The relationship between European, North African, and Southwest Asian nations that border the Mediterranean stretches back to antiquity and reflects a long tradition of trade, colonialism, and acculturation. Yet, by the end of World War II, Europe had come to dominate the region politically and militarily. When did this long-symbiotic relationship transform into one of imperialism and colonization?
In this first of a two part podcast, guest and co-host Christopher Rose from UT’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies walks us through the beginnings of European imperialism in the Middle East.
- Christopher RosePostdoctoral Fellow, Institute for Historical Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
- Joan NeubergerProfessor of History, University of Texas at Austin
Our topic today is European imperialism in the Middle East. Where does this story start?
I’m going to go all the way back to 1492. Typical of an historian, I like the long view of history here, but 1492 is really where the balance of power in the Mediterranean shifts.
1492, of course, we remember it in American history because it’s the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But the other 1492 in history is that the Spanish kingdoms finally managed to expel the final Moorish presence on the Iberian Peninsula, which was the Emirate of Granada. It fell in January of 1492.
And, by Moorish presence, you mean…
These are Muslim—they’re referred to as “Moors,” although to be perfectly honest, most of them were born in Spain. There had been a Muslim presence on the peninsula since 711, part of the initial wave of conquests when Islam was first coming out of Arabia. Since about the 11th century, there had been an active “reconquista,” which was a drive by the Christian kingdoms in the north of the peninsula to retake what they believed was their territory. This was finally accomplished in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, who were king and queen of Castile and Leon. I always like to remind people that they ruled together; it wasn’t Ferdinand and his wife, they were actually co-monarchs.
The reason why this is significant is that it suddenly freed up a country that had been investing a lot of its treasury in war for centuries to do other things. For example, to fund this crazy guy who wanted to go to Asia by sailing west. The other thing that it allowed Spain to do was to build a navy which, of course, once they discovered the Americas and opened the trade, was very important for protecting that trade, particularly the large amount of silver that was coming in from the New World.
Over in the Eastern Mediterranean, the major power at that time was Egypt, which had the largest navy on the Mediterranean and dominated trade with India. Well, over in this part of the world, the Ottomans are starting to take over. The Ottomans had arrived in what is now Turkey in the 12th century, and were slowly consolidating their power. They took Constantinople in 1453, and in 1517 they conquered Egypt.
This means that you have two brand new powers that have really never had navies before suddenly duking it out for control of the high seas and control of this trade.
The winner in all of this was Venice. Regardless of who was bringing goods into the Mediterranean, the Venetians were the ones who imported them into Europe and sold them at a markup, and it was vastly profitable. Columbus was looking for a direct route to Asia; the reason why Spain wanted direct access to Asia was to cut Venice and the Ottomans out and keep the profit for themselves.
OK, Egypt has a navy. Spain has a navy, and they control the trade. What is going on in North Africa at the time?
North Africa was basically a collection of little petty city-states, we can think of them as ports with fortresses and small navies. The region that I’m thinking of when I talk about North Africa is modern day Algeria and Tunisia. Morocco was doing its own thing, and it was more Atlantic-focused. This area is collectively known as the Barbary Coast. And from the Barbary Coast, we get the Barbary pirates.
Now, we call them pirates, but they’re more properly corsairs or privateers that are regulated by the governments they report to. What they were doing was exacting a tax on the value of goods on ships passing through waters they controlled–this was common practice when transporting goods over land, to pay for safe passage through territory, but it wasn’t a common practice at sea. Intercepting ships at sea for money is usually thought of as piracy. Sometimes ships and crews that didn’t pay or fought back were taken hostage.
The Ottomans were never able to fully subdue this area. They tried. But one of the ways the Ottomans ruled was that they would sign agreements with whoever controlled the territories to basically appoint a governor who would rule, they would kick back part of their profits to Istanbul, but then the system didn’t really change that much. So, basically, when it made sense to pay off the Barbary beyliks, which is what they were called, they would do so, and then they would be pirating on behalf of the Ottomans. And there were a lot of raids on Spanish ships and a lot of raids on French ships.
So, the Barbary pirates are coming out of the coast of North Africa and attacking both navies, and at the time most of North Africa was loosely controlled by the Ottomans?
Loosely in some form or another.
Are we talking about the 17th century?
We’re talking about the 1500s to the 1600s. One of the reasons why Phillip II launched the Armada when he did in the late 16th century was that he had actually signed a non-aggression pact with the Ottoman empire, guaranteeing right of passage for Spanish ships that were in the Mediterranean. Spain decided that it was going to unilaterally pull back from the Mediterranean and become more Atlantic-focused. The English were growing as their main rival at the time, and the pact gave Spain the assurance to refocus its naval power.
France, however, never had such assurance. In addition to the fact that ships were being raided, the Barbary pirates also raided villages. At their most powerful, they went as far as Cornwall, Ireland and Iceland. There are stories about whole entire villages being kidnapped under cover of night and taken down to North Africa as slaves. Algiers was one of the major slaving centers in North Africa at this time. Over the course of the 16th-18th centuries, it is estimated that there were about one and a half million people of European origin enslaved and pressed into service in these ports.
