The Ottomans and the Partition of Africa
The history of the partition of Africa has thus far been studied primarily from the point of view of the imperial powers, and secondarily from the perspective of the countries and people colonized. However, there has been an almost complete absence of study of the Ottoman presence in Africa. This is undoubtedly because the Ottomans, in the eyes of Europeans, belonged neither to one group nor the other; they were not colonized in the strict sense of the term, but neither were they the leaders of an imperialist machine on a European scale. In the eyes of their ex-subjects the Ottoman period has remained marked as a period of decline and degeneration. With the Turks themselves, with some notable exceptions like Abdürrahman Çaycı and Cengiz Orhonlu, Ottoman Africa has received only derisory attention and researchers concentrate their efforts on the Balkans, Anatolia, or the Arabian Peninsula.
The space we have does not make it possible to present in extenso the policy of the Ottoman government regarding the partition of Africa. This work will thus try to describe the greater axes of Ottoman thought in this area:
First: Ottoman statesmen were conscious of the fact that the military resources at their disposal were very limited. That imposed a ‘legalist’ attitude in relations with the Great Powers.
Second: The arguments advanced by the Ottomans always rested on two guiding principles; rights emanating from historical title, and the concept of ‘precedent'.
In any contact with the Great Powers Ottoman statesmen endeavored to prevent the establishment of precedents which could provide their adversaries the opportunity to interfere in the internal affairs of the State.
Inversely, they continuously sought precedents which would offer to them the opportunity to advance the argument of historical rights or title. All of this required considerable attention to the field of international law. On this subject the legal advisers of the Sublime Porte showed themselves extremely skillful, and the Porte underlined at every opportunity that it was member of the Concert of Europe.
This article proposes to present cases which summarize the application of Ottoman policy, according to documents recently opened to researchers in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul. The question will be treated in three parts; Tripolitania, Central Africa, and the Western coasts of the Red Sea (Afrika-ı Osmanî).
Ottoman Tripolitania and Franco-Ottoman Relations
After the French occupation of Algeria in 1830 and especially after its invasion of Tunisia in 1881, followed by the occupation of Egypt by Britain in 1882, the Ottomans again seriously took in hand their policy concerning this remote province. Their efforts aimed at the re-establishment of Ottoman power in this last territory in the Maghreb.
In order to reform the administration in this hitherto neglected country, the government undertook considerable investment, in spite of its limited financial and human resources. In competition with France, which sought to divert the routes of trans-Saharan trade towards Tunisia and Algeria, Tripoli sought to restore its links to the three centers of Saharan trade: Marzuq, Ghadames, and Bornu.
In 1875 Ottoman power was restored in Ghat, which, answering the call of the merchants of this strategic crossroads of caravans, was established as an Ottoman kaza. Moreover, in 1877 the government prohibited any journey by Europeans beyond Tripoli, except for those who were carrying official Ottoman passes. Among the three trans-Saharan commercial centers, Marzuq was in decline, but Ghadames was thriving thanks to its role as indispensable intermediary on the roads to Chad, especially for the African pilgrimage to Mecca. But of these three, Bornu was by far the most important to Istanbul. The ties between Bornu and the Ottoman Empire had been very tenuous since the sixteenth century, when the Ottomans had organized the troops of the Sultan of Bornu. Like the two other centers, Bornu was an important center of the slave trade, which was prohibited by the Ottoman government in 1847. The bonds between Bornu and Istanbul, though symbolic, were of a surprising longevity; in 1890 travelers in the area reported that the Ottoman flag beat on the ramparts of the palace of the Sultan of Bornu . Indeed in 1886 the Sultan of Bornu affirmed his bonds with Tripoli in a letter sent to the Paşa of that city and addressed to Sultan Abdülhamid II.
