A Regional Social Oligarchy of the Post-Classical Empire
Why was it that my interlocutors could not understand that participation in the imperial system had produced a regional social oligarchy? One might object. Perhaps I was asking for too much. After all, local memories and traditions are never fully reliable, and the time of Osman Pasha was long, long ago. But the issue was a matter of remembering as well as forgetting. If the Oflus had simply "forgotten," they would have no understanding of the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties at all. This was most certainly not the case. They "remembered" them, saying they had appeared with the breakdown and vanished with the restoration of the central government. I was therefore obliged to consider memories and traditions as desire rather than fact.
My interlocutors did not want to believe that a regional social oligarchy had anything to do with the state system. They therefore insisted it had arisen only under the conditions of the absence or weakness of centralized government. By this thesis, they were driven to the conclusion that the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties must have vanished with the restoration of centralized government. So it was that they analyzed the old social order as impeccably as any social anthropologist, demonstrating how its characteristics were perfectly consistent with the absence or weakness of the state system. So it was that they focused on Osman Pasha, deeming him to be a transitional figure between governmental breakdown and restoration.
If my supposition was correct, the motivating desire that had generated so many deductions seemed to have a kind of origin or center: the figure of Osman Pasha during the 1830s. How was it that this particular man in this particular period could be imagined as an epochal divide, thereby clouding all that was the same before and after him? Was it possible that Osman Pasha had accomplished something during the 1830s to make the relationship of the present to the past incomprehensible? These questions led me toward a third path of investigation: the writings of western Europeans who had visited the old province of Trabzon. These "outsiders" had described what they had seen and heard, entirely unencumbered by the burden of local history. Perhaps these "outsiders" might reveal what Osman Pasha had actually accomplished in the 1830s and why this accomplishment left behind so much confusion.
During the first decades of the nineteenth century, foreign diplomats, soldiers, and explorers—most of them French and British—had begun to visit the province of Trabzon in increasing numbers. What they reported was indeed revealing, but not by way of an explanation of what had really happened during the 1830s. In their accounts, they wholly agreed with local memories and traditions in the district of Of. The French and the British consuls affirmed that the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties were a distinct form of government outside of and opposed to the central government. They also affirmed that Osman Pasha had suppressed and abolished this alternative political system and so restored the authority of the central government. But it was not their agreement with Oflu memories and traditions that cast a new light on the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties. Instead, their affirmations were inconsistent with other archival sources, as well as inconsistent with their own accounts of what they had seen and heard during their travels. In other words, I had rediscovered in the accounts of western Europeans the same desire that I encountered among my interlocutors in the district of Of. They did not want to believe that a regional social oligarchy had anything to do with the state system.
As a provisional demonstration of this, I shall cite one of the most knowledgeable of all the western European visitors to Trabzon during the period in question. From 1821 until 1833, Victor Fontanier intermittently served as a naturalist, political observer, commercial advisor, and consular official attached to the French embassy in Istanbul. During this time, he resided in Trabzon on at least two occasions, first as a visitor in 1827, a time of deepening political crisis. Just months previously, Sultan Mahmut II had succeeded in abolishing the old central army of the janissaries (yeni çeri), opening the way to reforms in the military establishment. Osman Pasha Hazinedaroğlu had assumed the provincial governorship in the midst of these destabilizing events, and the local elites of the coastal districts were testing his mettle. Fontanier described the situation as a confrontation of two kinds of government, that of a weak state system, as represented by Osman Pasha, and that of a strong feudal system, as represented by aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties in the coastal district:
The pasha of Trabzon is appointed by the Porte [Ottoman government] and placed under the command of the chief of staff in Erzurum; his authority is not great owing to the division of his territory among several chiefs who for the most part are hereditary, and in open revolt against him. These chiefs have the title of aghas, and were formerly called derebey; but the Porte, desiring to seize their fiefs, has suppressed this last denomination. This institution is precisely the feudal system of thirteenth-century Europe; the aghas reside in fortified mansions, sometimes equipped with cannons, where they preserve their families and treasures; they go about surrounded by servants and armed partisans, impose laws, raise taxes, and take refuge in their retreats, from where they defy the authority of the pasha, even the fermans [decrees] of the sultan. [Italics mine]
A few years later, Fontanier returned to Trabzon once again, this time to take up residence as French consul. In the intervening years, Osman Pasha had consolidated his hold on provincial government and taken advantage of the military reforms. Impressed with all that had been accomplished since his previous visit, Fontanier submitted a report in which he once again described the feudal system, now to declare that the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties had been decisively and permanently suppressed. Writing as a consular official on January 31, 1831, he took care to be precise, citing the names of individuals and their places of residence:
Fontanier leaves his reader the impression he is listing the names of the "chiefs" in the different districts, but in every instance he does not give the personal name of an individual but rather the patronymic of a family line. The two patronymics that he associates with Of are those of two large family groupings that I encountered when I was carrying out my fieldwork during the 1960s. Otherwise, all the other patronymics in the consular report save one refer to the ascendants of family groupings that are still prominent in the eastern coastal region today.
