19th century was the century of modernization for the entire world and for the The Ottoman Empire. Especially, with the reign of Sultan Mahmud II and the Tanzimat, rapid modernization made its mark. The key concept was centralization and centralization required rapid access to every corner of empire. Transport and communications were the tools of physical centralization. Industrial revolution of 19th century elevated both to a degree of efficiency never seen before. The most revolutionary technological breakthrough was the steam engine on both land and sea. Railroads connected continents into a web of such speed that, from for example, Istanbul to Hejaz was accessible in just a month or so. However, the first field where the steam engine was employed was the nautical technology. In 1802, the first mechanically successful steamship, the Charlotte Dundas was built in Britain and in 1807, the first commercially successful steamer, Robert Fulton’s North River Steamer, started to work in USA. About 20 years later, Steamship made its entry to the The Ottoman Empire. In the subsequent decades, it revolutionized the Ottoman coasts and more importantly, became a key tool of empire’s integration to the capitalist world system. Here, I’ll try to trace this process.

Ottoman Shipping Before Steam Age

The Ottoman Empire was a Mediterranean one and it could not live without depending to the sea to a large degree. Empire’s economical heart was the Aegean archipelago with its numerous islands and thousands kilometers of coastline. Later, from the end of 18th

century on, especially with the Russian incursion to the black sea, the volume of transport in that closed basin dramatically increased.1 The trade routes, especially those in the Levant, were not changed since antiquity. Ships from Europe were catching the North to East wind to reach Anatolian and Syrian coasts, after descending to Egypt; they were following South to West wind to return to Europe. A North-South route was connecting Black Sea to Mediterranean. Trade was conducted only in the summer as a result of weather conditions. Despite all their dependence to the sea, Ottomans, in the mercantile field, were not a maritime state. Ottoman classical economy was designed according to “provisionism” principle, which aimed to prevent famine and ensure self-sufficiency of provinces. The obsession with the abundance of raw materials led to an official encouragement of import ad discouragement of export, thus severely limiting the Ottoman flagged shipping in the age of mercantilism.2 However, with the increased autonomy of provinces from 17th century on and especially in 18th century; number of ships run by Ottoman subjects showed a considerable increase. Yet, Muslim element in that merchant capacity was small. Most of Ottoman naval merchant capacity was in the hands of Greek subjects. Phanariot shipping tycoons were holding a near-monopoly of Ottoman trade with Europe and Morean Greeks were prominent in the regional commerce of the Archipelago and the Adriatic.3

The Coming of Steam

The official arrival date of steamship to the Ottoman Empire is 1828. However, Ottoman authorities, especially navy, by no way were ignorant about the new invention before

A.Üner Turgay,”Trabzon” in “Doğu Akdeniz’de Liman Kentleri”,ed.Çağlar Keyder, Eyüp Özveren,Donald Quataert, İstanbul 1994, pg 45-49 2 See Mehmet Genç, “Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Devlet ve Ekonomi”, İstanbul 2003; for a general overview of Ottoman economic thinking. 3 Barbara Jellavich, “A History of Balkans” Cambridge 1998,pg. 171-173

that date. In the Greek war of Independence, the privateer steamship Karteria, commanded by an English officer caused considerable trouble to the Ottoman navy. On the other hand, there were a few steamers among the Austrian transports chartered by Ottoman army to transport troops.4 However, the first steamship to carry the Ottoman flag was the Sür’at. She was English built as the sailing ship Swift in 1801 and transformed to paddle wheeler in 1822.5 When she arrived to Istanbul in 1828, she was bought by a group of Armenian merchants and was presented to the sultan as a gift. She made quite an impression on the townsfolk who named her simply as buğ gemisi: the steamship.6 Although Sultan Mahmud used Sür’at in a number of his travels in the sea of Marmara, according to an observation by the American shipwright Foster Rhodes who was working for the Ottoman Navy in 1830s, he was perceiving steamships as little more than amusing toys.7 However, both Kapudan Pasha and influential Rhodes were staunch advocates of steam powered ships. Indeed, Kapudan Pasha Çengeloğlu Tahir has bought another British steamer, the Hilton Joliffe, from his own purse right in 1828. Renamed Sagir, she served with the navy in the operations against Russians during the war of 1828-29.8 His next move was to appoint the able Rhodes as the head of Tersane-i Amire. Both knew that Ottoman shipbuilding capacity was thoroughly lacking even the means to build steamship parts, let the ships themselves aside. So, Rhodes’ first task in his agenda was to lay the necessary framework for repair and refitting facilities suitable to steamers. He built the first steam engine workshops of the The Ottoman Empire at the Aynalıkavak navy yard in 1835.9 An unexpected incident helped both to Kapudan Pasha and to Rhodes in their efforts to promote steamships. In 1837, Sultan Mahmud was returning from Izmit in the frigate Feyziye after participating to the launching ceremony of a new warship. On the road to Istanbul, a storm broke out. If a British and an Austrian steamer nearby had not
4 5

