The promises of Turkey

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The promises of Turkey  (1877) 
by Arthur Arnold

The Eastern Question Association.


No. 6.


Promises of Turkey.



Knight Commander of the Greek Order of the Saviour; Author of "From
the Levant," "Through Persia by Caravan," &c. &c. &c.

London, Paris & New York.


For nearly forty years the Government of the Ottoman Empire, at the instigation of the Powers of Europe, has been making promises to its subjects—especially to its non-Mussulman subjects. The Hatti-Sheriff of Gulhané proclaimed on the 3rd of November, 1839, the establishment of religious equality. Abd-ul-Medjid, then a boy of seventeen, had just been placed on the throne of his father, Mahmoud II., and the Empire of Othman was in great danger, Mehemet Ali, the victorious Egyptian, was advancing towards Constantinople. He had gained Candia, he was master of a great part of Arabia, he possessed Syria, and there were many in the capital willing to declare him Sultan and supreme protector of Islam.

The peril was imminent. The Powers—substantially the same Powers whose unanimous counsels have now been rejected—interfered, and Mehemet Ali was pressed back to his African dominions, and forced to confine his sovereignty to the banks of the Nile. But in thus preserving the dynasty, the Powers demanded from the Sultan a Magna Charta for the Christians, and this, the result of their first united act of intervention on behalf of the non-Mussulman subjects of the Porte, was produced in the Hatti-Sheriff of Gulhanế, which, after setting forth the several concessions, declared that—

"These Imperial concessions shall extend to all our subjects, of whatever religion or sect they may be; they shall enjoy them without exception. We therefore grant perfect security to the inhabitants of our Empire in their lives, their honour, and their fortunes."

The promises of Gulhanế were promises and nothing more. Seventeen years later the same words were replaced in the mouth of the same Sultan, and again, of course, at the instance of the Powers. The white fortresses of Sebastopol then lay crumbled in ruins, the docks torn with explosions, the Russian arsenals riddled and ruined with cannon-shot and shells; the soil of the Crimea had been soaked with blood. Again the throne of Turkey had been upheld by Western Powers. The people of England and the people of France knew little or nothing of the condition of the subjects of the Porte; their Governments had never striven to inform themselves concerning the internal affairs of Turkey. But cruel facts could not be kept hidden even from men who were quite ready to frown upon those of the consular body who were resolved to tell the truth. To make the Peace of Paris without consideration for those who were degraded and suffering because of the non-fulfilment of the promises of Gulhané, would have been an outrage upon common humanity. And thus it came to pass in 1856, that Sultan Abd-ul-Medjid was invited to give pledges, which should be guarantees, for the better government of his subjects. The Hatti-Houmaïoun of 18th of February, 1856, was addressed to the Grand Vizier A'ali Pasha, who was charged with the execution of the Sultan's promises.

In order to make the introduction of the promised reforms most easy, and to avoid the subordination of the Sultan's authority, this Hatti-Houmaïoun was made a part of the general Treaty of Peace between Great Britain, Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia and Turkey, by means of the ninth Article, which was as follows:—

"His Imperial Majesty the Sultan having, in his constant solicitude for the welfare of his subjects, issued a Firman, which, while ameliorating their condition without distinction of religion or race, records his generous intentions towards the Christian population of his empire, and wishing to give a further proof of his sentiments in that respect, has resolved to communicate to the contracting parties the said Firman, emanating spontaneously from his sovereign will."

With regard to this Firman, or Hatti-Houmaïoun, it was further stated in the Treaty that—

"The contracting Powers recognise the high value of this communication. It is clearly understood that it cannot, in any case, give to the said Powers the right to interfere, either collectively or separately, in the relation of his Majesty the Sultan with his subjects, nor in the internal administration of his empire."

We return, then, to the promises of the Hatti-Houmaïoun of 1856, which was thus formally introduced to the public law of Europe. These were the Sultan's words:—

"I have resolved upon, and I order the execution of the following measures:—

The guarantees promised on our part by the Hatti-Houmaïoun of Gulhanế, and in conformity with the Tanzimat, to all the subjects of my Empire, without distinction of classes or of religion, for the security of their persons and property, and for the preservation of their honour, are to-day confirmed and consolidated, and efficacious measures shall be taken in order that they may have their full and entire effect."

