France and the Ottoman Empire


Bonaparte defeated the Mameluke forces at the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ (fifteen miles distant) on 21 July and entered the capital in triumph three days later.

Abdulhamid I, like his predecessor in an earlier conflict with the Russians, succumbed to apoplexy at the height of the war. His nephew Selim III acceded in April 1789, that momentous month when George Washington became the first President of the United States and deputies converged on Versailles for Louis XVI’s opening of the States General. Events in America mattered little to Selim; but what happened in France was of considerable interest. Even during his years of nominal confinement in the kafe, Selim had been in touch with Louis. A trusted friend, Ishak Bey, served as Selim’s personal emissary, travelling to Versailles in 1786 with a plea that France, as a long-term friend and ally of the Ottoman Empire, should provide aid in modernizing the army and support policies aimed at the containment of Russia. But the Comte de Vergennes, Louis’ foreign minister for the first thirteen years of his reign, had himself served as ambassador in Constantinople: he was sceptical over the prospects of reform in Turkey and strongly opposed to any enterprise which might lead to a Franco-Russian conflict. Louis’ reply to Selim was guarded and patronizing. ‘We have sent from our court to Constantinople officers of artillery to give to the Muslims demonstrations and examples of all aspects of the art of war’, Louis wrote in a letter dated 20 May 1787, ‘and we are maintaining them so long as their presence is judged necessary.’

Throughout the war with Russia French officers continued to give advice to cadets on the Golden Horn. Translations of military manuals were turned out by the excellent private press attached to the French embassy: aspiring Turkish gunnery specialists could therefore study the treatises from which the young Bonaparte profited at the academy in Brienne. Of course, none of these benefits were in themselves sufficient to change the military balance along the shores of the Black Sea. Whatever his sympathies and inclination, Selim was able to do little to reform or improve the Ottoman state during the first three years of his reign, when day-to-day reports of the war with Russia determined the behaviour of sultan and viziers alike. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1791 Selim ordered twenty-two dignitaries, both secular and religious, to draw up memoranda on the weaknesses of the empire and the way to overcome them. When, a few months later, the Jassy settlement gave the Ottoman Empire a respite from war, the Sultan resolved to press ahead with a policy of westernization. He hoped that the preoccupation of European statesmen with events in Paris would, at the very least, enable him to ensure that his army and navy should catch up the armed forces of the West in training and equipment.

These good intentions look tediously familiar, but Selim’s plans went further than any reforms contemplated by his predecessors. The twenty-two collected memoranda encouraged Selim to seek a ‘New Order’ (Nizam-i Cedid), thereby virtually imposing a revolution from above. Administrative changes included revised regulations to strengthen provincial governorships, the creation of more specialist secular schools to provide training in the ancillary subjects essential for military and naval command (including the French language), control of the grain trade, the institution of regular ambassadorial diplomacy with the major European Powers, and improvements in methods of ensuring that provincial taxes reached a new central treasury, which was given the right to impose taxes on coffee, spirits and tobacco. Earlier Sultans had given their somewhat erratic support to the building of modern ships of the line and the reform of new light and heavy artillery units; Selim III instituted a form of conscription for the navy in the Aegean coastal provinces, tightened discipline in the artillery and other specialist corps and, amid widespread consternation, announced the creation of new infantry corps, organized and trained on French lines and equipped with modern weapons. The Janissaries, suspicious as ever of innovation, had their arrears of back pay settled, and were promised more money for active service, and regular pay-days. But the new barracks for young Turkish recruits above the Bosphorus and at Üsküdar seemed a direct challenge to the entrenched status of the Janissaries. Sultan Selim’s other reforms were soon forgotten, and the term ‘New Order’ became applied solely to the regular infantry battalions which the Nizam-i Cedid brought into being.

