Healing Europe’s Sick Man

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There is perhaps no label more damming for a supposedly great European power as ‘the sick man of Europe’. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia was the first to apply this characterisation to the Ottoman Empire, but certainly not the last. Although this designation was politically motivated, it stuck as a description of the decline of a formerly eminent power. As other European powers modernised and industrialised, the sultan’s domain stagnated in the early part of the 19th Century. In the aftermath of a series of humiliating defeats to their own Egyptian vassal, the 16-year-old Sultan Abdulmejid I acceded to the throne in 1839. With the Edict of Gülhane, his Grand Vizier, Ali Pasha, finally set out a programme to reform the ailing empire.

The language of the Edict was deliberate. It described the forthcoming changes as a tanzimat, meaning ‘reorganisation’ – as such, the era that followed, generally characterised as from 1839 to 1876, became known as the tanzimat period. This choice was to ensure that conservatives within the empire did not see the programme as radical but gradual, a mere shuffling of the deck.

Yet the decline of Ottoman strength, compared to other European powers, was precipitous, requiring urgent and fundamental change. Thus, the Edict did declare that reform was to come across many areas of government. The military would be reorganised and modernised; the tax system would be regularised and tax farming abolished; even social change was implemented, as all people were to be equal before the law, regardless of religion.

The Edict was only a declaration of intentions, not a detailed policy proposal. However, in declaring intentions for change it also demonstrated that the Porte (Ottoman government) was aware of its own deficiencies and the need to remedy them: the question is how far it succeeded. 

The most pressing issue to fix was that of their military weakness. By 1840, the ‘Eastern Question’ was well established as a primary threat to Metternich’s carefully calibrated balance of power in Europe. Russia was eager to control Constantinople (most likely by a lopsided treaty settlement) so it could control entry to and egress from the Black Sea. The Ottomans were unable to defend themselves, instead relying on the might of other European powers to keep Russia in check.

The enaction and enforcement of conscription aimed to restore the Ottomans’ power to defend themselves independently. It gave them greater manpower than they had possessed with the former Janissary army – however skilled – as well as a greater reserve in the population to call on in times of crisis. From 1837 to the 1880s, the standing army grew from 37,000 to 120,000. The methods of the army also westernised. This was immediately evident in their military dress, which looked similar to that of Napoleonic France, but they also recruited foreign commanders and established schools for officers – before, corruption was endemic and top officials directing overall strategy were often just the favoured friends of the sultan.

Governmental reform was needed too if the empire were to revitalise itself in the long term. The general trend was centralisation. The end of tax farming entailed more effective government-run tax collection. Other changes included the introduction of progressive taxation, replacing the system by which wealthy individuals were often liable for comparatively little or even exempt entirely. Conscription was also moved from the remit of local to central officials. Finally, all subjects were to be governed according to the same laws. This meant the end of legal discrimination against the many religious minorities of the empire.

Perversely, the reforms that might seem most progressive, those of equality, were the most protested – and not by the Muslim majority, but by minority groups. The millet system had allowed for minorities to have their own communities governed by their own laws within the empire. While the tanzimat reforms eliminated the unfair capitation tax for which only minorities were liable, many had considered it a price worth paying for effective autonomy. There was particular consternation over this in the Christian communities in the Balkans, whose anger would have far reaching consequences.

An additional implication of equality, and in fact the main reason for the Ottomans implementing it, was that these minorities, now subject to their law, could be conscripted to the army, adding to the pool from which manpower could be drawn. Many patently refused, however, and so an alternative was put in place – the jizya tax, which allowed minorities to pay to avoid military service. This replaced some of the revenue lost from the end of capitation. Thus, those that formerly lived in a millet gained nothing financially (perhaps even having to spend more in tax through the jizya) but lost autonomy.