Thus were the promises of Gulhané, at the requisition of the Powers, taken up and reproduced, after seventeen years of neglect. In this Hatti-Houmaïoun of 1856 the Sultan was led to promise much. His Majesty declared that—

"All the subjects of my Empire, without distinction, shall be received in the civil and military schools of the Government."

Twenty-one years after this promise was made—i.e. on the 5th of February, 1877—there appeared the following announcement in the Times:—"An Iradế of the Sultan ordains that from henceforth the children of non-Mussulmans will be admissible into all the military schools." The promissory note of 1856 has been thus renewed in 1877.

So far as verbal promise could go, the Hatti-Houmaïoun of 1856 dealt fully and fairly with the military grievance. As to the army, the Sultan Abd-ul-Medjid declared in that solemn promise to his subjects and to Europe, that—

"Christian subjects and those of other non-Mussulman sects shall, as well as Mussulmans, be subject to the law of recruitment. … A complete law shall be published, with as little delay as possible, respecting the admission into and service in the army, of Christian and other non-Mussulman subjects."

This promise was prefaced with a virtuous flourish, proclaiming that—

"The equality of taxes entails equality of burdens, as equality duties entail that of rights."

Such was the promise of 1856. Twenty years afterwards (about the usual period for the re-making of Turkish promises) what happened? There had been no attempt to put into practice the pledge of 1856; it was a pledge incompatible with Mahommedan supremacy, and therefore a mere cajolement of the Powers. On the 17th February, 1876, Sir Henry Elliot wrote to Lord Derby, informing his lordship that the Bulgarians were showing themselves "disposed to ask" that Christians shall be "liable to military service." "They are aware," continued Sir Henry,

"That the conscription would in many respects press more heavily upon them than the exemption tax: but they know likewise that no firmans or regulations will do so much to bring about a real equality between Mussulman and Christian. The present Ministers" he added, "are not, I believe, prepared to entertain the proposal if it should be brought forward."[1]

In the new Constitution—the bubble blown by Midhat—this Firman, without which all of these promises are worthless, is thrown aside. The Porte will not put into the hands of non-Mussulman subjects the strength which might ensure the fulfilment of its promises. The Trade I have referred to is the only concession which the Sultan's government will offer, and that is nothing but a bulwark of Mussulman power—the admission of clever non-Mussulman boys to be trained as officers of a purely Mussulman army.

"All the evils of Turkey," says the Special Correspondent of the Times in Constantinople,[2] may be traced to the difference between the Osmanlis as a conquering race and a military caste and the Christians as a people unfit for and unworthy of the privilege of bearing arms and sharing the most sacred of duties—that of fighting for their country. To do away with this difference it is necessary that the law should prescribe universal enlistment. The law of conscription, as it now exists, falls exclusively upon the Mussulmans, allowing, however, those who wish it to ransom themselves by the payment of a certain sum. But the Christians have no option. They are exempted, or excluded from the service, but must pay a tax for their freedom. The consequence is that 15,000,000 of Mussulmans [including those of the Asiatic provinces] must do the military work of 30,000,000, to the severe exhaustion of the productive powers of their race, and the 15,000,000 Christians must pay the cost of the war establishment, to their utter debasement and disgrace."

Now as to this tax, which is falsely called an exemption tax. In December, 1875, the Sultan issued a Firman, proclaiming and promising that in future the tax should not be levied upon two categories of male persons who, by reason of their religion, were not eligible for service in the army. The Sultan pledged himself that the tax should be no longer levied upon male infants from their birth till the serviceable age, nor upon "old men long past service."[3] The promise of this Firman was not observed, and has never been observed. But the maintenance of the tax upon these useless categories demonstrates the true character of the burden. It is not an exemption tax; it is a helot tax—a badge of serfdom, of slavery, submission to which must produce oppression on one side and on the other a deepening degradation. Sir Henry Elliot, perhaps because he had lived so long in the dishonest atmosphere of the Porte, does not appear to have offered any remonstrance. It was merely another Firman; the promise of another Sultan, which had proved delusive. Abd-ul-Aziz was Sultan when the despatch (No. 33) from which I have quoted was written; he was in his grave when our Ambassador returned to the subject on June 8th. Sir Henry Elliot has always shown himself more solicitous for the preservation of the Turkish Empire than for the just administration of the Sultan's power; and, accordingly, although regarding the exclusion of the non-Mussulman people from the army as

