The Near Eastern Crisis of 1875-78

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 167-169:

Beginning with a peasant uprising in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the troubles spread in 1876 to Bulgaria and the Danubian provinces and ended with an invasion by the Russian army the following year. The Treaty of San Stefano, which Russia imposed on the empire early in 1878, created a vast new Bulgarian state which passed just to the north of Salonica itself and cut it off from its hinterland. Even after the other Great Powers forced Russia to back down and tore up the San Stefano agreement, there was no disguising the humiliation suffered by the Porte: at the Congress of Berlin, Serbia was declared independent, an autonomous (if smaller) Bulgaria was established under Russian control, Cyprus was occupied by British troops (as the price for supporting the Turks) and the Great Powers forced the Ottoman authorities to pledge a further programme of administrative reforms.

These events deeply affected Salonica. As always in time of war, the city was in a febrile state—filled with soldiers, requisitioning agents, tax-collectors and rumours. Muslim notables criticized the diplomacy of the Porte and feared for the first time “being driven out of Europe.” The Bulgarian insurrection actually broke out just three days before the killing of the consuls in Salonica; rumours of the rising had reached the city, together with reports of outrages on Muslim villagers and of plans to drive them from their homes. At one point the authorities feared that Salonica’s Christians too would rise to prompt a Russian advance on the city itself, and the Vali warned he would quell any insurrection in the harshest manner. “I know him to be of the party in Turkey,” wrote the British consul, “who believe the Eastern Question can only be solved by the destruction, or at least the expatriation of all Christians from the European provinces of Turkey, and replacing them by Circassians and colonists from Asia.”

The spectacle of vast forced movements of populations crisscrossing the region was no fantasy. While the eyes of Europe were fixed—thanks to Gladstone’s loud condemnation of the “Bulgarian horrors”—on the Christian victims of the war, thousands of Muslim refugees from Bosnia, Bulgaria and the Russian army were headed south. Added to those who had earlier fled the Russians in the Caucasus—somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 Circassians and Nogai Tatars had arrived in the empire between 1856 and 1864—the refugee influx which accompanied the waning of Ottoman power was well and truly under way. A Commission for the Settlement of Refugees was created, and the figures provided by this organization show that more than half a million refugees crossed into the empire between 1876 and 1879 alone.

In January 1878, the Porte ordered the governor of Salonica to find lodging for fifty thousand throughout the province. The following month it was reported that “the whole country is full of Circassian families, fleeing from the Russian army and the Servians, in long lines of carts … panic-stricken, they strive to embark for Asia Minor and Syria.” While Albanian Ghegs and uprooted Nogai Tatars settled around the town, thousands more left weekly on steamers bound for Smyrna and Beirut. Many of these refugees had been settled in the Bulgarian lands only a decade earlier; now for a second time they were being uprooted because of Russian military action. Destitute, exploited by local land-owners, many—especially Circassian—men formed robber bands, and became a byword for crime in the region. Two years after the end of hostilities, there were still more than three thousand refugees, many suffering from typhus or smallpox, receiving relief in the city, and another ten thousand in the vicinity. The Mufti of Skopje estimated that a total of seventy thousand were still in need of subsistence in the Sandjak of Pristina. By 1887, so many immigrants from the lost provinces had moved to Salonica that house rents there had risen appreciably.

The political outlook for Ottoman rule in European Turkey was grim. Only Western intervention had saved the empire from defeat at the hands of the Russian army; the consequent losses in Europe were great. The powers openly discussed the future carve-up of further territories, and Austrians, Bulgarians and Greeks fixed their eyes on Salonica. As discussions began at the Congress of Berlin on the territorial settlement, one observer underlined the need for a further sweeping reform of Ottoman institutions and the creation of an “impartial authority” to govern what was left. In view of the patchy record of the past forty years’ reform efforts, few would have given the imperial system long to live. Indeed many expected its imminent collapse, especially after the youthful Sultan Abdul Hamid suspended the new constitution barely two years after it had been unveiled. But they had to wait longer than they thought. The empire had another few decades of life left, and in that time Salonica itself prospered, grew and changed its appearance more radically than ever before.

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Filed under Balkans, Britain, France, Germany, migration, nationalism, religion, Russia, Turkey

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