Capitulations, Middle East

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Capitulations, Middle East

The term capitulations (from the Turkish word imtiyazat) has come to be associated with the preferential commercial privileges and extraterritorial rights European merchants enjoyed during the Ottoman period. Muslim rulers throughout the Middle East, including the Mamluk sultans of Egypt, issued capitulations. The precise impact of the capitulatory system on the development of Ottoman social, economic, and political institutions remains a contentious issue among scholars; particularly vexing is the issue of whether or not the Ottoman Empire could have maintained parity with western Europe had the capitulations never been granted. The capitulatory system that developed within the Middle East, historian Carter Findley suggests, bears a striking resemblance to the methods used by Europeans to establish their economic dominance throughout the world during the free-trade era.


The capitulatory system arose out of the notion that only Ottoman subjects were worthy of the sultan's law. As such, any foreigner whose state had not been granted a capitulation had no legal protection when traveling through or residing in the Ottoman Empire. Although a few scholars trace the granting of capitulations back to the midfourteenth century, Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566) is normally considered to have granted the first capitulation in 1536 to King Francis I (r. 1515–1547). In placing French merchants under the legal jurisdiction of their consul at Constantinople, thereby rendering them immune from Ottoman and Islamic law, and allowing them to import/export goods at greatly reduced tariff rates, the Ottoman government or Sublime Porte hoped to promote commercial exchange with the West.

With capitulatory privileges lapsing upon the death of the sultan who granted them, giving Europeans special privileges seemed harmless enough during a period characterized by Ottoman military preeminence. In the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was one of, if not the most, powerful states in the world and affected the development of Europe as a whole; arguably only England was remote enough to dismiss the Porte as irrelevant. Even the English, however, could not ignore the rapid spread of French commerce in the Near East. In addition to their presence in Constantinople, the French were permitted to establish trading posts and consular missions in Syria and Egypt. Between the late 1530s and early 1570s, when Ottoman maritime strength was at its height, English trade with the eastern Mediterranean had virtually collapsed.

Following the renewal of hostilities with Persia in 1578, the Sublime Porte was in desperate need of steel, lead, and especially tin for the production of bronze guns. A papal ban, however, forbid the export of munitions from Christendom to the Ottoman Empire, but as they were already drifting toward war with Spain the English ultimately decided to ignore the ban. In May 1580, in a unilateral gesture, Sultan Murad III (r. 1574–1595) formally placed the English on an equal footing with the French. Not long after the Levant Company had been formed, English consuls were despatched to Cairo, Alexandria, Aleppo, Damascus, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli in Barbary and Tripoli in Syria. Although it was not recognized at the time, the European (commercial) penetration of the Ottoman Empirehad begun in earnest.

Foreign trade initially contributed, whether directly or indirectly, to the provisioning of both the Ottoman court and armed forces. In addition to the shipment of metals for Ottoman foundries, Europeans were a significant source of the sinews of war gold and silver. As Ottoman military power began to decline, the nature and meaning of the capitulatory system slowly changed to the ever increasing detriment of the Porte. Prior to the eighteenth century, sultans believed that the privileges they bestowed upon foreigners could be revoked at any time during their reign. After 1683, when second siege of Vienna failed, the Porte was increasingly forced to offer permanent capitulations in exchange for diplomatic assistance. Nevertheless, as late as 1740, Ottoman officials could still search the residence of foreigners, who had capitulatory privileges, if they believed the house contained fugitives or smuggled goods.

Under the terms of the capitulation granted to the French in 1536, which formed the basis for all subsequent treaties, consular courts had sole jurisdiction over cases involving only foreigners but were essentially powerless in disputes between foreigners and Ottoman subjects. The Treaty of Kuçuk Kainarji negotiated with Czarist Russia in 1774 ended this jurisdictional division. The Russian embassy began employing Ottoman subjects, the so-called dragomans, who in time became virtual intermediaries between the embassy and the Sublime Porte, to interpret the terms of the treaty. Eventually any non-Muslim Ottoman subject could obtain such an appointment (berat) from a European consul in exchange for a "modest" fee, thereby acquiring all the benefits of that country's capitulatory agreement. Although the selling of berats obviously undermined Ottoman revenue collection, and would lead Sultan Selim III (r. 1789–1807) to grant all Ottoman merchants the same privileges as their European competitors, it was the need to secure the consent of the Western powers to any alteration in the empire's tariff rates that ultimately proved far more destructive.


