Preferred Citation: Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.

Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade

Merchants, the State, and the Movement of Commodities

The role of the Ottoman government was integral to the new politics of trade, for it controlled the collection of part of the surplus as taxes-in-kind and supervised the competition for its purchase by local, regional, and foreign merchants. One can analyze the new politics of trade, therefore, by investigating the pressures that were brought to bear on the physical movement of the zakhayir from point of production to point of sale.

During the mid-nineteenth century the types of agricultural commodities collected as taxes-in-kind varied from village to village. In general, however, they consisted of wheat, barley, meadow vetch, lentils, corn, olive oil, clarified butter, and cotton from the areas around the city of Nablus; and wheat, barley, corn, sesame, clarified butter, and cotton from the villages around the town of Jenin.[53] These crops were transported by peasants to central collection points, where they were measured and kept in storehouses rented from Nabulsi merchants.[54] The zakhayir were then put up for sale in auctions.

The first leg in this long trip of, say, grains or cotton was from the village to the storehouses. In order to minimize its expenses and maximize its revenue, the Ottoman government made every effort to ensure that the zakhayir were assessed, collected, and transported as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Their worry was that any delay would encourage peasants to sell these goods, leaving nothing for the state. Even before the harvest was in, therefore, local merchants and the state were involved in a race for access in a market that leaked like a sieve. In 1850, for example, Sulayman Beik Tuqan, the qa’immaqam of the districts of Nablus and Jenin, received a letter from the governor of Sidon province instructing him to begin collecting taxes as soon as the harvest season was at hand because “if you do not do so, the ahali and the peasants will take over the harvest and sell it. They will use the money to meet their personal needs and the entire harvest will end up in the hands of the merchants.”[55]

Timing was critical for the state because merchants had a built-in advantage: they used their local trade networks to ensure future delivery of crops by extending loans to peasants, hence ensnaring them in debt obligations the previous season (see Chapter 4). This is why merchants were often willing to reschedule debts almost indefinitely: their patience encouraged heavily indebted peasants to continue working the land and assured a dependent relationship.[56]

The actual trip to the storehouses was also a bone of contention. Traditionally, peasants bore the responsibility and expense of delivering the zakhayir to the storehouses. In 1850, however, the governor of Jerusalem, Adham Pasha, abolished the use of corvée labor for the transportation of taxes-in-kind. Instead, peasants were to be paid according to distance traveled from their village to the storehouses.[57] The aim was to provide every incentive possible for peasants to deliver their surpluses to the government. The net effect was to reduce the taxation rate by eliminating the cost of labor involved in transportation and to shift the burden onto the shoulders of merchants, who would have to pay higher prices for these goods. The sources do not tell us whether this order was implemented or whether there was vocal opposition to it from the merchant community.

The struggle then moved to the storehouses themselves. The issues of inventory and control were important to the central government because, hitherto, all storage space had been rented from the rich merchants of Nablus: the same ones who bid on the purchase of the zakhayir and who were also represented in the ranks of the council that was authorized to oversee the bidding process. This cozy arrangement was further reinforced by another, even more nepotistic one: the employees of the storehouses were all recruited locally and were chosen by the council members.[58]

In order to regain control of this key stage in the movement of commodities, the provincial authorities in the mid-nineteenth century gladly approved a request by the Nablus Council to renovate and expand some of the storehouses. They also agreed to deduct the costs from Nablus’s taxes to the central government.[59] In addition to greater control afforded by construction of independent government storehouses, the authorities introduced standardized weight and volume measures.[60] Just as important, in January 1851 they appointed an inspector general, who was dispatched to report on the administration of storehouses in Acre, Jaffa, and other regions.[61]

