The story of a community
Rival nations | Laws and possible reasons for success | Firms Listing
Reasons for the success of Levantines - a subjective listing:
1- Lack of a merchant Ottoman navy:
The Ottoman territorial expansion was more governed by the desire of military glory and increase of taxable lands and people. The idea of opening up trade routes and controlling them with the infrastructure of ports and ships was never a prime concern. Nations that had a merchant navy, primarily but not exclusively Western European, (at the latter period of the Ottoman Empire the vessels of Greece became numerically one of the most significant) could therefore fill the vacuum and even were dominant in maritime goods transport within the Empire.
2- High status given to a military / civil service career by the Ottomans:
The Moslem majority of the Empire mostly considered trading to be an undesirable profession, partly due to the Moslem influence which forbade profit through usury and interest. The vacuum was filled by minorities and as the Latin minority increased in numbers, with the advantage of their contacts with their brethren overseas, they rose in prominence. In the latter period of the Empire, the more recent Protestant arrivals (English / Dutch / German) were able to use their own nations growing might to forge new markets, becoming in some cases very rich very fast. The military career had a double disadvantage, the conscription was aimed at the Moslem population, the period of service was 7 years of more, and the likelihood of not coming back, particularly in the latter period of the Empire was great.
Tax collection in the Ottoman Empire was not a level playing field. Christian and Jewish minorities often had to pay more, but the situation was usually reversed for Levantines who had the advantage of often being a tax exile from their native country and paying reduced custom duties through treaties.
4- Ease of community mixing:
The Ottoman society was highly stratified, and few people had the power and ability to freely mix up and down the social scales or across communities. Many Levantines were inherently cosmopolitan, many of mixed backgrounds and able to speak a multitude of languages. This was rarely the case for the majority population. In addition many Levantines were good at social networking using agents (usually of Christian minorities) whether to buy produce from the hinterland, bribe officials, or arrange general transactions. This was a good way of overcoming language and cultural barriers. The Moslem population was inherently insular and usually had no inclination to establish relationships outside their community.
5- Lack of Ottoman capital / role leaders:
The Levantines did not always prosper and only the smart and lucky few made it to the big time. However these individuals then had the capital and knowledge gain to put them in good stead for future ventures. In addition these individuals became good role models for their sons and community at large to emulate. The Moslem majority through the period of the Empire always had a lack of such individuals.
6- Lack of home technology / technical expertise in the Empire:
As the Ottoman Empire began to struggle in its advancement, first on the battlefield then in the industrial revolution, there began under a succession of Sultans to encourage technology transfer from the West, with men to help train the new generations. This brought in a new wave of Levantines, often employed by the state, yet receiving all the benefits of the Levantines. By nature these individuals were of high training, adventurous and intelligent and many stayed behind to start business and prosper in their newly adopted country. During the latter half of the 19th century as capital investment in ports / railways / farm land1 increased the Levantines were able to control the trade and profit from it at multiple stages.
7- Land fertility / European crop crisis:
The climate and soils of Western Turkey is amongst the best in Europe, yet until recently relatively sparsely populated. Period crop failures, particularly in grain was one of the first attractions of Western European merchants, and though many categories of crops were forbidden to be exported, the artificially low crop prices dictated by the Ottoman Government allowed for even these to be lucratively smuggled out of the country in great quantities for many years. With time the range of agricultural produce expanded (from silk, to mohair, to tobacco, to dried fruit) and the Levantines controlled this trade and profited - further details on these factors explored in the book, ĎThe Mediterranean in History - edited by David Abulafia - 2003 Thames and Hudson ltd - Londoní - segment
This much maligned term of today initially started out with terms to protect the life and property of foreign merchant and allow them unhindered trade in specified areas, and not unlimited and cost free trade as some writers paint. However, with the rise of the Western European powers, decline of the Ottoman Empire and growth of influential foreign colonies it was inevitable the terms of the treaties would be relaxed further with time and abuse of the system would lead to local resentment. Diplomatic protection for the entire foreign communities allowed for a stable system for the Levantines to plan and invest for the future.
9- Ease of representative business:
From the turn of the 19th Century, the prominence of Levantines meant that foreign firms wishing to do business in the Empire often didnít bother with the expense of sending their agent who would have to spend a considerable time to find his feet, learn languages, and the local ways. Levantines already had these abilities with their networks and so business came their way without much effort by the establishment of agencies. Many Levantines were responsible for running of multiple agencies in addition to their regular job, but in reality the day to day running of these agencies were often done by their employees.
1 According to one estimate, by 1868, British capitalist-farmers had acquired one third of all arable lands in the entire vilayet of Aydın [then encompasing Smyrna and Aydın] and by 1878 the majority of the arable land. - Osmanlı Ekonomisi ve Dünya Kapitalizmi - Ottoman economy and world capitalism (1820-1913); Yurt Yayınları, 1984, Ankara; by Şevket Pamuk.