Citizen Beauchamp and the Provincial Capital
In the summer of 1796, a French scientific expedition set out for the province of Trabzon in order to collect specimens of the unique flora of the eastern Pontic Mountains. After arriving in Istanbul, the party duly applied to the central government, requesting permission to proceed. Beauchamp, one of the members of the expedition, explains how they were initially refused. "The first intermediary (drogman) had responded in the name of the Porte [Ottoman government]. The Laz were savages, wild and virtually independent. It [the Porte] did not wish to compromise itself in the eyes of our government should some kind of accident take place." Most likely, the request for permission had been denied without comment; nonetheless, the intermediary had fulfilled his function by explaining official motives otherwise left unstated. Although the explanation is probably accurate, the characterization of the residents of the coastal region is tendentious and misleading.
The so-called Laz were outsiders to the high official circles of Istanbul. They were rough-and-tumble country people who had grown up in mountain villages. Their speech and manners featured all kinds of infelicities. Their costumes and appearance were inappropriate, if not unacceptable. Nonetheless, the Laz were also insiders of the imperial system. They comprised an ottomanist population whose presence and influence were palpable not only in Trabzon, but also in Istanbul. The local elites of this population had contacts and influence in the palace to such an extent that they were able to thwart provincial governors. The local elites had participated in military campaigns as leaders of militias and regiments, most recently in the Crimea and the Caucasus. Its tradesmen and craftsmen were also to be found as residents of the imperial capital, just as its professors and academies represented official Islam in many modest urban and rural quarters. Beauchamp probably never had the slightest inkling that the Laz were such an ottomanist population, rather than a specific people speaking a specific language. But he was fully aware of the difference between what he had been told in Istanbul and what he was soon to observe in Trabzon. This is why he includes this episode in his account, to illustrate the gross inconsistency between official formalities and governing practices.
Persisting with their request, the French are at last granted an imperial decree (ferman) addressed to the governor, but warned that his capital is in a state of insurrection at that very moment. They set sail for Trabzon accompanied by one of the janissaries who had been assigned by the Ottoman government to the French legation. Not far into their voyage, the boatman who was hired to take them begins to insist they bypass the provincial capital and proceed further eastward to the vicinity of Rize (see map 2). The boatman was himself from Rize and enrolled there in a janissary regiment, while the "Laz" in the town of Trabzon were enemies of this regiment, making it impossible for him to land there. The French eventually learn that the objectionsof the boatman are little more than a pretext aimed at diverting the expedition. He wants to take on cargo in his homeland for his return trip to Istanbul, so he tells the French plausible lies.
Although the claims of the boatman are false, they are nonetheless revealing. The rural societies of the coastal districts were affiliated with military formations, militias, and regiments that were linked with the central army (janissaries). These military formations included ordinary traders, craftsmen, and boatmen. They were associated with district alliances and coastal coalitions that spread throughout the old province of Trabzon from Batum to Ordu. As such they functioned as fraternal organizations, providing hospitality to visiting members from other communities. On some occasions, they responded to call-outs for troops by state officials who summoned them to participate in imperial campaigns alongside the central army. On other occasions, they mobilized to challenge state officials and the central army or to confront rival alliances and coalitions. Accordingly, the members of a military formation associated with one social network hesitated to travel to towns and districts that were dominated by a military formation associated with a rival social network.
The French anchor at the provincial capital of Trabzon, learn the town is actually at peace, and forward their imperial decree to the pasha of Trabzon. This document includes a request that they be given assistance to mount an expedition for the purpose of gathering botanical specimens. Beauchamp reports the response as conveyed to their messenger:
Beauchamp has been led to expect insurrection and savagery, but he finds instead a working arrangement among three competing political authorities. Every other visitor who follows him will discover a similar situation until the close of the period of decentralization (1830s). The provincial governor (or a representative in his absence) is consistently matched by two (and more rarely three) leading individuals with followings. The exact relationship of the provincial governor and the chiefs of the town is never exactly the same. The governor does not always defer to the two chiefs. The two chiefs do not always defer to one another.
The governor, after having read the decree, told him that he regretted he was not able to fulfill its requirements as the chiefs of the town [les chefs de la ville] had assumed authority, and so it was for them to receive us. Our janissary then went to find the two ayans [chief notables], Osman Agha and Memiş Agha. The latter, having learned of the orders that were in our possession, arranged for a house to be prepared for us at once and sent two riflemen aboard our boat for our debarkation. For a moment, we thought that we were going to be led away to prison.
