Comte de Bonneval in Ottoman Service


Claude Alexandre, Comte de Bonneval (1675 – 1747, Istanbul.

Ahmed III had reigned for twenty-seven years. Against all expectancy, his nephew remained on the throne for twenty-four. For thirteen months after his accession, foreign envoys looked on Mahmud as a mere puppet of Patrona Halil and his bully boys, rebels who set fire to most of the exquisite palaces and kiosks of the Tulip Years. Their leader grew rich very quickly, as boss of a city-wide protection racket. Momentarily it seemed he might find an even broader field in which to peculate; on 24 November 1731 the Sultan invited Patrona Halil and his chief supporters to come to the palace in order to discuss plans for another Persian War. No such discussion took place. Soon after their arrival in the Topkapi Sarayi, Patrona Halil and his associates were seized, and strangled on the spot. Mahmud could now rule in his own right, entrusting the administration to Grand Viziers sympathetic towards westernizing reform, but more cautious than Damat Ibrahim and less tenacious of office.

Much survived the Patrona Terror, most notably Muteferrika’s printing press. There was even an imperial tulip festival each spring, albeit trimmed down to economy size. Like Ahmed III, Mahmud showed an interest in books and education, at least in his capital city: a small library outside the Mosque of the Conqueror and a primary school attached to the mosque of Ayasofya are still standing. He also completed a project, abandoned in the previous reign, for supplying water piped from outlying reservoirs to Pera, Galata and the northern shore of the Golden Horn; the octagonal water distribution centre (taksim), erected on the Sultan’s orders, is still at the top of Istiklal Caddesi (modern Istanbul’s Regent Street or Rue de Rivoli) and has given its name to Taksim Meydani, which it is tempting to call Istanbul’s Piccadilly Circus.

These projects belong mainly to Mahmud I’s later years, as also does the patronage he extended to the building of Stamboul’s first Baroque mosque, the Nurousmaniye Cami, next to the Bazaar. He had begun his personal rule by giving urgent attention to defects in the methods of tax collection; a new law improving the efficiency of the timar system was issued as early as January 1732. Later in that same year Ibrahim Muteferrika presented the Sultan with a printed edition of his own treatise, some fifty pages long, an inquiry into the science of ruling the nations, Usul ul-hikem fi nizam al-uman. He described the types of government existing in other states, urged the sovereign to relate external policies to the geographical structure of neighbouring lands, and suggested how the Ottomans might learn from the military science and discipline of infidel armies—towards whom Muteferrika dutifully showed a tactful contempt. Mahmud I was impressed; and, like many later Sultans, he turned for advice to a foreign expert. The Comte de Bonneval would, he hoped, modernize the Ottoman army, making it once again the conquering vanguard of Islam.

Claude-Alexandre, Comte de Bonneval, a French general from the Limousin, had every confidence that he could live up to what he assumed to be the Sultan’s expectations. He was fifty-two when in 1727 he entered Ottoman service, having fought for and against Louis XIV and served under Prince Eugene against the Turks before falling out with his commanding general and spending a year in prison. The Venetian Republic had nothing to offer him and so he travelled down to Ragusa (Dubrovnik), crossed into Bosnia, accepted conversion to Islam, and made ready to fight for the Sultan. After a few months observing the Ottoman army, he prepared a memorandum for Mahmud I, explaining how he would create new fighting units of infantry and artillery, to be trained by young hand-picked officers; and how he would restore the Janissaries as an élite fighting force by grouping several orta in the corps into regiments, thus giving officers a regular ladder of promotion on the model of the French and Austrian armies which he already knew so well. Foreign-born military advisers—German, Austrian and Scottish officers, in particular—had played a considerable role in modernizing the Russian army: one in four of Peter the Great’s senior commanders was a non-Russian, and the new guards regiments founded by his successor, Empress Anna, were almost entirely raised and trained by foreigners. To assist him, Bonneval knew he would have three somewhat younger French officers who had converted to Islam, together with some Irish and Scottish soldiers of fortune and, possibly, some Swedes. On paper there seemed no reason why ‘Ahmed’—as Bonneval was now known—should not give the Sultan a fighting force to match the army of his northern neighbour.

