With the official death toll having exceeded three hundred, the Soma mining disaster has raised new questions about the conditions and rights of laborers in Turkey. Amidst the darkly farcical internet circus surrounding the rescue efforts, public outcry, and official reaction to this catastrophe, one of the more surreal moments has been the Prime Minister’s citation of nineteenth-century mining disasters as examples of the natural and inevitable nature of mining accidents in general. This statement, which was widely interpreted as a sign of flagrant insensitivity and indifference, also inadvertently raised the question of whether Turkish workers today are subjected to conditions similar to the unregulated industrial economies of European cities prior to rise of labor movements.
Ottoman historians have less to go on when seeking answers to questions regarding the history of workers in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey in comparison with their counterparts. Despite the long history of labor movements in Turkey, the historiography on Ottoman workers such as miners has been relatively thin, particularly among Anglophone historians who have tended to focus on the Ottoman state and its institutions. However, one pioneering figure in the study of labor and miners in the Ottoman Empire was the late Donald Quataert. From the 1970s onwards, he was one of very few scholars writing in English on the topic of workers and labor in the late Ottoman period. His 2006 monograph, entitled Miners and the State in the Ottoman Empire, offered a rare view of the lived experience of miners in Zonguldak during the late Ottoman period.
Donald Quataert passed away in 2011, leaving behind a rich scholarly legacy and having trained generations of students who shared his enthusiasm for the topic of workers and labor. Thanks to Ryan Gingeras (now Assistant Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School), who interviewed Dr. Quataert in 2008 about Miners and the State, Ottoman History Podcast is pleased to bring the voice of this hugely influential scholar to bear on conversations of the present.
Our reposting of the 2008 discussion between Gingeras and Quataert offers a glimpse at what will likely be a scholarly work of interest within the field of Ottoman history for years to come. Yet even more compelling for aspiring students and scholars of labor history during the late Ottoman period may be Dr. Quataert’s remarks about the development of his book project and his research materials, which took him away from the Ottoman archives to the region of Zonguldak itself in search of miners’ voices. This will be inspiring for young historians searching for materials that go beyond the vocabulary of state and industry in their detail about the lives of workers, in order to explore issues regarding the past and present of labor and mining in Turkey.
Ryan Gingeras is currently an Assistant Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. In addition to his 2009 work entitled Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912-1923, he is the author of a forthcoming monograph on the history of drug trafficking in the Middle East.
Chris Gratien is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University researching the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East.
More on the life and work of Donald Quataert can be found here.
Listen to “Miners and the State in the Ottoman Empire,” featuring Donald Quataert and Ryan Gingeras: