Russia and the Ottoman Empire were amongst the modern World’s most constant and fierce nemeses. However, during the early 1830s a unique set of circumstances made St. Petersburg and Constantinople allies, however begrudgingly and briefly. Despite their long history of conflict, the two multi-continental empires were almost ideally complimentary trading partners, each having an abundance of goods that the other lacked and coveted. To provide the economic foundation of the new Russo-Ottoman rapprochement, diplomats representing the two powers negotiated a Customs Agreement that would set binational trade on favourable terms, as we well as seeking to undercut the black-market, an accord that was signed in Constantinople on July 7, 1831.
Sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808 - 1839) was a reforming leader who (albeit cautiously) supported many modernizing and Western-style innovations to his empire. This included fostering the printing industry (albeit under heavy state supervision) and, notably, appointing Isaac de Castro, a Jew originally from Venice, as the official printer to the Sultan’s court. The highly esteemed De Castro was responsible for publishing the Sultan’s decrees, laws and treaties, including the official text of the 1831 Russo-Ottoman Customs Agreement.
The present work, printed in parallel French-Ottoman Turkish text, is executed to a very high technical standard, employing expensive letterpress characters. It lists hundreds of goods, in alphabetical order, along with their rate of import and export duties in Ottoman Piastres. The itemized list features a great diversity of wares, from ‘Arsenic’ to ‘Café de Moka’ to ‘Testicules de Castor’, presenting a valuable insight into the sophisticated nature of Russo-Ottoman trade. The work concludes with the printed signatures of the treaty’s principal negotiators, plus a description of the general terms of the accord and, intriguingly, an account of the process by which it came about and was negotiated by the Russian and Ottoman parties.
The pamphlet is remarkable on several levels, in that it is simultaneously an important landmark of the brief Russo-Ottoman rapprochement; a stellar example of early Ottoman court printing; a fine work of the premier Jewish printer in Constantinople; as well as a key primary source on the economic history of both Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
A Note on Rarity
The work is extremely rare, and the present example is remarkable in that it is totally uncut with wide margins and pages with deckled edges, having never been bound. We can trace only what may be a single other example in institutional collections, at the Bibliothèque national de France (although the BnF catalogue references a different printer ‘de Toura’, but this may be a clerical error); we cannot trace any examples in sale records.
I should be noted that an 1851 Austrian library catalogue cites an ‘1842’ edition of the present work, published by De Castro, although we cannot trace the current whereabouts of said issue (See Catalog der Bibliothek des nied. österr. Gewerb-Vereins (Vienna, 1851), p. 102).
Also, it seems that De Castro, as a model, drew upon an earlier work by the same title published in Constantinople for Antoine Fonton, a dragoman to the court of Selim III, which concerned the 1799 Russo-Turkish Customs Agreement (OCLC: 312742066; Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, Geschichte des osmanischen Reiches (Budapest, 1831), p. 588).
Isaac de Castro: Court Printer to Sultan Mahmud II
The present work was printed by Isaac de Castro (1764 - 1845), a man who played a major role in the rise of secular print culture in Constantinople during the early to mid-19th Century. De Castro was a Sephardic Jew from Venice and worked for some years as a professional printer in his home town. Napoleon’s invasion of the Serene Republic, in 1797, ruined Venice’s economy. De Castro struggled for some years to make ends meet in Venice, but these efforts proved futile.
In 1806, De Castro immigrated to Constantinople. He would certainly have arrived there with connections, as the Venetian Jewish community maintained close ties with the large and vibrant Jewish population of Constantinople, which counted many of its members within the city’s power structure. Constantinople of the period was one of the most ethnically diverse and, at least on the level of the professional and upper classes, well integrated cities in the world. If you were a man of uncommon ability, you could gain support for your ventures well beyond your ethnic community.
When De Castro arrived in Constantinople, printing the was experiencing a modest revival. Traditionally, apart from the brief period of operation of the press run by İbrahim Müteferrika from 1727 to 1743, printing employing Ottoman Turkish character had been effectively banned in the Ottoman Empire (although printing using other characters, such as Armenian and Hebrew, was permitted). The Sublime Porte feared the press might be used to aid the cause of anti-regime forces, while the powerful lobby supporting the rich Islamic manuscript culture that thrived a the Topkapi Palace considered printed works to be vulgar, if not sacrilegious.