"The one great badge of distinction existing between the two races,"[4]—admitting that "the Christians have become aware that until it is swept away their nominal equality with the Mussulmans cannot be complete and real"— seeing that the clauses "of the Hatti-Houmaïoun of 1856, drawn up under the advice of the Western Powers," have hitherto remained a dead letter," he urges that "it is not necessary that the conscription should at once be put in force among the Christian population; but the military schools should at once be opened to them, and they might be received either as volunteers or as substitutes for Mussulmans drawn as conscripts."

I have no doubt that the Christians of Turkey would object to a conscription which would appear to make them tools of the misgoverning rule to which they are subject, and from which they have at all times suffered grievous wrongs. It is difficult for a free people to estimate the degrading consequences of ages of oppression, of exclusion from any association with the governing authority. Yet we have had many illustrations of the cruel lust of tyranny, of the miserable results of this divorce from power, and none more striking than that narrated by the Special Correspondent of the Times which appeared in the issue of the 7th Feb., 1877. A zaptieh one of the soldier-police who form part of the alien garrison of Bulgaria, arrived in the village of Brankortsi, in Bulgaria, on last Christmas Day. He wished to be quartered upon one Petko, because that man had two young and pretty daughters who would be obliged to wait upon him. But the cmet the village head-man, said this could not be, as two Albanians had been already placed in Petko's house; whereupon the zaptieh beat the cmet which was received as in the ordinary course of things. But the zaptieh did not stop there.

"He stabled his horse, and came out with bridle, saddle, and saddle-bags, and actually bridled and harnessed and then mounted the terrified and unresisting cmet. The wretch rode his 'man-horse' up and down the street, forcing him into the puddles where the mud was deepest."

When they came to the house which the cmet had destined for the zaptieh's residence, the rider

"Pulled up, alighted, and was soon surrounded by the villagers, all aghast at the sight of the strange equestrian group, yet never daring to interfere or remonstrate. The zaptieh bade the landlord bring out an armful of hay, and as the man ventured to intercede for the poor cmet, the zaptieh struck him in the face with so heavy a blow as to stretch him almost senseless on the ground. The 'man-horse' was brought up, tied by his rider to a post outside the door, and, whip in hand, bidden to eat the hay. The poor man, now thoroughly unmanned, and bathing that forage with his tears, tried to comply with the brutal order, and took some of the hay between his teeth. … The cmet, a person of importance in the village, and to whom the Government entrusts the collection of taxes to the average yearly amount of 200,000 piastres, would never dare to lodge a complaint of this ill-treatment, as nothing would save him from the policeman's vengeance, or from that of the body to which he belongs."

That is the tyranny, such are the instruments, which Mr. Gladstone demanded, in the name of humanity, should be turned, "bag and baggage," out of Bulgaria. This foul and shocking degradation follows upon the exclusion of the Christians from the military body of which they are the abject slaves. They are for the most part unequal and unable to appreciate the fact that equality with the Turk in military conscription must lead to subversion of the Mahommedan power.

The ample and liberal promises of Turkey in regard to the administration of public justice are twenty years old, and are as yet unfulfilled in any part. The Hatti-Houmaïoun of 1856 promised that—

"All commercial, correctional, and criminal suits between Mussulmans and Christians and other non-Mussulman subjects, or between Christians and other non-Mussulmans of different sects, shall be referred to mixed tribunals."

"Testimony shall be received, without distinction, upon an oath taken according to the religious law of each sect."

"Penal, correctional, and commercial laws shall be drawn up as soon as possible, and formed into a code. Translations of them shall be published in all the languages current in the Empire."

As to taxes, it was promised that—

"The most prompt and energetic measures for remedying the abuses in collecting the taxes, and especially the tithes, shall be considered. The system of direct collection shall gradually, and as soon as possible, be substituted for the plan of farming in all the branches of the revenue of the State."

As to roads and canals and means of communication, it was promised that—

"Steps shall also be taken for the formation of roads and canals, to increase the facilities of communication, and increase the sources of the wealth of the country. Everything that can impede commerce or agriculture shall be abolished. To accomplish these objects, means shall be sought to profit by the science, the art, and the funds of Europe, and thus gradually to execute them."

