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  • Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire by Nazan Maksudyan
  • Renée Worringer
Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire by, Nazan Maksudyan. New York, Syracuse University Press, 2014. xviii, 232 pp. $39.95 US (cloth or e-book).

Maksudyan states clearly in Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire that she intended to recover childrens' agency in this study, those "insignificant" actors in history (2) who were neglected in Ottoman studies as not part of "social, economic, and political processes" (8). Taking cues to restore agency in this manner from the fields of labour history, women's studies, gender and feminist scholarship, the author makes a major contribution to the field of children's studies generally and to Ottoman historiography more specifically by exploring various facets of the Empire's existence in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century from the perspective of vulnerable children's experiences.

Maksudyan debunks previous historiography about this era that followed a rather Eurocentric understanding centred on comparisons with Western progress. Previous scholarship simplistically portrayed a so-called declining Ottoman state of the post sixteenth century as needing to carry out modernization according to Western European principles to ensure the Empire's survival. Challenging assumptions that modernization yields positive results, she instead highlights the often negative side effects of the Ottoman state's top-down reform initiatives geared toward dragging Ottoman society into a Western-centric notion of modernity by focusing upon the most defenseless elements of Ottoman society — orphans, foundlings, "street urchins," and beslemes (foster daughters). Maksudyan's work is part of more recent scholarship in late Ottoman history by many Ottomanists well versed in the use of Ottoman archival documents and other complementary sources (including memoirs, newspapers, private papers, and missionary records). These scholars possess less restrictive attitudes concerning the definition of modernity: less Eurocentric and less willing to [End Page 635] accept "modern progress" as overwhelmingly yielding positive results, all of which has produced a much richer, more nuanced picture of the successes and failures of late Ottoman reforming efforts.

The author's main premise is that traditional mechanisms for dealing with orphans (mainly through ethnoreligious communal adoptions) was interrupted with Ottoman state intervention and control starting around the mid-nineteenth century Tanzimat era. This centralization and modernization — sending children to state orphanages (Islahhanes, first established in the 1860s), and managing care through state-sponsored institutions instead of through communal means, brought into question issues of citizenship and communal affiliation resulting in "alienation from one's ethnoreligious identity" (10). The state, non-Muslim communities, and the general public were all interested and were often in conflict over control of orphans' nationalities. It also had devastating physical and mental effects upon the destitute children: the author describes deprivation, suffering, malnourishment, and higher mortality rates occurring in the Darülaceze (poorhouse founded c.1896 in Istanbul) due to poor facility conditions, and an insufficient number of wet nurses to care for the children housed (19, 37); "being sold into slavery, sexual abuse and exploitation, criminality, prostitution, health problems, and death" (10–11) were frequent consequences. Tables in her monograph include the number of Islahhanes and missionary orphanages established (79, 148–157), and drive home the significance of high mortality rates of children in these institutions.

More eye-opening in her study were the ways in which children were managed and exploited, shedding light on aspects of late Ottoman history connected to these vulnerable members of society. For orphaned girls, becoming a besleme or foster daughter was touted as a charitable activity, not slavery, but in reality they were domestic servants frequently materially and sexually exploited by adoptive families (58–66) while simultaneously often blamed as temptresses for the actions of their masters. Nonetheless the author uncovered examples of their agency and resistance, whether through the use of courts, by escape, even suicide (13, 75–77).

Islahhanes, founded in urban areas to clean the streets of "urchins" and to demonstrate Ottoman order and security — understood to be outward signs of modernity — functioned to deal with male orphans through curricula developed to train boys in trades. They could then be employed and exploited...


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