All of these actions indicated that the central government was concerned about embezzlement—not an unfounded worry, considering that the employees of the storehouses in Jabal Nablus, unlike their counterparts in other cities, were not salaried by the state. When challenged on this score, the Nablus Council members insisted that these employees—six in total (two supervisors, two accountants, and two measurers)—remain unsalaried, because, they argued, the “old way” of payment, which literally operated through sleight of hand, must be preserved. The council explained that incoming grains were measured differently from outgoing grains, though the same measuring container was used for both: the measurer allowed a dome to form on top of the container when scooping the former, but, in a quick movement of the hand, leveled the container off before pouring the latter. The difference—which accumulated every time a container scooped up grains—was used to pay salaries and rent, to buy furniture and stationery, and to meet other costs of operating the storehouses.[62] When the Ottoman authorities questioned this practice, the Nablus Council, in a long and convoluted reply, argued that it was important to preserve the traditional way, which they deemed both fair and equitable. The matter was then referred to the governor of Sidon who, after investigating whether the customary arrangement would cost the government more or less money, gave the Nablus Council permission to continue “as in the days of old.”[63]

The importance of this seemingly small victory for Nabulsi merchants is that it cut to the heart of a larger political question: control of resources. The mid-nineteenth century was a transitional time in the political history of Palestine: the Ottoman administrative system was in the midst of reorganization as the Tanzimat were gradually implemented. In traditionally autonomous regions, including Jabal Nablus, the central government faced a dilemma: it established new institutions, such as the council, in order to centralize its rule at the expense of local notables, but it had to depend on these very notables to run these institutions. The ambiguity inherent in this situation made for fluid boundaries of power, and each side tested the waters through seemingly innocuous disputes over minor details. Thus Nabulsi merchants correctly perceived that both their fortunes and their political influence depended on how well they could use the council to bend the rules of the game to their advantage.

Aware of these difficulties, the Ottoman authorities concentrated their efforts on controlling the most important link in the movement of these commodities: the bidding process that determined which merchant would purchase what type of commodity at what price (and, indirectly, the ultimate destination). Judging from the correspondence on this issue, the provincial governors were far less flexible in entertaining exceptions and, more important, did all they could to maximize revenues by soliciting the highest bids possible, regardless of the source.

To achieve their goal, the authorities needed to be informed. One of the most striking aspects of the contested movement of commodities was struggle over knowledge. Repeatedly the provincial governors and their treasurers demanded that detailed reports be submitted on the types, amounts, and going prices of the zakhayir moved into and stored in the storehouses of Nablus and Jenin. An example of the detailed level of supervision that the central government attempted to implement (though not necessarily successfully) is this letter to the Nablus Council from Adham Pasha, dated September 18, 1849:

You previously sent a memorandum concerning the taxes-in-kind presently in the storehouses of Nablus district, saying that if you had to sell the olive oil and clarified butter locally, you would not be able to find a buyer due to the good season and the presence of old stocks.…The provincial council…deems it absolutely necessary that the above-mentioned zakhayir be sold before they are ruined and cause a loss in the tax revenues. Considering the bad prices, you cannot sell them locally, and if you did, you would get only a very low price, and that also would be a loss to our tax revenues. A buyer in Beirut has not been found because a sample was not received in time. Therefore, you must consider: if you transport the above mentioned zakhayir to one of the nearby ports, would you or would you not get a higher net price after subtracting the transportation costs than you would if you sold them at the price levels available in your local market at this time? . . .

We also received word from you that the ahali are satisfied [with your offer] that they can pay twenty piasters for each irddab of barley [they owe in taxes].…As long as the ahali are satisfied [with this arrangement]…and if this price is profitable at this time, then you can collect [cash] in the place of barley and do the same for wheat and send all the proceeds to the Provincial Treasury. This is the order we received in this regards. [We have agreed to your request] because we do not know what the current value of the zakhayir in Nablus is, nor what the quantity is. We also do not know the prices in the ports near Nablus, such as Haifa and Jaffa, nor the cost of transportation.…

Therefore, we are sending over…Sayyid Faydallah Alami…a member of the Jerusalem [Advisory] Council. Upon his arrival…the [Nablus] Council will investigate and report on: the prices currently available; the types and amounts of zakhayir; which port, Haifa or Jaffa, is closest and the easier for transport; the cost of transportation per irddab…the prices available in the ports; and whether the merchants there have a desire to buy [the zakhayir]. If necessary, also send samples [to the ports] and make sure the merchants there know about them. Once you compare the prices [in the ports] and the costs and possibility of transportation, then take note of the price levels at your end, the difference will become clear. As soon as it does, let us know quickly and in detail.[64]

