A Neglected History: Chorbadzhis, Sovereignty and the Ottoman Provinces, 1790s- 1850s

By Secil Uluisik
Submitted to Session P4754 (The Allure of the Mundane: What to Do with the Micro and the Daily in Middle East History?, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Ottoman political culture, its practicalities and the confessional identity went through multiple transformations during the nineteenth century, which led to power re-configurations in localities across the Empire, and thus, have been the subject of sustained scholarly interest. Provincial magnates of this period, however, have long been associated with the Muslim local notables such as the ayans of the earlier periods in the Ottoman context, while Christian or Jewish provincial power holders such as the Chorbadzhis have remained neglected despite their remarkable roles in Ottoman world. This paper examines the cross-cultural and complex networks of these Ottoman individuals neglected by current scholarship. Using networks of specific Chorbadzhis in Ottoman borderlands of the Balkans and Eastern Anatolia between 1790 and 1860 as a lens, it approaches the Ottoman socio-political culture from a provincial stand point and decenters the Ottoman Empire in multiple levels. It shifts the focus from imperial center to localities; from institutions to peoples; from official narratives to practicalities; from Muslims to Non-Muslims; from imperial archives to local archives.

Exploiting a wide range of archival sources including interrogation records, family archives, local correspondences, petitions and unpublished manuscripts of local chroniclers in Ottoman archives in Istanbul, Turkey, and at the National Library of Bulgaria in Sofia, Bulgaria, my paper puts Chorbadzhi families under a microscope. First, I explore their local and global commercial networks, their identity shifts, and the ways they bargained power with the Ottoman State by taking advantage of the inter-imperial rivalry at the borderlands, which reached beyond the assumed boundaries of the Millet system and the institutionalized categorizations. Then, through a detailed analysis of Chorbadzhi murder cases, I analyze inter-elite rivalry over wealth and power as neglected yet central motives for negotiations and causes for conflict in the provinces. Building upon these, I argue that microhistories of provincial actors like Chorbadzhis whom and whose networks cannot be contained within the conventional narratives enable us to gain insights into the true practicalities in the empires.

Providing microhistories that focus on the complex networks, fluid identities, conflicts, murders of Chorbadzhis during a period that is assumed to belong to separate historiographies, this paper offers an example of history writing which connects small scales to larger frameworks and individuals to Empires.