All things considered, the relations between the Ottoman Government and the commercial centers of the Sahara depended on the free passage of the goods of the Chad Basin to the ports of Tripoli and Benghazi. This is precisely the basis of Franco-Ottoman competition in the Sahara. When French colonialism began its penetration into this region it benefited from Ottoman experience. It was initially by simple diversion of the trade that France intended to establish its influence. It was only after 1880 that more ambitious projects would be launched.
However, neither the French nor the Ottomans could impose their will in this region governed in fact by its own laws. In 1881 the mission of Colonel Flatters failed spectacularly, and the grand projects for the connection of French Algeria to French territories in Central Africa by railroad were abandoned. In February 1881, Flatters and his tirailleurs were massacred by the Tuaregs on the Hoggar Plateau. Five years later on October 14, 1886 the Ottoman garrison of Ghat shared the same fate. Towards the end of the1880s Franco-Ottoman relations in the Sahara were at an impasse and Istanbul had ended up accepting that final establishment of Ottoman power in the desert was not in conformity with local realities. In France the negative publicity caused by the Flatters catastrophe had deferred sine die any global project for the Sahara. The Franco-Ottoman impasse would be broken only after the crisis of Fashoda in 1898.
The Emergence of the Italian Danger in Tripolitania
Contemporary literature on Italian pretensions in Tripolitania admit the existence of serious intentions on the part of Italy only after the beginning of the 20th century. But new documents recently placed at the disposal of researchers show us that Ottoman suspicions of the Italians go back to at least 1884.
A memorandum from the vilayet of Tripoli dated August 15, 1884 noted that members of the Senusi tarikat were continuously using their influence on behalf of the Sublime Porte. Regarding education, they exerted a civilizing influence on the nomads, and they advised obedience to the Caliph and not to intruders. Certain “harmful influences” emanating from abroad sought to sow discord between the tarikat and Ottomans by implicating the dervishes in intrigue against the Ottomans, but the Vali stressed that the order remained loyal to the Government. The Sublime Porte replied on September 15, 1884. The Sultan had decreed the granting of 1000 kuruş to the chiefs of the tarikat to reward them for refusing the offers of honors and gifts from the Italians. The Minister of the Interior commented that their attitude was all the more laudable in that the gift carried by the Italians to Jaghbub, the headquarters of the tarikat in open desert, was a porcelain tea set consisting of a great number of pieces and being worth more than a thousand Turkish lira!
The Italian danger continued to worry Ottoman statesmen. A report of the Council of Ministers of April 28, 1885 noted that according to information received from the Ottoman chargé d' affaires in Rome, the latest Italian military preparations could be a mobilization for the invasion of Tripolitania. The opinion of the ministers was that behavior of this kind was a direct infringement of international agreements and international law and that the Ottoman government should protest to the other powers. However, simple protests were of little value and could even provoke a fait accompli by Italy. Therefore, the government should undertake serious measurements for the defense of Tripolitania against possible Italian aggression. If not, one risked a fait accompli which could unchain a “domino effect" by encouraging other powers to seize Ottoman possessions in Africa.
An Ottoman Explorer in Central Africa
With the intensification of the Powers’ competition for African territory in the last decade of the century, the Ottomans undertook a policy of pan-Islamist propaganda in Africa. However, this was to be kept out of the glare in order to avoid provoking reprisals by the Great Powers.
In mid-April 1894, an aide-de-camp of Sultan Abdülhamid II, Ibrahim Derviş Paşa, directed the attention of the Sultan to the activities of English engineers doing cartographic work in Central Africa. Derviş Paşa advised the Sultan to send Ottoman secret agents to the same region, and recommended to him a certain Muhammad Başala, a trader in Tripoli, as the person most qualified to undertake this task.
Başala, most probably a former slave merchant, was in Istanbul and offered his services. As evidence of his familiarity with Central Africa, Başala had written a detailed report of a journey which he had undertaken between 1878 and 1882 as explorer and propagandist for the Government.
