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STEAMSHIPS AND OTTOMANS

Introduction

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

1
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
Fevzi Kurtoğlu, “Çengeloğlu Tahir Paşa”, İstanbul 1944, pg 152-154
5
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
Langensiepen&Güleryüz pg 1
11
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
Kuran, pg 161
13
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

Conclusion

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
Kuran, pg 161-162
19
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.

Bibliography
21
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