Selim was well informed of events in revolutionary Paris.7 In June 1793 Citizen Marie Louis Henri Decorches—the Marquise de Saint-Croix in less egalitarian times—arrived in Constantinople as representative of the French Republic. On quatorze juillet two French ships rode at anchor off Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point), impartially flying the Ottoman crescent, the stars and stripes, and the tricolor; they fired a salute, while a ‘tree of liberty’ was solemnly planted beside the Bosphorus. Some eight weeks later the Sultan sent a detailed inventory to Paris, listing the type of technicians and instructors he wished to recruit from France for temporary service in his army and navy. Despite pressing concerns around France’s frontiers, the Committee of Public Safety gave careful attention to the Sultan’s requests: an Eastern Front on the lower Danube or an aggressive naval presence in the Black Sea would distract the rulers of Austria and Russia from the activities of republican armies along the Rhine or in northern Italy. And Selim’s advisers, for their part, were pleased to encourage the revolutionaries in Paris: ‘May God cause the upheaval in France to spread like syphilis to the enemies of the [Ottoman] Empire’, the head of the Sultan’s personal secretariat wrote early in 1792, when war between France and Austria seemed imminent.

But Selim was too shrewd to commit his empire irretrievably to an unholy alliance with Jacobins. When he decided to modernize his diplomatic system, accrediting resident ambassadors to other courts rather than sending envoys on special missions, he chose London rather than Paris as the first destination of an Ottoman representative. For this decision there were three sound reasons: the hostility shown by William Pitt, the Prime Minister, to Russian aggrandizement in the Black Sea, and especially to the fortification of Ochakov; the absence, as yet, of any apparent British desire to acquire Ottoman possessions; and a passing acquaintance with the ways of the British aristocracy gained from Sir Robert Ainslie, whose eighteen years as George III’s ambassador in Constantinople were drawing to a close. Soon afterwards Selim sent resident ambassadors to Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. Only then did he choose a permanent envoy for the French Republic.

It was more natural for Selim to establish links with Paris than with any other capital. Some of his officials were already familiar with the language, and the Sultan encouraged the teaching of French, although he does not seem to have spoken or read it himself. Among European writers, only in eighteenth-century France was a rational attempt made to anatomize systems of government and administration, providing blueprints for peoples whose institutions were shaped by other traditions. It is interesting that, when a French-language library was set up to serve Selim’s specialist military and naval academies, among the works shipped out from Marseilles was a complete set of the Grande Encylopédie. But far more general than these touches of rarefied learning were the commercial contacts, many of them long-established, especially in Syria and the Levant. More recently, French trade at the centre of the Empire had increased threefold in eighty years, with a sizeable community settling in Smyrna. The influences of one culture upon another were, of course, two-way. At the start of the century while fashionable society in Paris and Versailles amused itself with turquerie, Constantinople discovered French furniture, French ornamental gardens and French decorative design.

‘Frankish’ customs had cost Ahmed III his throne, and Selim must have realized it was rash for a Sultan-Caliph to turn so often towards Paris while every Janissary around him was turning towards Mecca. A persistent legend ascribes the intensity of Selim’s francophilia to his delight in the company of Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a young Creole who disappeared while sailing between Marseilles and Martinique. She is supposed to have been captured by Barbary pirates, sent from Algiers to Constantinople as a placatory gesture from the corsairs to Abdulhamid I, and then to have lived happily ever after as the ‘French Sultana’ and the mother of Selim’s cousin, Mahmud II—who was born at least three years before Aimée went missing. There is no authentic evidence that the unfortunate young woman reached Algiers, let alone Turkey. But even supposing she did become one of the Favourites in the imperial harem, how could she have enlightened the Sultan on the politics and pursuits of the French? She was too young to know much about them herself. Not every girl from Martinique became so worldly-wise in the ways of Paris as Aimée’s distant kinswoman, the future Empress Josephine. For Sultan Selim the fascination of France was never personal; it remained political and military. He was convinced that he would find there a key to unlock for his empire the science of modern war.

