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  • The Ottoman Military and State Transformation in a Globalizing World
  • Virginia H. Aksan (bio)

Did the Ottoman state have the capacity (and will) to reorganize and control violence along the lines suggested by Douglas M. Peers's use of the term "garrison state" in his article in this issue? Is it useful to apply such a question to the Ottoman context, when the term itself is generated by the historiography of the better-studied British and European colonial contexts? Perhaps the reason it has not been asked is because of the assumption that Ottoman reforms failed massively, evident in the downfall of the Ottoman house in the early twentieth century. Historians have also had trouble describing the intentionality of the Ottoman "state," a difficulty not easily demonstrable in the archival records at hand. Narrowly conceived, however, I think a comparative look at the period from 1820 to 1857 affords the opportunity to explore Ottoman fiscality and militarism by reading the Ottoman context against that of the East India Company described by Peers.

A recent article on modern Turkey argues that "the Ottoman state was, by and large, a garrison state, in which the waging of war was one of the main factors behind its construction and resulting structure."1 Behind this statement are a number of assumptions that continue to inhabit the histories of both the Ottomans and the successor Turkish Republic, as Peers has admirably set out in his article. There has been little to choose from histories that assume the Ottoman Empire to be a militarized society but render it irrelevant to the tale of British and Russian rivalries or from liberal nation-state narratives that construe modernity as "the magic wand . . . whose touch enabled non-Western societies to leave the past behind them."2 Such narratives persist, not just because of their usefulness to new imperial discourses, but because they have a way of naturalizing violence and locating it in those societies that resist the magic.

In other words, that the late Ottoman Empire was a garrison state is assumed but remains untested. That is what makes it all the more intriguing to compare what seem to be the highly disparate military regimes of the East India Company and the Ottomans in the era from 1750 to 1860. The dates correspond roughly to the expansion of Britain as a global imperial power and the enfolding of the Ottomans as an informal colony of Britain by the Treaty of London in 1841. The guest editors have afforded us the opportunity to seek parallels in the militarization of societies in British India and the Ottoman Empire resulting from the extension of [End Page 259] control, or recentralization of power in the case of the Ottomans, over vast agrarian territories and multiethnic and religious populations.

The discussion that follows focuses on military crises and strategies forced on a dynasty under almost constant siege, externally and internally, after the 1790s, when all Muslim states "faced European-imposed constraints on corsairing, protectionism in European markets, and the threat of bombardment if they failed to accept new 'international' concepts of sovereignty and territoriality."3 The years 1820–57 particularly were a sustained period of external and internal strife that stalled both administrative and military reforms and prevented the working out of some fundamental contradictions of rule resulting from a reorganized military system. The era of crisis led to state bankruptcy after 1860 and a fiscal regime of foreign investors, which I describe below. It was a time when the armies of the late premodern world were at their largest and states at their most inefficient in coping with the increased cost of firearms, manpower, and logistics. Precisely at the time military expenditures were consuming large portions of imperial budgets, the ability of land-based empires to increase tax revenues was on the decline. The Ottomans were no exception in that regard.4

Here I concentrate more specifically on the era of Sultan Mahmud II (1808–39), when the Ottomans revolutionized their military establishment by replacing the traditional, highly privileged Janissary castelike infantry with a regimental conscript army after 1826. The crisis in Ottoman politics and the military arose precisely from the global trends...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-226X
Print ISSN
1089-201X
Pages
pp. 259-272
Launched on MUSE
2007-09-18
Open Access
No
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