Diversions of a Diplomat in Turkey - Samuel Sullivan Cox, 1887.
This book is legally copyright-free at Archive.org.
Diversions of a Diplomat is an 800 page hodgepodge of every observation imaginable from the view of an American congressman turned diplomat. Observations range from education to gender roles, the life of diplomats and the life of slaves, domestic squabbles and foreign intrigue, the arts and fashion, legends and folklore, and more. Loquaciousness and verbosity are his forte. I leave it to historians to point out which observations or assumptions were incorrect, there are too many to judge. The amazing bit is that he spent only a year in service there to have made so many confident observations. The following are some of the notes about things I found interesting.
One absolute must-read before attempting this book is Cyrus Hamlin's Among the Turks, who Cox quotes from repeatedly in his book. Dr. Hamlin was one of the first Americans to live and work in Turkey, establishing Robert College in Istanbul which still stands today and of which Cox writes so proudly. Hamlin and his fellow missionary Roger Goodell (40 Years in the Turkish Empire) wrote much more readable works on their time in Turkey than Mr. Cox. (I've reviewed their works here.)
Cox (1824-1889) has quite a resume himself, he served as Congressman from both Ohio and New York before his time in Istanbul and returned to Congress after his return to New York. He succeeded the famous Lew Wallace as the U.S. Minister to Turkey. Cox had apparently been to Turkey previously and written a book about it, and he worked in Congress to shore up Wallace's title to make it closer to Ambassador, which America did not have many of-- the Foreign Service was not developed until the 20th century. As such, the American representative in Turkey had to often be inconvienced by being low in the pecking order by representatives of smaller countries who had better titles. Despite his career, he was well-suited to the position and I would rate him as quite the Turkophile, he seemed to have been eager to take the appointment. He admires rather than condescends. I am skeptical how much Turkish he actually learned in his time, although he seems to speak authoritatively on the language, but sprinkles enough Turkish definitions in to make one think he learned some basics. He ends his time rather abruptly:
"Call it home-sickness, or patriotism, or an inclination after old and fixed parliamentary habits, or the ineradicable desire to be near one's own—and you have the best explanation that can be made for my premeditated and unprecipitated return. I had done all that a Minister of my ability could do, to place the Legation and the American interests in excellent condition" (p. 757).
I agree with the author that "Turkey is, in a diplomatic way, among the most interesting of the Powers of the earth" (p. 32). Istanbul today is quite colorful, diverse, and vibrant. But in the 1800s, Constaninople was even moreso. Cox includes many sketches in the book of the varied costumes and characters (p. 434).
"It is not uncommon for writers who are dazed with Constantinople and its variety, to stand on the Stamboul bridge and look and look, and wonder and wonder. All this dual city passes there...All this is only seen in a glimpse, and the next moment you find yourself in the midst of a crowd of Persians, in pyramidal bonnets of Astrakhan fur, who are followed by a Hebrew in a long yellow coat open at the sides; a frowsy-headed gypsy woman with her child in a bag at her back; a Catholic priest with breviary staff; while in the midst of a confused throng of Greeks, Turks and Armenians comes a big eunuch on horseback, crying out Larva!"
