Throughout the last two decades of the eighteenth century the Ottoman system was shaken by a succession of challenges to its corporate existence. By 1781–2 the evident decay of centralized administration, the anarchy in many outlying provinces, and the threat of erosion along distant frontiers, had begun to tempt the Sultan’s most powerful neighbours into behaving as if the Empire were under notice to quit. Catherine the Great, influenced by her favourite Prince Potemkin, exchanged letters with the Habsburg Emperor, Joseph II, proposing an alliance: Austria would acquire large areas of modern Roumania and Yugoslavia while Russia would absorb Turkish lands around the Black Sea and establish autonomous states in Rumelia, eventually setting up a new Byzantine Empire under the sovereignty of Catherine’s grandson, the infant Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich (1779–1831). When, in April 1783, Catherine proclaimed annexation of the Tatar khanate of the Crimea as a first step towards realization of this secret ‘Greek Project’, there was widespread indignation at Constantinople. But no declaration of war was made; the Sultan and his viziers were pessimistic about their chances of success without a powerful ally, and none was forthcoming.
Yet it became increasingly difficult for Abdulhamid to ignore Russian provocation. His chief concern was the persistent Russian advance in the Caucasus, following the establishment in 1783 of a protectorate over Georgia. But there were other acts of aggravation, too: the encouragement given to visits by Greek Orthodox churchmen to the court at St Petersburg; the incitement of unrest by Russian consular officials in Bucharest, Jassy and several Greek islands; the rapid building of a river port to handle Black Sea trade at Kherson, on the Dnieper, where 10,000 people were settled by 1786; a triumphal progress by the Empress through her newly acquired Crimean lands. Abdulhamid was physically strong and mentally alert, the father of twenty-two known children, but by 1785 he was ageing rapidly and growing morbidly suspicious of palace intrigue. In the spring of that year he connived at the fall and execution of Halil Hamid, a reforming minister who had trimmed down the Janissary Corps by some sixty per cent. In January 1786 the Sultan appointed Koça Yusuf as Grand Vizier. He was a Georgian convert to Islam who as governor of the Peloponnese had been inclined to see Russian agents lurking on every quay in his province. In August 1787 Koça induced the ailing Abdulhamid, although still without an ally, to declare war on Russia.
This renewed conflict with imperial Russia began a half-century in which the Ottoman Empire was intermittently at war with foreign powers for twenty-four years. During the same period the Sultans were also forced to mount fifteen repressive campaigns against insurrections in outlying provinces, the most serious of which developed into wars of national liberation. These military and naval demands checked the economic growth of the Turkish heartland and limited the character of the reforms undertaken by Abdulhamid’s two strong-minded successors, Selim III and Mahmud II. At the same time, they brought the Sublime Porte into the European diplomatic system, posing an Eastern Question to which the only possible solution ultimately proved to be the dissolution of the multinational Ottoman Empire itself.
At first, in the early autumn of 1787, Koça Yusuf’s war seemed reluctant to come to the boil. Even when Joseph II became Catherine’s ally, six months later, little happened. On land, the Austrians lumbered into Bosnia and crossed from the Bukovina into northern Moldavia, while the Russians eventually took the fortress of Ochakov, commanding the approach to the Bug and the Dniester; and in June 1788 two naval engagements were fought amid the mudflats of the Dnieper estuary, where a Russian flotilla led by the American hero John Paul Jones exposed the weakness of the newly revived Ottoman navy. There was little co-ordination between Russia and Austria, both empires being distracted by threats elsewhere in Europe. Habsburg victories in Serbia went unexploited by the Russians until Suvorov won his ten-hour battle at Focsani in August 1789; but by the following summer, when Suvorov and Kutuzov stormed the Turkish defences around Izmail, Austria was already negotiating for a separate peace. The Ottoman envoys secured good terms from the Habsburgs at Sistova in August 1791; and joint British, Prussian and Dutch mediation enabled the war with Russia to be ended before Catherine’s armies swept south of the Danube delta. Even so, the Peace Treaty of Jassy (January 1792) was yet another humiliation for the Porte in what had so long been reserved as the Ottoman’s maritime lake: the Sultan recognized, not only Catherine’s annexation of the Crimea and the protectorate over Georgia, but the southern advance of the Russian frontier to the line of the lower Dniester. It was in this region that, in August 1794, the first stones were laid of the port of Odessa, soon to give the Turks a more formidable competitor for Black Sea trade than up-river Kherson.
