Muleteers as Bandits and Mutineers: Global Capital and Social Transformation in Ottoman Lebanon

By Joan Chaker
Submitted to Session P5104 (Overstepping Boundaries: Assessing Legal and Moral Contingency in Lebanese History, 2018 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
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This paper makes the case for a study of the social transformation of the countryside as it joins the global market over the long nineteenth century, told through the prism of a collective biography of the mule drivers of Ottoman Lebanon – those obscure peasants who, owning one or a few mules, made their livelihood in the transport of goods and persons rather than work the land. Over the first half of the nineteenth century, those agents mobilized for peasant revolts as a village-based economy turned to cash-crop agriculture, and as the central government embarked on building a new state apparatus that would insure its survival within global capitalism, rendering the peasants’ situation ever more precarious. As of the 1860s and to the First World War, as local resources were diverted to feed European industry and local petty-trade networks came undone, when elites at all levels struggled to assert their control over labor and resources, these same muleteers turned into social bandits – smugglers who defended the peasant against the state’s taxation and the capitalists’ extraction. Some of them accumulated wealth and ultimately integrated an emerging middle class.

Grounded in conventional archival work – within the collections of the Maronite Church as well as the documents of the local administrations governing the Lebanese mountain over the period – and expanding the conventional archive to include novels, folklore, and oral history, this account allows for a discussion of the moral as conditional on material conditions that go beyond parochial culture and local contingencies. By drawing parallels with other rural transport workers in the Anatolian and Romanian hinterlands of the Ottoman Empire, as well as with the gauchos of Latin America, ox-cart drivers of India, and rickshaw pullers of China, this local history links the cultural norms that shape the actions of actors in Lebanon to objective structural transformation observable across the rural global south.