Cox's greatest contribution to diplomacy might have been having US Census documents shipped over for the pleasure of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who wished to incorporate such a precise and organized census in his own territories ("The Sultan was delighted at the elegance, uniqueness and magnificence of the gift" p. 59). Historians have had to rely on various Ottoman documents to estimate populations of various cities. "As to the population of Constantinople—no one can tell what it is, whether one or two million, much less of what elements it is composed. It is the greatest seat of commerce in the Eastern world. Its industries are manifold and various, and yet, there is no local data..."k
Cox recounts the history of the Sultans and looks at more recent reforms under the current Sultan and his father, Abdul Mejid, who extended larger freedom of worship to people in his Empire, which meant a great deal to the Western missionaries who were opening grammar and technical schools. But Cox explains the difficulty of advocating on behalf of Americans in regions outside the capital, where such laws were "a dead letter." There are various musing on geography and natural resources, oil was fast becoming an important resource for which international exploration was of interest. I enjoyed his thoughts on Azerbaijan, where I once lived at the time of the construction of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline which was completed in the early 2000s (p. 166-167, 183):
"and the Caspian Sea, to the vicinage of Baku, where the soil absorbs the oil as if it were a huge sponge to be squeezed, and where 20,000 acres alone of petroleum land have furnished 1,000,-000 tons of oil annually. Here we are in the " Black California," as the Russians call it, which furnishes fuel for locomotive and steamer, and kerosene for Central Asia and Europe...I mention these instances, as a fact and a warning, to account for the inrush of this oil into markets where once our own petroleum prevailed. No wonder the oil sells cheaper at its source and in the neighboring countries! There is a large margin for profit, because of its cheapness. No wonder the market in the Turkish empire, which was once all ours, is now divided between Russia and America! The residuum of petroleum, as a substitute for coal, is just coming into use in America. In this we are copying the carriers of Baku...The petroleum people at Baku cannot expect to be above the peril of bankruptcy, until they complete the construction of their pipe-line from the Caspian to the Black Sea. This they will do in time."
Cox basically sees "The Great Game" taking shape in Central Asia (p. 186).
"The Standard oil agent, who was here on the way to and from Baku, told me that it was impossible for the outside world to know the grandeur of the scale by which Russia is pushing her military power into the heart of Asia. Troops he saw by the thousands, of which no journal or correspondent takes notice. They are on the constant advance. The Caucasian railway was built for troops and their transportation."
The Minister makes observation on the various races and cultures in Constantinople. You get statements like this (p. 206):
"(I)t takes the wit of four Turks to over-reach one Frank; two Franks to cheat one Greek; two Greeks to cheat one Jew; and six Jews to cheat one Armenian."
He is in the empire when a great migration of Jews from Britain and Europe has begun into Ottoman Palestine, and Cox remarks on the growing population there, and persecution. He almost clearly forsees an independent Hebrew state there (211-236), in the meantime America is the chosen country. This is still the view of those of the Dispensationalist eschatological bent today:
"It was my especial good fortune,when trouble and trial seemed to be renewed in the persecution of the Jews of Russia, Roumania, Morocco and other lands, to make such public remonstrance in Congress as, I think, eventuated in some restraint, if not altogether in the cessation, of such persecution. More recently, while acting as Minister to Turkey, I have had the opportunity of observing, within my own bailiwick, the condition of the Hebrews in their ancient land...The Jewish population in the Ottoman empire, which includes Egypt, is only about 350,000...Jerusalem, not 20,000, as is represented, but fully 22,000...during the past few years the number of Jews in Palestine has increased from 15,000 to 42,000. This is an accurate statement. It is confirmed by my informants...Now that the United States has sent a Hebrew as Minister to Turkey, perhaps we will have more authentic accounts of his race and their progress...In a. d. 1824, there were only thirty-two Jewish families in all Jerusalem, and but three thousand in all Palestine. This increase has come in the last twenty years. This gain has been in spite of interdictions by the Turkish government, for I think that that government has had an apprehension lest there should be Hebrew colonies formed in their old beloved land...Quietly and without ostentation, by some supernal influence, Jerusalem at last is becoming through its new population, a Jewish city. A majority of its population are Jews. Its trade is Jewish. It will own the soil of Palestine in time. This prosperity has inspired many with the hope that the redemption of Israel and the restoration...There is a majestic meaning in the events which are taking place in the world. They point with no unmistakable finger toward the beautiful walls of Jerusalem. If it be the purpose of Jehovah to return the Jews to Palestine, why may not the ravening wolves, which have driven Israel almost to despair, and which have used the force of brutes against her, be balked in their endeavor; so that the hope of the Hebrew shall have realization even in our time? All is possible with Jehovah...But until that day doth come, America seems a chosen land for a chosen people. Here, under our Constitution, is their vine and fig-tree."
