Relief for Whom? Peasants, Crop Failure, and Politics in Ottoman Kurdistan, 1840-1896

By Zozan Pehlivan
Submitted to Session P4852 (Social and Environmental Histories of the Middle East in the Nineteenth Century, 2017 Annual Meeting
On June 24, 1893 Armenian and Muslim religious leaders of the Palu district presented a petition to the governor of Diyarbekir. The petitioners implored the Sultan to relieve the suffering caused by the last three-years’ continuous drought. Palu was not the only place experienced frequent drought. Peasants and pastoralists in Ottoman Kurdistan encountered a set of economic and political difficulties in the nineteenth century. Continuous wars with Russia, the settlement of Muslim refugees from Caucasus in the region, bribery and corruption practiced regularly by administrative authorities, lack of public security, and continuous changes in taxation system increased the burden on Armenian, Arab, Ezidi, Greek, Kurdish, Syriac, Nastorian, and Turkish peasants in the region. Conditions became intolerable for millions of peasants and their livestock when unusually extreme drought persisted for several years. Repeated droughts not only destroyed harvests in the field but also dried up pastures and left peasants and their animals without food. Even eating seed required for the next sowing season was not enough to keep peasants in their native lands. After the loss of their livestock (the principal source of wealth and property for an agrarian household in the Ottoman Empire) peasants had nothing to live on, and were required to flee the afflicted areas. Using Ottoman and British sources, this paper examines the fragile and changing socio-economic atmosphere of the region in the light of the following questions: first, how did frequent weather events impact peasants of Ottoman Kurdistan in the nineteenth century, specifically between 1840-1896?; second, how did the Ottoman state respond to those crises and provide aid or relief to its starving subjects? By focusing on the measures taken by the state to relieve distress among peasants in the region, I aim to challenge existing interpretations of relief policies and official responses to environmental disasters in Ottoman Kurdistan.