Contentions of Sovereignty and Empire: The Ottoman Empire and International Law, 1400s to 1900s
Stereotypes about the Ottoman Empire—as Europe’s eternal enemy, as isolated oriental despotism, as belated modernizer, or as passive recipient of western designs—have been slow to die. While the last two generations of scholars have placed domestic Ottoman social, economic, cultural, and political history in a global context, and have questioned Orientalist assumptions, Ottoman interactions with other states and societies have only just begun to receive a similar treatment. Nowhere is this more notable than in the field of international law, even though law mediated, shaped, and responded to the interactions between Ottomans and others at every level. This panel represents an initial attempt to address that lacuna, presenting four case studies of how the Ottoman state and Ottoman subjects negotiated, and constructed, legal relationships across political boundaries.
These case studies shed light not only for Middle Eastern history, but also on the history of international law itself. This field has grown in recent years, as globalization has raised questions about the legitimacy of a body of law long seen as the exclusive creation of western Europe. While generations of scholars regarded international law as a universalist project, intended unproblematically to benefit humanity, scholars such as Lauren Benton, Anthony Anghie, and Jennifer Pitts have argued that law and imperialism were deeply intertwined. Yet their stories all still feature Europeans as the principal actors; we have few studies of how non-Europeans conceptualized, negotiated, used, and shaped international law.
The four papers in this panel do that, using detailed archival research to cast the Ottoman state and its officials as active agents in using and shaping international law, through negotiations with foreign states and non-state actors. The papers span the empire—from the Mediterranean to Arabia, from North Africa to the Black Sea, and from the fifteenth century to the twentieth.
The panel begins with two papers set in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. In the early modern era, the Ottoman and Venetian Empires worked out a pragmatic, negotiated, and robust legal framework to control the piracy that threatened both states’ interests. Centuries later, Ottoman-Russian clashes raised new questions about neutrality, subjecthood, and the status of prisoners of war. The resulting negotiations produced rules that foreshadowed developments in the western European law of war.
As western European empires gained power in the nineteenth century, the Ottoman state’s geopolitical position eroded. Yet the third and fourth papers show that, both on the imperial periphery of the Sudan, and in the symbolically vital Holy Cities, the Ottoman state was entirely capable of using law to assert its interests and to involve itself in inter-imperial struggles. These debates expose the workings of international law, and the conflicted implications of sovereignty, in an era of imperial expansion.
The four papers thus open new perspectives on Middle Eastern history and on the development of international law. Firmly grounded in historical scholarship, but informed by the disciplinary concerns of legal scholars as well, the panel discusses larger questions of interest to global historians.