I write this in 2016 after the so-called Islamic State of the Levant has been brutalizing Christians, Jews, and other minorities in its attempt to establish a caliphate in the region. Cox writes of Ottoman tolerance for minorities, stemming from an ancient Muslim document I have not heard/read of in light of recent events-- the Ashitname of Muhammad, a document granting protection and priveleges to monks at St. Catherine's monastary, including exemption from taxes. The original still exists preserved in Turkey (since 1517), and historical copies of the document have been ratified authentic by Islamic authorities over the centuries.
Cox writes: "It bears the following heading: 'This paper has been written by Mahomet, the son of Abdullah, and Emissary of God, the Guardian and Preserver of the Universe, to all of his nation and religion, to be a true and sacred grant for the race of the Christians and the offering of the Nazentes.' Is not this the fountain and origin of the 'Capitulations' and toleration toward the Christian and other sects?" (p. 240). ISIS either does not recognize the text or, as others have argued, the document applied only to the limited community of Christians on Mt. Sinai.
Besides a history of the Ottoman Sultanate, Cox provides an overview of the history of the Christian church and how the Eastern Orthodox church was formed and the role that Constantinople has played. "The Russian Church remained under the immediate control of the patriarchate of Constantinople until the sixteenth century" (p. 306). The Patriarch-elect of the Greek Orthodox is received by a formal ceremony by the Sultan, a centuries-old tradition. Cox recounts the state of division among the churches and the rifts between Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants: "While the Turks threaten or banish those who discard the Mahometan religion, they allow the Greek Church the like privilege. Out of this toleration comes much of the trouble to the Protestant teachers from America. They are striving nobly to elevate the races of European and Asiatic Turkey, and that too despite the bigotry, not of the Moslem, but of so-called Christians" (p. 315). As Minister, he had to defend the Americans against attacks from the various Orthodox that saw the Americans' schools and teaching students to read texts like the Bible as a threat to their authority. Americans present also worked to translate the Bible into Armeno-Turk, Bulgarian, Arabic, and other languages. Cox ponders the role that Bulgarian and Armenian graduates of Robert College will have on their home countries, what this might mean for the spread of the ideas of freedom and the republic (p. 322): "The fact that the brightest of the Armenian race is being instructed in Robert College and in the United States, and return to the Armenian people as teachers in theology and (other subjects), is significant of that future when the question shall be raised, 'Shall it be Cossack or republican?'"
Here is how the missionary work looked in Cox's time (p. 341):
"Here are some statistics of the operations of these Societies and associations within the Turkish empire:... Men and women, engaged in the work of the Societies: 254. Average aggregate attendance at each Sabbath service: 50,000. Organized churches: 138. Number of church members: 10,776. Number of high schools and colleges: 35 Number of girls' boarding-schools 27 Number of common schools: 508. Preaching places (about) 400."
Cox's job is to give ear to the complaints Americans working in the Ottoman Empire have, particularly as persecutions or other problems break out. The visit of US naval vessels sometimes helps the cause in Istanbul, but less in the regions:
"There is much trouble brewing about closing the American schools of Asia Minor. Constant complaints come up to the Legation from the consulates on that head. The American Protestant schools are not alone in suffering from the recent intolerance of the Mahometans, in certain localities where they predominate over the Christians, and where they are aloof from the central authority. Shortly after the closing of the Protestant schools in Syria, an official order was sent out by the Minister of Public Instruction to the provinces, to close all the Jesuit schools established without official permission, and to refuse thenceforth...The same order was issued about our American schools. This, however, under our energetic remonstrance, has been remedied to a great extent. If the United States had more power to its naval elbow, there would be less occasion for the constant protests of the American Consuls and Minister" (p. 663).
