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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27.2 (2007) 233-244

Comparing Empires:
The Ottoman Domains and the British Raj in the Long Nineteenth Century
Dina Rizk Khoury
Dane Kennedy

This special section of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East seeks to compare the Ottoman and British empires in the long nineteenth century. This would appear at first glance an arbitrary, even futile, enterprise. The two empires are thought to have had little in common. A historiographical consensus of long standing has stressed their differences. The British Empire was seaborne, the Ottoman Empire land based. The British Empire was sustained by industrial capitalism, the Ottoman Empire by agrarian tribute. The British Empire was the projection of a modern nation-state, the Ottoman Empire the survival of an archaic autocratic system of rule. The British Empire was expanding, the Ottoman Empire contracting. Nothing encapsulates the contrast between the two empires more strikingly than the telling tags they acquired in the nineteenth century. The "sun never set" on a hegemonic British Empire that stretched across the globe in predatory triumph, while the Ottoman Empire was a "sick man" suffering repeated retrenchment, its demise seemingly imminent.

Whatever merits these distinctions may possess, they should not prevent us from placing the two empires within the same historical and analytical space, acknowledging their commensurability. We should not lose sight of the fact that the British and Ottoman empires arose at much the same time, that they colluded and collided repeatedly over the succeeding centuries, and that the British Empire outlasted the Ottoman Empire by just a few decades. More particularly, we give far too little notice to the connections and correspondences between the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire and its neighbor to the east, the British Raj. How meaningful is the distinction between a British seaborne and an Ottoman land-based empire in this context? In 1800 the Ottoman Empire consisted of over 3 million square kilometers of territory inhabited by a population of approximately 25–32 million people. By 1914 its territory had shrunk to 1.3 million kilometers, though the population still stood at 26 million.1 By way of comparison, the Indian territories that came under direct British rule in 1859 numbered [End Page 233] 2.5 million square kilometers and 145 million people, while the princely states that acknowledged British suzerainty comprised another 1.5 million square kilometers and 48 million people.2 The British, in short, had a larger land empire in South Asia than the Ottoman Empire could claim in its entirety. How different were the challenges of ruling such an empire and the one the Ottomans oversaw?

Historians have long drawn fruitful comparisons between the early modern Ottoman Empire and Britain's predecessor in South Asia, the Mogul Empire, identifying similarities in modes of rule, ideas of sovereignty, strategies of coercion, and networks of trade and scholarship. While the British brought their own distinctive values and interests to India, they confronted the same panoply of social and economic conditions that the Moguls shared in so many respects with the Ottomans. To what extent did these conditions constrain or modify British policies? How far were they obliged to adopt the institutions they had inherited from the Moguls? How was their effort to manage and modernize India's multiethnic society different from the corresponding initiatives of the Ottomans? Both empires ruled vast territories that were inhabited by peoples of widely different faiths, customs, ethnicities, and more; both made accommodations to these differences even as they sought to erase them; both advanced a universalizing mission while acknowledging its limits; both asserted authoritarian powers and conceded local autonomy. With respect to these and other issues, there is much to be gained from placing the British and Ottoman empires in comparative perspective. The intent of this issue is in a sense to "de-orientalize" the Ottomans and "orientalize" the British in the hope...


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