Başala began his account by declaring that the countries where he had travelled contained millions of Muslims, who venerated the Ottoman Caliph and could thus be gathered under his flag (the report abounded in optimistic declarations undoubtedly aiming at gaining favor with the Sultan). Başala’s first stopover was the Kawar oasis, where he had long discussions with the notables of this country, all adherents of the Senusi tarikat, and ‘explained to them lengthily and sincerely the generosity and benevolence of his August Master, the Caliph... ' Başala also described in detail the trade of salt between Kawar and the Sudan. From there he crossed the desert to the grand crossroads of the Sahara, Bornu. Başala specified that Bornu was the most important place that he had visited during his voyages:
"Because Bornu was the most important place that I visited during my peregrinations, I gave the most important gift that I carried to its sovereign... The sacred standard of the Caliphate (Sancak- ı Şerif)... He accepted this gift with the deepest respect and ordered that it be hoisted on all holy days, and every Friday... "
Let us recall that European voyagers had reported that the Ottoman flag still waved at Bornu in 1890. During the four years that Başala lived in Bornu, he entered in correspondence with the sovereigns of Sokoto and Kano (in today’s Nigeria) describing 'the generosity and power of Sultan'. In the course of his return voyage Başala encountered a tribe of Hoggar Tuaregs:
"I found them very devoted to our Master and they proudly told me that they still held an Imperial firman from Selim Sultan. Bizarrely, they told me that on a few occasions they had encountered French travellers sent by their government, but who did not carry a firman of passage from the Caliph, and therefore killed them and seized their goods and animals… "
The Tuaregs asked Başala to carry ‘the good news’ to the Sultan. Since Başala had this meeting in 1882, and they were Hoggar Tuaregs, it is possible that these were the same Tuaregs that had massacred the mission of Colonel Flatters in February 1881.
Though painted in rather vivid colors, the report of Başala remains an interesting document because it shows us that the Ottoman Government made an effort keep contact with the Muslims of Central Africa during the most virulent period of imperialism. Although Başala most probably exaggerated to curry favor, he presents information on territories far from familiar to European explorers by this date.
The Ottomans and the Berlin Conference on Africa (November 15 1884-February 26 1885)
It is rather common to see in the literature on African questions declarations that the Ottoman elite were not interested in African affairs. This is without basis, and is the product of a state of mind which uncritically accepts the Eurocentric discourse of the "The Sick Man". The often made assertion that the Ottomans ignored the delimitation of the basins of the Niger and Congo is also erroneous. The delegate of the Sultan to the conference of Berlin, Mehmed Said Paşa, was an active party and was quite informed about the deliberations.
When the invitations to the Conference were sent, the Empire did not appear among the invited governments. The Ottomans, noting that even Powers of second rank like United States and Sweden, which did not have African possessions, were invited, interpreted this as the height of insults. On November 10, 1884, the Sublime Porte solicited the opinion of its legal advisers on the following questions: First: had the Sublime Porte attended all conferences convened since the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris in 1856? Second: Being admitted as a member of the Concert of Europe, did not the Sublime Porte have the right to be invited to all meetings of the Powers? And related to this question: If the Ottoman government did not protest its exclusion to the German government could that not lead to the weakening of its rights acquired in the Treaty of Paris? In response, the legal advisers noted that the Ottoman government had been invited to all the great conferences since 1856. However, conferences of smaller scale, relating to local questions, had met without the participation of Istanbul. The two examples advanced by the advisers were the conference called on Luxembourg in London in 1867, and the Conference of Madrid called to regulate the affairs of Morocco in 1880. In conclusion, the advisers were of the opinion that the Sublime Porte should insist on its participation because it was extremely probable that the acts of the Berlin Conference would extend to questions concerning Ottoman territories in Africa. If the Empire did not participate it could be in difficulty in the future because the conference would settle questions of principles of invasion and occupation. Also, given the great number of participating countries, the Ottoman government could be isolated in the future.