It was a huge money-making industry on the Barbary Coast. What they would do is ransom these slaves back to their various crowns. Miguel de Cervantes was actually one of these slaves. In Don Quixote, there’s a section, “The Captive’s Tale,” that’s semi-autobiographical. He was a slave for several years in Algiers. They were treated terribly, by the way. They were usually kept in dungeons, and given the most menial labor. They only was they could improve their lot in life was to convert to Islam, but if they did, their countries would no longer ransom them. So, it was basically a question of: “Do you want to suffer now? Or do you want to suffer later?”
Interestingly enough, they also fought with each other. Morocco and the other Barbary coast pirates began duking it out in the late 18th century, which is one of the reasons why Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation.
What’s the connection?
They wanted to the U.S. navy to come and back them, and the British, against these other pirates. One of the forgotten battles of the US, around the War of 1812, were the first and second Barbary Wars. This was directly responsible for the creation of the US Navy in 1794, and if you think of the Marine Hymn—From the Halls of Montezuma, to the Shores of Tripoli—well, Tripoli was in North Africa. That was the Second Barbary War, where the American navy basically went in to put down some of this piracy because it was basically invoked by the U.S.-Moroccan Treaty of Friendship. Which, interestingly enough, is actually the oldest treaty that the United States has signed that is still in effect. It was signed in 1786.
The US wasn’t playing a major role here yet, right? What are Spain and France up to in the 18th century?
By the 18th century, Spain has declined. France has taken a more dominant role and taken over as the major imperial power. It goes wholesale in the early 1800s to try and put down the Barbary Piracy problem once and for all. They’re tired of this. They’ve been dealing with this for over two hundred years.
It also has to do with the fact that France, after the revolution in 1789, was internally unstable and, as you do when you’re internally unstable is you start looking for external opportunities to boost your own popularity. Particularly after the restoration of the French crown in the early 19th century, Charles X went into Algeria on a very flimsy excuse: the Dey of Algiers had a meeting with the French Consul-General and had hit him on the nose with a fly whisk. That had happened in 1827, there was a three-year blockade, and then in 1830 France invaded Algeria.
Even before that, during the Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Army went into Egypt.
Correct. I like to think about this as: Napoleon was always annoying people on the Revolutionary Committee; but it’s unclear on what pretense it was decided that Napoleon in particular was going to take a bunch of French resources and go off to Egypt. I always joke that he was standing around with his hand inside his coat, and the Committee decided to send him off, “Hey, Napoleon, why don’t you go take care of that India problem?”
The India Problem was this: Britain was making a lot of money off of its trade deals with the Indian Petty States. Britain hadn’t yet consolidated its rule over the subcontinent, but France wanted a piece of the action. And it had long been theorized in European circles that the easiest way to get to India would be to build a canal through Egypt. So, in 1798, Napoleon goes off to invade Egypt to make this happen.
The military campaign in Egypt was—and I cannot underscore this enough—a complete and utter failure. The British found out what was happening, the British navy followed the French navy to the port of Alexandria. Alexandria, which at the time was a village of about two thousand people and ten thousand goats, was “bombarded”—and I’m using finger quotes there—the French victoriously walked ashore, and started marching inland to go conquer Egypt, and the British sunk the ships that they had left in the port in Alexandria.
Napoleon managed to get back to France fairly quickly, but the rest of the French army was there until 1801. One of the things that they did do was develop an encyclopedic Description of Egypt. It was botanical, it was zoological, and it depicted life in Egypt both ancient and modern, and it really got the Egyptology craze going.
What it also did was it broke Ottoman rule in Egypt. In 1803, a new governor was appointed, a man by the name of Mohammad Ali. Mohammad Ali himself was an interesting microcosm of the Ottoman experience. He was an ethnic Albanian, born in what is now northern Greece, who raised a Turkish military officer at the Ottoman court and sent to Egypt. He was a very shrewd man who managed to set up his own dynasty. At this point, Ottoman governors were cycled out every two years. He stayed. He really decided to develop Egypt pretty much into an autonomous country of its own. Over the course of the 19th century, Egypt was able to gain its autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. It didn’t hurt that Mohammad Ali was able to threaten Constantinople with his own superior armies in the 1820s. And, they left him alone after that.
One of the things that he did was bring in French military advisors and French tutors for his sons. He himself never learned to speak French, but his sons were educated in the French style, with european tutors. Come the 1850s and 1860s, they have these grandiose ideas about bringing Egypt into the modern world.
The making–and undoing–of Egypt was actually the American civil war. Or, more specifically, the Union blockade of Southern ports which choked off the supply of cotton to Europe. Egypt, along with India, stepped in to fill the void. One of the things that Mohammad Ali had done over the tenure of his reign was to have the marshlands of the Nile Delta drained–using French technology–and turned into productive farmland. And one of the crops they grew was cotton. Cotton, of course, got very valuable, and Egypt grew very wealthy.