The reign of Sultan Selim III (1789 - 1807), a bold social reformer, saw the foundation of a three small government run presses that issued a diverse array of religious and secular works (albeit in modest print runs). However, Selim III was deposed and murdered by conservative elements of his own court who disagreed with his liberal ways, including his embrace of print culture.
Sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808-39) was also a reformer, but generally a cautious one. He embraced print culture, but with many caveats. While the traditional exemptions for printing in Armenian and Hebrew scripts were preserved, private printing in Ottoman Turkish was to be limited to Islamic religious texts, and then only under close government supervision. Critically, the Sultan supported the few government-sponsored presses founded under Selim III, which were permitted to print secular and scientific works. However, what the Sultan really needed was an official court printer, in the modern Western European sense; a publisher, who on short notice would be able to publish decrees, treaties and other legal texts for the Sublime Porte, tasks which the existing state-run presses were not well equipped to manage.
In 1815, Mahmud II appointed Isaac de Castro to be his court printer. De Castro was described as a man of “keen mind and exemplary probity”, and he showed a remarkable ability to execute the Sublime Court’s commissions quickly, but to a level of stellar quality, and at a reasonable cost. Importantly, he possesses his own high-quality letterpress punch of Ottoman Turkish characters, a rare and expensive accessory. Virtually all his works published for the court were made in very small quantities, in a ‘boutique’ fashion, exclusively for circulation to a select class of senior officials, diplomats and major business leaders. While highly important, as they conveyed and codified vital legal information, the works are today very rare.
Mahmud II held De Castro in such high regard that he awarded him the Nişan-i İftihar (Order of Glory), roughly equivalent to a knighthood, an unusual accolade for tradesman. Following the Sultan’s death, the De Castro family retained its court appointment under the new ruler, Abdülmecid I. Upon De Castro’s, death, in 1845, the business was continued for a time by his sons, although the clan gradually switched to becoming a medical family; Isaac’s grandson, Avram de Castro (1829–1918), became one of Constantinople’s leading physicians. Isaac de Castro left a strong foundation for the great expansion of Ottoman court publishing that flourished during the rest of the 19th Century.
Historical Context: The Brief Russo-Ottoman Alliance
Russia and the Ottoman Empire had been mutual arch-nemeses for centuries, fighting innumerable wars against each other, contesting large areas of territory. While the Ottomans were traditionally the dominant power, beginning in the 1770s, during the reign of Catherine the Great, Russia turned the tables, conquering all the Ukraine.
Russia came out of the Napoleonic Wars with a strong hand, determined to press its advantage against the Sublime Porte, placing pressure upon Ottoman-held territories in both the Danube and Caucuses regions, while supporting Greek and Slavic separatists in the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire, although ruled by Sultan Mahmud II, a skilled and reforming leader, was bedevilled by internal problems. The Sublime Porte’s direct authority barely extended past the area around Constantinople and Anatolia, as powerful regional separatist movements developed, while even local leaders normally loyal to the Sultan, jealously guarded their autonomy. Beyond that, Mahmud II had to contend with powerful opposition within his own court from conservative elements who resented his reformist polices.
Interestingly, the fierce Russo-Ottoman military rivalry had overshadowed what was a mutually beneficial commercial relationship. Russia and the Ottoman Empire were almost perfectly complementary trading partners, with each having an overabundance of goods that the other had in short supply, but very much desired. For instance, the Turks had a need for Russian firs, timber, precious metals and wheat; on the other hand, the Ottomans could provide Russian with semi- and tropical produce (ex. coffee, tobacco), and exotic luxury items such as ivory, as well as leather, metalwork and carpets. During peacetime, trade between the two empires boomed, to great mutual advantage. Even during wartime, products from each nation fetched high prices on the black market (vast, high volume smuggling networks always operated by between Russia and the Ottoman Empire).