A report of the Council of Ministers dated November 13, 1884, explained why Ottoman participation in the conference was essential, despite the fact that the agenda related only to territories where the government did not have direct interests. A delegate should be present in case the delegates of the other powers should exceed the agenda of the conference and discuss territories in the sphere of interest of the Porte.
On December 2, 1884 Sultan Abdülhamid II ordered that an Ottoman delegate be present at the Berlin Conference, instruced ‘to defend all the rights of the Empire on the African Continent... ’ The reports sent by Said Paşa from Berlin shows us a professional diplomat, following the course of the conference attentively, and not hesitating to intervene when the interests of the Sublime Porte seemed to be in question. On December 4 and 9 Said Paşa sent telegrams containing information on the delimitation of the Congo basin. The Sultan’s delegate reported even the minutest details on the meticulous drawing of theoretical borders over this region that Europeans were dividing without ever having seen it.
Said Paşa also reported back discussions of a possible railroad in the Congo . He also noted that a question about which all the delegates agreed was the adoption of the principle of free trade in the Congo basin and the territories on the Indian Ocean. If the Ottoman government opposed this general tendency it would find itself isolated. On December 13 Said Paşa submitted an additional report on the insistence of the powers on the question of free trade. It stressed that resistance on this point could oblige Istanbul to yield on other more important issues like the exclusion of the sources of the Nile from the Congo Basin. The Ambassador affirmed that obstinacy on this principle would be useless, and that in any case the affected areas contained a very small Muslim population.
Besides, the Islamic prospect was one of the most important criteria from the Ottoman point of view. When the Italian delegate proposed to formulate a general protocol putting all the Christian missions under the protection of the Conference, Said Paşa opposed it vigorously. In his efforts he was supported by Prince Bismarck, who let it be known that he was also against the Italian proposal, and that the issue would not reappear on the agenda . This support from the most influential participant was interpreted in Istanbul as a true diplomatic coup. However, the members of the Council were not of the same opinion as Said Paşa on the question of free trade. A report, after having evaluated the telegrams of Said Paşa, concluded that the Sublime Porte should reserve its point on this issue . All things considered, the Porte deemed that it had affirmed its presence in Africa by its participation in the conference.
The Ottomans and the Doctrine of the Hinterland
One of the principal problems discussed by the Berlin Conference was the Principle of the Hinterland, developed by Bismarck in order to prevent confrontations between the Powers. Any country upon becoming established in any African region was to inform the other Powers. In 1888 this principle was broadened by the Institute of International Law of Lausanne, and became the guiding principle of the occupation of Africa . In 1890 the Sublime Porte adopted the Principle of the Hinterland (Kaide-i Hinterland) as the legal basis for its differences with France on the hinterland of Tripolitania. On October 30, 1890 the Foreign Minister of the Porte sent a diplomatic note to the Quay d’Orsay stressing that the rights of the Empire in Africa, according to historical title and the Principle of the Hinterland, should extend to the majority of the territories north from Chad and Nigeria .
The Ottoman government supported its arguments on the sovereign rights of the Sultan in these areas proclaimed to the Conference of Berlin five years before by the Ottoman delegate and on the fact that none the plenipotentiaries had raised objection there; the interpretation of the Ottoman government of the Principle of the Hinterland in the disputed areas was based on the commercial bonds which existed between the Ottoman territories of Fezzan and Marzuq which were used as the base for all the caravans traversing the Sahara to the Chad Basin. Moreover, the population of the disputed area was almost entirely Muslim. Therefore, Kanem, Waday, and Bornu were the natural hinterland of the Ottoman state .
