Fourcade's Theory of Two Governmental Systems
In 1802 Consul Fourcade had been pleased to encounter and cultivate the agha of Sinop even before leaving the imperial capital to take up his post in that town. Congratulating himself on his good fortune, he had patiently explained to his superior the principle of two separate governmental systems, one prevailing in Istanbul, another in the eastern Ottoman provinces. He wrote, "These Asiatic provinces are governed as were those of France during the period of high feudalism. Their customs, their lands, their manufactures, their money, are all in the hands of these aghas whose enmity or friendship can either bring ruin to our commerce or cause it to flourish." By these remarks, Fourcade was repeating, if not inventing, what was to become the dominant "consular theory" of the period of decentralization. The aghas were feudal lords as formerly existed in France. As such, they were sometimes a mere nuisance and sometimes a real danger, but one could understand how to manage them by recognizing them for what they were.
Two years later, Fourcade's enthusiasm for working through local elites had dimmed as a consequence of their unpredictability. Once again ahead of his time, he articulated what was to be the dominant "consular practice," writing "One cannot say it often enough. The regime of little aghas here is not suited for commerce. . . . [We] the French are therefore interested only in what might increase rather than decrease the power of the pasha and will assist him with all [our] means and all [our] influence. But we should also expect reciprocity, and this leads us to speak of England and Russia." Fourcade follows these remarks with complaints about his Russian counterpart, whom he suspected of conniving with the agha of Sinop against him. To remedy such ills, he called for an explicit diplomatic policy whereby the representatives of foreign powers would work together. They would prop up the central government so that state officials might prevail over local elites. A coherent theory had matured into coherent practice.
But Fourcade had miscalculated. Consular theory and practice were contingent on the assumption of two governments, one a decentralized feudalism and the other a centralized bureaucracy. But no such division existed, so there was no possibility of lending support to the latter without in some way also lending support to the former. Fourcade had first met the agha of Sinop in Istanbul. The latter had been obliged to travel there in order to address the court intrigues by his rival and neighbor. So at the time of this very first encounter, the agha of Sinop was as much enmeshed in a politics of laws and courts at the level of centralized government as in a politics of local rivalries and alliances among provincial leaders and groupings. Similarly, two years after writing the above assessment, Fourcade would discover that French policies with regard to the Ottomans would be noticed by provincial leaders and groupings, precisely because their political fortunes were directly dependent on the structure and processes of the centralized government.
In 1807 a revolt of janissaries in the imperial capital brought the reign of Sultan Selim to an end. Soon afterward, the revolt had reverberations in the town of Sinop:
By his stylization of them, Fourcade clearly did not know what to make of these "barbarians known as the Laz." He consequently stumbled whenever he attempted to name them, describing them at one point as "drunken fanatics," and then at another point as "foreign rabble" (canaille étrangère). But if Fourcade did not understand the Laz, they understood him perfectly. It was as though they had been reading over his shoulder when he composed the consular report recommending a conspiracy of the French, British, and Russians on behalf of the sultan. A few days after their arrival, a group of them expressed their displeasure with the French directly, attacking and beating one of the consular staff in the street before Fourcade's house. When the latter bravely attempted to intervene, he was himself assaulted, receiving serious injuries that left him partially paralyzed. Having a keen sense of justice, Fourcade thereupon lodged a complaint against specific individuals among the Laz who were subsequently arrested and held. In reprisal, their companions united to lay siege and set fire to the consul's house, a technique strangely reminiscent of the attack on Paçan village in 1737/1150. Fearing further attacks, the consul was forced to intercede on behalf of those he had accused and withdraw his complaint. The Laz whom he had charged were then released on the condition that they and their companions set sail for the east the following morning.
Because of unfavorable winds, several ships from Trabzon, Rize, and Phasis have been obliged to anchor at Sinop. The ships were coming from Constantinople. They were stuffed with these barbarians known as the Laz, driven out of the capital by reason of their insolent behavior and drenched in the blood of the ministers of the unfortunate Sultan Selim. Dispersed in the coffeehouses of Sinop, these miserable characters constantly abused the French, whom they accused of having subjugated their [Ottoman] government and sold out Rumelia to the Muscovites. The district governor [of Sinop] manifested the greatest indifference to all this, and his behavior has encouraged this foreign rabble.
Fourcade's concept of two governments, a decentralized feudalism in the provinces and a centralized bureaucracy in the capital, had been overtaken by events. A motley group of men from a variety of coastal districts could somehow identify their interests in terms of bringing down a sultan, then later come together to challenge the representatives of a foreign power who had sought to manipulate the imperial regime. So there was something broader and deeper than a collection of aghas in some of the Asiatic provinces, and certainly in the eastern coastal districts of the province of Trabzon. But the consul lacked the stamina to decipher the meaning of his experiences. Unable to make a full recovery from his wounds, he soon retired from the consular service.
During the years that followed, as other French and British consuls took up residence and learned more about the coastal region, it became harder for them to see what Beauchamp had just barely noticed. As the later consuls became more engaged in manipulating the balance of power in the imperial regime, so they were more inclined to see "grimness" rather than "politeness" in the countenance of the Laz. Their disability would prove to be more than a failure to appreciate the civilized conventions of otherwise uncivilized ruffians. It was also the basis for a misevaluation of what could be accomplished by governmental reforms relying on western European methods and technologies.
Fontanier provides a striking example of this misevaluation. He was perhaps the most experienced and intelligent of all the foreigners who described one of the core Ottoman provinces during the period of decentralization. His two books on his travels in the Empire contain remarkable insights and rare information. And yet, as we shall see, he too came under the spell of consular theory and practice. In the instance of Fontanier, we can see more clearly how consular contacts with local elites raised existential questions. What is the character of the moment in which we live? The answer turns upon what we can say has come before us and so what can be expected to come after us. But what if we should have an experience that shuffles our notions of before and after? What if the elements of the past should suddenly acquire a vitality that suggests they might hold the power to shape the future?
Consular contacts with the rural societies of the coastal districts provoked this kind of disorientation. For all the consuls, sovereign power through interpersonal association was a thing of the past, not the future. When they misidentified it with the feudal regime of thirteenth-century France, they were not simply drawing an analogy. They were also making an existential assertion. They assumed that reform of the state system would inevitably lead to the demise of the local elites. Fontanier was no different than the other consuls in this regard, but he was exceptionally informed and intelligent. This means he was intellectually vulnerable to experiences that would have upset his consular colleagues, but otherwise left their thinking unaffected. Being a writer, that is, someone with a taste for reflection and representation, Fontanier reveals that the consuls were obliged to misunderstand the imperial system if they were retain a clear sense of who they were.