Consul Fontanier Anticipates the Future Imperfectly
We can now address the question of Fontanier's erroneous report of the extinction of the local elites in the coastal districts. Upon his return to the town of Trabzon, probably sometime in 1830, Fontanier had been impressed by the change in the political situation. Osman Pasha had been able to consolidate his provincial government since his last visit, especially his hold on the provincial capital. There were no longer two "chiefs" who resided in fortress mansions within the city walls, set siege to one another's residences, and forced the governor to appoint them to state offices. The "complete anarchy" that he had described on his first visit was no more, such that the transit trade that passed through Trabzon was already increasing. By his western European background and experience, Fontanier could read this situation and look clearly into the future. He understood that the balance of power would inevitably shift to the advantage of the central government and to the disadvantage of the local elites. And by this understanding, he correctly anticipated the end of the period of decentralization. At the same time, he incorrectly expected that the end of the period of decentralization would also lead to the abolition of the local elites. That is to say, his knowledge of what was possible in terms of the technology of bureaucratic centralism was matched by his refusal to think through the relationship of society and state in the province of Trabzon. Fontanier believed that the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties represented a feudal system, and by that assumption, no feudal system could continue to exist alongside centralized government. In effect, he viewed society and state in Trabzon through a lens of past, present, and future that could not bring into clear focus the political situation in Trabzon.
Let us now read the passages that follow and conclude his declaration that the local elites no longer existed. Immediately, we seem to hear echoes of his sojourn in the marketplace of Sürmene. The topic is the "imagination" of the residents of the province of Trabzon:
The Muslims of Trabzon are beset by an imaginative deficiency. They are imprisoned within the rigid existential frames of Islamic belief and practice. Fontanier seems to recall a moment when he glimpsed the rigidity of his own imaginative capacities, precisely because he became aware that others thought and acted altogether differently. His response is characteristic of someone who has been thrown off-balance by such an encounter. Unable to compose the experience of difference, Fontanier moves to suppress his failure. It is not myself but these others who are hopelessly imprisoned within the existential frames of their perceptions.
It would appear, Monsieur le Comte, that a people who pass so quickly from arrogance in the extreme to intimidation in the extreme, such that a pasha with practically no means at all might subdue them, must be endowed with a great mobility of imagination, thereby making them fit more than others for becoming civilized. I do not think that one should sustain such a hope in the case of the Turks. Although it is the case that one finds a natural happiness among them [the captain and crew who saw Sürmene as the promised land], religion is an invincible obstacle such that civilization will never make any progress. Perhaps its forms might be acquired, but it will never exist in itself. It is impossible that the religion of Muhammad should be in accordance with any other, it is impossible that those who follow it should adopt the customs and habits compatible with those of other people [the experience of an another threatening sociability in the marketplace of Sürmene].
When Fontanier defensively observes that the Muslims have an imaginative deficiency, he disjoins Islamic belief and practice from aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties. Islam, the locus of a disturbing sociability, is deemed irrepressible but ineffective. The aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties were deemed effective but evanescent. He thereby splits the state-oriented social formations of Trabzon into a political anarchy that cannot endure and a social nullity that cannot change. As his report continues, however, Fontanier draws the logical conclusion of this illogical analysis:
Fontanier refused to consider how local society and the state system were fused together. This allowed him to imagine the state system as a bureaucratic centralism unconstrained in any way by society, hence entirely autocratic and monopolistic.
All the appearances of civilization will take the form of an autocratic and monopolistic government (se tourneront en monopole); the sultan, following the example of Mehmet Ali Pasha, will make himself master of the fortunes of his subjects, that will be the limit of his innovations. Without doubt this state of affairs gives an advantage to foreigners; without doubt nothing is better for trade than a country that provides raw materials and consumes manufactured products. For security is a necessary condition for trade, and I believe that it now exists in Turkey more than ever, and that the time has come to engage in speculation in these countries. These speculations will be favorable, Monsieur le Comte, insofar as the most absurd despotism does not manage to strip its inhabitants of all their resources.
But society and state were, for better or worse, inseparable in the province of Trabzon. So the autocracy and monopoly of centralized government would never come about. Leading individuals with large followings still inhabited the new state system, just as they had inhabited the old state system. Through the later nineteenth century, right down to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they continued to participate in the most elementary functions of government. But they did so through adapting themselves to the mechanisms of the new technology of bureaucratic centralism.
If Fontanier had failed to understand the future of Trabzon, he was clairvoyant in another sense of that term. Three years before the end of the period of decentralization, he had formulated what would become a general dictum among consular officials. Osman Pasha had restored the authority of the centralized government (a feat he never exactly accomplished), and in doing so, Osman Pasha had suppressed the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties (a feat he never even attempted to accomplish). Like Fontanier, the later consuls would also reach these conclusions through the lens of a past, present, and future. Unlike him, they would do so by simple inattention, rather than in reaction to their encounters with another kind of sociability.
After the end of the period of decentralization, British and French consuls would no longer be obliged to curry the favor of local elites, fret about their rivalries, or fear their challenges to the provincial government. Instead, the consuls were able to devote themselves to the speculative opportunities that accompanied the new technology of bureaucratic centralism. Accordingly, their consular reports address customs regulations, port facilities, import and export tonnages, overland and oversea haulage fees, wage levels, official regulations, court procedures, and so on. Incidents of civil disorder are still occasionally mentioned, but only if linked with major market centers or trade routes. For the consuls, the regime of aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties was henceforth entirely a matter of history.
By the 1860s, the western European diplomats, soldiers, and explorers who pass through the coastal region sometimes mention the local elites, but only as a thing of the distant past. As such, they were said to be exactly what the first French consuls had declared them to be. They were the "lords of the valleys," the representatives of a "feudal system," much like that of Europe during the high medieval period. Some travelers occasionally encounter some of the old "valley lords," describing them as reduced to penury but still holding out in their decaying mansions. But the same travelers never mention the existence of local elites, large followings, or a regional oligarchy. It was as though the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties had vanished into thin air.
Consul Palgrave (1868–73) was to travel all over the coastal region by horseback, risking his life by encamping near malaria-infested marshes. Nonetheless, he somehow never noticed the local elites who were still very much in place. Thus, Palgrave was able to reminisce in later years, "Beys and Aghas, good masters in their days, spending in the land what they took from it, not like the Osmanlee leeches." In this fashion, he commemorated the valley lords who had been so bitterly denounced by Dupré and Fourcade for the purpose of delegitimizing the imperial government. The "Beys and Aghas" possessed all the virtues that bureaucratic centralism lacked. They had been benevolent rulers, close to their peoples, sponsors of public works, and protectors of local interest.
The local elites of coastal districts, who had taken their proper place in the imperial government, had become virtually invisible. As we shall see, however, they would reappear toward the 1880s, suddenly and unexpectedly, as an inexplicable phenomenon.