The Domination of Ottoman Foreign Relations, 1850-1900

Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909)
Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909)

Immanuel Wallerstein posited his world systems theory in the 1970s, suggesting that, in the age of empire and developing nations states, two levels – divisions, if one may – emerged in international relations. The first, the core, consisted of the dynamic imperial nations, who fought each other over control of the second, the periphery, who make up the majority of what is today termed ‘the Third World’. This theoretical model, based on the political economy of capital, provides an interesting framework for the study of the foreign relations of the Ottoman Empire. By 1850, it had declined significantly from its once ‘magnificent’ state under Sultan Suleiman I, both in terms of geographic size and internal strength, resulting in it becoming a member of the second tier of states in Wallerstein’s world system.  This, along with the rise of several European imperial powers, subjugated the Ottoman international experience in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There was, however, a distinct switch in relations between Constantinople and the other capitals of Europe after 1857 that profoundly affected Ottoman foreign policy. This article focuses on such a switch, arguing that Ottoman foreign relations were dominated by, and cognitive to, European imperial interests vis-à-vis one another, and their possessions further east.

European Interest in the Ottoman Empire

The expansion of European capital, which began with the Columbus expedition in 1492, set in motion the machine of the global economy. In order to profit, both politically and economically, nation-states took on the form of empires in order to channel capital back to their homelands. By this process, and in the form of the East India Trading Company in the eighteenth century, the British had accumulated interests of considerable value on the Indian subcontinent, which was at the time part of the Mughal Empire. While British commercial dominance was recognised, London held no political power; this weakness thus tempted expansionist tendencies in other European powers, most prominently Napoleonic France and Imperial Russia. These three empires spent the majority of the first half of the nineteenth century fighting over the access routes to the Indian subcontinent. It was here that the Ottoman Empire came into the fray.

In a similar manner to the Qajar Shahs of Persia, the Ottomans found themselves stuck in the middle of a capitalist war for resource accumulation, the two main belligerents of which were Britain and Russia. Throughout the nineteenth century, both empires attempted to prevent each other from gaining a foothold in the Middle East, fearing the tactical advantage such a foothold would bring. Thus, through the efforts of London and St. Petersburg, the foreign relations of the Ottoman Empire were determined by the imperial interests of Europe, and as these interests fluctuated, the Ottoman international experience became increasingly precarious.

Support for Ottoman Sovereignty

At first, in 1850, it suited the British and the French to uphold the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire in order to limit the imperial ambitions of the Russians. After the demise of Napoleon, the Russians had been attempting to pave a path through the Caucasus to India via a warm port on the Black Sea. Therefore, when the Russian under Tsar Nicholas I encroached on Ottoman territory, the British and the French formed an alliance with the Turks to defend the Ottoman Empire and retain it as a neutral buffer zone between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian subcontinent. This conflict, referred to as the Crimean War, in fact holds many similarities in prelude to the contemporary violence in Ukraine, and its management caused just as many headaches. In fact, certain factions in British felt so strongly that Ottoman sovereignty needed to be upheld that Parliament formed a coalition government – which afterwards, until 2010, was only seen in times of world war – under the Liberal premiership of Viscount Palmerston to ensure an allied victory against the Russians. The Ottomans came out favourably when the war ended in 1856 through the Treaty of Paris, regaining the territory taken by the Russians and, for the time being, retaining Turkish importance to the imperial interests of the British and the French – the latter of whom, having lost out on Indian territory, was making inroads into colonies in Indochina.

