previous sub-section
Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade
next sub-section

Cotton and the Rulers of Acre

In order to secure their supply of raw cotton, French merchants took to investing in cotton production at the local level beginning in the 1720s. Following the example of local merchants (see Chapter 4), they paid village shaykhs for cotton harvests one year in advance.[10] The direct access of European merchants to Palestinian cotton, however, was severed two decades later, when Zahir al-Umar made Acre the seat of his rule in the mid-1740s and, with the help of Ibrahim Sabbagh, his long-time financial manager and political advisor, managed to implant himself as the middleman between French merchants and the cotton-growing villages under his domain.[11] The idea was to corner the surplus and control the prices at the point of sale to foreign merchants. Profits from this less-than-perfect monopoly system helped Zahir al-Umar transform Acre from a little town into an imposing fortress city and the seat of an autonomous enclave within the Ottoman Empire.[12]

In 1784, nine years after Zahir al-Umar’s death, his successor, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar (1775–1804), was able to enforce an even stricter monopoly over the buying and selling of cotton and cereals. By 1790 he had managed to break the French merchants’ grip on the cotton trade and expelled them to Sidon.[13] By better controlling the supply end of the cotton market, Ahmad Pasha stood to make greater profits: he could increase his options among prospective buyers and put a stop to the French practice of bypassing his revenue-collecting apparatus through direct investment on the village level.

That same year Volney, an astute French observer who traveled widely in the region, wrote:

The dependencies of Saida [Sidon province, whose de facto capital was Acre] are Sur [Tyre] and the towns of Palestine such as Ramleh, Jerusalem, Lydda, and Majdal. This area is one of the most important, importing 800–900 bales of woolen cloth for which it pays in raw cotton and cotton yarn. Here the French face no competition. In Saida they have one or two agents who buy cotton every Monday or Tuesday. They wished to do the same in Acre, but the pasha cornered all cotton stocks, forbade all sales, and became sole master of the market; since the merchants needed to buy goods in return for what they sold, he put a duty of 10 piasters on each quintal of cotton.[14]

The politics of monopoly were not unique to Palestine. The heavy-handed methods of Zahir al-Umar and Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar were quite common at the time for strongmen who ruled semi-independent enclaves within the Ottoman, Safavid, and Moghul empires.[15] Indeed, a monopoly system over agricultural commodities destined for overseas exports reached its epitome under Muhammad Ali (1805–1848), the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt.[16] Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar’s efforts, however, took place in a context very different from that of Egypt. The expulsion of French merchants might not have helped him raise more revenues, because the areas of cotton cultivation, as shall be seen, had spread to regions beyond his control: that is, to Jabal Nablus. It is also likely that the trade in cotton might have become less profitable, due to transportation difficulties during the Napoleonic Wars as well as to increased competition from Anatolia and India (Egypt did not witness a substantial increase in cotton production until the early nineteenth century). Finally, there is reason to believe that the economic and demographic base of Acre began to decline during the last years of Jazzar’s rule.[17]

In any case, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar’s monopoly system did not survive his death intact. In addition to the growing weakness of Acre and the spread of cotton cultivation to areas beyond its control, his successor, Sulayman Pasha al-Adil (1805–1819), instituted a more decentralized political and fiscal set of policies. The difference in the approach of these two rulers is symbolized by the marked contrast in the appellations they acquired: Jazzar (butcher) versus Adil (just). Of course, just about anyone who succeeded al-Jazzar was bound to look good in comparison: his cruelty earned him this title long before he came to Palestine, and his death was greeted by celebrations as far away as Damascus. In fact, not a single contemporary chronicler had a kind remark to make about this Bosnian mercenary turned pasha.[18]

In order to reduce his expenses and to minimize the threat of rebellion, Sulayman Pasha gutted al-Jazzar’s formidable military machine and relaxed his political control over Acre’s dependencies. According to his sympathetic scribe, Sulayman Pasha preferred diplomacy over violence and rarely interfered in the affairs of his appointees.[19] Far from minutely supervising the affairs of his subjects, he turned the day-to-day operations of his regime in 1806/1807 to his three main advisors: Ali Pasha, his deputy; Haim Farhi, his financial manager; and Ibrahim Awra, his head scribe.[20] All had strong relations with the local merchant community. Ali Pasha’s house was frequented by the local Muslim religious figures and merchants, and Haim Farhi and Ibrahim Awra—a Jew and a Christian, respectively—aggressively defended the interests of these two minority communities, many of whose members were well-to-do merchants.[21]