The Viceroy of Egypt at the time–a man named Ismail–decided to expand the railway lines, to build new, modern European style cities–new quarters of Cairo, rebuilt the entire city of Alexandria, and they decided, with British and French help, to fund the building of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869.
With all of the money pouring into the country, they took loans from Europe at phenomenal interest rates–and when I say phenomenal, I mean phenomenally high, not phenomenal like we’re seeing now when they’re very very low–because they could afford to pay all of that money back. Of course, in 1865, the U.S. civil war ends, the south gets back on line, and the price of cotton drops. And suddenly, Egypt is in massive debt to Europe.
Like I said, this really turns out to be the unmaking of Egypt, because in 1870 no one who took bets would have guessed that Japan over Egypt would become the major world economic power of the 20th century. Egypt had more railway lines per capita of any country in the developing world, it had a modern military, modern police, and was developing all of these public sector institutions. Well, all of that went away. In 1876, Britain and France took over all of Egypt’s financial ministries–basically, they took control of the banks. And, in 1882 after a skirmish with a nationalistic prime minister who thought that Britain and France should no longer be running the country, Britain actually militarily took control of Egypt and made it a protectorate. This is where the story changes, because from that point, Egypt became a colony.
Then, of course if we go back to France where we mentioned that they had invaded Algiers, in 1848, Algiers became a settler colony. It was annexed to France. Algiers was not a colony, it was part and parcel of France: it was France-autre-mer, “across the water,” any French citizen who moved to Algiers was given land, they were encouraged to develop agriculture. They were encouraged to have children, who then became French citizens, they built French schools, they built churches, they were there to stay. Of course, the problem is that there were five million non-French people in Algeria, but that’s a different story that we’ll come back to.
So, this is the situation in the middle of the 19th century. You have French and British presence all along the North African coast.
Let’s move over to the Eastern Mediterranean and talk about what’s going on in Turkey and the Near East.
This is when the Ottoman empire is in a state of decline.
What’s it declining from?
What it’s declining from is the period–most notably in the 17th century–when Ottoman armies had threatened Vienna. The Empire at its most expansive controlled everything from what is now Algiers into what is now Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, it controlled part of what is now the Black Sea coast of Russia, it controlled Greece, it controlled pretty much everything that we now consider the modern Middle East, up to the border of Persia, which was its main military rival. All of this territory was Ottoman.
And when was it at its greatest extent?
In the 17th century. From that point on, it started losing things. In the 19th century, of course, North Africa gets taken over by the French. Egypt is still nominally part of the Empire until 1914, but it’s been acting independent since 1805. Then, of course, we have the fact the Balkans are starting to break away. Greece gets independence in 1830, the Serbians begin revolting at the beginning of the 19th century, Russia’s power is growing, and the Ottomans are losing territory because they no longer have the military advantage.
And they have the growing military power of Russia to the north.
They have the military power of Russian to the north, they have the British and French navies nipping away at their possessions, they lose Cyprus, they lose Aden in 1839 because it becomes a refueling station on the way to Suez that the British. But what’s different from other parts of Africa and Asia, they’re not looking for direct control. They’re looking for resources. And they other thing that they start doing, interestingly enough, is protectionism of local minority populations. The French decide to assume consular control over any Christian citizen in what is now Syria. Well, over any Catholic in what is now Syria, which is basically the Maronite population of Mount Lebanon. The Russians do the same thing with the Orthodox population. Remember, Greece is not yet an independent country, so even though we call them “Greek Orthodox,” Russia is trying to assume primacy among the Orthodox populations.
And this is to the point where, at various places during the late 19th century, some of these people could actually claim citizenship and carry French or Russian passports, which exempt them from Ottoman laws. Under various treaties signed after the Crimean War and various other skirmishes, European powers have the right to try any of their citizens who was accused of a crime in Ottoman territory in their own courts. So, literally, in a city like Smyrna, which is now Izmir in western Turkey, or in a city like Beirut, you would have an Ottoman court, and you would have a European court. Literally, any crime involving a European was tried in the European courts, which were seen as more lenient. And there were even stories that people would commit crimes, and when the police were coming after them, they would just take out their passport and stand on it and suddenly they were standing on French or Russian territory. And this caused a huge problem.
So, this is one of the ways in which the Ottoman decentralization and decline really began to effect the citizens of the Empire itself.
By the late 19th century, you have the Ottoman Empire on the decline in the Eastern Mediterranean, you have Russian power increasing, French and British colonial power at its height. And as the Ottoman Empire declines, there’s a lot of territory in Eastern Europe and North Africa that’s kind of up for grabs. And there are a lot of independence movements.
There’s a lot of agitating for independence. And of course, what happens is World War I breaks out, and the Ottomans are on the side of the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians.
And the Russians are–
–on the other side. And of course, what Russia wants is access through the Black Sea, through the Dardanelles which runs right by Istanbul, and have access to the Mediterranean. They want to be able to get their ships out. Suddenly this is all a very hot situation.
And we’ll pick up there in the next podcast.