A Turning Point

This attitude did not last long, however. As mentioned, the East India Company held de-facto economic control over the province of Bengal as well as other areas on the Indian subcontinent, and while the Company behaved in many ways like state government – by maintaining an army and a bureaucracy – it did not have the absolute backing of the British government, certainly not in a contemporary sense. The Indian nationalist movement thus took its chance to revolt against the dubious political power of the Company, enacting the Mutiny of 1857. The revolt was dangerous enough to British interests to scare Whitehall, who had begun to rely on the supply of capital and resources imported from the Indian subcontinent. Subsequently, the British government established an India Office, alongside the Foreign and Colonial Offices in London, and a Consul-General known as the Viceroy in India itself to govern the Company’s interests. By forming such offices, the British had done two things. Firstly, they had confirmed their domination over the Indian subcontinent, thus warding off the preying tactics of the Russians. Secondly, by decreasing the intensity of competition for India, they had reduced the importance of the Middle East as a buffer zone. Therefore, the need to maintain the territorial integrity of the nations such as the Ottoman Empire and Persia was significantly reduced.

John Tenniel's 'British Lion and Bengal Tiger' (1870)
John Tenniel’s ‘British Lion and Bengal Tiger’ (1870)

This was, the turning point in Ottoman foreign relations. A discussed, the Porte had little autonomy over its foreign policy with the European powers, given the might of imperial centres such as London and St. Petersburg compared to the declining influence of Constantinople. Therefore, the Ottoman international experience changed with the interests of the great powers, such as the de-intensification of the struggle for India. Also, as Britain and Russia became increasingly less suspicious of each other, the former became less willing to confront the latter as they had during the war over the Crimean Peninsula. Therefore, the Ottomans experienced a period of distinct domination that resulted in the systematic violation of both its political and economic sovereignty.

Ottoman Economic Sovereignty

The costs of war, combined with an archaic fiscal system and irrational budgeting, forced the Ottomans into debt contracts with European lenders, the first loan being granted in 1854. Over the next two decades, many more loans were taken out by the Ottomans, the creditors of which began to vary. The British and the French lent a considerable amount and, after unification in 1871, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians also began to buy Ottoman debt. The result of such vast borrowing was that in 1875 the Ottomans were unable to repay the interest on their loans, let alone the debt itself. Subsequently, the Europeans set up the Public Debt Administration, which, as discussed in depth by Murat Birdal, acted as a combination of central bank, treasury and auditor to the Ottoman central government. With such a lack of control over finances, the Ottomans could not afford to defend themselves against foreign encroachment or ever hope to win territory back from its adversaries. The Ottomans’ economic sovereignty was thus vanquished by debt culture and the Turks’ inability to foster a dynamic and productive domestic economy.

The theory in this paper is that such a loss of economic sovereignty was only allowed to happen because of the defusing of the imperial struggle for Indian after 1857. It became of more importance to the British especially to have a financial stake in the decline of the Ottoman Empire – through the direct holding of debt – than to maintain it as a weak but independent sovereign state, as had been policy during the Crimean War. Hence, the foreign economic relations of the Ottoman Empire were cognitive to European imperial interests elsewhere, which, during the latter half of the nineteenth century were in distinct flux.

Ottoman Political Sovereignty

While the economic violation of Ottoman integrity was subtle, the distinct change in attitude of the European powers towards Ottoman territorial sovereignty was not. The Treaty of Paris upheld Ottoman territorial integrity in the Balkans and the Caucasus only until 1876, when the Conference of Constantinople was called by the European powers to discuss how to handle the disintegration of Ottoman power in Eastern Europe amid rising nationalist movements in Bulgaria, Serbia and other provinces. The Conference was provoked, too, by the rising concept of the ‘Eastern Question’ in European, again specifically British, parliaments – i.e. what would happen to the territory of the Ottoman Empire once it inevitably fell apart at the core? The Question in fact became a parliamentary tool, much like Home Rule for Ireland did around the same time, to swing the political battles in favour of particular parties. This was most prominently seen in epigraphs of conflict between Conservative leaders Benjamin Disraeli and Liberal William Gladstone, who regularly clashed on Ottoman affairs. Hence, further fuel is added to the assertion that the international experience of the Ottomans in the late nineteenth century was dictated by the political interests of the European powers.