The pashalik (province) of Trabzon has for a long time been divided into small feudal domains [petites féodalités] whose chiefs [chefs] resided in fortified strongholds, some of which were located in the city itself. The most important of these chiefs were situated at Trabzon, Şatııroğlu and [illegible] oğlu; at Tonya, a town twelve hours from Trabzon, Hacıı Salihoğlu; at Rize, Tuzcuoğlu; at Of, Selimoğlu and Cansıızoğlu; and finally at Gönye [between Hopa and Batum], Fatzanoğlu. Other less important chiefs were affiliated with these and provided their clients. But as often happens in governments of this sort, they made war on one another and sought the good graces of the pashas [at Trabzon] and the Sublime Porte [at Istanbul].
As the report continued, Fontanier described how the feudal system had threatened the very existence of the provincial government: "these chiefs combined to form formidable coalitions [coalitions redoutables] . . . sometimes managed to drive the officers of the Ottoman sultan from the sandjak [sub-province]." On several occasions, he observed, "the Imperial Divan attempted to destroy them by setting them against one another but was never strong enough or capable enough to achieve this end. But now, Fontanier declared, the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties were a thing of the past; thanks to the vigor and energy of Osman Pasha's provincial government, they "no longer existed. And yet, within months, the populations of outlying coastal districts were once again refusing to forward taxes or conscripts to the provincial government, and within two years, another formidable coalition had besieged the town of Trabzon, forcing Osman Pasha to take refuge in his citadel, then to vacate his capital.
Osman Pasha did eventually settle the "revolts" of the 1830s, but neither he nor any of his successors ever fulfilled Fontanier's declaration. For decades, aghas would continue to be appointed, mansions would still be built, family groupings would grow ever larger, and district networks would remain in place. Nonetheless, Fontanier's erroneous report of the end of the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties was but the first statement of what eventually became a fixed consular opin ion during the later nineteenth century. The "valley lords" had been a separate form of government, but Osman Pasha had abolished them once and for all. And yet this consular opinion, announced and re-announced, was repeatedly contradicted by incidents that confirmed that leading individuals, large family groupings, district networks, and coastal coalitions still existed and still participated in the provincial government, bottom to top. As the Ottomans eventually moved to reform the imperial system by borrowing "western" technology and methods, a regional social oligarchy in the province of Trabzon adapted itself to the new bureaucratic centralism and continued to play a role in the state system. Nonetheless, the consular opinion, despite all the evidence to the contrary, never retreated but instead spread. By the later nineteenth century, Ottoman officials and citizens in Trabzon also believed what Osman Pasha had most likely never believed, that he had put down the "valley lords" once and for all. Ottoman officials and citizens, and later Turkish officials and citizens, would therefore find themselves "surprised" by incidents revealing that leading individuals from large family groupings still permeated district and provincial government.
Why, then, did Osman Pasha come to be remembered for something he did not accomplish, even in the coastal region itself? A provisional, and thus imperfect, answer to this question is as follows. The officials and citizens of the Ottoman Empire had come to believe what the consuls believed for similar reasons but by a different path. A new thinking and practice about the proper relationship of state and society had migrated from western Europe into the Ottoman Empire during the later nineteenth century, eventually to be carried over into the Turkish Republic. By this new thinking and practice, the centralized government should have taken the form of an official association of professional bureaucrats. Accordingly, the state system should not have included aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties. And yet, the state system did include the latter, necessarily so, since it would have been impossible for the association of professional bureaucrats to perform the most elementary governmental acts without relying on them. As the new thinking and practice gained ground among the ordinary citizenry of the coastal districts, a fracture appeared in local memory and tradition. It was no longer possible to reconcile the existence of leading individuals, large family groupings, district networks, and coastal coalitions with principles of government. So it was no longer possible to understand how the aghas, mansions, family lines, and parties had come from inside the state system and so continued to serve the state system as a mechanism of local control in the years and decades after Osman Pasha. The citizenry of the eastern coastal districts therefore came to believe that the aghas, mansions, patronymic groups, and parties had arisen from outside the state system during a period of governmental breakdown. Accordingly, by this belief, they could not explain either the perpetuation of leading individuals from large family groupings or, more importantly, the ability of the latter to monopolize public institutions and organizations.
Osman Pasha had thereby come to be credited with suppressing an alternative political system in the 1830s that still endured in the 1960s. He marks the onset of a period of incomprehension when first western European consuls, then the public of Trabzon, could not understand the place of a regional social oligarchy in the state system. This is the significance of Osman Pasha and the 1830s. Why then did the unacceptable, a regional social oligarchy, remain in place, even after the Empire was replaced by the Republic? This is a harder question that will be tackled in the later chapters of this study.