As to money and monetary facilities, it was promised that—

"Steps shall be taken for the formation of banks and other similar institutions, so as to effect a reform in the monetary and financial system, as well as to create funds to be employed in augmenting the sources of the material wealth of my Empire."

Such were some of the promises of 1856; such were the Sultan's "wishes and commands," and A'ali Pasha, his Grand Vizier, was bidden to take "all necessary measures that all the orders which it [the Hatti-Houmaïoun] contains "be henceforth carried out with the most rigorous punctuality."

Of the thirty-five articles of this famous Hatti-Houmaïoun, those that are important have, to quote the words of Mr. Butler-Johnstone, a zealous friend of the Turkish Power, "remained dead letters."[5] He admits, in regard to the administration of justice, that the promises of Turkey have been "translated into mock courts, unpaid judges, arbitrary procedure, and corrupt decisions." As to the introduction of "a sounder fiscal system," he says, "nothing of the kind has been done;" as to corruption, "at present the whole administration is corrupt;" as to banks, "nothing of the sort has been thought of." Instead of performance of the promises relative to better means of communication,

"The absence of roads and canals has prevented the relief of a famished population; and as to railroads, the only important line finished was a cloak for a most notorious scandal."

As to the promise of profiting "by the science, the art, and the funds of Europe" for "the increase of the sources of the wealth of the Empire," we see what has been done. With the money of unsatisfied bondholders an ironclad fleet has been purchased, and is fast wearing out; a large army has been provided with the most improved weapons of war, all of which has emboldened the pashas to resist the unanimous counsels of the Powers of Europe. Favourites and fawning courtiers have been enriched, and millions have been wasted in baubles for the delight of sultanas. But as to foreign capital being used for development of the great resources of the country, Mr. Butler Johnstone himself says that—

"Such vexatious obstructions have been placed in the way of foreign capital that it has shunned the country; and men of integrity like Scott-Russell and T. Brassey have had all their offers rejected. Unless the pashas catch a glimpse of backshish, foreign enterprise is an abomination in their eyes."

These promises were made to be broken. "Qui est-ce qu'on trompe?" as Prince Gortschakoff said to Lord Augustus Loftus. These reforms were promised with the knowledge that they would not, could not, be put in operation. The Turkish Power is, in spite of Midhat's Constitution, a Mahommedan theocracy. No law is accepted as valid unless it has religious sanction. The statute book must run with the Koran. The neglect on the part of the Turkish Power to fulfil the pledges of 1839 and of 1856 does not vex the mind of a genuine Turk. The obligation was not to be found in the precepts of the Koran. They had not the sanction of the Church, which we have seen invoked and obtained before any would engage in the dethronement of Abd-ul-Aziz and of Murad.

England has appeared to feel more than any other Power the disgrace of having been made a party to the manufacture of these spurious pledges and promises. Lord Stratford de Redcliffe was instructed in 1858 to—

"Impress on his Imperial Majesty the Sultan the deep importance which Her Majesty's Government attach to his faithfully carrying out the Hatti-Houmaïoun without any unnecessary delay,"

and Lord Stratford reported in the same year that, in audience of the Sultan, he had—

"Submitted that little had been done, and that a feeling of disappointment and almost of despair was on that account spreading throughout Europe."

Lord Stratford was right. Despair did supervene. In Turkey the progress observed in the rest of Europe was reversed. The Empire retrograded. But the manufacture of promises continued; and Napoleon III having restored the idea of Imperial democracy, the pattern of these promises became more and more that of the Tuileries—in the neighbourhood of which, about the arcades of the Palais Royal, the ruling pashas have been wont to graduate in what they believe to be civilisation. Had I been blind I could have fancied myself at the Tuileries on the 10th of May, 1868, when Sultan Abd-ul-Aziz announced the establishment of the Council of State and the High Court of Justice. He confessed that there was something wrong, something rotten in his State, "for," said he,

"If the principles and laws already established had answered to the exigencies of our country and our people, we ought to have found ourselves to-day in the same rank as the most civilised and best administered States of Europe." "With a view to promote the rights of our subjects," Abd-ul-Aziz proclaimed the establishment of the Council of State, "whose members are taken from all classes of our subjects without exception." "Another body," he continued, "has been charged to assure justice to our subjects in that which concerns the security of their persons, their honour, and their property."

