Book Review: Climate of Rebellion

Sam White The Climate of Rebellion in teh Early Modern Ottoman Empire    Cambridge University Press, 2011. (Kindle Edition)

With the 100th Anniversary of WWI and (among other things) the Armenian Genocide, attention has turned briefly to the history of the Ottoman Empire, and the current leader of Turkey’s attempts to recreate a form of it.  Those of us in the West tend to skip over Ottoman history, in part because as Dr. White points out in the introduction to his fascinating book, very little has been translated from Turkish and Turkish is not an easy language to learn. His work sets out to shed light on an especially troubled period in Ottoman (and world) history, and to bridge a gap within the historiography of the global environmental history. He succeeds in both with a scholarly but very accessible work.

Climate of Rebellion centers on the period between 1550 and 1650 and the Celali Rebellion, although White covers ground before and after that tumultuous period. His argument is that the climate shift in the early Seventeenth Century, one of the naiders of the Little Ice Age, exacerbated tensions within the Ottoman Empire and contributed to wide-spread famine, plague, and civil unrest. The resulting population decline lasted into the mid 1800s in some areas, and only the development of modern irrigation techniques and farming practices allowed the re-cultivation of some lands abandoned to farming between 1590-1630. Climate did not cause the problems, but neither were they purely political in origin, as some earlier scholars have argued.

White begins by laying out the background for his argument, the state of the field of climate history, and the terms that he uses. A reader does not need to be completely familiar with the nomenclature for Ottoman land practices and administration, but this is one of the places where the weakness of an e-book shows through: the reader has difficulty flipping back and forth between the text and the glossary in the “back” of the book. I just made a mental note of the terms and plunged ahead, and White writes well enough that I could follow who was doing what on how much land or shipping what quantity of grain without too much difficulty. What the general reader is most interested in are the rations of before and after, something that can be gleaned without necessarily knowing the exact bushels and hectares involved.

After introducing readers to the scene, White looks at the population of the Ottoman Empire, especially in Anatolia and surrounding areas. This is a bit tedious but crucial because he then launches into the litany of political problems and climatic disasters that caused a population crash. The Ottoman Empire had seen a surge in the number of inhabitants in the mid 1500s as farming expanded and more and more marginal land came under cultivation. But a combination of harsh winters, dry summers, and problematic administration led to a breakdown in order, raids by nomadic pastoralists, and migration or starvation.  If the Little Ice Age were not enough, Mt. Etna in Sicily also erupted several times, adding ash to the troubled scene.

White manages a careful balance between giving the weather too much credit and minimizing its possible effects. Possible because not everything can be blamed on the Little Ice Age. The Ottomans continued to wage war against the Persians, the Arabs, the Habsburgs and other Christians, and to deal with internal rebellions. And the lack of sanitation in urban areas had nothing to do with the L.I.A., although cold and overcrowding did not help the situation.

White paints a very convincing picture of how the L.I.A. tipped the over-stressed Ottoman system into crisis mode. The Ottoman sultans and their administrators could have dealt with the weather, or with internal political troubles, but not both at the same time. In this they were not alone, as White points out: the 17th Century was one of enormous global upheaval. The Manchus overran China and established the Quin Dynasty, wars and civil wars tore through Europe, drought and cold plagued the peoples of North America during this same period, as Geoffrey Parker outlines in his magisterial book about the century. White consulted with Parker and was allowed to see a draft of the latter’s work.

I recommend this book to people interested in Ottoman History and in a well-written and documented work of world climate history or agricultural history. It’s probably not something you want to keep on your bedside table to browse through, but it fills a very large gap in the literature about the area and provides a springboard for discussions about the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s-early 1900s. (Some would argue that rather than declining, the Ottomans were pushed, but that’s for a different day.)

Full disclosure: I know Dr. White from the founding of the Climate History Group and the ASEH annual meetings. However, I do not know him personally and we have not crossed paths in several years. I purchased the e-book with my own funds.

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