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New Legal Histories of the Late Ottoman Empire

Panel XIII-13, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Over the past decade, scholars have turned to critical legal scholarship as a means to understand the late Ottoman Empire. While previous generations of Ottomanists focused on the sharia legal system, historians have recently begun to study the nineteenth-century civil and criminal legal system and their artifacts to explore the broader transformations of the Ottoman state. New legal histories have emphasized how the administrative and conceptual apparatus of law became entangled with social and economic life. Building on this scholarship, this panel examines how evolving Ottoman legal regimes in the nineteenth century reconfigured the relationship between state authority, political economy, and imperial governance, centering the Arab provinces as a way to reconsider the spaces and spatiality of imperial law. Drawing on diverse Ottoman legal documents, including petitions, court records, decrees, maps, and codes, the papers trace the protean repertoire and evolving practices of late Ottoman sovereignty from carceral biopolitics and Ottoman property law to the language of provincial autonomy and imperial rule. The first paper uses peasant legal claims against absentee landlords in Homs to debunk persistent assertions that ignorant peasants avoided registering their lands because they feared taxation and conscription. It argues that while lawmakers designed new codes to transform land into a commodity, cultivators used them to fight dispossession. The second paper also considers intersections of law and political economy, exploring the conceptual repertoire of provincial “autonomy” in Ottoman law. It argues that most of the concepts used to define governance in autonomous provinces originated in systems for managing revenue and debt. It asks how we should understand the parallel between the transfer of property and the delegation of rule. The third paper continues the history of autonomous provinces, showing how autonomy developed over the late nineteenth century, stimulating institutional development and prodding the Ottomans to incorporate international law into their domestic apparatus. The fourth paper explores another set of concepts traversing sovereignty and political economy. Focusing on changing meanings of the word imtiyaz, it argues that the Ottoman state used concessions to assert territorial authority. Moreover, it studies concession-maps for insight into the lumpy unevenness of modern territorial sovereignty. The fifth paper explores yet a different kind of exceptional legal space: the penal colony. Considering Ottoman plans to build a Siberia-like penal colony in the Arabian peninsula, the paper argues for an expanded understanding of “exile” as a practice of Ottoman government, and even colonialism.
  • Beginning in the 1850s, but especially between the 1880s and 1920s, the Ottoman Empire advertised and granted hundreds of concessions for infrastructure and extraction projects ranging from railway construction to chromium mining to marsh drainage. While historians generally agree that concessions represented and facilitated European financial domination over the Ottoman Empire, most scholars of concessions have focused on specific projects, usually large foreign-dominated ones. This paper argues that rather than being primarily instruments of European empire, we should understand concessions as a way for the Ottoman Empire to assert territorial sovereignty. A growing body of literature has argued that the prevailing perception of Ottoman sovereignty as deficient and diminishing in the nineteenth century does not accurately reflect Ottoman uses of law – from autonomous provinces to nationality regulations – to assert sovereignty both domestically and internationally. This paper brings concessions into that conversation by re-examining what a concession is. First, I explore changing legal uses of the word imtiyaz, which referred primarily to grants of rights to minority communities before it came to refer to concessions. This genealogy suggests that the Ottoman concession regime emerged from a longer, ongoing effort to assert and demarcate state authority, and as such reflected the changing priorities of Ottoman authorities. The paper then goes on to examine the complex of documents which characterized Ottoman concessions. Although we often use the shorthand “contract” to refer to concessions, they were actually constituted by a much broader range of legal artifacts from regulations to corporation specifications to memos. I will focus specifically on maps. Concessionaires were invariably required to produce maps of the concession area, which were to be turned in to the government before anything else. Mapping is important in part because historians have identified mapping as a key tool nineteenth-century empires used to assert territorial sovereignty – and something that was largely missing in the Ottoman Empire. Concession maps are territorially scattered and limited in scope, but nonetheless represent the kind of detail Ottoman authorities supposedly undervalued. If concessions were about asserting sovereignty, how do concession-maps help us understand that project? Building on a literature which views geography and mapping as entangled with law, the paper argues that maps were crucial to the imperial assertion of sovereignty through concessions, while offering insight into the lumpiness and unevenness of modern sovereignty.
  • One of the most longstanding claims of historians of the Eastern Mediterranean is that in the late nineteenth century, peasants registered land in the names of urban and rural “notables” because they did not understand the implications of registration or feared they would be conscripted or taxed if they entered their own names into imperial registers. This claim echoes through specialized treatments of Ottoman property law and the textbooks we use to introduce students to the history of the modern Middle East. This paper continues an existing project to deconstruct this claim with empirical evidence and poses questions about its implications and stakes for our understandings of the nature of agrarian capitalism in the Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean at the turn of the twentieth century. The paper presents evidence from one of the most widely-cited milieus of purported peasant ignorance, the central Syrian grain-producing region of Homs, where large landowners emerged as a major political force in the post-Ottoman period. I present a number of previously unstudied legal cases from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which people defined as peasants protested the phenomenon of absentee landownership at its inception, claiming in official Ottoman legal venues that they in fact deserved alienable title to the land that had sustained their families for generations. In presenting these cases, I reveal the close alignment of particular imperial agencies with aspirational absentee landowners and explore the role of courts in class relations in the late Ottoman agrarian context. I also show the ways in which particular peasant cultivators, especially those claiming to represent village communities, employed the transformed court system and law codes designed to produce land as a commodified object of investment to preclude dispossession. In doing so, I argue that the articulated class politics of the interwar and postcolonial periods have their roots in Ottoman experiences of global capitalist expansion and sovereign imperial attempts to set and control the terms of accumulation. The paper presents legal history as a route to countering European colonial claims of postwar encounter with a feudal society that exclude the late Ottoman experience from histories of global capitalism.
