"Managing nature's hazards, furthering state control: Nature and imperial governance in Ottoman Yemen re-visited, 1872-1914"

By Thomas Kuehn
Submitted to Session P4992 (Managing and Manufacturing Disaster, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
Drawing on primary sources in Ottoman, Arabic, and English, such as governmental memoranda, consular reports, local chronicles, and travelogues, this paper analyzes the role that concepts of ‘nature’ played within the context of Ottoman imperial governance in the Province of Yemen from its establishment in 1872 to the First World War. As historians of Yemen have argued, sectarian ties, local forms of conflict resolution, and social stratification were the principal categories of knowledge through which Ottoman policy makers sought to elaborate forms of governance that the locals could accept as legitimate rule.

Building on this body of scholarship, I argue that Ottoman notions not only of Yemen’s social and cultural realities but also of its natural environment shaped concepts and practices of governance in this part of the empire. Especially the mountainous areas of the northern highlands and the desert-like coastal plain epitomized what soldiers and administrators considered natural challenges to greater state control. For one, the terrain made the deployment of troops difficult and favored local efforts at limiting government interference. Further, the scarcity of water spiraled into episodes of severe drought between circa 1890 and 1910 and thus greatly limited the locals’ ability to survive as farmers. As a result, many turned to making a living in ways that threatened Ottoman state authority, namely by engaging in unregulated trade or by fighting as mercenaries for the principal opponents of the Ottoman central government, the Zaydi imams.

In response, Ottoman policy makers drew up several grand irrigation schemes that were meant to turn the locals into prosperous and docile, tax-paying farmers. While in Ottoman Egypt and – to a lesser extent – Ottoman Iraq, an increasingly interventionist state did indeed re-make local ‘nature’ through irrigation projects during the long 19th century, the Ottoman state was ultimately unable and unwilling to commit the necessary resources to realize these schemes in Yemen. Instead, more limited policies were carried out that were not about re-making Yemen’s ‘nature’ but rather about minimizing the hazards it posed to Ottoman rule: Taxes were lowered and militias created in order to ease the fiscal pressure on local communities and to offer their males employment in times of scarcity. Moreover, officials authored guidebooks intended to teach their peers how to survive in a forbidding environment.

In rendering more complex our understanding of ‘nature’ and Ottoman governance my paper adds to a growing literature on late Ottoman imperial rule.