Not surprisingly, the Ottoman position was rejected by the French government, which replied that the areas in question were ‘non-appropriated’ lands and thus open for colonization . The Doctrine of the Hinterland continued to animate the spirits of Ottoman statesmen. The Ottoman High Commissioner in Egypt (Mısır Fevkalade Komiseri) after the British occupation, Gazi Ahmet Muhtar Paşa, was an ardent defender of Ottoman rights in Africa. The archives of Istanbul contain many of his reports advising the Sultan to oppose the British, who were gradually eroding Ottoman interests in Egypt. One of these, of April 24, 1894, explained at length the extension of European power toward the sources of the Nile. The Paşa advised the government to intervene in the Sudan, to prevent the division of the Upper Nile between Belgian Congo and England, invoking the Principle of the Hinterland. The Ottoman government was to defend its interests in Central Africa against the Congo, English, and German governments, because if the Powers managed to separate the Sudan from Egypt, the Ottomans would be cut off from the Sudan and would be dependent upon Europeans for communications with the interior of Africa. The Sublime Porte should provide geographical charts proving historical title to the Sudan on behalf of Egypt, which in turn had always been nominally tributary to the Empire. The report of Muhtar Paşa is all the more interesting as it envisages the Aswan Dam. The Paşa stressed that the possible construction of a dam close to the sources of the Nile would have a singular effect on entire ecology of the area. A power in possession of this dam could deprive Egypt of its only source of life, the flooding of the Nile .
The Ottoman Empire and Somalia
After the invasion of Tunisia and the occupation of Egypt, the partition of Africa accelerated. The Western coast of the Red Sea was in the 1880s one of the last pieces of the African cake. This area, indicated as ‘Afrika-i Osmanî’ (Ottoman Africa), in Turkish atlases, became an arena of diplomatic and colonial confrontation between the Ottomans and the European Powers. The area was of interest to the Ottomans because it was on the approaches to the Hijaz, the symbolic base of the Sultan’s legitimacy as Caliph of the Muslim world.
New documents from the Istanbul archives reveal that the ‘men of the Sultan’ endeavored to keep their rights in Somalia intact, but had to yield, like elsewhere, before superior forces. In 1882 Istanbul proposed that Somalia be administered directly by the Sublime Porte. In a discussion with the British ambassador in Istanbul, Lord Dufferin, on April 24, 1882, the Ottoman Foreign Minister found Dufferin firmly opposed to any such proposal. In the typical style of English diplomacy, Dufferin indicated that it would not be England which would be opposed to such a measure but rather other European powers, who might be provoked by the dispatch of Ottoman military forces. However, if Somalia were temporarily re-attached to Egypt, which would administer it in the name of the Sultan, London would not have an objection; moreover, ‘that would be a support for the constant efforts of England to protect the rights of the Sultan in the region...’
It should be noted that this conversation took place five months before the British occupation of Egypt in September 1882. The English diplomat had clearly indicated that Britain recognized the sovereign rights of the Sultan in Somalia. But three years later, the same power would find the means of seizing this very territory by systematically rejecting the rights that it had previously recognized. On January 26, 1885, the Ottoman Council of Ministers noted that the port of Berbera on the Somali coast had just been invaded by Britain. The ministers had noted that this constituted a flagrant violation of the sovereign rights which Britain had publicly recognized on several occasions. The same report also summarized the transgressions of the other powers in this region. Italy, which had sent colonists to Assab in the Horn of Africa twelve years prior, now had decided to occupy the port and its environs. The ambassador of the Sublime Porte in Rome had just telegraphed that a thousand soldiers had been embarked on two warships intended for Assab. The Ministers noted that Italy, which had invaded Massawa on the Red Sea in 1884, now sought to connect its various bridgeheads. The same document noted that a ‘Société Bancaire de Marseilles’ (Marsilya Heyet-i Sarrafiyesi) had undertaken the purchase of the area of Sheikh Said in the Gulf of Aden. The Ottoman Embassy in Paris had just reported that a French corvette carrying engineers had set sail in order to study the viability of the project. The ministers’ opinion that the Ottoman government should inform all the powers of its historical title in the area, but also that military measures should be taken to defend the interests of the Porte .
