Entangled: The Role of Private Capital in Ottoman Submarine Telegraphy

By Pauline Lewis
Submitted to Session P4920 (Connection, Contagion, and Calamity: Social Uses and Effects of Infrastructural Networks in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
One of the defining features of the telegraph network in the Ottoman Empire was that it was a state-enterprise. Like its counterparts in Europe, the Ottoman government exercised centralized control over its telegraphic network, viewing imperial telecommunications as a critical part of its sovereignty. However, in spite of the Ottoman government’s desire to fully control telegraphic activity in the empire, there was one area in which it was forced to turn to foreign, private entities. The empire, which famously stretched across three continents and many bodies of water, needed submarine cables to fully connect its territorial limbs. But the unique challenges of laying and maintaining underwater cables limited the ability of the Ottoman government to undertake such projects on its own. Instead, the government entered into agreements with a number of British companies, which were also eager to capitalize off of the growing interest in electronic communication between Europe and its overseas markets. With company stations dotting the Ottoman coastlines of the Aegean, Mediterranean, Black, and Red Seas, these private companies came to play a central role in intra- and trans-imperial communication.
This paper examines the activity and influence of these telegraph companies in Ottoman domains, a story which has previously gone unexamined. Built with the permission and subsidization of the Ottoman government, these cables and stations were simultaneously outposts of British commerce and part of the local Ottoman telegraphic network. Through examining government and company records, this paper argues that telegraphy prompted a new, entangled relationship between the Ottoman state and foreign, private capital, whereby companies gained unprecedented influence in the public domain, and the state engaged in entrepreneurial practices as a means to compete with these firms. Overall, it provides an interesting case study on the power and limitations of European private companies in late Ottoman society, as well as the interactions between technology, private capital, and state power in the nineteenth century.