. He is also the director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative (OTSI) there.
Chris Gratien is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Georgetown University researching the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East.
Listen to Episode 143 of the Ottoman History Podcast, “The Ottoman Scramble for Africa,” featuring Mostafa Minawi.