Cox notes that "very few Turks" are "baptized into the Protestant faith" and most of the converts come from the Orthodox, from which also arises the greatest persecution.
"During a period of nearly sixty years since the first of these missions was opened in Turkey, the Turkish government has never, it is believed, presented a single specific charge against American missionaries or their employees for illegal or offensive conduct...the missionaries aim to make every church and every school self-supporting and independent of foreign funds. Where they expend funds upon existing churches and schools, it is as an aid to the pastor's salary, or for the construction of buildings, or such auxiliary purposes" (p. 347).
There are plenty of cultural observations from formal customs to superstition. Plenty of parables and folk stories.
"A superstition among the Turks is that nothing should be wasted that might be used as food for dogs or fish. Another is that no paper should be left lying around loose; for non constat, but that it may bear the name of Allah. Oftentimes a piece of paper with Allah on it, is swallowed in water by the sick." (p. 369)
I did find it interesting that the notion of street dogs dates back to centuries before. Some Turkish friends had told me they thought it dated to Atatürk making European customs, such as keeping dogs, more en vogue. Not the case:
"It is the custom of travelers and authors always to mention these dogs. Compared with the indolent and inconsequential curs upon the streets and docks of Naples, and other places-among the lazzaroni, which have not yet attained to the dignity of a literary and scientific study, they are honorably mentioned. From Miss Pardoe down to Edmondo de Amicis, I find reference to these dogs. In a. d. 1835, Miss Pardoe found them on the threshold of her entrance into the city." A sultan once tried to ban the dogs to an island, but so many swam back across the Bosporous that he relented.
Here's one that I think historians would find patently false. Education for the masses didn't happen in much of the Empire and not in many parts of Anatolia until Atatürk:
"There is scarcely any man of the empire who cannot read and write. Schools are as common as the mosques. The very disposition of the Turk leads him to be a reflective reader. Some of the best scholars of the world are those with large Arabic libraries, who pass their lives in their literary harems" (p. 433).
In one moment, Cox will say there is no reason that Turkey should decline or go away. On the other hand, he bemoans its lack of development:
"It is doubtful if Turkey is now advancing. Her doctrine of "Kismet" is applicable to her condition. The Christian people of her empire are gaining upon the Turkish, War, plague and contention in and out of Europe—in Africa as well as in Europe —have limited her boundaries and undermined her (p. 450).
"Turkey has a kind of democratic-republican society and government. This is true in many respects. It is a constitutional monarchy under the constitution of December 23, a. d. 1876...the Constitution is a dead letter and the Almanack is a bundle of ignorance, in this as in other regards" (p.544).
"A railroad through this harassed land will be a godsend" (p. 705).
Fire was a constant danger (p. 495):
"There was a conflagration at Pera in 1870. It was accomplished with neatness and despatch. In six hours two-thirds of the town was destroyed; nine thousand houses were burned; two thousand people killed."
Cox writes that women had it well and had full respect of their husbands. No domestic violence or abuse in his Turkey:
"The truth is that the Turkish woman is more free than almost any other woman" (p. 594). I dare avouch that no people are more fond of their homes than the Turks, and toward their children they are inordinately partial. So far as I have observed, their courtesy to the other sex is unfailing. The Turk treats his wife at home, as I have understood, with the same inbred courtesy which he displays toward the gentler sex away from home (p. 649).
Yet, there are slaves, including eunuchs, a practice Cox finds antiquated and distasteful.
