Economic Flexibility and Elasticity
Across the Pontic chain in the interior highlands, subsistence farming and herding are demanding occupations, narrowly constrained by circumstances and resources. Winters are long, requiring the maintenance of sturdy houses, stables, and barns. In the absence of trees, fuel for cooking and heating is limited but necessary for any measure of comfort. Plough farming is not possible without large draft animals, which have to be maintained year-round. The growing season is short, so farm work intensifies at specific times, when family groups must work long and hard. During the warmer months, from March through November, there is a time to sow, a time to harvest, a time to gather and store fuel, a time to pasture and corral flocks, and a time to repair roofs and walls. Moreover, each household's activities cannot be organized independently from others. The fields of the villagers are mingled together at the periphery of their nucleated settlements. Fallowing, ploughing, harvesting, pasturing, manuring, and penning are virtually impossible without collective agreements and mutual assistance.
In contrast, the subsistence activities of family groups in the coastal region are not so closely defined by climate, labor power, resources, equipment, and community. In most places the growing season is long, almost year-round near the shoreline. Water is almost never in short supply, and wood for fuel is readily available. Each hamlet is more or less isolated in the midst of its own lands, and, in many places, it stands as a kind of little kingdom on a promontory or hilltop. As a result, the villagers, especially the majority in the lower valleys, are able to organize their subsistence activities more flexibly, coordinating them with other kinds of engagements and activities. The maize and bean gardens can always be made a little larger or a little smaller. The planting of potatoes and squash can be expanded or contracted during the warmer months, just as the planting of cabbage and leeks can be expanded or contracted during the colder months. Since there is no need for oxen, ploughs, horses, and carts, subsistence activities can also be incrementally adjusted downto a bare minimum. There can always be a few more or a few less animals in the stable beneath the house, or even no animals at all.
By virtue of the flexibility and elasticity of subsistence activities, those members of the household who preoccupy themselves with subsistence activities are variable in number. Some members of the household can be absent from the hamlet for long periods of time, even during the warmer months, without seriously interrupting the cycle of farming and herding activities. When other sources of income present themselves, some members of the households can leave. It is almost always men who do so. Those remaining, some of the men and all of the women, can scale back their subsistence activities accordingly. This allows for the coordination of subsistence farming and herding with itinerant trades and crafts. Such coordination was an ancient practice in the coastal region, and especially characteristic of the later centuries of the Ottoman Empire.
If a handicraft was seasonally in demand in a town of the interior highlands, some of the men of the coastal region learned it, temporarily migrated, and practiced it. If commercial possibilities arose in some section of Asia Minor, the Caucasus, eastern Europe, or the Middle East, some went there as petty traders and wage laborers. If state officials were looking for soldiers and sailors, some took this chance to gain some experience abroad. As a consequence, the men of the coastal region were never entirely bound to the peasant way of life. Their thinking and practice took into account opportunities that might appear over the horizon. If they had a keen sense of their local origins, they nonetheless conceived themselves in relationship to all kinds of elsewheres, even to the point that subsistence became a secondary rather than primary concern. Cash-cropping, handicrafts, manufactures, and labor migration therefore tended to degrade the production of basic food stuffs.
The assortment of local products continually changed and shifted with market conditions. During the later Ottoman period, dried and fresh fruits, such as grapes, cherries, and citrus, were cultivated and exported in significant quantities to Istanbul. To the east, locally grown hemp and flax were used to make thread, nets, and cloths. A fine linen (Trabzon bezi, Rize bezi) that became prized in the Middle East and Europe was also produced. To the west, grapes from vineyards were distilled into a powerful liqueur (nardenk) and exported to the Crimea for reduction into eau-de-vie. Wooden boats (kayıık) for transporting cargo to Black Sea ports were constructed in Hopa, Rize, and Araklıı, as well as elsewhere along the coast in secluded coves invisible from the sea. Copper, lead, and silver were mined, smelted, and cast in different vicinities near Trabzon. Knives, swords, pistols, and rifles were manufactured no later than the nineteenth century and perhaps considerably earlier. Paper money was counterfeited no later than the beginning of the nineteenth century, and one can guess that metal counterfeits had been produced from ancient times. Most of the local products that flourished during later Ottoman period have declined or vanished since the beginning of the last century, only to be replaced with others. But a very few were produced for centuries, and some for much longer. Tea is a crop grown today that was first introduced between Rize and Trabzon during the mid-twentieth century, but hazelnuts have been cultivated and exported from the eastern littoral for two thousand years.
By virtue of a market orientation, subsistence farming and herding placed no Malthusian limit on how many people could inhabit the eastern coastal region. So the population of the coastal region, like that of a metropolitan area, could expand indefinitely, limited only by the ingenuity of its inhabitants to produce for a market, turn a profit in commerce, or go abroad to ply a trade or seek out work. And in fact the population did expand once the coastal region became more firmly integrated into the imperial system. British consul James Brant, traveling eastward from Trabzon in 1835, made the following observation:
As the population doubled, redoubled, and doubled again, grain deficits became endemic to the eastern coastal region. And when such deficits were exacerbated by poor harvests and market crises, the rural societies of the coastal region suffered extreme hardship and impoverishment. British consul William Palgrave, who resided in Trabzon from 1868 to 1873, described the miserable condition of the villagers near Trabzon in the following terms:
I passed in succession the districts of Yemourah, Surmenah, Oph, Rizah and Lazistan. . . . The country is so wooded and mountainous, that it does not produce grain sufficient for the consumption of the population, yet not a spot capable of cultivation appears to be left untilled. Corn fields are to be seen hanging on the precipitous sides of mountains, which no plough could arrive at. The ground is prepared by manual labour, a two pronged fork of a construction peculiar to the country being used for this purpose. Indian corn is the grain usually grown and it is seldom that any other is used for bread by the people. What the country does not supply is procured from Gouriel and Mingrelia.
The inhabitants are, with hardly an exception, wretchedly poor. The plot of ground on which each man cultivates his maize, hemp, and garden stuff, yields little more than enough for his own personal uses and those of his family; the maize–field and garden supply their staple food, and the hemp their clothing: this last coarse and ragged beyond belief. And no wonder, where a single suit has to do duty alike for summer and winter, day and night.
Cash-cropping and labor migration were alternatives to the meager fare gained from gardens and stables, but they also exacerbated the precariousness of rural life. The market orientation of the villagers decreased the local production of basic foodstuffs and so increased dependency on external economic and political conditions. The villagers were ever more inclined to contemplate the possibilities and opportunities beyond their homelands as the population density climbed. The eastern coastal region therefore represented an impressive reservoir of men who were able and eager to take up any opportunity that might be present itself. At a certain point of crisis in the imperial project, Ottoman officials took note of this fact.