William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli
William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli

With intent to be seen to be being proactive about the Eastern Question, Disraeli sent his Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury to Constantinople to liaise with the Russians and French among others as to how to reorganise the Balkans in light of nationalist uprisings. The end consensus was that Bulgaria should be granted independence, as should Bosnia, which it might be added, was not a conclusion supported by British ambassador to Istanbul Sir Henry Elliot, who maintained the pre-Crimean War policy of defending the interests of the Porte. The Ottomans, who had just recovered from an internal upheaval of their own – 1876 being the year of three Sultans – attempted to convince the conference delegates that reform could bring successful Turkish rule to the Balkan states, by promulgating the 1876 Constitution on the same day that the Conference published their plans (termed ‘suggestions’). The Europeans, however, in their attempt to pacify the Adriatic and Black Sea Coastlines, remained censorious. The Constantinople Conference therefore represented a violation of Ottoman sovereignty, and precipitated further disregard in the 18 months to follow.

Off the back of the Western European acceptance that Ottoman rule in the Balkans was coming to an end, the Russians attacked Ottoman lands in Bosnia and Bulgaria in an attempt to expand their territorial holdings bordering the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Ottomans, financially bankrupt and lacking the Anglo-French support enjoying during the Crimean War, could not resist the Russian advance, and had to cede the island of Crete to the British in order to get Disraeli to halt the Russian movement towards Constantinople. This conflict, known as the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 sits as significant evidence of the decline of Ottoman militaristic potential.

The subsequent peace treaty, the Treaty of Berlin, was a further violation of Ottoman sovereignty, and exemplified the Anglo-fronted reluctance to challenge the Russians head on, when they instead only intervened at the last moment. The Treaty, signed almost insultingly by the same figures as had signed the 1865 Treaty of Paris, effectively ended Ottoman rule in the Balkans. It granted formal recognition of independence to Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria, whilst returning only a minimal amount of territory to the Ottomans. While the Russians had vied for de-facto control over the region, a group of independent states in the shadows of the ever imperialistic German and Austro-Hungarian Empires effectively gave St. Petersburg the influence it desired. The British unwillingness to challenge this desire, influenced by an uncertain but improving relationship with the Russians, impacted directly upon the Ottoman international experience, suggesting that such imperial interests defined Turkish foreign relations.

Finally, the case of Egypt is interesting to analyse as it clearly demonstrated British violation of Ottoman sovereignty. Despite the rise of the Muhammad Ali faction in Cairo, the Ottomans retained nominal sovereignty – at least in the eyes of the Europeans, if not in reality – over Egypt and the Sudan. Yet the British chose to remain removed from Egyptian affairs until, after the Egyptians fell into debt, they acquired shares in the Suez Canal, which had become an important shipping route. In 1882, after the Urabi Revolt, the British moved to consolidate their investment in the Suez Canal and their hold on Egyptian politics by installing a pro-British Khedive. This removed any remaining claim the Ottomans had to their African possessions, and represented once more the cognitive nature of British policy towards Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire entered the twentieth century with considerably fewer people and much less land than it had started the nineteenth century with, and the Turkish foreign ministry may as well have been relocated to Whitehall, given the lack of autonomy it wielded.


Wallerstein’s theory of core and subaltern states in a world system dominated by capital paints an interesting and relevant picture of the Middle East in the age of imperialism. The Ottoman Empire, between 1850 and 1900 at least, remained a peripheral state, despite fluctuations in its relative importance to the core states. Specifically, the consolidation of British Indian interests post-1857 turned the Ottoman Empire from an essential buffer state into an inconvenience that needed to be disintegrated. Likewise, the rapprochement between Britain and Russia, which would culminate in the 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente, allowed St. Petersburg more freedom to pursue its interests in the Balkans and the Caucasus, which turned out to be severely detrimental to the Ottomans. All in all, the Ottomans were dominated by the European powers, lacking the political or economic sovereignty to defend themselves. This subjugation by foreign forces must be analysed and given precedence in the study of the ultimate decline of the Ottoman Empire. This area of history has, for too long, been dominated by focus on internal political movements such as the Young Turks and Kemalism.


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