In these three cases of aggression the Sublime Porte sought to emphasize its rights emanating from the past. But as always, it saw that legal argumentation was not worth anything without the military force to put it into practice.
On October 25, 1884, two memoranda exchanged between Foreign Minister Asım Paşa and Grand Vizir Said Paşa reflect the same legal concerns. Asım Paşa noted that the British Foreign Minister, Lord Granville, had informed the Ottoman ambassador in London, Musurus Paşa, that the British government did not recognize Ottoman rights in Somalia, because the Ottoman government had refused to approve the treaty of 1877 between Egypt and England concerning Somalia. Said Paşa responded that the views of Lord Granville were absolutely irreconcilable with the clear rights of the Ottoman government. If Britain did not recognize the rights of the Empire in these territories why had it asked the sanction of the Sublime Porte for the Treaty of 1877? The Grand Vizier recommended the occupation of the coast from Zeyla to Massawa by troops of the Vilayet of Yemen and, at the same time, the search for a solution with Britain. Said Paşa added that this affair was all the more delicate as the Conference Berlin was immanent .
About the English volte-face the Sublime Porte sent very firm instructions to its ambassador in London. Musurus Pasa was to let Granville know that Ottoman sovereign rights did not depend upon an unspecified treaty between England and Egypt. These rights were much older, and were based upon the fact that in Somalia the Ottoman Sultan had been venerated as Caliph of all Muslims for centuries. Furthermore, Britain had recently encouraged the Porte to send a military force to the region, therefore themselves recognizing these rights. The Sublime Porte stressed that its sovereign rights were not prescriptible, and wished that England would return to its former policy .
On January 8, 1886, a telegram from Egpytian Khedive Tevfik Paşa, reported the history of the occupation of Ra's Hafun on the Somali coast in response to an inquiry by the Ottoman government about the continuity of Egyptian power in Somalia. The Ottoman presence was set up in Ra's Hafun for the first time in 1867 and the second in 1875. However, the Khedive acknowledged that Egypt did not have sufficient soldiers or finances to hold Ra's Hafun and that the Egyptian troops had had to be withdrawn .
In the current literature on the diplomatic history of the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century the most frequent posture is: ‘A history of Turkey without the Turks’. However, the Ottomans were not simple observers indifferent to their fate, as orientalist historiography depicts them. They played an active part in the political events of the Middle East and the Maghreb, because they were never colonized in the strict sense of the term. Until the end of the Empire in 1918, Ottoman statesmen were responsible for their acts, their decisions, and their errors, because, although influenced by the Powers, in the final analysis they remained masters of their domain.
However, even in research undertaken recently, we observe the same rather simplistic attitude. One often sees advanced, for example, that the Sultan Abdülhamid II worked towards two contradictory ends: he wanted to be accepted as a member of the Concert of Europe, but at the same time, he sought to promote pan-Islamism. The position of the Sultan was not contradictory, nor even exceptional. The Tsar with pan-Slavism and the Kaiser with pan-Germanism did exactly the same thing. The dose of romanticism was not more marked in the Ottoman case than in that of the other powers.
Moreover, Ottoman statesmen had no illusions about the limits of their power. After the invasion of Tunis in 1881, Foreign Minister Arifi Paşa noted that the Ottoman Empire had clear rights in Tunisia but, ‘rights exists only if they are used... ' (Hak isti'mal ile payidar olur) .
In this framework of Ottoman policy in Africa we can note that what the servants of the Sultan lacked was not sophistication or legal savvy, but rather material power. Given this reality it is too easy to consider useless, even puerile, their efforts to establish historical title and their ‘sovereign rights in the Congo’. But seen in their own context the arguments of the Porte reveal a state completely surpassed on the material level but retaining its political ability. The Ottomans in their African policy dealt with a true ‘task of Sisyphus’, their legal arguments being called into question in each crisis.