By the later half of the eighteenth century, the Renaissance, the military revolution, and the discovery of the New World had all combined to give western Europe a distinct military and commercial advantage over the Ottoman Empire. It was not until the late eighteenth century, however, that the Ottomans fully realized the gravity of the challenge facing them. Napoléon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 completely shattered the illusion of Ottoman invulnerability. Prior to this event, Europe's military advance into the Islamic world had largely been confined to the Ottoman Empire's northern border; Austria and Russia were steadily advancing into the Balkans and along the eastern shore of the Black Sea. The increasing commercial and industrial strength of Europe, and in particular, Britain, ultimately led to the almost total domination of Ottoman commerce by the European powers. Until the early nineteenth century, the Porte still believed it could modify the capitulations to prevent gross abuses; in 1809, for example, Britain accepted that its consuls had abused the berat system.

Reforming the capitulatory system paled in importance to the quelling the internal crises that beset the Ottoman Empire throughout the first quarter of the nineteenth century; the rise of Mehmed Ali Pasha and the Greek revolt being the most striking examples. In fact, as Ottoman bureaucrats began to view Western-styled reforms as the key to preserving the independence and integrity of the empire, efforts designed to limit the integration of the Ottoman economy into the ever expanding European market were abandoned. In repealing the privileges Selim III had given indigenous merchants, Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839) made it all but impossible for them to compete with Europeans. Viewed in this light, the signing of the 1838 Anglo-Turkish Commercial Convention at Balta Liman arguably becomes the logical conclusion to Ottoman policy over the preceding ten to fifteen years and not simply the price that had to be paid for British assistance in halting the aggrandizement of Mehmed Ali Pasha's Egypt. Whatever its origins, the results of the Convention were unmistakable.


The treaty of Balta Liman marked the end of the traditional system of capitulations, which had been becoming increasingly detrimental to Ottoman interests. Henceforth, trade between the Ottoman Empire and Europe was governed by bilaterally negotiated commercial treaties. The 1838 convention confirmed all existing capitulatory privileges, set tariff rates for European goods at 3 percent and, most importantly, abolished all state monopolies within the Ottoman Empire. In forcing the Porte to accept the principle of free trade, the British effectively delivered the coup de grâce to Ottoman manufacturing and helped bring an end to the industrial and economic development of Mehmed Ali Pasha's Egypt. Combined with the ill-fated Ottoman attempt to centralize its tax collection system that same year, the Anglo-Turkish Commercial Convention initiated a downward spiral from which the Ottoman Empire never recovered.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the capitulatory system had come to be seen as the symbol of Ottoman inferiority vis-à-vis Europe. Whereas capitulations had originally been bestowed upon the Great Powers of Europe, between 1838 and 1856 minor states like Sardinia, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Tuscany, the Hanseatic Towns, Greece, the two Sicilies, Prussia, and the other signatories of the Zollverein all signed similar treaties. The Ottomans also signed commercial treaties with non-Europeans countries; the United States in 1830, Brazil in 1858, and Mexico in 1864.

Throughout the Tanzimat era, which refers to the attempted administrative reorganization of the Ottoman Empire between 1839 and 1876, Ottoman statesmen believed that as long as the European powers respected their country's sovereignty there was little or no danger in allowing Europeans ever greater access to their country's economy. In 1869, in yet another attempt to curb the selling of berats, the Porte granted citizenship to all Ottoman subjects thereby making it both unnecessary and in fact illegal for people to seek or accept the protection of a foreign power. Both foreign embassies and the vast majority of Ottoman subjects, who continued to identify with their religious community (millet) and not the state, largely ignored the new law.

The disregard displayed by the European powers toward Ottoman efforts to limit their influence eventually gave way to outright contempt as social Darwinism and other aspects of mid- to late-nineteenth-century imperialism led Europeans to view the Turks as corrupt and racially and morally inferior. The promise of reformers that westernization would eventually lead to parity with Europe rang increasingly hollow as the Tanzimat era drew to a close. Beginning in the 1860s, the social strata most affected by westernization became increasingly critical of (further) reform. The Balkan revolt of 1875 and the Ottoman defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 only strengthened the position of the so-called Young Ottomans.

