George Perkins Knapp of Bitlis and and Massacres of 1895

By Owen Miller
Submitted to Session P4957 (The Great Fear of 1895: Armenian Reform, Rumor and Violence across the Ottoman Empire, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
Armenian Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
As if arranged by a signal, at around noon on October 25, 1895, massacres broke out in the city of Bitlis. Within 24 hours, entire neighborhoods were looted and hundreds lay dead. As with most individual cases of Hamidian massacres, the Bitlis killings have been almost entirely overlooked in the existing scholarship. When the massacres are discussed at all, descriptions generally follow either the official accounts of the Ottoman State or the reports collected by British consuls. Yet, central to both sets of accounts are the central role of George Perkins Knapp and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).

On the one hand, for the British, the ABCFM were key repositories of local information as many of the missionaries had lived in the Ottoman Empire for decades. Any perusal of the parliamentary Blue Books would make it clear that the British accounts of the Hamidian massacres were often based heavily on missionary observations. It is not surprising that of the first accounts of the Bitlis violence that reached the British Ambassador Philip Currie was from the pen of Rev. George Perkins Knapp. Those accounts described how crowds of armed Muslims killed “every Armenian that they could get a hold of” and that local troops condoned the killing.

On the other hand, the Ottoman State placed the blame of the killings on the ABCFM missionaries themselves. At first, the Ottoman State depicted the Bitlis violence as simply the responsibility of seditious Ottoman-Armenians, working to incite violence and gain the attention of the European powers. But within a matter of weeks, another culprit had been found: the ABCFM missionary, George Perkins Knapp. In February 1896, the Bitlis-born-and-raised, Harvard-educated Knapp was openly charged with inciting “the credulous Armenians to attack the mosques during the Friday prayers and kill the faithful, and to assassinate Muslim officials and notables whom they meet in lonely places.