Fevzi Kurtoğlu, “Çengeloğlu Tahir Paşa”, İstanbul 1944, pg 152-154 Bernd Langendsiepen&Ahmet Güleryüz, “1828-1922 Osmanlı Donanması”, İstanbul 2000, pg 212 6 Langensiepen&Güleryüz, pg 3 7 Langensiepen&Güleryüz pg 1 8 Langensiepen&Güleryüz pg 3 9 Langensiepen&Güleryüz pg 1

taken Feyziye to tow, she would be driven ashore. After that incident, Sultan Mahmud was seriously convinced to the need of steamships and immediately ordered “a series of” steamers to be built. Design development and construction was instructed to Rhodes and Charles Ross, another American who was his partner, in charge of Aynalıkavak yard. The first Ottoman built steamer Eser-i Hayır was launched in 24 November 1837. Two others, Mesir-i Bahri and Tahir-i Bahri followed her respectively in 1838 and 39.10 Steam power was permanently in the Ottoman naval industry from then on.

Fevaid-i Osmaniye Şirketi, European challenge and Ottoman Response

Although the first Ottoman steamers were bought or built first for sultan’s personal service and for war, the advantages of promoting merchant steamship capacity was well evident. Steamships, with their independency from wind and currents, were far superior to sailing ships in both speed and safety, provided there were enough coaling stations and repair facilities (early machines were quite crude and were rapidly worn out). First regular steamship passenger and merchandise transport by state hand started in 1844 with Mesir-i Bahri working between Istanbul and Marmara ports and Eser-i Hayır in Bosphorus.11 A few years later (around 1850), almost simultaneously with the Şirket-i Hayriye (The Auspicious Navigation Company) of Bosphorus shipping, Fevaid-i Osmaniye Şirketi (The Ottoman Navigation Company) was established as the official state company for shipping in other imperial domains. Upon the accession of Sultan Abdülaziz to the throne in 1861, Fevaid-i Osmaniye Şirketi was renamed İdare-i Aziziye. With sultan Abdülhamid II’s reign, it was again changed, this time to İdare-i Mahsusa in 1877 and finally became Osmanlı

10 11

Langensiepen&Güleryüz pg 1 Ercüment Kuran,”XIX. Yüzyılda Osmanlı Devleti’inde Deniz Ulaşımı:İdare-i Mahsusa’nın Kuruluşu ve Faaliyeti”, in “Çağını Yakalayan Osmanlı” ed. Ekmeleddin İhsaoğlu, İstanbul 1998, pg 159

Seyr-i Sefain İdaresi in 1910 and was attached to ministry of marine.12 Yet, with the start of open support to steam technology by the state more than a decade before the establishment of the company, Ottoman subjects who owned enough capital to run steamers had already started to work with them. For example, there were two privately owned steamers that were running between the black sea ports in 1839. However, Austrian Lloyd Company with his superior infrastructure soon overtook the steam transport in the black sea and the government had to intervene with state owned steamers to relive coastal population dependent to regular shipping.13 Similarly, In the Mediterranean and Aegean lines, Austrian and British companies quickly claimed their supremacy; even sweeping Ottoman state owned shipping aside.14 However, in the lake and river shipping, Ottoman state and privately owned steam ships were somewhat more successful. Perhaps, the entry prohibition to major inland waterways for foreigners was effective in that outcome.15 Yet, on the international open waterway of Danube, a private company, İdare-i Nehriye (The Riverine Navigation Office) founded during the governorship of Midhat Pasha, was successfully competing with Austrian rivals, doubling the number of its ships in short time; reaching to a total of seven steamers in 1869 with two big packet steamers soon to join.16 By the end of Abdülaziz’s reign, there were 23 passenger ships owned by the state company. During Abdülhamid’s reign this number increased to 80, but by the declaration of second constitutional era this number was down to just 16 ships, most of them old and rotten.17 The causes of that decline can be tied into two principal factors: challenge from European shipping companies and lack of Ottoman capital, qualified personnel and means of industrial production.
12 13