The Ottomans did nonetheless start some projects whose positive influence cannot be denied. For the first time, ministries of health, education, public works and trade and commerce were established. From these came state-run public services in the form of schools and hospitals as well as greater investment in infrastructure development. The Ottomans were moving closer and closer to being considered a modern state.

The broad number of incremental changes certainly made an initial difference. Some of them were of importance in themselves, such as the commitment to equality. Even if the way it was implemented was disliked, at least the principle had been committed to. The regularisation of tax codes also helped to bring in greater revenue and reduce the substantial budget deficit.

The military reforms were also certainly beneficial, as demonstrated by the Ottoman victory in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), with France and Britain, over Russia. The Ottomans did suffer numerous defeats, especially early in the war before significant intervention from their allies – indeed, there were many episodes of staggering incompetence from commanders. Yet they were able to continue fighting, thanks to their larger conscripted force, and were key to victory in the Siege of Sevastopol and so in the war as a whole.

However, Ottoman reforms had been expensive. The larger military, as well as a better equipped and educated one, was a drain on the treasury. Large upfront sums were needed for infrastructure development too – even if they should theoretically pay off in the long term. The provision of public services was also financially challenging, and this was a challenge that government revenue, even with its moderate tax reforms, was unequipped to meet.

In 1851, Ottoman officials had secured a loan offer of 50 million francs and, though it was not taken up, the need for consideration showed the empire’s declining fiscal security. One prince remarked at the time: “If this state borrows five piasters (Ottoman currency) it will sink. For once a loan is taken, there will be no end to it.” This proved worryingly prescient.

The expenses of the Crimean War finally did drive the Ottomans to borrow. However, the regime’s modernising reforms had ensured that it would be in deficit interminably, and as such there was little end to borrowing in sight. Loans were needed to pay off the interest on other loans. Financial collapse dawned almost immediately after a loss of foreign confidence following Sultan Abdulmejid I’s death in 1861 and was only narrowly avoided. By the 1870s, the interest on debt alone was 60% of total government revenue. Inflation exceeded 100% annually, rendering the economy dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, social issues began to plague the empire that were every bit as severe as their financial problems. Nationalism posed an existential threat to the Ottoman Empire, as its cosmopolitan ethnic makeup could not cohere with the idea of a nation’s right to self-rule. The loss of autonomy for religious communities in earlier progressive reforms – a privilege many missed – rapidly accelerated the growth of nationalist movements.

Over the mid-19th Century, it became clear that national identities were becoming increasingly important, not least through the surge in ethnic violence. Maronite Christians fought the Druze in Lebanon in the 1840s; thousands of Damascus Christians were killed by Muslims and government troops in 1860; most notorious were the ‘Bulgarian Horrors’, when in 1876 a Bulgarian uprising was put down with massacres of up to 30,000 by the Ottoman forces.

Despite the promise of reform, by the mid-1870s the Ottoman Empire was coming apart at the seams. After drought in 1873 and famine the following year, the empire finally had to declare bankruptcy in 1875. In 1881, the Ottoman Public Debt Administration was established, administered by the largest creditors (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, the Netherlands) and empowered to collect tax before the Ottoman government did.

Shortly afterwards, with the empire at its most vulnerable, Russia declared war in 1877, ostensibly over the mistreatment of Bulgarians in the ‘Bulgarian Horrors’. Without European allies, the Russo-Turkish War was a resounding Ottoman defeat. In the 1878 settlement, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro gained complete independence, with Bulgaria made an autonomous Principality under limited Ottoman jurisdiction. 

The era of zealous modernisation, westernisation and reform that was the tanzimat period could be said to have ended as it began – with the Ottoman Empire lagging behind its European counterparts in economic development and military power, as testified to by two humiliating defeats at either end. Yet the situation was more dire than even that, with Ottoman finances controlled by foreign powers, their territory reduced and shrinking and nationalism a threat across the empire. Tsar Nicholas I’s description of the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ was apt enough in 1833; by 1878, in spite of all its reforms, it was beyond healing.

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