Ottoman Exploration in Yemen, 1849

By Sahar Bazzaz
Submitted to Session P5071 (Knowing Nature: Epistemologies, Scientific Exchange, and Exploration in the Ottoman Empire, 17th-20th centuries, 2018 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Recently, historians have begun to highlight the intimate relationship between the field of natural history and associated methodologies, on one hand, and imperial conquest, global trade-networks, and inter-imperial rivalries, on another. The major focus of this work has been 16th-19th century European botanical collecting and natural history in the Atlantic World, East Asia, and the Indian subcontinent during Europe's age of empire. European botanical collecting resulted in an explosive expansion of knowledge about non-European peoples and environments, and led to the creation of vast collections of flora and fauna at Kew and the Paris-based Jardin de Plantes. Indeed, European exploration of newly “discovered” territories in the Atlantic world and beyond gave birth to modern natural history including Carl Linnaeas’ revolutionary binomial taxonomical system as well as to modern cartography, geography, and climate science.

My paper turns the lens away from European scientific exploration toward Ottoman and hence non-Western imperial science and exploration by focusing on an Ottoman scientific and reconnaissance expedition to Yemen and the Red Sea region in 1849. During this high age of empire, the Ottomans sought to extend their territorial reach to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula in order to compete with Britain, France, and Russia, who had their own imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Just as Europeans used modern cartography, geographical surveying methods, anthropology, and natural history to define, categorize and order—to “know”—colonized territories and peoples and hence to dominate and rule them, so too, I suspect, did the Ottomans. Based on a close reading and analysis of the recently published Turkish-language travel account of Mustafa Hami—an Ottoman physician who accompanied the 1849 Yemen expedition—I seek to answer the following questions: What epistemic assumptions and categories of analysis did the expedition members use to describe the natural environment and population of Yemen? Did these descriptions reflect new methods of observation and Linnaean (and post-Linnaean) taxonomy associated with emergent modern scientific practices? To what extent did Hami’s narration reflect Ottoman-Muslim literary genres, on one hand, and new European ones, on the other? By considering the production of Ottoman imperial knowledge, my project helps to de-provincialize Eurocentric histories of natural history and solidly places the intellectual and cultural history of the modern Middle East and North Africa in a much broader global history of science.