The Crazy Concept of Capitulations

Turkish men and capitulation flag showing the lira symbol

To capitulate means to surrender or give up resistance, either unconditionally or on stipulated terms. Therefore, I find it strange, even a bit crazy, that a contract between a European country and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which allowed a subject of one country residing or traveling in the Empire extended extraterritorial rights or special privileges, would be called Capitulations. Especially because it involved money—lots of Turkish lira.

The Special Privileges

In 1912 in his book Turkey and its People, Sir Edwin Pears explained the Capitulations, which were granted to Western nations during the 16th and 17th centuries when the Empire was at the height of its power. They were not a new idea. Apparently they were legal concepts from Roman and ancient Greek times. Some people “asserted that the Capitulations are a proof of the farsightedness or magnanimity of the Turkish Sultans, who, in their desire to [promote] commerce, conferred privileges on foreigners in order to induce them to reside on Turkish territory. It is more usual to describe them as concessions wrung from the Sultans by the grasping foreigner. Each view is incorrect. … The subjects of European nations and of America who reside in Turkey are, within certain well-defined relations, subject only to the jurisdiction of the countries to which they belong. British subjects form a colony within Turkey and are always within the ligeance of the British king. Their descendants, no matter how remote, do not become Turkish subjects merely by being born on Turkish soil. … In like manner, German, French, Russian, American and subjects of other civilized states form colonies in Turkey, each set of subjects being amenable to their own laws.”

By the early 20th century, Capitulations had become a sore point for the Empire—with good reason. Foreigners could own land and businesses, and make enormous profits, but were exempt from local taxation, prosecution of most crimes, military conscription, and search by authorities of their property. The Empire was heavily in debt to European banks and countries, not because of the Capitulations, but they didn’t help. Every few years the government tried to end the Capitulations, but the Western nations would not agree.

How to Abolish Capitulations

The way to end the Capitulations was through war or threat of war. In 1910 the Empire was able to end its agreement with the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the European empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1912 after a two-year war with Italy, the Capitulations ended with that country—after the Ottomans turned over most of its north African territory to the Italians.

The Ottomans tried again after the end of the First and Second Balkan wars in 1913. Foreign residents in Turkey screamed very loudly at the thought of paying taxes on their property. For example, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions owned an estimated $400 million in property ($8.9 billion in today’s dollars); American companies, such as Standard Oil and Singer Sewing Machine, had considerable assets; and the Quay Company, owned by British and French interests, had a near-monopoly on the waterfront business in Constantinople. Residents and companies heavily lobbied their ambassadors and governments to hold on to the agreement.

World War I began on August 2, 1914. On September 9th the Ottoman government announced it would unilaterally abolish the Capitulations on October 1st. Foreign powers, residents and companies were furious, but they couldn’t do anything to prevent it. Much to the happiness of native Ottomans, the long, crippling era of Capitulations was finally over. It became a moot point thirty days later, however, when the Ottoman Empire joined Germany in WWI. The Empire would soon be over, too.

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Photo from Wikipedia of surrender of Jerusalem. I extended and lowered the flag and added the symbol of the late Ottoman period’s currency: the Turkish lira.

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