1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mahmud II.
MAHMUD II. (1785-1839), sultan of Turkey, was the son of Abu-ul-Hamid I., and succeeded his brother, Mustafa IV., in 1808. He had shared the captivity of his ill-fated cousin, the ex-sultan, Selim III., whose efforts at reform had ended in his deposition by the janissaries. Mahmūd was thus early impressed with the necessity for dissembling his intention to institute reforms until he should be powerful enough to carry them through. The reforming efforts of the grand vizier Bairakdar, to whom he had owed his life and his accession, broke on the opposition of the janissaries; and Mahmud had to wait for more favourable times. Meanwhile the empire seemed in danger of breaking up. Not till 1812 was the war with Russia closed by the treaty of Bucharest, which restored Moldavia and the greater part of Wallachia to the Ottoman government. But though the war was ended, the terms of the treaty left a number of burning questions, both internal and external, unsettled. This was notably the case with the claim of Russia to Poti and the valley of the Rion (Phasis), which was still outstanding at the time of the congress of Vienna (1814-1815) and prevented the question of a European guarantee of the integrity of Turkey from being considered.
Meanwhile, within the empire, ambitious valis were one by one attempting to carve out dominions for themselves at the expense of the central power. The ambitions of Mehemet Ali of Egypt were not yet fully revealed; but Ali (q.v.) of Jannina, who had marched to the aid of the sultan against the rebellious pasha Pasvan Oglu of Widdin, soon began to show his hand, and it needed the concentration of all the forces of the Turkish empire to effect his overthrow and death (1822). The preoccupation of the sultan with Ali gave their opportunity to the Greeks whose disaffection had long been organized in the great secret society of the Hetaeria Philike, against which Metternich had in vain warned the Ottoman government. In 1821 occurred the abortive raid of Alexander Ypsilanti into the Danubian principalities, and in May of the same year the revolt of the Greeks of the Morea began the war of Greek Independence (see Greece: History). The rising in the north was easily crushed; but in the south the Ottoman power was hampered by the defection of the sea-faring Greeks, by whom the Turkish navy had hitherto been manned. After three abortive campaigns Mahmud was compelled, infinitely against his will, to summon to his assistance the already too powerful pasha of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, whom he had already employed to suppress the rebellious Wahhabis in Arabia. The disciplined Egyptian army, supported by a well organized fleet, rapidly accomplished what the Turks had failed to do; and by 1826 the Greeks were practically subdued on land, and Ibrahim was preparing to turn his attention to the islands. But for the intervention of the powers and the battle of Navarino Mahmud’s authority would have been restored in Greece. The news of Navarino betrayed Mahmud into one of those paroxysms of rage to which he was liable, and which on critical occasions were apt fatally to cloud his usual good sense. After in vain attempting to obtain an apology for “the unparalleled outrage against a friendly power” he issued on the 20th of December a solemn hatti sheriff summoning the faithful to a holy war. This, together with certain outstanding grievances and the pretext of enforcing the settlement of the Greek Question approved by the powers, gave Russia the excuse for declaring war against Turkey. After two hardly fought campaigns (1828, 1829) Mahmud was at length, on the 14th of September 1829, compelled to sign the peace of Adrianople. From this moment until his death Mahmud was, to all intents and purposes, the “vassal of Russia,” though not without occasional desperate efforts to break his chains. (For the political events of the period between the first revolt of Mehemet Ali (Sept. 1832) and the death of Mahmud see Mehemet Ali.) The personal attitude of the sultan, which alone concerns us here, was determined throughout by his overmastering hatred of the upstart pasha, of whom he had stooped to ask aid, and who now defied his will; and the importance of this attitude lies in the fact that, as the result of the success of his centralizing policy, and notably of the destruction of the janissaries (q.v.), the supreme authority, hitherto limited by the practical power of the ministers of the Porte and by the turbulence of the privileged military caste, had become concentrated in his own person. It was no longer the Porte that decided, but the Seraglio, and the sultan’s private secretary had more influence on the policy of the Ottoman empire than the grand vizier.