The vicissitudes of Bonneval’s career well illustrate the difficulties facing any reformer at the Sultan’s court. In September 1731 the Grand Vizier Topal Osman invited him to modernize a single section of the Sultan’s army, the humbaraciyan or bombardier corps, responsible for making, transporting and firing all explosive weapons (mortar bombs, grenades, mines) on land or aboard a naval vessel. He was provided with a training ground and barracks outside Üsküdar, consulted over the construction of a cannon foundry and musket factory, and asked to draft a memorandum for the Sublime Porte on foreign policy. But six months later Grand Vizier Topal Osman was replaced by an Italian-born convert, Hekimolu Ali, who was so dependent on the conservatively-minded Janissary leaders that he dared not support army reform until he had been in office for some two years. By the autumn of 1734, however, Bonneval was back in grace: on his recommendation a military engineering school was set up in Üsküdar; and in January 1735 he was made a high-ranking dignitary, entitled to two horsetails.

For the last twelve years of his life Claude-Alexandre became Kumbaraci Osman Ahmed Pasha. He could not, however, rely on Mahmud’s continued support. Yet another Grand Vizier came into office in July 1735, and a year later the Pasha was exiled from the capital to Katamonu in northern Anatolia; funds for the bombardiers and the new army institutions were at once cut off. Somehow, in 1740, he slipped back to Üsküdar, but Janissary suspicion and jealousy made certain he never again enjoyed great influence. His grandiose plans for modernizing the army were ignored, although he was allowed to continue running his military engineering school until his death at the age of seventy-two. ‘A man of great talent for war, intelligent and eloquent, charming and gracious’, commented a French envoy; ‘very proud, a lavish spender, extremely debauched and a great philanderer.’

Bonneval’s reforms contributed to the success of Ottoman armies in the sporadic campaigns from 1736 to 1739 against Russia and Austria. Sultan Mahmud’s armies recovered much of Serbia, including Belgrade, and strengthened the Ottoman hold on Bosnia. Throughout Mahmud’s reign the Sublime Porte had to look defensively to the east, as well as to the north and west, for in Persia the ruthless Khan Nadir Afshar seized power and in 1737 was recognized as Shah. Mahmud and Nadir exchanged gifts: an ornate oval throne, plated with gold and adorned with pearls, rubies and diamonds, was presented by the Shah to the Sultan; while Mahmud in return sent to Nadir a golden dagger, with three large emeralds in the hilt beneath another emerald which covered a watch. But despite such costly diplomatic courtesies, Sultan and Shah were at war for most of Nadir’s reign, fighting largely indecisive campaigns in Mesopotamia, although the Persians gained some success in the southern Caucasus. The danger receded with the assassination of Nadir in 1747, an event which enabled the Sultan to recover the golden dagger he had presented. Both gifts are on show in the Topkapi Sarayi treasury, the dagger having (in 1964) featured in Topkapi, a film based upon Eric Ambler’s thriller The Light of Day.

Shah Nadir’s murder came at the start of an unexpected interlude in Ottoman history. Between 1746 and 1768, the Empire was at peace. Never before had twenty-two years passed without war along at least one frontier; and the country was to enjoy no comparable respite until the Kemalist Revolution and the proclamation of a republic. Yet as the Ottoman Empire was essentially a military institution, the ‘long peace’ proved curiously debilitating. Only one Grand Vizier—Koça Mehmed Ragip, in the late 1750s—tried to arrest the decline of effective government; he dispatched troops to stamp out banditry in Rumelia, Anatolia and Syria; and he appointed supervisors to check corruption in the evkaf and ensure that the revenue from religious endowments was applied to pious or charitable work. But despite Ragip’s efforts three familiar abuses soon crept back into the administration: the sale of offices; nepotism; and the taking of bribes. Instead of building on the reforms of the past quarter of a century, the Janissaries sought to put the clock back. Turkish printing virtually ceased, to the great relief of the professional scribes and calligraphers who had feared competition. After Ibrahim Muteferrika’s death in 1745 only two volumes were published in eleven years, and the press thereafter stood idle until 1784 when Sultan Abdulhamid I issued an imperial edict on the need to re-establish Turkish printing. A similar halt was called to all efforts at army or navy reform. Bonneval’s military engineering school only outlived its founder by three years; and almost two decades passed before any further attempt was made to modernize the Ottoman army.

