Responses to a Changing Economy

After beginning with a video of Aida, responding to their questions from last Thursday, and my now-expected review of where we’ve been so far, I asked the students to think about how it would be possible to pay for all of the needs that had been identified so far.  Their list was fairly complete.

They left out cash cropping, but readily recognized the reasons for Egypt’s dramatic cotton export growth in the mid 1860s.  (We do live in the south!)  But what happened after cotton was once again available for Britain to import from North Carolina?  We followed the route to Egypt’s bankruptcy by way of the Suez Canal (hence Aida) and the creation of infrastructure, then the establishment of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration as the empire followed into its own default.  The conclusion seemed obvious by the time we were finished: in order to become stronger, the Ottoman and Egyptian governments had introduced military, political, social, and economic changes.  By borrowing to pay for this modernization, they had become indebted to the very powers from whom they had hoped to assert their independence, and more vulnerable to global vicissitudes (like the extended depression that began in 1873 and lasted almost until the end of the century).  Instead of making them independent and powerful, modernization had resulted in the loss of economic sovereignty.

The “responses” part is important: the Ottoman population resisted some of the changes imposed by the imperial center.   My mentor, the wonderful Donald Quataert, provided a terrific example, tobacco smuggling.  (North Carolina students really got it–tobacco has been a central part of the local economy.)  Just because people are prohibited from growing and selling unapproved tobacco does not mean they will comply.  This non-compliance seems an essential part of our understanding of nineteenth-century change.

And his focus on resistance helped me explain to my students the divergence between the common narrative of the nineteenth century and my own research.  It has always been a bit of a challenge for me to present the accepted narrative when it seems inaccurate.  We have all learned that the nineteenth century marked the end of industrial production in the Ottoman empire, a result of the increasing availability and decreasing cost of steam transportation, the promulgation of the 1838 Commercial Convention, and the importation of cheap textiles from European factories with which local handicrafts could not compete.  But the research for my book on Mosul convinced me that the nineteenth century didn’t have the same trajectory throughout the empire.  This will become a problem again when I talk about World War I and the creation of nationalism next week: how do we present the received wisdom (with the wonderful stories we have all come to love) when our own research disagrees with it?

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