  • Dr. Youssef Ben Ismail
    In the first half of the nineteenth century, most of the Arab territories belonging to the Ottoman Empire were organized as autonomous provinces. Autonomy spelled out different arrangements in different provinces, with autonomous prerogatives ranging from minor privileges to full-fledged hereditary rule. Although the institutions and practices pertaining to Ottoman autonomy varied greatly from province to province, the political language and conceptual framework underlying it remained very much the same. This paper examines the conceptual repertoire of Ottoman autonomy in the Arab world through a close reading of a corpus of appointment (tevliye) and confirmation (ibḳā ve taḳrīr) decrees issued by Ottoman sultans to provincial governors in Algiers (prior to 1830), Tunis, Egypt, Syria, as well as Jeddah and Mecca. In particular, it focuses on concepts pertaining to the delegation of sovereign power (iḥāle, tefvīż, tevkīl) to local governors and to the duty of good governance (ḥüsn-i idāre, ḥüsn-i ḥimāye) which Ottoman sultans impose on them in return. Most of these concepts originally belong to the semantic field of the economy and, more specifically, to the legal terminology pertaining to the transfer, management, and distribution of land, debt, and revenue. The paper attempts to make sense of this semantic affinity, exploring the parallel between the transfer of property and the delegation of rule.
  • After the fall of Baghdad in spring of 1917, the Ottoman Foreign Ministry commissioned a series of studies on the legal status of provinces outside of direct Ottoman control. The Allied military occupation of Baghdad and the capture of Jerusalem forced state officials to reevaluate how the empire would be administered at war’s end. These reports examined the legal status of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Egypt and Sudan, vis-à-vis the Ottoman state. Foreign Ministry international lawyers searched the imperial archives for treaties, maps and other documents that proved Ottoman legal claims to the Trucial Sates, Bahrain, central Arabia, Kuwait, and Aden. In the case of Egypt and Sudan, Foreign Ministry officials traced how administrative “autonomy” had functioned from the era of Mehmet Ali to the First World War. Overwhelmingly, these legal histories of Ottoman sovereignty in the Gulf and Egypt underlined how Britain had exercised various forms of political control over each region and provided an account of the Ottoman-British contest over territory that had not been under direct Ottoman administration for decades or more. Across the board, Foreign Ministry officials criticized autonomy as a method of imperial administration and viewed it as a British plot to wrest Ottoman territory from effective state control. This paper examines European imposed autonomous provinces in the Arab lands, and argued that they stimulated institutional development in the fields of international law, administrative reform, and domestic legislation. I build this argument by looking at the work and legal opinions generated by the Ottoman Foreign Ministry’s Office of Legal Counsel (hukuk müşavirliği istişare odası). By following the trajectory of Ottoman international lawyers, this paper shows that the exceptional provinces spurred the empire to learn and incorporate international law into its diplomatic apparatus, but also to domesticate autonomy from a constitutional perspective. By the 1880s, the autonomous provinces were lumped together as a type of province. Ottoman bureaucrats, international layers and subjects wrote about the autonomous provinces as a constitutional category and a feature of imperial administration, rather than a foreign imposition. The paper concludes with a brief reflection on how the legal work of empire inspired broad public interest among the empire’s subjects in international law and administrative autonomy—which, in the Second Constitutional era, would become one of the main lines of debates between political factions.
  • Lale Can
    In the 1840s and 1850s, the Ottoman central government embarked on legal reforms that codified punishments for a range of crimes, including sentences of exile (nefy, te’bid, sürgün) and hard labor (kürek, pranga). By the 1850s, it began to face a series of crises, which included a shortage of prisons and fortresses to house the steadily rising numbers of convicts and exiles; insufficient manpower for transporting them over long distances; and a lack of centralized planning for putting convicts to work and extracting their labor. By the 1860s, the council charged with creating laws and regulations for the enactment of Tanzimat reforms recommended the creation of provincial hard labor prisons to relieve crowding in the Istanbul shipyard and prisons, and to ease the problem of transportation. The project of how to manage exiles and convicts, however, was an ongoing one and, by the 1890s, was increasingly inspired by the laws and practices of rival empires. In this paper, I examine the appeal of the Russian system, which combined internal exile for convicts and dissidents with hard labor and inner colonization. I explore, first, the ways in which statesmen began to articulate the need for an Ottoman Siberia and, second, why they considered the Arab provinces as desirable locations. Drawing on a range of intergovernmental correspondence, the paper considers what plans to construct new penal colonies reveal about changing understandings of “exile” as a legal and carceral practice, as well as what they tell us about Ottoman colonialism. In exploring these questions, I situate exile within the context of a broader literature on imperial knowledge transfer. I also seek to move beyond approaches that focus primarily on intellectuals, elites, and tribal groups, and to show how exile was part of a repertoire of penal reform that included imprisonment and forced labor. By drawing attention to how widely “problem subjects” were punished via forced mobility, the paper makes the case for a more expansive definition of exile in late Ottoman history.