Kuran, pg 161 Mübahat S. Kütükoğlu,”Osmanlı Buharlı gemi İşletmeleri ve İzmir Körfezi Hamdiye Şirketi” in “Çağını Yakalayan Osmanlı”, pg 166-167 14 Kütükoğlu, pg 170 15 Kütükoğlu, pg 178 16 Kütükoğlu pg 176-177 17 Kuran, pg 161

European shipping companies were active in Ottoman waters nearly two decades before the establishment of regular Ottoman flagged steam shipping. They were benefiting from a far superior financing net and capital accumulation; they had enough trained personnel and technological quality superiority to run their ships effectively. For example, Hayrullah efendi, an Ottoman alumnus of Tanzimat period recounted in his travel log Yolculuk Kitabı, the luxury of Austrian Danube passenger steamers and commented that the Şirket-i Hayriye steamers could only be described as “lamentable”.18 Financial and technological superiority was allowing European companies to run their ships cheaper than that of any sailing with Ottoman flag, thus attracting majority of passengers and cargo. Ottomans trying to rival them were hampered by the lack of infrastructure, capital and access to advanced technology. Corruption also was playing its part, especially in state controlled shipping. Reports about the Hamidiye Vapur Şirketi of Izmir give us the sorry picture. This was a state backed but privately owned company established in 1883 to execute inter-gulf shipping in place of foreigners who even took over that small scale navigation. However just about a decade after, steamers of the company were reported to be in miserable condition, totally unsafe for use. Incompetence of their crews were resulting in many accidents nearly every week.19 Corruption of company managers combined with the loss of value suffered by company shares as a result of continuous accidents eventually caused the loss of Hamidiye Company to Belgians for a cheap price.20


By the last quarter of 19th century, Ottoman authorities recognized the difficulty of rivaling Europeans without infrastructure and gradually retired from direct shipping, choosing
18 19

Kuran, pg 161-162 Kütükoğlu, pg 201-203 20 Kütükoğlu, pg 204-205

instead investing to port and shipyard facilities and to training qualified personnel. The early works by Foster Rhodes were already mentioned. Personnel training was also considered at an early date and it was decided in 1842 to send a number of students to Britain for technical education.21 Unfortunately both of those early self-sufficiency attempts were to fail. Machine workshops proved to be capable of only doing basic engine revisions and repairs but the empire’s lack of industry prevented production of even spare parts and soon Ottoman marine engineering became heavily dependent to imports, especially from Britain. Nevertheless, an investment that gave more positive results was the building of modern port facilities such as steam powered cranes, dry-docks, entrepots and lighthouses to major coastal cities (apart from Istanbul) and towns such as Izmir, Zonguldak, Trabzon and Beirut. Meanwhile, various technical schools working under supervision of mercenary European naval instructors were training a new generation of Ottoman naval personnel.22 This building program reached to its climax during the reign of Abdülhamid II. Ironically, while state owned shipping had shrunk because of that policy shift, private entrepreneurship benefited. Profiting from rapidly spreading shore facilities and increased safety of Ottoman waters (the massive Ottoman naval expansion and reform during 19th century was a major factor in suppressing the piracy, endemic at the start of the century), a number of private investors established companies and gradually increased Ottoman flagged shipping.23 Thus, at the demise of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the empire had a more or less ready base and plenty of potential for a major nautical leap and this was done indeed, surprisingly successfully, in the short years before the First World War.


Mücteba İlgürel, “Buharlı Gemi Teknolojisini Osmanlı Devletinde Kurma Teşebbüsleri” in “Çağını Yakalayan Osmanlı”, pg 142 22 One of them, Henry Felix Woods was active all throughout Abdülhamid’s reign and was responsible for most of those reforms. He left a vivid account of hamidian naval history in his memoirs. See Henry F. Woods “Türkiye Anıları”, İstanbul 1976 23 Kuran, pg 162

ed. İhsanoğlu, Ekmeleddin; “Çağını Yakalayan Osmanlı”,İstanbul 1998 ed. Keyder, Çağlar; Özveren, Eyüp; Quataert, Donald; “Doğu Akdeniz’de Liman Kentleri”, Istanbul 1994 Langensiepen, Bernd & Güleryüz, Ahmet; “Osmanlı Donanması 1828 – 1922“, İstanbul 2000