There is no copy of the council’s original memorandum that provoked this response, but, if it was an attempt to prepare the ground for an eventual sale to local merchants at low prices, it backfired. The governor’s answer immediately ruled out the possibility of local sale and, in a patronizing manner, outlined the basic rules of trade to a council dominated by merchants. By pointing an obvious finger at the port cities as an alternative, he was making the subtle point that this thought would never have occurred to the Nablus Council independently of him. Moreover, he cleverly used the opening provided him as a justification to demand a whole range of information and to dispatch an outside (but friendly) observer in order keep the council in check.

It might seem puzzling that Adham Pasha would ask for information that he probably already had, such as prices in the port cities. After all, following market prices was, of necessity, an obsession of tax collectors and merchants because it directly affected their revenues and profits. It is more likely, therefore, that his pointed instructions were intended to remind the council of its obligations to keep the state informed about all phases of the taxation process, by putting them through an exercise he hoped they would repeat annually.

This speculation is not so far-fetched if one considers the context of the exchange. The Nablus Council had been established only a few years earlier, and the composition of its membership at the time of this memorandum was still a point of contention between the central government and the local ruling families (see Chapter 1). Also, at this time the council was supporting a tax strike against government-appointed customs collectors by soap merchants (all the members of the council traded in soap, as will be further discussed in Chapter 5). Just a few months later, the council would vigorously contest the results of a population count carried out in December 1849.[65] We have also seen how even the peripheral issues of measuring and storage became a testing ground for defining the boundaries of power and prerogative between local and central forces.

In short, Adham Pasha clearly distrusted the motives of council—and, by implication, the local merchant community—because he knew that when it came to the movement and prices of local agricultural production, they were busy pursuing an agenda contrary to that of the state. They cooperated with each other to choke competition from outside bidders in order to keep prices low, and they wanted to purchase as much of the agricultural surplus as possible. They were also keen on deciding the timing of the sales because the release of, say, grains could affect prices, especially during shortages.[66] The overall aims were to resell at high prices, especially to foreign merchants, and to ensure an adequate supply for local and regional needs on which the bulk of their business depended. These aims, one must quickly add, were not driven solely by the search for profits. Nabulsi merchants were also under a great deal of social and political pressure from below: namely, from retail merchants and artisanal groups whose livelihoods depended on the availability of cheap raw materials from the countryside.

Cotton was especially important in this regard, because the textile-manufacturing sector in the city was a large one. Indeed, so much cotton was ginned in Nablus that the newly appointed non-Nabulsi customs inspector, Uthman Afandi, wanted to tax the brisk trade in cotton seeds, which were separated from the white fibers and sold to peasants as fodder for their animals. This tax caused such an outrage that the Nablus Council, citing “a petition from the people,” sent a letter to the customs inspector on September 9, 1852, insisting that it be abolished.[67] The primary argument that the council made in justifying its demand was the unfairness of taxing local trade. Cotton seeds, they argued, were a by-product of the trade between the city and its hinterlands. It was absolutely essential, they said, that this local circulation not be subject to any taxation. In the same vein, the council consistently supported petitions by peasants to pay cash in lieu of taxes-in-kind when prices were high. On September 13, 1850, the Nablus Council argued yet again in favor of such a request. The council members justified their position by claiming that the peasants of Nablus and Jenin could not meet their tax-in-kind obligations because heavy rains had severely reduced the grain harvest.[68] Judging from similar petitions, however, it could very well be that both merchants and peasants in Jabal Nablus wanted to hold on to the surplus in kind in order to meet local demand as well as to take advantage of the rise in prices caused by the grain shortage. In so doing, peasants effectively lowered their taxes by selling their surplus at higher prices, while merchants, in turn, gained greater access to a precious commodity in a volatile market.

Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade

Preferred Citation: Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.