Events during the 1820s ended up creating a unique set of circumstances whereby Russia and Ottoman Empire became allies, albeit begrudgingly. In 1826, Mahmud II successfully suppressed the Janissaries, the conservative, elite military class that had been the main opposition to his reformist agenda. Nevertheless, this caused a great deal of turmoil at the Sublime Porte, such that officials came to lose sight of events further afield. Russia entered the Greek War of Independence (1821-9), assisting the combined fleet of Greece, Britain and France, crushing the main Ottoman-Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino (1827), effectively securing the succession of the Peloponnese as the sovereign Kingdom of Greece two years later. This conflict dovetailed into the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-9, during which Russia pressed its advantage, defeating the Ottomans in the Caucuses and the Danube.
The Treaty of Adrianople (1829), which ended the war, compelled the Sublime Porte to cede territories along the Danube and the Caucuses to Russia, as well as to agree to pay a large war indemnity. While the harsh terms of the treaty would, at first, seem to feed the continued cycle of mutual animosity, it ended up sowing the seeds for a Russo-Turkish rapprochement.
Mahmud II was feeling diplomatically isolated, as France and Britain, traditionally Turkey’s leading trading partners and, at times allies, were giving him the cold shoulder. Muhammad Ali, the Vali (Governor) of Egypt, while technically the Sultan’s subordinate, was in the process of not only asserting his country’s autonomy, but he also seeking to gain control of the Ottoman Levantine provinces.
Meanwhile, the first rumblings of The Great Game, the epic contest between Russia and Britain for control of South-Central Asia, was driving a wedge between St. Petersburg and London, while Czar Nicholas I personally detested the House of Bourbon that ruled France. Russia therefore came to find itself a bit isolated, and like the Ottoman Empire, was eager to recharge its economy which was in bit of doldrum.
In this context, in Constantinople, both Russian and Ottoman officials and leading merchants reached out to each other. At first, they had informal conversations, but at one point in 1830, this dialogue gained official sanction.
Both nations believed that if they could cut and regularize the customs duties between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, that it would both greatly stimulate legitimate trade, as well as disincentivising the black-market. To this effect, Alexander Ribeaupierre, the Minister Plenipotentiary of the Russian Embassy in Constantinople, authorized a team led by Paul Pisani, the Director of the Commercial Chancery, and Antoine Franchini, the Chief Interpreter of the Embassy, to officially commence negotiations with an Ottoman delegation appointed by Sultan Mahmud II. The Turkish side was headed by Tahir Bey, the Chief Inspector of Munitions Factories, and Salih Bey, the Chief Customs Officer. After many meetings over several months, both parties agreed to a schedule of tariffs (both imports and exports) that would be uniformly applied to both parties. The hundreds of itemized goods listed on the present work were assessed fixed tariffs, while products not listed were to be assessed a 3% tariff. While the 3% was the same as called for during the last Ottoman Russian tariff agreement (1799), the rates placed upon the itemized goods were, generally, dramatically lower. As noted, the present agreement was signed in Constantinople on July 7, 1831.
Only a few months later, the First Egyptian-Ottoman War (1831-3) broke out. Egypt, under Muhammed Ali, openly rebelled against the Sublime Porte, and his modern, energized army, led by his son Ibrahim Pasha, surged up though the Levant, easily defeating the Ottomans. Through much of the following year, the Egyptians fought their way into Anatolia, crushing the main Ottoman army at the Battle of Konya (November 21, 1832). The Egyptians were then poised to march upon Constantinople, which they would almost certainly have been able to take, barring some unforeseen, extreme circumstances.
Through the same channels that negotiated the 1831 Customs Agreement, Mahmud II reached out to Czar Nicholas I for assistance – something that was extraordinary in and of itself! After some internal debate, the Russians decided that it would be far preferable to preserve a weakened Ottoman Empire, dependent on Russia for its survival, then to allow Constantinople to be taken by the Egyptians, clearly an aggressive force with an unknown attitude towards Russia. Simply put, the Czar elected to stick with the “devil he knew”.
Russia sent a large fleet and army to Constantinople, occupying the city with Mahmud II’s uneasy consent. It was then made very clear to the Egyptians that the Russians were prepared to confront them. Ismail Pasha, who had no desire to permanently control Turkey, and seeing his supply lines over extended, wisely agreed to parley.