What happened? The Council of State was nominated, three-fourths of the members being Mussulmans. It has been a scandal, an extravagance, a laughing-stock, and is nick-named the "Yes-if-you-please Council." Were the Courts of Justice reformed? Not in any way. No one has said, or can say with truth, that Mr. Yorke's description of Turkish Courts in the House of Commons was unfair, and he described them as—

"Markets, not open markets, but dirty back-door shops, closets for fraud, corners for chicane, and dens where professional brokers meet the judicial staff to job causes and rob suitors."

When Murad was put on the throne of Abd-ul-Aziz the same solemn farce was played. The Grand Vizier addressed himself, viâ Murad, in phrases adapted from the failure of 1868.

"All our subjects," thus ran the Hatt of June 1st, 1876, "without exception, shall enjoy full and complete liberty … and in order to carry out this project … and with a view to this most essential result, it is both important and necessary that the Council of State should be re-organised."

When the turn of the present Sultan came, he, in September of last year, employed much the same language. "To remedy evils," which were specified. His Majesty Abd-ul-Ahmed pledged himself that—

"A Special Council would be charged to guarantee the exact execution of existing laws."

Last of all, and most pretentious, we have the Constitution of Midhat, who has fallen under the weight of that newest bundle of promises. There is nothing in the past history or the present circumstances of the Turkish Empire which could lead us to suppose that the Constitution would have fair play. But the Turks themselves have left us in no doubt whatever upon that point. There is a journal published in Constantinople, printed in the Turkish language, which is called Truth. It is generally considered to be under the immediate patronage and direction of the Ministry of War. It became necessary to reconcile the interests of Truth with the acceptance of Midhat's Constitution in the eyes of the Mussulman soldiery, and this was done by an article in that journal entitled, "The Partisans of the Constitution and their Opponents." The readers of Truth were assured that the National Assembly, or the Turkish House of Commons,

"Will be especially careful to avoid everything which may seem opposed to the sacred prescriptions of the Cheri."[6] "But it may be objected," continued Truth, "that Mussulmans only are concerned with this, while in the National Assembly there will be non-Mussulmans. To those who raise such an objection, we reply that they ought to take into consideration—(1.) That the majority in the Chamber will be composed of Mussulmans; (2.) That decisions can only be made by a majority of votes; and (3.) That all decisions will be submitted to the Upper House, the members of which will be nominated by the Government, and selected exclusively from among the high Mussulman functionaries. Thus, we see, the divine order will be faithfully assured and executed."

Such candour leads us by irresistible impulse to side with the Conference in the opinion that the promises of Turkey cannot be accepted without guarantees "to ensure the loyal and complete application" (I am quoting the words of the too hastily rejected Berlin Memorandum) "of the measures agreed upon between the Powers and the Porte." Had the British Ministers been as wise in May as they were in December; had they seen in May as they did in December, the need for guarantees, how much better would it have been for the peace of Europe and the interests of this country—those special objects of their regard! They and those who sympathised with them have been beguiled by the promises of Turkey. Was there ever a more grotesque piece of fooling than that played by Midhat Pasha upon the Special Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, who on February 2nd flashed to London intelligence that Midhat, "personally conversed" with, had stated that "twenty-one shorthand writers were being collected to report the speeches" in the new Turkish Parliament! There is a disposition to credulity which blinds the judgment of men, but that is not the condition of the people of this country. They know that, by their acceptance of pledges at the close of the war which they waged to preserve Turkey from Russian conquest, they are not free from definite and real obligation with reference to those most unhappy people, some of whom were victims of the Bulgarian horrors, and they are profoundly conscious that, whatsoever may be their duty in regard to those people, they would be guilty of hypocrisy if, when liberty, and life, and honour, are at stake, they bade all men be content with the promises of Turkey.

  1. No. 33, Correspondence.
  2. Times, February 5, 1877.
  3. Correspondence, No. 33.
  4. Correspondence, No. 442.
  5. Series of letters to Pall Mall Gazette, 1875.
  6. The codified precepts of the Koran.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.