It was not until Abdülhamid II came to the throne in 1876 that the Porte turned away from its almost total reliance on Britain. Turning to Imperial Germany, however, offered little practical benefits. The kaiser agreed to abolish the capitulations but only if the other great powers did so as well. The Western penetration of the Ottoman Empire increased during the course of the nineteenth century. Consuls were being despatched throughout Ottoman lands to defend the commercial and legal interests of European merchants and the increasing number of missionaries. The spread of persons endowed with capitulatory powers significantly undermined Ottoman administrative structures. By the early twentieth century, for example, an Ottoman policeman could not even enter the home of a foreign national without the permission of the latter's consul/embassy. Abdülhamid II's reign, not surprisingly, marked a decisive turning point in Ottoman attitudes toward the capitulatory system.

No longer perceived to be mere violations of imperial sovereignty, the capitulations came to be seen as the foremost barrier to the future (economic) development of the Ottoman Empire. The ever-increasing prosperity of Germany, whose economy was protected by high tariffs, seemed to offer the Porte a new approach. Raising Ottoman tariffs would not only provide badly needed revenues but could also stimulate the growth of domestic industry. It was only after twenty-six years of negotiations that the capitulatory signatories consented in 1907 to raising Ottoman tariffs from 4 to 7 percent as long as the increased revenues came under the purvey of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration. The Western powers dictated that one-quarter of said revenues should be used to service the massive Ottoman debt, while the remainder would be used to finance reforms in Macedonia. So far as Europe was concerned, the Ottoman Empire had for all instance and purposes become another colony to be administered for their (economic) benefit.


In 1908 the Young Turks deposed Abdülhamid II in a coup designed to bring about the transformation of the empire into the "Japan of the Near East." The success of the Japanese in achieving near equality with the Western powers inspired the disparate collection of exiles, disgruntled civil servants and students, and disaffected army officers stationed in the empire's European provinces that made up the Young Turk movement. Although they could restore the 1876 constitution, until the capitulations were abolished there was little else the Young Turks could do. The gulf between the Ottoman Empire and Europe was made abundantly clear when, after declaring its independence in 1908, Bulgaria was immediately freed from its capitulatory yoke. Large sections of Ottoman society correctly perceived that Europe was using the capitulations as the means by which to exclude their Empire from the "civilized" world. In the years before the outbreak of World War I (1914–1918), the European powers repeatedly sought to undermine all efforts to weaken the capitulatory system. It was widely recognized within the chancelleries of Europe that keeping the Porte starved for money offered the surest way of keeping it in line.

The outbreak of World War I offered the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which emerged from the power struggle that took place after the fall of Abdülhamid II, the best chance to date to weaken the capitulatory system. In exchange for a defensive alliance between the Ottoman Empire and the Entente powers, the CUP demanded among other things the outright abolition of the capitulations. The British ambassador at Constantinople likened the Ottoman offer to terms normally imposed upon a defeated enemy.

The Germans, however, proved more accommodating. In exchange for allowing their warships, the Goeben and Breslau, to enter the straits, in violation of international law, they had to agree to a number of conditions, one of which was the abolition of the capitulations. Although the Germans found the provisions outrageous, with the British Mediterranean squadron lurking just beyond the entrance to the straits, they had little choice. Only a few weeks later, and over the objections of their German ally, the Porte announced the unilateral abrogation of the capitulations, effective October 1, 1914. For the duration of World War I, the Ottoman Empire exercised unrestricted sovereignty for the first time in centuries.

Following the defeat of the Central Powers, the Western powers believed the capitulatory system should be reintroduced. In 1919 the U.S. State Department made clear its belief that American's rights in occupied Ottoman territories included those outlined in the prewar capitulation agreements. The Treaty of Sèvres, which was signed in August 1920, reintroduced the capitulations as part of the larger Anglo-French effort to severely curtail Ottoman sovereignty. The government in Constantinople, desperate not to lose everything, signed the treaty but the nationalist uprising(s) in Anatolia, which would eventually come to be led by Mustafa Kemal, ensured the treaty was never ratified.

The Treaty of Lausanne formally abolished capitulations in Turkey. The situation in former Ottoman provinces, however, was more complicated. In Iraq the capitulations were abolished in 1922; it was not until the 1937 Montreux Convention that they were abolished in Egypt. The League of Nations' mandates for Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan never included extraterritorial privileges for foreigners.

see also Abdülhamid II; Empire, Ottoman.


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Findley, Carter. Bureaucratic Reform in the Ottoman Empire: The Sublime Porte, 1789–1922. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

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Capitulations, Middle East

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