Abdulhamid I, like his predecessor in an earlier conflict with the Russians, succumbed to apoplexy at the height of the war. His nephew Selim III acceded in April 1789, that momentous month when George Washington became the first President of the United States and deputies converged on Versailles for Louis XVI’s opening of the States General. Events in America mattered little to Selim; but what happened in France was of considerable interest. Even during his years of nominal confinement in the kafe, Selim had been in touch with Louis. A trusted friend, Ishak Bey, served as Selim’s personal emissary, travelling to Versailles in 1786 with a plea that France, as a long-term friend and ally of the Ottoman Empire, should provide aid in modernizing the army and support policies aimed at the containment of Russia. But the Comte de Vergennes, Louis’ foreign minister for the first thirteen years of his reign, had himself served as ambassador in Constantinople: he was sceptical over the prospects of reform in Turkey and strongly opposed to any enterprise which might lead to a Franco-Russian conflict. Louis’ reply to Selim was guarded and patronizing. ‘We have sent from our court to Constantinople officers of artillery to give to the Muslims demonstrations and examples of all aspects of the art of war’, Louis wrote in a letter dated 20 May 1787, ‘and we are maintaining them so long as their presence is judged necessary.’
Throughout the war with Russia French officers continued to give advice to cadets on the Golden Horn. Translations of military manuals were turned out by the excellent private press attached to the French embassy: aspiring Turkish gunnery specialists could therefore study the treatises from which the young Bonaparte profited at the academy in Brienne. Of course, none of these benefits were in themselves sufficient to change the military balance along the shores of the Black Sea. Whatever his sympathies and inclination, Selim was able to do little to reform or improve the Ottoman state during the first three years of his reign, when day-to-day reports of the war with Russia determined the behaviour of sultan and viziers alike. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1791 Selim ordered twenty-two dignitaries, both secular and religious, to draw up memoranda on the weaknesses of the empire and the way to overcome them. When, a few months later, the Jassy settlement gave the Ottoman Empire a respite from war, the Sultan resolved to press ahead with a policy of westernization. He hoped that the preoccupation of European statesmen with events in Paris would, at the very least, enable him to ensure that his army and navy should catch up the armed forces of the West in training and equipment.
These good intentions look tediously familiar, but Selim’s plans went further than any reforms contemplated by his predecessors. The twenty-two collected memoranda encouraged Selim to seek a ‘New Order’ (Nizam-i Cedid), thereby virtually imposing a revolution from above. Administrative changes included revised regulations to strengthen provincial governorships, the creation of more specialist secular schools to provide training in the ancillary subjects essential for military and naval command (including the French language), control of the grain trade, the institution of regular ambassadorial diplomacy with the major European Powers, and improvements in methods of ensuring that provincial taxes reached a new central treasury, which was given the right to impose taxes on coffee, spirits and tobacco. Earlier Sultans had given their somewhat erratic support to the building of modern ships of the line and the reform of new light and heavy artillery units; Selim III instituted a form of conscription for the navy in the Aegean coastal provinces, tightened discipline in the artillery and other specialist corps and, amid widespread consternation, announced the creation of new infantry corps, organized and trained on French lines and equipped with modern weapons. The Janissaries, suspicious as ever of innovation, had their arrears of back pay settled, and were promised more money for active service, and regular pay-days. But the new barracks for young Turkish recruits above the Bosphorus and at Üsküdar seemed a direct challenge to the entrenched status of the Janissaries. Sultan Selim’s other reforms were soon forgotten, and the term ‘New Order’ became applied solely to the regular infantry battalions which the Nizam-i Cedid brought into being.