Consuls Theorize the State Society of Trabzon
In 1796 Citizen Beauchamp had noticed that the Muslims of Trabzon were "different" from the Muslims of Istanbul:
The inhabitants have a wild look about them at first appearance. Their dress consists of pants and coat of Capuchin cloth. They all walk about armed with pistols and a rifle, even within the town itself. They are not as fanatic as the Muslims of Constantinople. During the three hundred years the [latter] have encountered Europeans, they have always preserved the custom of insulting them and mistreating them as unbelievers. During our stay at Trabzon, we didn't hear a single bad word; we were not even an object of curiosity for children.
Beauchamp's comparison of the citizens of the imperial and provincial capitals is an exceptional one. Other French and British visitors usually found the Muslims of Trabzon to be more fanatical and less polite than the Muslims of Istanbul. Nonetheless, Beauchamp accurately points to a characteristic for which the Laz are still famous. They can be exceedingly grim on first encounter, so it is surprising that they later prove to be remarkably polite. What Beauchamp noticed was a sharp contrast between an "outside" countenance that was intentionally intimidating and "inside" countenance that was no less intentionally sociable. These two contrasting demeanors of the Laz bring to mind the middle gate of the Ottoman palace. From without, its twin towers and fortress wall symbolized invincible sovereign power. From within, its painted portico and garden vista symbolized harmonious fellowship. The analogy is not coincidental. The Muslims of Trabzon were the creatures of imperial undertakings and accomplishments, not a marginal people at the fringe of the Ottoman Empire. The character of the Laz is then the product of the palace machine.
Beauchamp was not in a position to see how this was so. During his brief visit he had not had sufficient opportunity to learn how the Muslim population had come to compose a state society through participation in imperial military and religious institutions. More interestingly, however, the first French consuls, who resided in the coastal region for many years, also failed to understand the place of its Muslim population in the imperial system. In their very first reports, Consul Fourcade in Sinop and Consul Dupré in Trabzon addressed the relationship of state officials and local elites, and each of them reached the same mistaken conclusion: There were two different kinds of authorities in the coastal districts, and they represented two different kinds of government, one based on bureaucratic centralism and the other on interpersonal associations. Fourcade and Dupré had dissected the imperial system, then reconstituted it as two pieces, each with a separate and independent entity. A formal system of state officials representing bureaucratic regulations and procedures was the basis of one government. An informal system of leading individuals with armed followings was the basis of another government.
It is altogether possible that Fourcade and Dupré were simply repeating what was already the fixed opinion of other western European officials in the Ottoman Empire. But whatever the case, they never qualify their initial impressions in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship of officials and elites. On the contrary, they and their successors come to insist ever more categorically that the coastal districts were subject to two alternative governmental systems. But neither the initial misperception nor the later exaggeration is especially surprising. As I have already suggested in the last chapter, the French consuls were not in a good position to understand the place of the state society of Trabzon in the imperial system due to their official standing, their personal background, and their diplomatic interests.
The consuls were themselves French officials, and, as such, the counterparts of Ottoman officials. They therefore had contacts with the upper tier of the state society of Trabzon, where procedures were more visibly bureaucratic and less visibly interpersonal. The consuls represented a country where the state system had been used as a weapon to defeat inherited privilege and wealth, even if the Jacobinic revolution had recently come to an end. They would have naturally assumed that state officials of Trabzon were distinct from and opposed to its local elites. The consuls were assigned the task of implementing the terms of commercial treaties and agreements that had been negotiated between higher state officials of the two centralized governments. This task became meaningless, however, insofar as political authority worked through interpersonal association rather than through rules and procedures.
But these were not the only reasons the first consuls drew a contrast between state officials and local elites. Unlike the French scientific expedition that preceded them, they had arrived in Trabzon after the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, and with diplomatic credentials. For the Muslims of Trabzon, the first consuls therefore represented a foreign power with a record of intervention. Moreover, shortly after their arrival, a series of political crises unsettled the agreements between state officials and local elites in the coastal region. From the third or fourth year of their residences, the first consuls began to witness civil disorders in the town, skirmishes in the countryside, sieges of strongholds, and naval gun battles during the course of which they were sometimes subject to reprisals.
In reaction to these harrowing experiences, it would seem, they came to adhere ever more rigidly to the theory of two "alternative" governments, passing along their convictions to their successors. As we shall see, neither the French nor the British consuls were able to recognize the existence, let alone analyze the structure, of the state society in the coastal region by the close of the period of decentralization.