It seemed, briefly, in the autumn of 1795, that the lock might be opened for the Sultan by Brigadier-General Bonaparte. On 20 August Napoleon, whose career had made little progress over the past fifteen months, wrote to his brother Joseph: ‘If I ask for it, I shall be sent to Turkey by the Government, with a fine salary and a flattering ambassadorial title, to organize the artillery of the Grand Turk.’ Ten days later a note was left at the War Ministry: ‘General Buonaparte, who has won a certain reputation during his command of the artillery of armies in difficult circumstances, particularly at the siege of Toulon, offers to accompany a government mission to Turkey. He will take with him six or seven officers, each an expert in some particular branch of the art of war. If, in this new career, he can make the Turkish armies more formidable, and the fortresses of the Turkish empire more impregnable, he will consider he has rendered signal service to his country; and when he returns he will merit her gratitude.’ He appears to have been issued with a passport in mid-September; but before he could set out, the legendary ‘whiff of grape-shot’ against a mob marching down the rue Saint-Honoré on 5 October carried ‘Citizen Buonaparte’ into French history. He never saw Constantinople—‘the centre of world empire’, as he was once to call the city.

Napoleon’s non-mission to Turkey is a fascinating minor ‘might-have-been’. It is tempting to assume that his genius would, in some way, have arrested the military decline of the empire. But why should a relatively unknown Corsican of twenty-six achieve more than Baron de Tott before him or Major von Moltke forty years later? Opposed to all westernizers were four centuries of tradition and prejudice, intensified by the narrowly selfish interest of privileged office-holders. Only if Bonaparte had entered Constantinople as a conqueror and a convert to Islam might he have reshaped the Sultan’s empire, and for a few months in 1798–9 this eventuality seemed not impossible.

Ever since the mid-1760s a pressure group of Marseilles merchants had urged successive governments to seize Egypt and establish a colony there. Choiseul briefly favoured such a project but Vergennes, with his long experience of Ottoman rule, argued that French commercial interests would be better served by continuing the traditional policy of good relations with the Sultans. The earlier revolutionary regimes followed this line, but the Directory wavered. Repeated memoranda from Bonaparte, his great Italian campaign by now behind him, convinced the Directors of the advantages of sending an expedition to ‘the Orient’. In April 1798 it was agreed that Bonaparte would embark an army for Egypt, consolidate French control over the Levant to the discomfiture of the English and, while destroying the corrupt power of the Mamelukes in Cairo, impose good and beneficial government in the name of the Sultan, whose treasury would thereafter be able to rely on the arrival of the annual tribute. The basic directive for the expedition emphasized that respect must be shown towards the Muslim faith. In order that the Porte should be left in no doubt of the Directory’s good will, it was decided that Talleyrand—who became Foreign Minister for the first time in July 1797—should travel to the Golden Horn and explain to Sultan Selim the finer subtleties of French policy. This interesting encounter never took place. General Bonaparte, with some 38,000 men, duly sailed for Egypt in the third week of May; but Talleyrand did not set out for Constantinople. It was never his intention to do so.

For four or five months the Directory backed the Egyptian expedition. All at first seemed to go well. Bonaparte defeated the Mameluke forces at the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ (fifteen miles distant) on 21 July and entered the capital in triumph three days later. His civil administration became a model of good government, the wisest known in Egypt for many centuries. Despite the state of war, irrigation projects were begun, new mills and hospitals built, conditions in the markets improved, tax-collection made efficient. All the reforms which a benevolent Sultan might profitably have introduced in Constantinople were embodied in decrees signed by the conqueror of Cairo. Apart from an irreverent tendency to use minarets as king-size flagpoles, Napoleon made every effort to please the Muslim faithful, speaking to the ulema of his deep respect for Islamic teaching, hinting that he might himself accept conversion. In each town and village entered by the French, printed proclamations in Arabic were posted. They listed the blessings of liberation—of which, it was confidently hoped, those who could read would inform those who could not:

People of Egypt . . . I come to restore your rights, to punish the usurpers; I respect God, His Prophet and the Koran more than did the Mamelukes . . . We are the friends of all true Muslims. Have we not destroyed the Pope, who preached war against the Muslims? . . . Have we not through all the centuries been friends of the Imperial Sultan (may God fulfil his desires) and enemies of his enemies! . . . Let everyone thank God for the destruction of the Mamelukes. Let everyone cry ‘Glory to the Sultan! Glory to his ally, the army of France! A curse on all Mamelukes! Happiness to the People!’.