At the Convention of Kütahya (May 1833), Egypt agreed to immediately withdraw its forces from Turkey and to publicly declare Mahmud II to be their legal overlord. In return, Mahmud II would appoint Muhammed Ali as the Vali of the Levant (in effect making the region a part of a sovereign Egypt). Even though this allowed the Sublime Porte to save face, while giving Egypt what it essentially wanted (the Levant), both sides signed the pact under duress, leading the Sublime Porte and the Egypt would a have rematch six years later, the Second Egyptian–Ottoman War.
Russia, while not intending to permanently occupy Turkey, hoped to permanently replace Britain and France as the Sublime Porte’s premier military and economic partner. To this effect, Russia compelled Mahmud II to sign the Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi (Treaty of “the Sultan’s Pier”, July l8, 1833), which gave highly favourable diplomatic and commercial rights to Russia. A ‘secret clause’ within the treaty (which like most secrets in Constantinople soon got out!) had the Sultan agree to close the Turkish Traits to all foreign military traffic upon Russia’s request. This threatened to make the Black Sea, if not much of the Eastern Mediterranean into a Russian lake.
Not surprisingly, Britain and France were livid upon learning details of the Turco-Russian alliance. Not only did the new agenda threaten their trade in the Near and Middle East, but it forcefully called for the projection of Russian naval power into the Mediterranean, something that the Royal Navy found unacceptable.
Britain and France proceeded to place immense pressure upon the Sublime Porte. These efforts were supported by the innumerable franco- and anglophiles at Mahmud II’s court, who were always uncomfortable over the relationship with St. Petersburg.
The pressure resulted in the Treaty of Balta Limani (1838), which gave Britain massive commercial privileges in the Ottoman Empire, far outstripping those which were offered to Russia in 1833. Czar Nicholas I was indignant, and while he did not annul his alliance with the Sublime Porte, the bloom was clearly off the rose. Meanwhile, France, frustrated by Britain’s success in Constantinople, decided to throw its lot in with the Egyptians, such that it was for a time ‘on the outs’ with the Sublime Porte.
During the Second Egyptian-Ottoman War (1839-41), the Ottomans were, once again, throttled by Muhammad Ali’s armies in the Levant. It did not help that Mahmud II’s death on July 2, 1839, placed the empire in the hands of his untested 16-year old son, Abdülmecid I. In 1840, in what was known as the ‘Oriental Crisis’, Britain and Russia intervened to support the Ottomans, while France abruptly pulled back its support of Egypt, fearing conflict with Britain.
At the Convention of London (July 15, 1840), Britain and its allies offered Muhammad Ali a face-saving way out; he would be permitted to maintain his autonomous rule over Egypt and Sudan (a status which Muhammad Ali’s successors would be permitted to inherit), in return for withdrawing from the Levant. While he would have to recognize the Ottoman Sultan as his overlord, that arrangement would be in name only. Seeing that Britain and her allies would be able to defeat his forces, four months later, Muhammad Ali reluctantly accepted the Conference terms.
Sultan Abdülmecid I was an even more radical reformer that his father, famously ushering in the liberal, pro-Western policies of the Tanzimat Era (1839-76). He was grateful to Britain for its decisive role in saving his empire, and over the course of 1840s, Britain’s economic and military influence at the Sublime Porte grew dramatically. France also managed to regain its preferred status in Constantinople, while the Turco-Russian alliance was progressively side-lined.
Czar Nicholas bitterly resented the dissolution of the alliance, and by the late 1840s, the relationship between Constantinople and St. Petersburg could only be described as sour. While the Ottoman economy grew, and many aspects of the empire befitted greatly from the Tanzimat Reforms, the country was still beset by internal problems and was militarily weak – a factor Russia elected to exploit.
During the Crimean War (1853-6), Russia unwisely provoked a conflict with the Ottomans without realizing that Britain and France would go to immense lengths to preserve the Sublime Porte. While a difficult conflict for both sides, the Ottomans and its allies defeated Russia, so continuing the old cycle of mutual Russo-Turkish animosity and warfare that would persist until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk singed the Treaty of Kars (1921) with the Soviets.
References: Cf. [Re: Bibliothèque national de France example cited as published by ‘de Toura’] OCLC: 461181461 / FRBNF33621773.