The relationship of the three political authorities varies because each is in effect a sovereign power occupying a stronghold and able to mobilize military force. The provincial governor occupies the citadel and commands contingents of janissaries and mercenaries. The two chiefs occupy fortified residences within the city walls and command large numbers of armed followers such that their forces normally outnumber those of the governor. Sometimes the chiefs fill the streets of the town with men in arms, forcing state officials to retreat into their fortress within the city walls. Sometimes they conduct skirmishes with one another from their separate residences or lay protracted sieges around one another's residences. Since the town was at peace during his visit, Beauchamp does not witness any such events, but he sees the clear signs of them in the appearance of the town itself:
The doors of iron are but one feature of the chiefs' fortified residences; they are also equipped with secret underground passages for the purpose of receiving supplies or permitting escape during sieges. The walls of the gardens are so high that it is impossible to see from one street to another. They have been constructed as defenses against the pillaging that occurs during military invasions from the countryside. Strife between the governor and the chiefs, and, more commonly, between the chiefs themselves, periodically reduces the level of commercial activity. This may have been the case during the last few years of the eighteenth century.
The town is built on a rise of a hillside at the coastline in an attractive setting. It forms an imperfect square: Its walls are high, crenellated, and badly maintained. At the center of the town, there are two fortified mansions that are closed each night with double doors of iron. It is there where the two chiefs reside. The narrow streets are paved. Except for one part of the town, near the sea, all the rest is nothing more than large gardens enclosed by walls. The commerce of Trabzon is currently not very active. It consists of linen cloth, copper, hazelnuts, and slaves from Georgia.
Having contacted first the governor and then the two chiefs by messenger, the French are taken to a dilapidated residence, which they are allowed to use as their quarters. They are then separately visited by attendants of all kinds of officials and notables (tant du pacha que des ayans). The next morning they send timepieces in the customary manner (alaturka) to the two chiefs and coffee and sugar to other officials, the pasha, the kadıı, and the janissary agha. After these preliminaries, they proceed to visit the principals (les grands), first the two chiefs in turn and then the pasha. The first chief, Memiş Agha, receives them with gravity, serves them coffee, and offers them pipes. He asks why the French have abolished all the churches in France. When they reply that religion is free in their country, so that he can himself come and pray in a mosque if he likes, he only smiles. After a quarter of an hour, he says there are no wild plants at Trabzon (that is, in the town itself), but he would send them with an escort of horsemen into his own lands at a distance of thirty leagues, that is, about one hundred kilometers. Refusing his offer, saying they fear the Laz, the French take their leave and visit the second chief, Osman Agha. The latter has a more agreeable countenance and makes them more at ease. He recommends they look for plants in his territories at a distance of six leagues, that is, about twenty kilometers, and he offers to take them there himself. Again they refuse his assistance, but they do later make an excursion to his lands (to the south of town along the trade route). Taking their leave, the French next pay a visit to the pasha. They are well received (avec beaucoup d'aménité), but the governor does not offer them a full reception, withholding pipes, since they lack any official diplomatic capacity. Beauchamp here explains they had not requested appointment as official consuls for fear this might infuriate the Laz, so the imperial decree given them describes them only as travelers. Nonetheless, in the evening the pasha sends them musicians who play for them in their lodgings. Beauchamp and his companions do not like the music, but they are reassured by the pasha's attentiveness.
This last section of Beauchamp's observations is rich in clues to the relationship of officials and nonofficials as competing sovereign powers. The French are received by all three principals (les grands) in an almost identical fashion. They are visited by representatives of all three. They are obliged to send presents to all three. They are invited by all three to a social occasion where they meet, share refreshments, and converse with one another. On the other hand, the reception of the governor follows ceremony and protocol, while the receptions of the two chiefs are more informal. For example, the governor is referred to only by his title while the two chiefs are known by their first names. The governor withholds pipes since the French lack diplomatic standing, but the chiefs offer them coffee and pipes. The governor has the means to embellish his reception of official visitors with an elaborate table and skilled musicians in the style of the court. The two chiefs are content to meet their visitors, offer refreshment, and engage in conversation. All three receive the French in accordance with a discipline of an interpersonal association. In the instance of the governor, this discipline has been formalized in accordance with the rules and aesthetics of the imperial court. In the instance of the two chiefs, the discipline is less adorned and more simply expressed. The logic of a sovereign power based on interpersonal association is the same for each, but it is expressed in two different registers.
After their meetings with the two chiefs and the pasha, the French visit the chief judge (kadıı) and the military commander (yeniçeri ağasıı). The military commander has been posted to the town by the central government and has no connection with the two chiefs, even though the latter are associated with janissary-like militias and regiments. He speaks at length about the lack of authority of the pasha and himself in the city. He hopes that one day the pasha of Erzurum might come and take the heads of the two chiefs. The military commander offers the French his house and his garden, but they refuse, even though they are so badly quartered. They fear a close association with him might alienate the "rebels" of whom they believe themselves in need. Nonetheless, the French find the military commander cheerful and engaging, "without any of the Oriental gravity of his nation." Here Beauchamp touches on the tendency of foreigners to miss the principle of sociability underlying official procedures. The military commander has chosen to host the French as his personal guests, rather than to treat them as visiting officials. His behavior therefore illustrates a discipline of interpersonal association in its register of gaiety and warmth, rather than protocol and ceremony.