This rhetoric provoked a sour response from Constantinople. Not only did the Sultan decline to recognize the French army as his ally; in September he formally declared war on the French Republic. A month later a firman proclaimed the jihad, a Holy War against the ‘infidel savages’ who were holding Egypt.

The Directory was no longer interested in Egypt, however, for Nelson’s naval victory at the mouth of the Nile on 31 July had cut the links between Marseilles, Toulon and Alexandria. On 4 November Talleyrand informed Bonaparte that he might, if he wished, seek to march on India; or he could remain in Egypt, organizing the province as a French dependency, as in his transformation of northern Italy; or he could advance through Palestine, Syria and Anatolia and seek the capture of Constantinople. These grandiose instructions did not reach Napoleon’s headquarters until 25 March 1799; and by then, working out his own grand strategy, he had struck northwards and was besieging Acre. There it became clear that Bonaparte’s expedition was bringing an expedient cohesion to the Ottoman Empire. Selim was by no means displeased to see the Mameluke usurpers humbled, but he was not prepared to allow the French to seize a potentially rich province of his empire. The factious feudatories of Palestine and Syria collaborated with the Sultan’s nominal governor in Damascus to confront the invaders. Ahmed Djezzar ‘the Butcher’ was capable of raising an army of 100,000 men to check Bonaparte’s thrust northwards and, with the assistance of a British naval flotilla under Commodore Sidney Smith, resisted French assaults on Acre for seven weeks, until a convoy brought from Rhodes a contingent of Selim’s ‘New Order’ troops to reinforce the garrison.

With bubonic plague spreading among his troops, Bonaparte abandoned the siege of Acre. General Kléber defeated the sipahi cavalry at Mount Tabor on 16 April and, on this victorious note, the French retired from Syria to Egypt. With British and Russian naval backing, a convoy of sixty vessels brought 15,000 ‘New Order’ troops and Janissaries to the Egyptian coast in mid-July; they landed at Abu Qir (Aboukir) without waiting for the arrival of their horse transports, and threatened the French base at Alexandria; but they could not prevent the infiltration of their lines by the battle-hardened French infantry, and were scattered by Murat’s cavalry. French reports of their victory emphasized the folly of the Janissaries, who showed greater interest in securing ‘trophies’ by decapitating wounded prisoners than in regrouping to meet the enemy’s next assault.

Napoleon never again fought personally against Ottoman troops. By mid-October he was in France; a month later he became First Consul. As the Ottoman Empire had joined the Second Coalition, the war continued after Bonaparte left Egypt. In March 1801 an Ottoman army, with British military and naval backing, landed successfully near Alexandria and, in a seven-month campaign, forced the capitulation of the hard-pressed and deserted survivors of the Armée de l’Orient. A peace treaty was signed at Amiens in the following summer.

It had been a bitter war, especially so long as Napoleon still aspired to become ‘Emperor of the East’. His troops broke faith and committed atrocities at Jaffa; and, after two rebellions in Lower Egypt, he ordered the execution of Muslim hostages in Cairo. Selim III, for his part, had assumed a proper anti-French stance. He confiscated French property; he even worked with the Russians, allowing a fleet to pass through the Straits, while a Russo-Turkish military condominium replaced the pro-French regime set up in the Ionian Islands on the fall of the Venetian Republic. But at heart Selim remained a francophile, eager to turn to Paris for aid and advice at the earliest opportunity. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened in 1798–9, had Talleyrand gone on his projected mission to Constantinople and achieved such diplomatic success that the ‘Sultan and French army’ alliance of Bonaparte’s proclamation was a reality before the Armée de l’Orient set foot in Selim’s Egyptian lands.

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