This omnipotence of the sultan in deciding the policy of the government was in striking contrast with his impotence in enforcing his views on his subjects and in his relations with foreign powers. Mahmud, in spite of—or rather because of—his well-meant efforts at reform, was hated by his Mussulman subjects and stigmatized as an “infidel” and a traitor to Islam. He was, in fact, a victim to those “half-measures” which Machiavelli condemns as fatal to success. Ibrahim, the conqueror of Syria, scoffed at the sultan’s idea “that reform consisted in putting his soldiers into tight trousers and epaulettes.” The criticism is not entirely unjust. Mahmud’s policy was the converse of that recommended by Machiavelli, viz. in making a revolution to change the substance while preserving the semblance of the old order. Metternich’s advice to Mahmud to “remain a Turk” was sound enough. His failure to do so—in externals—left him isolated in his empire: rayahs and true believers alike distrusted and hated him. Of this hatred he was fully conscious; he knew that his subjects, even many of his own ministers, regarded Mehemet Ali as the champion of Islam against the “infidel sultan;” he suspected the pasha, already master of the sacred cities, of an intention to proclaim himself caliph in his stead. This, together with the weakness due to military reforms but recently begun, drove him to rely on foreign aid; which, in the actual conditions of Europe, meant the aid of Russia. The long tradition of French friendship for Turkey had been broken, in 1830, by the conquest of Algiers. Austria was, for the time, but the faithful ally of the tsar. On the 9th of August 1832 Mahmud made, through Stratford Canning, a formal proposal for an alliance with Great Britain, which Palmerston refused to consider for fear of offending France. Mahmūd bitterly contrasted the fair professions of England with the offers of effective help from Russia. His old ally having deserted him, he accepted the aid of his hereditary foe. The Russian expedition to the Bosporus, the convention of Kutaiah, and the treaty of Unkiar Skelessi (July 8, 1833) followed. Mahmud was under no illusion as to the position in which the latter placed him towards Russia; but his fear of Mehemet Ali and his desire to be revenged upon him outweighed all other considerations. He resented the action of France and England in forcing the settlement of Kutaiah upon him, and remained shut up in his palace, inaccessible to all save his favourites and the representative of Russia. With his single aim in view he busied himself with the creation of a national militia, with the aid of Moltke and other German officers. In 1834 the revolt of Syria against Ibrahim seemed to give him his opportunity. He pleaded the duty of a sultan to go to the aid of his subjects when oppressed by one of his servants; but the powers were obdurate, even Russia, much occupied in affairs nearer home, leaving him in the lurch. He was astute enough to take advantage of the offence given to the powers by Mehemet Ali’s system of monopolies, and in 1838 signed with Great Britain, and afterwards with others, a commercial treaty which cut at the root of the pasha’s system. A few months later his passionate impatience overcame his policy and his fears. The hand of death was upon him, and he felt that he must strike now or never. In vain the powers, now united in their views, warned him of the probable consequences of any aggressive action on his part. He would rather die, he exclaimed, or become the slave of Russia, than not destroy his rebellious vassal. On his sole initiative, without consulting his ministers or the council of the empire, he sent instructions to Hafiz Pasha, commanding the Ottoman troops concentrated at Bir on the Euphrates, to advance into Syria. The fatal outcome of the campaign that followed he did not live to hear. When the news of Ibrahim’s overwhelming victory at Nessib (June 24, 1839) reached Constantinople, Mahmud lay dying and unconscious. Early in the morning of the 1st of July his proud and passionate spirit passed away.
Mahmud II. cannot be reckoned among the great sultans, neither had he any of the calculating statecraft which characterized Abd-ul-Hamid II.; but his qualities of mind and heart, none the less, raised him far above the mass of his predecessors and successors. He was well versed in state affairs and loyal to those who advised and served him, personally brave, humane and kindly when not maddened by passion, active and energetic, and always a man of his word. Unhappily, however, the taint of the immemorial corruption of Byzantium had fallen upon him too, and the avenue to his favour and to political power lay too often through unspeakable paths. In view of the vast difficulty of the task before him at his succession it is less surprising that he failed to carry out his ideas than that he accomplished so much. When he came to the throne the empire was breaking up from within; one by one he freed the provinces from the tyrannical rulers who, like Ali of Jannina, were carving out independent, or quasi-independent, empires within the empire. If he failed in his wider schemes of reform, this was only one more illustration of a truth of which other “enlightened” sovereigns besides himself had experienced the force, namely, that it is impossible to impose any system, however admirable, from above on a people whose deepest convictions and prejudices it offends.