Millets and Capitulations

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Millets and Capitulations

Capitulations (imtiyazat; ahdname) were commercial privileges negotiated between the Ottoman Empire and European states such as Venice, Genoa, France, England, and Holland, first for those merchants who were trading and traveling through Ottoman realms from the fourteenth century, and later, when they became reciprocal in the seventeenth century and after, for non-Muslim Ottoman subjects trading in central and western Europe. Countries that had capitulatory agreements with the Ottoman Empire at one time or another included: Venice, Genoa, France, England, Holland, Poland, Naples, Florence, Ragusa, Ancona, Spain, Portugal, Catalan, Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Sicily. Capitulations usually consisted of the following categories:

  1. General security of person and property, including: Testimentary rights, freedom of worship, burial, and dress. Repairs to ships, emergency rations, aid against attacks by corsairs, and abolition of the lex naufragii (Shipwreck and salvage law). Permission to address complaints to the head of the Muslim community.
  2. Extraterritoriality, including: Consular jurisdiction. Consul's salary and other exemptions.
  3. Abolition of collective responsibility. (Inalcik, p. 1169)

Capitulations had existed before the formation of the Ottoman state in the fourteenth century; they existed, for example, between the Seljuk state in Anatolia and Venice/Cyprus in the thirteenth century. The Ottomans granted their first capitulations in the mid-fourteenth century to Genoa when they entered Europe (Balkans); soon thereafter they extended capitulations to Venice and Naples as well. By the sixteenth century the Ottomans had conquered Mamluk Egypt and reaffirmed the capitulations that the Mamluk state had extended to France, thereby bringing France into the regime of commercial agreements. In the seventeenth century England and Holland were added to the list of European states whose merchants had extraterritorial privileges, the right to representation in the form of a bailo/consul (bailo is the Venetian term for consul), and access to Ottoman/Muslim courts in the empire.

Ottoman authorities viewed capitulations within the frameworks of Islamic jurisprudence and the political advantages to be expected from the applicant state, and in terms of the economic and financial interests of the empire. They saw the possibilities of acquiring political allies in Christendom, of obtaining scarce goods and raw materials such as cloth, tin, and steel, and of increasing customs revenues, which were the principal source of cash for the imperial treasury.

The Mediterranean cities that were most affected by capitulation agreements were Istanbul (especially the port of Galata and the adjacent Frankish neighborhood of Pera), Izmir/Smyrna, Thessaloniki/Salonika, Sidon, Aleppo, and Cairo. In those areas resident populations of foreign traders were considered communal entities by the Ottoman central authority, comparable to guilds (taife), and were sometimes referred to as millet (nations), akin to non-Muslim religious groups such as Greek Orthodox Christians and Sephardic Jews. Their respective bailo/consul was appointed by the Ottoman authorities. Among his tasks were authorizing all the ships of his "nation" leaving the relevant port, settling disputes among his fellow subjects according to the laws of customs of their home country, and, when necessary, appealing to the ambassador in Istanbul and/or to the Ottoman legal authorities in his port city or in Istanbul for the redress of collective grievances.

The fact that many non-Muslim Ottoman subjects began working for European merchants and their consuls as officially licensed dragomans, or translator/interpreters, led to a growing gray area between capitulations for foreign merchants and for indigenous non-Muslim subjects by the eighteenth century. Licensed dragomans could claim the same extraterritorial privileges granted to the nationals of their employer consul, and increasingly, these dragomans became naturalized subjects of their employers' states. From the late seventeenth century, capitulations took on a new importance as the Ottoman state, weakening with respect to European powers, began to dispense capitulations in exchange for political assistance. At this point the Habsburgs and Russia began to extract concessions in the form of capitulations. Finally, as the European state system took shape, capitulations were used as a wedge to influence the privileges and rights of non-Muslim Ottoman subjects on an individual as well as collective basis. Throughout the nineteenth century the issue of capitulations became more and more deeply enmeshed with the Eastern Question, or the question among the great powers of Europe of how to disperse the receding Ottoman Empire, and although the Ottoman government consistently desired to end the regime of capitulations, the system continued until the final dissolution of the empire and the establishment of the Turkish Republic and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

SEE ALSO Black Sea; Caravan Trade; Egypt; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, French; Empire, Ottoman; Empire, Portuguese; Ethnic Groups, Africans; Ethnic Groups, Armenians; Ethnic Groups, Gujarati; Ethnic Groups, Huguenots; Ethnic Groups, Jews; Factories; Genoa; Imperialism;Indian Ocean; Iran;Law, Common and Civil;Levant Company;Mediterranean;Persian Gulf;Travelers and Travel;Venice.


Braude, Benjamin, and Lewis, Bernard, eds. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, Vol. I: The Central Lands. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1982.

De Groot, Alexander. "The Organization of European Trade in the Levant, 1500–1800." In Companies and Trade: Essays on Overseas Trading Companies During the Ancien Regime, ed. Leonard Blussé and Femme Gaastra. Leiden, Netherlands: Leiden University Press, 1981.

Goffman, Daniel. Izmir and the Levantine World, 1550–1650. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.

Mantran, Robert. "Foreign Merchants and the Minorities in Istanbul During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." In Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, Vol. I: The Central Lands, ed. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis. New York: Holt and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1982.

Philliou, Christine. "Mischief in the Old Regime: Provincial Dragomans and Social Change at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century." New Perspectives on Turkey 25 (Fall 2001): 103–121.

Christine Philliou

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Millets and Capitulations

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