During the ‘long peace’ it is doubtful whether the Sultans or their viziers in Constantinople were fully aware of the extent to which the empire was falling apart. The North African lands, from Libya westwards, were by now no more than nominal vassal states. In 1711 Ahmed III had recognized the hereditary rule of the Qaramanli family in Tripolitania and the Husaynid dynasty as beys of Tunis, as well as accepting the right of local Janissaries to nominate a governor in Algeria who would share power with three provincial beys. In Cairo a rapid succession of Ottoman viceroys had proved ineffectual: Egypt was virtually ‘governed’—a euphemistic verb in this context—by rival Mameluke princes, working sometimes with and sometimes against the resident Janissaries. The chronic civil war permitted Bedouin to encroach on the fertile lands of the Nile delta, gravely hampering cultivation; there was a major famine in Cairo on four occasions during the reign of Egypt’s nominal sovereign, Sultan Ahmed III. The famines were almost as bad in Mesopotamia, where Bedouin incursions brought the desert back to a fertile region on the Tigris north of Baghdad. In Mosul, Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus by the middle of the century, the vali was, in effect, a hereditary governor-general, his family forming an embryonic local dynasty safeguarded by a private army. Syria forwarded to Constantinople no more than a quarter of the revenue claimed by the imperial government as tribute money; and other outlying provinces were no better. Even the few imperial duties laid on local governors were sometimes disastrously neglected. The most notorious incident was the failure of local notables who had secured the hereditary governorship of Damascus from the Sultan to protect the pilgrim caravan from attack by Bedouin horsemen on its way to Mecca in 1757; on that occasion the raiders left 20,000 devout Muslims dead, among them a sister of the spineless Sultan, Osman III—who died from apoplexy soon after news of the raid reached his capital.

Osman’s successor, his cousin Mustafa III, much admired Frederick the Great’s generalship; and in 1761 a treaty of friendship with Prussia, sweetened with trade concessions, held out prospects of a new twist to the European alliance system. Unfortunately Mustafa attributed Frederick’s success to the alleged attention given by the king to his astrologers. This misunderstanding of the Prussian way of government led Mustafa to decide that if the stars were said to favour a Sultan’s ambitions, the ‘long peace’ must end. With such calculations helping to shape policy, it is hardly surprising that in October 1768 a war party at court had no difficulty in convincing Mustafa of the need to challenge Catherine the Great’s Russia.

Predictably, after years of military neglect, the Ottomans fared badly. Three Russian squadrons sailed from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. A protest to the Doge for allowing ships from the Baltic to enter the Adriatic at Venice suggests a basic ignorance of Europe’s geography. Naval intelligence was low, too. A curious strategy which used the ships of the fleet as anchored forts in Cesme harbour enabled the Russians to win an easy naval victory and put troops ashore near Smyrna (Izmir). Within a month the Russians gained a striking victory on land, too, when an army moving southwards into Moldavia scattered Ottoman troops at Kagul, on the river Pruth. By early 1772 Empress Catherine’s armies controlled much of the Crimea and all of Moldavia and Wallachia, the heartlands of modern Roumania.

In tactics and strategy, it was a dull war. Until the last months neither belligerent produced a commander who showed tenacity or initiative. ‘The Turks are falling like skittles,’ ran a contemporary Russian saying, ‘but, thank God, our men are standing fast—though headless.’ At last, in the early summer of 1774, a brilliantly executed thrust by the Russian general Alexander Suvorov threatened to carry the war into Bulgaria. Mustafa III had died from a heart attack in the preceding January; the new Sultan—his forty-eight-year-old brother, Abdulhamid I—was a realist. After six years of war, and with Austria threatening support for Russia in the field, the Sublime Porte wanted to end the fighting, if only to provide a respite in which the new Sultan could build up his army and his fleet. On 21 July 1774 peace was concluded at Kuchuk Kainardji, a Bulgarian village south of the Danubian town of Silistria and now known as Kainardzhi.

The Kuchuk Kainardji settlement is historically far more important than the war which preceded it. ‘The stipulations of the treaty are a model of skill by Russia’s diplomats and a rare example of Turkish imbecility,’ reported the Austrian envoy, Franz Thugut. If Abdulhamid I merely wanted a pause between rounds in a long contest, there is no doubt his negotiators served him poorly, since there was about the territorial settlement a sense of finality. Just as the Peace of Karlowitz in 1699 pushed back the frontier of Islam in central Europe, so Kuchuk Kainardji seventy-five years later acknowledged the dwindling of Ottoman power around the northern shore of the Black Sea. The Sultan gave up Ottoman claims to suzerainty over the Crimea and the Tatar steppe land, acknowledging the independence of the Muslim ‘Khanate of the Crimea’ (absorbed in Russia nine years later). At the mouth of the river Dnieper the Turks ceded to Russia a relatively small section of the Black Sea coast which supplemented the cession of the port of Azov. The Russians also acquired the fortresses of Kerch and Yenikale, which controlled the straits linking Azov to the wider waters of the open sea; and, further south, they were accorded special rights in Wallachia and Moldavia (although these ‘Danubian Principalities’ remained within the Ottoman Empire).