Political decentralization was accompanied by relaxation of control over the collection and sale of cotton, grains, and other commercial commodities. Merchants were no longer subject to extortion and confiscation on a routine basis, as was their fate under Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar. On the contrary, Sulayman Pasha was so eager to reinvigorate the local economy that he gave the Acre merchants virtual ownership of the government-owned shops they had long rented, and many properties of Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar were sold off to them as well.[22] Sulayman Pasha’s more relaxed fiscal policy was based, or so we are told, on the following advice from his powerful financial manager, Haim Farhi:

We must…reduce the taxation of our subjects and impose it on the foreigners. That is possible if the sale of grain, oil, and cotton to foreigners is limited exclusively to Acre; the people can get what they need directly from the peasants without imposts. Trustworthy agents should be appointed for this purpose, and at the end of every day the surplus of these three commodities taken in, over and above the needs of the [local] people, should be taken from the owners and they should be paid the price at which it was sold during that day. That which is obtained should be deposited in storehouses and sold by the government to the ships of foreigners at the highest possible price.[23]

Farhi—who served Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, Sulayman Pasha and, for a time, the latter’s successor, Abdullah Pasha (1819–1831)—was proposing a limited monopoly that would not preempt local and regional consumption of, and trade in, cotton. In these two crucial spheres, peasants and merchants were to enjoy a relatively free cotton market. Farhi thus sought to maintain some political control over a profitable trade, but without endangering the peasant base of production that had suffered greatly under Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar. Theoretically, artisans and merchants who needed to purchase cotton for local trade and manufacturing would not have to compete with foreign merchants who were willing to offer high prices in order not to return in empty ships.

This delicate balancing act seems to have been implemented in one form or another. During the reign of Sulayman Pasha there were five permanent employees dealing solely with buying, storing, and selling cotton, more than for any other agricultural product, including wheat. According to Awra, these employees included Rustum Kashif, who, along with two assistants, supervised the government’s cotton storehouse in Acre, and the head of customs, who, along with an assistant, worked as an accountant for “the ginned cotton that comes from the storehouse, and which was bought from village peasants.”[24]

The government, it seems, did not limit itself to purchasing the surplus left in the market at the end of each day. It also intervened directly at the production level to ensure adequate supplies of cotton that it could resell to French traders. It is not clear where Farhi drew the line in terms of how much cotton was bought, what prices were offered to the peasants, and how much foreign merchants were charged. Suffice it to say that he and other high-ranking Acre officials amassed large fortunes through speculation in cash crops and stood to gain a great deal, personally, from loopholes in the monopoly.

Because these decisions directly affected the livelihoods of peasants, merchants, and foreign traders, the balancing act was fraught with tension and conducive to conflict and smuggling. Smuggling—essentially an attempt by merchants, peasants, and bedouins to bypass local and regional monopolies—was spurred on by increasing European demand, making it a common phenomenon all over the Middle East and North Africa.[25] Smuggling not only undermined the politics of monopoly but also constituted a perennial problem for the Ottoman state in general, which was concerned about losing control of the movement of commodities and the customs revenues they generated.[26]

If the accession of Sulayman Pasha heralded the slow decline, from above, of monopoly politics in northern Palestine, and if smuggling eroded the politics of monopoly from below, the Egyptian invasion of Greater Syria in 1831 dealt it a quick and fatal blow, for this invasion spelled the end of Acre rulers’ political and economic influence in Palestine in general. Surprisingly, the Egyptian authorities made no effort to corner the cotton market in their newly acquired territories, even though monopoly was Muhammad Ali’s firm policy in Egypt at the time and even though he was keenly aware that the profits from his control of the cotton trade were essential to the war effort.[27] In a communiqué dated September 1833, Muhammad Ali instructed his son that the cotton harvest in the districts of Acre, Nablus, Jaffa and Gaza need not be purchased because of its small size (even though 1833 was a bad year for Egyptian cotton exports). Instead, the inhabitants (ahali was the word used in the communiqué) were to be allowed to dispose of it as they wished.[28] It is ironic (if the reason given was indeed true) that although the monopoly of Acre rulers was partly undermined by the expansion in cotton cultivation to areas beyond their political control, this expansion was not impressive enough for the Egyptians to impose their own monopoly.[29] A more likely explanation for Muhammad Ali Pasha’s decision is that he wanted to allay the European powers’ concern that Greater Syria would be subjected to the same economic policies as Egypt, policies they considered to be obstacles to free trade.

previous sub-section
Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade
next sub-section