"There is scarcely a family in Turkey which has the means, that does not possess a number of women and girl slaves, black and white. The black are from Central Africa and Nubia; the white are Circassians sold by their parents...I do not believe that there is now any public market for slaves. There is no selling at the bazaars, as there used to be. Still they are bought and sold, and the authorities very likely know how and where, and regulate the traffic. The price varies with the beauty. The ungainly are used for domestic work. The beauties are educated..."What are slaves worth?" A white boy may cost two hundred dollars, depending upon his acquirements ; a girl under ten, one hundred dollars ; a maiden between twelve and sixteen, if she be attractive and can play on the zither, brings from thirty-five hundred to five thousand dollars. If the young woman be a blonde, with black eyes and rare beauty otherwise, she may bring from four to six thousand dollars. An amateur will pay double that for a choice specimen, well educated in French and other graces. The black slave will bring ninety dollars, the black maiden seventy or seventy-five" (p. 605-607)
Nonetheless, the slave can rise to great heights in Turkey: "In Turkey, any one, even a slave, can become a Marshal of the empire, or Grand Vizier. There are no hereditary or other titles of nobility. The names of the great and small folk are as simple as can be" (p. 626).
A nice anecdote about one of the first phonographs in Turkey:
"Dr. Washburn, president of the Robert (American) College, illustrates this point by an anecdote. He brought here from America one of Edison's phonographs. He exhibited it to a company of Turks. He vociferates into its orifice. The machine grinds out of its vocal tin-foil much talk in English, in its squeaky way. It is no marvel to the company. There is not an eyebrow raised in wonder; not a question asked. When it talks Turkish, ah ! Then, how they marvel I How could it learn the Turkish language so soon!" (p. 620).
Although this took place historically at the beginning of his tenure, the book ends with almost a play-by-play of the national crisis of September 1885, when Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, an Ottoman province, united in independence, defying the great powers and the Berlin treaty of 1878. The Sultan began to muster his troops as the Serbo-Bulgarian war (as it is now known) broke out. There was much intrigue as to what powers would get involved, and whether the Greeks would support one side or the other. (The Ottomans did not intervene, and the new province was allowed to stand. But the tensions foreshadowed the flashpoints of WWI later.) National determination was becoming a thing everywhere.
"The Eastern question relates not only to the religious creeds— Greek, Armenian, Mahometan, Latin, etc.—but to the states wherein Bulgarian, Wallachian, Greek, Slav, Roumanian, Servian, Bosnian, Herzegovian, Montenegrin and Turk have been mixed for centuries in the most heterogeneous manner, with flexible boundaries and changeful domination. As to this question, the great Powers are in perpetual unrest, despite the obligation of treaties and the conscience of mankind" (p. 717).
Another foreshadowing of WWI:
"Germans here are supplanting the English'and other nationalities in the service of the Porte" (p. 727).
Cox's harshest words are reserved for the Czar of Russia. Both in the persecution of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants and also in oppression of other Slavs (p. 740-745):
"True, the Czar is the father of his people! But he is their despot also...nothing can equal the atrocities of the Russian in Poland, even as late as the year 1863, in Central Asia as late as 1875-76, in Siberia at all times, and in the domain of the White Czar, in which, at this moment, these barbarities are oppressive and infamous. Our sympathies in America are misplaced, if they regard the relation of Russia to civilization as better than that of the Turk. I met Protestant and Lutheran ministers and teachers who gave such accounts of the bigoted Russian atrocities in Poland and elsewhere as to make the darkest year of the Middle Ages bright in comparison."
The book ends rather abruptly.
"During the summer of 1887 the writer enjoyed a recreative sojourn upon one of the Princes Isles. At Prinkipo he was not distant from the sphere of active diplomacy, which had no surcease during the summer and fall. Circumstances, partly domestic and partly political, led him to resign his office as Minister, and to return home to resume his former position as a Member of Congress from the city of New York...Call it home-sickness, or patriotism, or an inclination after old and fixed parliamentary habits, or the ineradicable desire to be near one's own—and you have the best explanation that can be made for my premeditated and unprecipitate return. I had done all that a Minister of my ability could do, to place the Legation and the American interests in excellent condition."
In all, I give this 3 stars out of 5. A lot of random observations for historians to mine, but a difficult read if you're interested in any one subject.