These territorial changes were a humiliating recognition of Russia’s new status in a region where the Ottomans had enjoyed two and a half centuries of almost unchallenged mastery. But the Russians gained an even greater concession—freedom for their merchant vessels to trade with the ports of southern Europe and the Levant. For the first time since the Turks secured control of the Straits, the vessels of another country were allowed to trade in the Black Sea and to sail out through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles into the Mediterranean. At the same time, Empress Catherine and her successors were promised the right to maintain a permanent embassy in the Ottoman capital, like the Austrians and the French, and also to establish consulates in every major port of the Sultan’s empire. This concession made it easier for the Russians to send agents to disaffected provinces in south-eastern Europe, notably to Greece.

If, as many writers believe, Franz Thugut was referring to the religious clauses of the settlement rather than to its territorial and commercial aspects, his judgement is open to question. Confusion over their precise character has sprung from inconsistencies between the original versions, in Russian, Turkish and Italian, of the treaty, intensified by later translations into French, the common language of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century diplomacy. It was long assumed that the religious Articles curtailed the rights of the Sultan, thereby hastening the decline of his empire: in reality they enhanced his authority by giving him wider personal responsibilities than any previous treaty had acknowledged. For the first time the Ottoman assertion of universal Islamic leadership received international recognition: Article 3 stipulated that ‘as supreme caliph of the Mohammeddan faith . . . His Sultanian Majesty’ retained spiritual jurisdiction over the Muslim Tatars when they gained political and civic independence. This claim was based upon the totally unsubstantiated tale that in 1517 the Caliphate had been formally transferred from the Abbasids to Sultan Selim I. Although effective jurisdiction over the Tatars survived for less than a decade, Article 3 had a lasting significance, for it confirmed the pontifical status assumed by the Sultans after being girded with the sword upon their accession. Over the following century and a half, respect for the spiritual pretensions of the Ottoman Caliphate increased as the territorial extent of Ottoman sovereignty contracted.

Even more controversial were Articles 7 and 14, relating to Orthodox Christendom. ‘Henceforth Orthodoxy is under Our Imperial Guardianship in the places whence it sprang,’ Empress Catherine proclaimed in a manifesto welcoming the treaty, eight months after it was signed; and many later Russian statesmen—and some Tsarist and French historians—were to insist that the settlement gave a Russian sovereign the right to protect Orthodoxy, its churches and its believers, throughout the Ottoman lands. This extreme interpretation of Kuchuk Kainardji led to the Eastern Crisis of 1853 and thus, indirectly, to the Crimean War. But Article 7 is specific in according ‘firm protection of the Christian faith and its churches’, not to the ruler in Russia, but to ‘the Sublime Porte’. Since the Article does not mention a particular religious denomination, the Sultan would seem to have possessed a protective obligation towards all Christian churches within his empire, not merely the Orthodox; and later Ottoman reformers—Sultans and their ministers—often supported an impartial Muslim-Christian equality of status under the law. The treaty does, however, authorize the building and maintenance of a public ‘Russo-Greek’ church ‘in the street called Beyöglu of the Galata district’ (Article 14). It is to this building that Article 7 refers when it promises that the Sublime Porte will ‘allow ministers of the Russian imperial court to make various representations in all affairs on behalf of the church erected in Constantinople’.

No ‘Russo-Greek’ church was ever built in the ‘street called Beyöglu’. It is still possible to walk down the old ‘Grand Rue de Pera’ and visit three Roman Catholic churches, one nineteenth-century Anglican church, and several former embassy chapels; other Christian religious institutions are mentioned in the older guide books; but there is no evidence that the building proposed by the treaty of Kuchuk Kainardji progressed even as far as a foundation stone. This is hardly surprising; had Russia erected a specific place of worship under the protection of the Sublime Porte, it would have become difficult to assert that the treaty gave ‘ministers of the Russian imperial court’ a generalized right to champion the interests of Orthodox believers in the Empire as a whole. At Kuchuk Kainardji the Ottoman diplomats may have surrendered more lands and more commercial concessions than Abdulhamid I intended. But they were not ‘imbeciles’. Their legalistic minds defined religious rights even down to the naming of a street. They conceded far less than Catherine claimed. Where they failed was in underestimating Russian sharp practice.


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